Winter in Nepal

Nepal is a landlocked country of 29 million people, squashed between the two mega giants of China and India.  It’s a unique country symbolized by the only flag in the World which is made up of two triangles. These represent the countries two main religions, Hinduism and Buddhism and also the enormous Himalayan mountain range that has made this county so famous. 

 Since a child, I’ve dreamt of going to Nepal to witness the natural beauty of the legendary Himalayas which contain 8 of the 10 tallest mountains in the World. It contains a geographical layout which ranges from hot jungles near sea level, to icy cold towering peaks topping out on Mount Everest at 8848 meters. Since going there in 2014, I’ve returned twice more as it’s a place that grows on you and won’t let you forget it once you’ve left!

This past November, after taking the title at the World’s Highest MTB race, The Yak Attack, for a 2nd year in a row I decided there was no time better than the present to live a dream and spend the winter in Nepal. Changing my flight from Nov 21st to March 20th, opened the doors for an unforgettable winter in the Himalayas.  The kick off was a Sub 24 HR bike ride/fundraiser around one of the World’s greatest trekking routes, the 220km Annapurna Circuit.  This effort pushed my body’s limits to the brink as some poor food choices and going from 800 meters to 5416 meters in 13 hours left me dizzy and with one hell of a headache. In the end the trip was a success and provided enough funds from a bunch of generous donors, to open the brand new Nepal Cycling Centre.  The cycling centre is the first of its kind in the country. It will give the riders a hub to test themselves at, train out of, and a place to go after rides for proper recovery food.  The annual budget to keep the centre open will be between $ 5000-6000 USD.  The plan is to do the Annapurna 24hr ride again in November of 2018 to try and raise this amount.  More info on the centre can be found here  NepalCyclist.com

The Annapurna 24hr ride kicked my ass thoroughly so December was dedicated to being off the bike.  My friend, Usha, and I headed up to the Khumbu (Everest) Region for 3 weeks of trekking mostly between 3500-5500 meters. This trek was everything and more then could’ve been imagined as we hiked over 3 spectacular  5000 + meter passes, across glaciers and into the heart of the Himalayas eventually reaching Everest Base Camp.  It was impressive to see how clean EBC is now as the government has put in a strong push to keep their mountains clean and it seems to be working well.  

December is an off season in Nepal as the temperatures start to drop but for us, weather wise it was a blue sky special every day and still shorts and t-shirt weather for a Canadian kid.  Apart from the epic mountain scenery, watching the other trekkers cope with the high altitude was a great spectacle. It would turn fit looking foreigners dressed to the max in expensive mountain gear into sloth like creatures creeping around like a bunch of hungover partiers.   Both of us were well acclimated after spending November up at altitude on the Annapurna circuit so we could enjoy the show.  Being acclimatized paid off in dividends as I can’t explain how much easier life is once your body is use to the high altitudes. The highlight of the hike was watching the Sherpas run around  like mountain goats as they carried gear for the sloths and went about their tough daily lives up in the mountains. They are some of the truest mountain people in this World.  

An obstacle during the hike was dealing with some of the other mountain guides that tended to treat foreigners with little respect, regarding their capabilities and ability  to look after themselves in the mountains. I guess they don’t understand how wild some of the mountains are in the others parts of the World, and that some of us grew up in them, dealing daily with turbulent Rocky Mountain weather, true isolation, Grizzly bears and often wet and hypothermic conditions.  In reality trekking in the Himalayas was a piece of cake compared to this, as the weather was stable, there were zero animals to worry about and teahouses and food available every 4-5 km.  It was real luxury hiking 🙂 

In January it was back on the bike to kick off base training for 2018.  What I quickly realized was that the “cold” Nepali winter was perfect for training as temperatures were similar to a late September day in the Canada Rockies.  Temperatures were somewhere around freezing in the morning, but rose to 14-18 Celsius once the sun woke up.  Being based out of Kathmandu for this month brought its own challenges as I also discovered that city is one of the most polluted places on Earth. 

The riding around the perimeter was awesome as Kathmandu is surrounded 360 degrees by a  2000-2700 M mountain range, full of trails and dirt roads to explore.  The problem is that this rim also keeps all the dust and pollution from going anywhere.  In the past few years the city has become overrun with vehicles that run low grade fuel from India and when  combined with the poor exhaust systems it is a disaster.  There are also brick factories, out of control construction, dusty roads, and fires in the city that all add to the toxic air quality.  Most days we would try to leave before rush hour at 7:30 am to get out of the city before it became a smog filled traffic jam. Once out on the outskirts we would take off our masks and start exploring the countryside.  Watching our phone apps it seemed around 1-2pm the smog would lift a bit as the inversion would rise with the heat of the day. This was our window to get back into the city before the crazy rush hour from 4-6pm.

