Riding through the Mustang Valley

Winding road

Julian Challis journeys deep into the infamous Mustang Valley on a motorcycle journey through India and Nepal.

I have to keep reminding myself that this is a road. Ahead of me, a torrent of ice-cold mountain water cascades over football-sized boulders, before dropping off the sheer cliff edge to my right.

After muscling my Royal Enfield motorcycle through 50m of river, the route goes straight into a steep chicane of vicious rock steps from right, then left, then right again, before crossing the river once more.

Once out of the icy water, the infamous Bhena Hill is in front of me. It features a savage combination of a 45-degree gradient and square-edged slabs that are covered with a mixture of soft sand and marble-sized gravel that snakes round the cliff edge. 

Descending Bhena hill
Descending Bhena hill

As the support crew stand by to prevent almost certain death should I get it wrong and head for the three 300m drop, I employ every riding skill I have to ensure I reach the top unscathed. When the bike and I finally bounce over the last of the steps and we are on relatively level ground, the sense of relief and achievement is enormous.

I’ve ridden bikes all over the world, but this is without doubt the most extreme terrain I’ve ever encountered. This is epic motorcycling. 

The road we were riding is located between Chele and Ghami in the Upper Mustang Valley of Nepal. It was the penultimate road stage before reaching our base in Lo Manthang, just short of the Chinese border.

But I guess I better backtrack to the start of the journey to explain what I was doing fighting a clearly unsuitable Indian motorcycle over hard enduro terrain in northern Nepal. 

The journey begins 

Our journey had started two weeks previously in Manali at the foot of the Indian Himalayas.

I was joining seven other riders and the support team from motorcycle tour company Ride Expeditions on a recce tour which would take us all the way from the north of India, down to the Nepalese border, through Nepal and up to the remote Mustang region, before finishing off some 1,680 miles and almost a month later in the capital city of Kathmandu. This was not a trip for the faint-hearted. 

For the journey, all but one of us are riding Royal Enfield 500 Bullets, but in order to give us slightly more ground clearance over the rough stuff, we’ve gone for the dubiously named Machismo version.

The one rider who had booked a Royal Enfield Himalayan adventure bike was Aussie Dave, who joined fellow antipodeans Ali and Greg, ex-pat Aussie Allan, Rick from Kansas, Jed from Manchester, our Irish medic John, our lead and sweep riders Nono and Ramu, and our Indian mechanic and support van driver Manoj and Rajej. It was a truly international cast. 

Bikes at nomadic tribe camp
Parked up at a nomadic tribe camp

Our route down through India to reach the border crossing was relatively uneventful, save for the unexpected delays caused by travelling into the run-up to Diwali, the Hindu equivalent of Christmas. If you ever feel minded to complain about the congestion in your hometown, then a ride through downtown Ramnagar as night falls will convince you to shut the hell up.

The onslaught of cars, vans, scooters, cows, rickshaws, lorries, buses and pedestrians all trying to go in a wide variety of directions concentrates the mind enormously. Especially when a good proportion of those vehicles are noticeably deficient in the light department. 

Arriving at the Nepalese border on day five, we are glad to be leaving the chaos of India behind for the relative calm of Nepal. As with all border crossings, the process was not exactly easy. First off, we are told not to take photographs and then are glared at for about 10 minutes on the Indian side, before crossing a narrow dam into Nepal.

While having our paperwork checked by a smiling lady and another glaring man at the immigration building, a large monkey gets into the van and proceeds to go slightly mad, looking for food and leaping over the luggage before the crew persuade it to leave. We go another 100m to give all the same details, plus show our driving licences to another man sat in a wooden hut.

Dave and Jed on the bridge
Dave and Jed riding high

Another mile down the road and a third collection of officials get us to fill out lengthy forms and ask to see the same documents again before relieving us of $40 (about £30) each for our Nepalese visa. This appears to be the end of the process but no, there were vehicle permits to be bought, relieving us of even more dollars and the Nepalese rupees we’d only just changed. The total border crossing time for 10 riders and four crew was three-and-a-half hours. 

With little of the day left, it’s a short hop to our first stop in Bhimdatta and the impressive Hotel Opera. For the evening, we go for a wander into the town and get invited by some locals to join their Diwali celebrations.

It’s a colourful, joyful if drawn-out affair involving a lot of loud singing, processions, complicated tableaus and incomprehensible plays. Dave finds the street food quicker than a Frenchman finding truffles and Ali has been surrounded by Nepalese women who love her blonde hair. It’s a great night and a suitable introduction to Nepal. 

Blowouts and Buddha

After the poor quality and sometimes downright dangerous Indian roads, the next day brings near-perfect tarmac as we press into Nepal. It’s a good job as we have 220 miles to cover today. Flat plains with rice padis and wide bustling villages give way to more straight roads through temperate forests.

We stop for snacks and drinks at the riverside town of Chisapani before crossing into the Bardia National park, a beautiful region that is home to a rich diversity of animals from miniature deer to Nepalese tigers. 

