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The Annapurna Circuit

Anna Poltorak & Mateusz Emeschajmer

I’m addicted to cycling in the high mountains. There is this special feeling, when, after a hard day of exhausting ascent, I finally put my head to the pillow, my joints crack as I adjust position – a warm meal is in my stomach, dry lips say goodnight to my girlfriend – lying next to me in her sleeping bag – and I finally allow myself to relax and just let go. Even through closed eyes, I can still see the rocky trail ahead of me, as the front tyre jumps from side to side, trying to keep me upright. All my body aches, my skin is covered in the mixture of dust, sunscreen and sweat. But I feel great, knowing that I am surrounded by magnificent, ever-white peaks and that I got there only because I was determined enough to keep on pedalling. Despite the pain in my thighs and the lack of oxygen, it is an overwhelming, immersive joy.

The more time I spent at high altitude, the easier and more pleasant everything became. After months of conquering the high passes in the Indian Himalayas I arrived in Nepal, together with my girlfriend Anna. We’d reached a point where our bodies were pretty well-accustomed to the strenuous terrain; they’d already brought us to places we could never have imagined before setting off. It was surprising at just how much our slender frames were now capable of, yet we wanted to push them just a bit more. For the first time during our long bicycle journey across Asia, I wanted to know what it would be like to travel ultralight. Being on the road for many months and travelling thousands of kilometres on fully-loaded bicycles did make us appreciate the many advantages of equipment we had been carrying around with us. But the question kept arising about the necessity of hauling all those weighty items in our panniers all the time. So, while crossing through Nepal we finally seized the chance to test ourselves in a more minimalistic scenario.

The Annapurna Circuit. We’d heard about the trail long before we entered Nepal, listened to tales of its incredible beauty, the dramatic landscapes and of the legendary people inhabiting this remote and mystical land. The path starts in the lowlands, running through rice paddy fields and villages that could be as well located in Laos or Burma than Nepal, soon after entering misty, subtropical jungle, where the road winds along the massive cliffs, then continues through the Switzerland-like spruce and pine forests to enter the spectacular, typically Himalayan landscape of naked rocks and sky-scraping, snow-covered mountains.

As we learnt from other travellers, those who had already had the chance to visit this part of the Himalayas, the trail is rather well-maintained and there are many restaurants and guest houses along the way. But seeing as the circuit’s tallest point lies even higher than the passes we’d already cycled and this was on trail, not on a road, the challenge definitely lay there – ahead, waiting for us. The opportunity to test ourselves cycling the trail was too tempting to resist. However we knew that if we wanted to succeed, we would had to leave most of our luggage behind and ride only with the barest of essentials. Luckily the abundance of accommodation was our chance to cycle light, so that we could focus more on the surroundings and appreciate being so close to the lofty peaks, those that many have spent years dreaming of climbing. The question was, would it be possible for us to fully enjoy nature in a destination that lures thousands of trekkers every year? Could we still call it an adventure?

The Annapurna Circuit. We’d heard about the trail long before we entered Nepal, listened to tales of its incredible beauty, the dramatic landscapes and of the legendary people inhabiting this remote and mystical land.
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After saying goodbye to all the things we perceived as indispensable for so many months on the asphalt, it felt like our bikes had been injected with helium. Climbing the hills and accelerating became a thing of ease. We felt relieved. The items usually buried deep inside our panniers were now readily at hand in the nearly empty bags. But the real benefit of having almost nothing with us became at its most obvious once we entered the Annapurna Circuit proper in Besishahar. There the tarmac road suddenly turned into a clay-and-cobbled jeep track, one that runs parallel to the main trekking path. Thanks to the lightened bikes, we could cycle even the most difficult parts of the trail. The fact that we did not have to jump off the bikes at all to push them uphill painted a huge smile on our faces.

On the way around the Annapurna mountains, we had a chance to ride across various hanging bridges. Challenging at the beginning, it quickly became one of our favourite forms of entertainment. Most of them were not as wobbly as one might think, and quite a few were as smooth as the best European bicycle trails. In Chame we entered a footpath; the 4WDs bringing tourists high up on the trail had their last stop there. From then on out the region was only accessible by foot or bike. Some narrow parts of the track ran parallel to a cliff, with a wild and raging river directly down below us. Spectacular, granite slopes abounded, looking like congealed lava. Pastures were filled up with horses and yaks; villages, with children playing bows and arrows. Old ladies circumambulated whitewashed stupas.