Traffic at a normal hour was chaotic with busses, scooters, cars, cows, dogs, pedestrians, chickens and cyclists all fighting for room on the erratic streets.  Come rush hour it would look like a war zone with dust and fumes limiting the view to a couple hundred feet.  Somehow the traffic would miraculously flow in an awkward fashion that seemed to work without too many wrecks.  It was like a video game trying to navigate through it, bunny hopping curves, swerving around open holes in the road and trying to not get taken out by a million different obstacles.  It was an exhilarating way to kick off and end our rides and certainly helped our bike handling skills and our peripheral awareness!

  It was fun for awhile to explore the training grounds around the Kathmandu valley but also very sad to see what we are doing to our planet in the name of progress.  All we really need is clean air, water, food and some shelter to survive so it seems ridiculous to be creating these toxic chambers we call cities to live in which can’t offer either clean air or water any more. Some doctors say on the bad days, the smog in Kathmandu and countless other cities across Asia can be like smoking 20 + cigarettes a day.  Progress can be good, but we as a society really need to take some control and make sure it’s done in an organized and well thought out fashion. We only have one planet to live on and right now we are not treating the one we have with much respect. 

Outside of the smog, Kathmandu is a cool city with the densest amount of UNESCO listed World Heritage Sites in the World, to go along with countless monasteries and temples.  It used to be named the “City of Glory” and is a great launching pad for adventures into the mountains.  The tourist haven of Thamel is full of restaurants, hotels, spas and countless trekking shops to load up on cheap knock off mountain gear which actually works pretty well.  Without the poor air quality and dirtiness it would be my favourite city in the World as it is a cultural gem set in a beautiful location which iss always buzzing with excitement. 

After 3 big weeks of training to kick off the New Year, I decided to head up to the Buddhist Monastery on the outskirts of the city to take a 5 day meditation course.  I joined 80 other green eyed travellers to learn more about the Buddhist religion and the techniques of Meditation.  It was a great rest week sitting cross legged on the floor. It was interesting to understand the power of our minds a bit more as they are such a vital part of who we are.  A lot of us athletes spend countless hours training our bodies, but virtually no time training our minds so it seemed like a good area to do some work on.  The course was going along well until our teacher started talking about elite meditators being able to fly and walk through walls.  A few of us laughed thinking it was a joke but it was apparently serious business.  The next few hours we were in the middle of an intense discussion about this and some other mind blowing propositions which was a bit much for my head.  The next morning I decided rest week was over as I left the flying meditators to do their thing and rolled off on my two wheels back into the reality I know.


To get away from the questionable air quality in Katmandu I would often put a backpack on and ride out into the countryside for a night or two of fresh air and some peace and quiet. Bye February my lungs had had enough of KTM so it was off on the backroads to Nepal’s 2nd major city, the adventure capital of the country, Pokhara.  Pokhara is a bustling city 200 km east of Kathmandu, in mid-Nepal, and has a nice lakeside area that is a tourist haven.  Being close to the big mountains and some great trekking routes, it is a natural base camp for tourists. It’s also a manageable size, with endless hills surrounding it, making it another mountain biker’s paradise.  

The air quality wasn’t great, but it was sufficient without a mask and the city was one of the few places in the country

that has all the amenities to make a westerner feel comfortable; good restaurants, lots of spas and all the supplies needed to create a good training environment.  Usha and I would spend 2 weeks there training which was capped off with racing the inaugural 4 day Pokhara IV mountain bike stage race.  It was a great two weeks of training with a fun race to cap it off.  The 4 stages each took in about 50 km per day of the rough & rolling countryside. We racers were treated to some gorgeous views of the 8000 m + Annapurna massif sitting in the background.  

 

Following the race, the amenities of Pokhara were used for a bit of recovery before my buddy Ajay and I took off up to the Mustang valley to do some recce for a 10 day high altitude camp.  Camp X is what we called it, as we road our bikes to nearly every nook and cranny of the gorgeous Mustang valley, all situated between 2700-4400 metres.  Riding bikes in Nepal is so rad with all the routes, limited vehicle traffic, and the cultural aspect, but most of all thanks to the people that make you feel welcome anywhere you go in their country.  It was amazing to see the locals doing their day to day business as over half of the

 countries residents live on less than 1 USD per day.  A lot of them live off the land in the purest sense.  The poverty was hard to see, but no matter what, the people always had a smile on their faces and were making the best of whatever situation they were in.  After seeing this, it is often hard heading back to the 1st World and trying to comprehend the problems alot of us think we have over here as those problems wouldn’t even hit the radar in Nepal.

Outside the epic training grounds, a bit of thought had to be put into the training program as it was often tough to find good sanitary food and shelter.  In Canada it’s easy to gain weight as there is so much healthy food available. It makes it is easy to overeat, thinking that you’re doing yourself good, the more nutrients you consume.  In Nepal it’s easy to lose weight as it’s a game of Russian roulette every time you eat, so you only really eat when you have to.  The food itself was pretty natural with rice, beans, spinach,vegetable curries, eggs, chicken and mutton making up most of the cuisine. The higher you went into the mountains the simpler the cuisine became, but for a hungry biker there were always enough carbs available. 