Carved skull
A Carved skull

Travelling along fantastic roads, my bike suddenly becomes jittery and uncertain at the front. It tries to turn in and throw me down the road. Realising it’s a front-wheel blowout, I display unexpected calm and presence of mind to bring the bike to a stop without breaking a sweat or trying to think too much about the tigers. 

Arriving just before 5 pm at Bhalubang, our next location, Northerner Jed continues his role of being constantly amazed and surprised by the sights he’s encountering. Finding out that there are mangos growing outside the hotel, Allan dismisses them saying: “They grow everywhere in Hong Kong”. To which Jed counters: “They don’t in f*cking Manchester.” 

JC riding by apple orchard 2
Julian enjoying the adventure

The following morning, we are headed for Tansen, located high in the mountains, but before that we are going to visit the birthplace of Buddha. More straight roads take us effortlessly through the stunning lowland landscape, stopping briefly in Pipara for sugary coffee and delicious locally made sweets.

Nono, our ever-smiling lead rider has found a shortcut to the Buddhist site, a fantastic and sinuous route that snakes through tiny villages and farming communities. Buddha’s birthplace is a tad disappointing as we don’t find the tree where it all happened. The collection of disparate temples and a fairly new canal seem a bit unfinished and it all seems rather unconnected to the founder of the region’s religion. 

Leaving Lumbini for Tansen proves to be fairly eventful. Jed’s bike keeps blowing fuses like it’s popping candy, we get caught in a 15-minute thunderstorm that drenches us, and worst of all, Rick low sides his Enfield just miles from the hotel, injuring his leg and bruising his ribs.

Arriving at Tansen, we’re all glad to stop, dry out and in Rick’s case, rest up and let John the paramedic’s painkillers do their thing. Beneath us in the village of Tansen. The Diwali celebrations reverberate around with singing and fireworks, so Dave and I take a wander down to join in.

Heading into the sun
Riding on top of the world

Bright and early on day nine of the trip, it’s a short schlep to Pokhara to meet up with our Nepalese crew, get visas sorted and take a day off the bikes. It’s a big city that is a common starting point for hikers and bikers alike, so we spend the afternoon stocking up on consumables, money and the odd beer or two in the many bars on the main strip.

It’s also a chance to catch up with our guide for the Mustang Valley, the charming if slightly confusing Kaji who will accompany us as we travel north up to Lo Manthang.

All foreigners are obliged to travel with a local guide as a way of protecting the region and arguably, employment in the country. Having sorted our laundry, we spend the evening with a big western meal and late beers in a rock bar with a passable covers band. 

With a rest day ahead of us, we all have to part with just over $600 (around £460) for our Upper Mustang passes, plus another $30 (£23) for the wildlife pass. Quite why these are separate is not clear, nor is the process to get them. 

Karma in Marfa 

It’s a late start the next morning. It’s not until 11 am that we head out of Pokhara. The first 55 miles are on good roads so we make progress as we leave the flat plain and head to the hills. All is going well until Rick goes wide on a bend towards an oncoming vehicle.

His natural braking reaction is delayed by his bruised ankle from the previous off, so his handful of front brake is enough to tuck the front and send him down again. Paramedic John is on hand and the crew patch up the bike but it’s clear he’s hurt and, although he struggles on for a few more miles, he swaps with Kaji to ride in the truck at the next town. 

Trainee monks in Lo Manthang
Trainee monks in Lo Manthang

And that proves a good decision as the road from this point is super rough as we start to climb to the first overnight stop at Kalopani. In failing light thanks to the delays, Kaji is struggling having over-exaggerated his bike skills, so Manoj the mechanic takes over.

The final 12 miles are completed in darkness. Manoj and I, having blown our headlight bulbs, have to piggyback the other riders to complete the ride over possibly the worst roads on the trip. Had we known the deepest gorge in Asia was just metres to our right, we may not have pressed on. 

By 11 am on day 15, we are at the somewhat bizarre checkpoint at Kalbeni which is nowhere near the road which they are supposedly checking. All the more bizarre is the fact that both mine and Allan’s passes both have Allan’s photos on.

The process is so slow and, coupled with needing to sort Ricks return home over a bad phone line, the plan to travel to Ghami over the worst roads in the region is delayed for a day.

Instead, we head to Muktinath, travelling over a three-mile stretch of immaculate blacktop to the tiny hillside village. With our hotel a touch on the basic side, we eat a quick tea and while some head for bed, Ali, Dave and I head to the Hotel Bob Marley for an obvious combination of reggae, beer and Tiramisu. 

Breakdowns and bulldust to Bhena 

As dawn breaks in Muktinath, we’re ready for a tough day as the famed Bhena Hill is ahead of us on the ride to Ghami. The day does not start astoundingly well. Ali holes a clutch case on a stray rock, but with the speed of MotoGP crew, Manoj and the boys have it off, plugged with liquid metal and back on in half an hour. The road goes on to cross a river where the bikes can use a bridge and after that it’s super tough going.