We could already feel the effects of oxygen deprivation, but being surrounded by such majestic mountains pumped us with some special energy, so we kept on cycling further and higher.
Enjoying the astonishing nature along the track, we reached Manang, a high mountain town inhabited by the people who have lived in the shadows of the Annapurna for generations. We were very lucky to arrive right in the middle of a Buddhist festival. We witnessed a traditional dance of the lamas and the whole community gathered to pay homage to the local deities and the heads of the local monastery. A spectacle of art and magic, with monks dressed in silk robes of thousands colours, wearing masks of daemons, playing drums and brass trumpets – all that in the shadows of these mighty mountains.

Since Manang is located at an altitude of more than 3500m, Anna and I decided to given our bodies a chance to build a few more red blood cells before moving towards the highest part of the trail. The room of the guest house where we stayed had the windows facing the Annapurna III and Gangapurna. So when the rays of the morning sun woke us up, we were stunned by the white giants standing quietly on the other side of the valley. After two days of relaxing we discovered that we were restless again, and started pedalling towards the highest point of the Annapurna Circuit – the Thorong La Pass. We could already feel the effects of oxygen deprivation, but being surrounded by such majestic mountains pumped us with some special energy, so we kept on cycling further and higher.

We pushed our bodies to their limits and had spent only one night between our acclimatisation and ascending the Pass. Most people spend much more time allowing their lungs to adjust to the thinner air. We hoped that due to the months of high mountain exposure we’d experienced previously, we could get there a bit faster. So on the day of climbing Thorung La we started early in the morning, yet a bit later than the hikers – we wanted to be alone on the trail and have the mountains only to ourselves. Already the first steps turned out to be more difficult than we thought. We had to do a lot of short breaks to catch a breath. We started to have doubts; was it such a good idea after all to go as fast as we were going? Perhaps we should have give our bodies a bit of time to adjust?

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At the altitude of 5100m – after some hours of climbing a sheer mountain trail – Anna became exhausted and signalled her need to descend. We were not further than two kilometres away from the pass and had only 300 metres more to climb. A quick decision had to be made based on the conditions and our experience. We passed the Thorong High Camp (the highest shelter before the top of Thorung La) some hours before and that could be reached within an hour in case of retreat. The weather was good, we had plenty of snacks and water and I did not feel as affected by the altitude as Anna, so we both agreed that the best decision would be to reach the highest point and roll down on the other side. Anna began to walk slowly, focusing on drinking plenty of water and watching out for the symptoms of the mountain sickness, while I started to push our bikes, one by one, towards Thorong La. It was not an easy job – I had to bring my bike up and come back for the other one, having to essentially climb the pass twice.

We arrived at the top of the incline extremely tired, but happy: 5416m above sea level was the highest we had ever been in our lives, and we’d made it there on our bicycles! For us it was an amazing achievement. We looked at the mountains on the other side: Mustang was somewhere behind them, and after taking a few pictures we began to descend. The adrenaline started to fade away and I comprehended what had just happened: we’d climbed almost 2000m in two days, reached this incredible place without any help, on bikes I’d assembled myself. We’d made the right call and now I had this unbelievably beautiful, sun-lit valley in front of my eyes and my girlfriend beside me. I felt proud, free and grateful. I had tears of joy rolling down my cheeks as we rode down the rocky trail.

In total our adventure was no longer than two weeks. But its every moment was precious and worth the effort. Even though many other visitors to this unique part of Nepal did not believe that one could cycle in the Himalayas, we had ridden most of the Annapurna Circuit. We had tasted the fruit of bikepacking and we knew, that cycle-touring fully-loaded would never be enjoyed as much as it had been before this epic little adventure. There is nothing better, more overwhelming and empowering than cycling in the high mountains, carrying only the bare necessities. I have no doubts about that!

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Anna Poltorak and Mateusz Emeschajmer were both born in Poland, in 1984. Anna moved to Germany with her parents at the age of five. Mat graduated as a Cross Cultural and Gender Psychologist at the University of Gdansk, Anna has a Master in Science of Art and Romance Languages from the University of Bremen.

The couple moved to Oslo in Norway (where Mat had previously worked as a carpenter) after finishing their studies to save up for the big trip and assemble the needed gear. Unable to find jobs within their line of education Anna worked with international children for the German kindergarten in Oslo while Mat started a rope access company and freelanced as an industrial climbing specialist.

Mat found his urge to travel already during school when he hitch-hiked around Europe and went to New Zealand, Australia and South-East Asia in a gap year. Ania had travelled in Europe and used to live in Italy during her student times. The couple decided to go to Asia in April 2012 and has been cycling the continent ever since.

Website: gettingnowhere.net
Facebook: gettingnowhere
Twitter: @getting_nowhere

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