My favourite mountain food was the local buckwheat and fresh Yak meat and Nak Cheese.  The high elevation seabuckthorn berry also made some great juice which was high in energy and vitamin C.  Other highlights were the fresh apple cider in the Mustang Valley and the Tongba, a warm fermented millet drink consumed out of a metal jar.

Training wise it was one of the biggest winters I’ve had in history, with over 200 hours on the bike in January and February, with much of it at 2000 meters +.  The distances weren’t impressive as the riding is slow going there with all the climbing, the thin air, and the horrible road conditions which really tested our bikes.  This makes driving in the country a nightmare, thus I rode everywhere, only taking a bus for a total of 3 kilometres over 5 months and 5 taxi rides, 3 to and from the airport and two out to dinner.  In Nepal, 9 times out of 10, biking is faster than taking a vehicle, it just requires a bit of extra energy expenditure. 

Sleep wise Nepal is not rated highly as there are zero laws against disturbing the peace and generally the people have little respect for each other in regards to noise pollution.  From barking dogs, cat fights, monkeys, crowing roosters, horns, loud music, and other disruptions there was rarely a dull moment at night but the real nuisance was the temples.  My friend Jenny had leant me her comfy apartment to live in for 2 months while she was away in Australia.  It seemed like the perfect oasis out of the chaos of the city but it was right next to the local Temple.  

Every morning between 5 and 5:45 the temple goers would bang the loudest bell imaginable to ward off the voo doos and other evil spirits. It probably woke everyone up within a 1 km radius.  I tried to adapt by going to bed earlier but then they had other religious weeks were they played music and preached on blown out speakers as loud as they could until 10-11pm at night.   Some days I would ride my bike for 6-7 hours, then only have 5-6 hours of silence at night to try and rest.  That math didn’t work out in my favour.  Eventually having enough, I went down to give the temple goers a piece of my mind one early Saturday morning.   Their response was offering me a candle to light, a cup of hot tea, and a stool to sit by the fire with them while I tried to be angry.  They were nice people but they seemed a bit brain washed and tried to explain that everyone loves their bell and that no good day could start without it.  The next morning they rang it even earlier for everyone to appreciate.  My next thought was to shoot fireworks back at them or to lock the temple so they couldn’t get in there early in the morning but I opted to take the higher road and moved base camp back to the tourist hub of Thamel.

Every day in Nepal was an experience.  The days up in the high mountains were the highlights while it was always tough to have the bike pointed downhill heading back to civilization. Nepal is a country of dramatic contrasts when you compare the chaos of the cities to the purity of the high Himalayas 🙂  

March turned into a roller coaster of a month as my time was dwindling in Nepal.  We tried to make the most of it heading to the cool ridge top villages of Bandipur and Nagarkot for more training a bit more racing, fun group rides and other Nepali adventures.  The Saturday group rides were great as 8-12 of us would generally show up for a relaxed ride full of many pit stops and lots of laughs  The crew there in Nepal know how to enjoy riding bikes more than anywhere in the world that I’ve ever experienced.  One of the highlights of the trip was seeing these same boys and girls open their Nepali Cycling Centre on my last day there. It seems the future of cycling in this amazing country is just starting to take off and this centre should help provide the base camp they need.  

The problem with Nepal is that the longer you spent in one place the more options that would open up.  There’s definitely enough over there to keep an adventurous biker or hiker busy for a lifetime or two!   Heading back home to Canada is always exciting but leaving behind a country full of adventures to be had and a bunch of great friends was tough.  Leaving behind my trusty Kona Hei Hei was also tough after I did my best to ride her into the ground since her maiden voyage last June at the World Solo 24hr Championships in Italy   I have never ridden one bike so hard and for so long, doing 95% of my riding since June on that bike, yet it was still asking for more… #rocksolid 

Being back in Canada for a couple weeks over Easter was great to catch up with family and friends and to refurbish the body with a d-tox first and then some good nutrients afterwards.  I’m lucky to have such great family support back home as it’s important to have a strong base camp to be able to reground myself and power up before heading back out into this exciting World.  I also tried racing the local Canada Cup XCO in Victoria during this small break, but the body was offline and after a couple crashes it was definitely a rough day at the office.  Days like these are part of racing though and there will be better days ahead, that’s for sure!

The body is still in a bit of a limbo after the big winter past, but after some testing at the Balance Point Racing HQ with my buddy Luke it looks like things are in line for a big year ahead on the bike.   It was exciting to see the lung’s ability to move air was higher than ever and the VO2 max rise significantly since I started riding up at altitude a few years back.  For now it’s back down to one of my favourite training destinations in the World in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Sitting at 2300-2800 meters, it will provide one last altitude boost to the system before the race season kicks off in high gear at the Whisky 50 in Arizona at the end of April and then a plethora of races to follow.

Alavida Nepal. Samjhanaharuko lagi Dhan’yavad! 

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