Few of the team have off-road experience and the combination of the treacherously soft and deep bulldust and steep climbs and descents are testing all of us. By the time we reach the river sections high up in the mountain, we’re sweating like a fat lad in a sauna.

The crew drive the sections first in the Jeep, which is an achievement in itself, before coming back to ensure we all make it through. It’s a team effort and it’s fist bumps all round. 

Buddhist Stupas

The final day’s ride Lo Manthang is unexpectedly short and we’re in the town by 11.30 am. It’s the home of the former King of Mustang and the walled city that was home to his palace is still in evidence among the winding ancient streets. As we’re here for a few days, the riders take off on their own to explore, shop and generally take in the amazing location. 

The following morning, we take a ride all the way to the Chinese, or maybe more accurately, the Tibetan border. We have to ride the first section along a trekking route as apparently there are some restrictions to visitors, but when we eventually reach the border, the two Chinese guards on the other side of the fence, stood next to a huge new border post, don’t seem too bothered.

With photos taken, the extreme cold and altitude is getting to a few of the team, so although we visit some astoundingly ancient cave houses on the way down, we head back to the relative warm of the Norden Guest House Kitchen and the dung burner. 

With reception fairly poor in the region, Buddha can’t have got my prayer as the following morning a rogue rock sees me rolling quite spectacularly off the bike and ending up with it stood totally upside down alongside me, wheels spinning in a cartoon style.

Apart from a busted headlight and a scratched visor, all is dandy and we press on. The previously dreaded Bhena Hill and its icy water crossings pass without further incident. 

Ramu fights the dust
Ramu fights the sand and dust

Just before we get back to Jomsom, Greg falls foul of a puncture, but with metronomic efficiency, Nono chases down the truck that has gone on to the checkpoint and returns with the truck driver hugging a spare wheel. Love those guys.

The route back is all about retracing our steps, but instead of stopping at Kalopani, we press on to Tatopani and its hot springs. They are a complete godsend after the cold of Lo Manthang, and what’s more, they serve beer while you are sat there in the waters. We also get to see just how dangerous the road that we’d ridden previously in the trip in the dark really was. 

On the way back to Pokhara, we stop to ride over the highest suspended rope bridge in the world at Kushma, before going on to swap the 4×4 for our trusty truck and say goodbye to Kaji and the Nepalese crew. The next day it’s the final stage as we head for Kathmandu. 

Bathing with Elephants

We spend the morning on great tarmac roads, but that soon ends when we hang a left after lunch onto possibly the worst road I have ever ridden. It’s packed with traffic, roadworks, thick dust, and potholes for 20 miles. But it was worth it as we’ve got two days staying at the Sarang Nature Reserve, deep in the Chitwan National Park.

We chill out in luxury lodges, we ride elephants and bathe them in a jungle stream, and we go on treks through the jungle and witness wild rhino roaming through the undergrowth. We then finish our stay with a canoe ride down the river to be met with cold beers as the sun goes down over India far off in the distance. Life does not get better than this. 

Our last day on the bikes takes us high into the hills again before dropping down into the astoundingly, chaotic and fascinating city of Kathmandu. But, it’s hard to take any more in. We’ve been on the adventure of a lifetime, travelled nearly 2,000 miles through some of the most diverse, challenging and astounding landscapes on the planet. For the moment, that’s enough.

Want to ride in India and Nepal?

We rode with Ride Expeditions (www.rideexpeditions.com) who organised just about everything from bike hire to travelling mechanics, support vehicles to local guides, permits to passes and they booked all the accommodation on the way. You can of course do this yourself, but you do need to be very self-sufficient, organised and above all, a good mechanic if you intend to head out into these remote places on your own.

The bikes are generally pretty reliable, but we had four punctures, two engine case breaks and one seriously smashed front headlight. With a support team, all these were sorted quickly. Even just getting hold of fuel in remote places like the Upper Mustang can be tricky, and if your cards don’t work and you don’t speak Nepalese then life can get pretty difficult pretty quickly. 

It might be a good idea to take a guided tour first off, and then decide whether you want to tackle these countries on your own. Ride Expeditions run tours in India, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia.

The Bike

Apart from Aussie Dave, who unsportingly opted for the slightly more off-road capable Himalayan, the rest of us were mounted on Royal Enfield Bullet 500 Machismos.

This bike was an attempt by Royal Enfield to produce a tourer, boasting bigger 19-inch wheels for slightly better ground clearance, a sparkly chrome tank and a single seat with a pillion pad or rear rack at the back. The bike didn’t sell well compared to the conventional Bullets and was discontinued in 2015, but to Royal Enfield aficionados, it’s an under-appreciated gem.

Boasting almost 24 bhp and with less than two inches of suspension on either end, the bikes are far more capable than they should be, taking on the variable terrain and sometimes awful roads without complaint. The gentle power and lack of performance is ideal when you are riding with cliffs on one side and certain death on the other – whisky throttle is not an option.