Our journey into the remote Upper Mustang area of Nepal began in the paradox that is Kathmandu, with the rattle of traffic, constant blare of horns and air choked with dust and exhaust—chaos at its finest. But Kathmandu is also filled with the incredible warmth of the Nepali people, hassle-free wanders through winding alleys, vibrant shrines and delicious food of all types.
I was here to run a small reconnaissance tour into the Upper Mustang Valley on Royal Enfield’s latest model, the Himalayan, a 411cc single-cylinder enduro style motorcycle that is as close to perfect for the region as one can get. New models feature electronic fuel injection (read the road test here), but this first iteration was carbureted.
The four of us on the ride have easygoing natures and a love of adventure just right for a trip into the unknown. Alam and I have run Himalayan Moto Tours since my father passed away about seven years ago. Chris Poland is a longtime friend and client who has ridden almost everywhere there is to ride, and John Coleman is a new friend and client who is no slouch in the saddle.
The Upper Mustang is a region deep within the Annapurna Conservation Area of Nepal that abuts the Tibetan border. A restricted, demilitarized zone until 1992, it is rimmed by many of the world’s highest peaks and remains very difficult to access, both politically and geographically. And the Himalayas are a young mountain range, which makes their hills and valleys shifty and unstable. The one road in is rough at best. Landslides and temblors are not uncommon in the lower section, and monsoon deluges are constantly washing it out. Up in the higher, sandy badlands section, any moisture causes devastating erosion. But because of its remoteness the Upper Mustang’s Tibetan Buddhist culture remains pure and unspoiled.
One week in I rounded a bend to find my three companions stopped behind five or six Mahindras and Land Cruisers. Our road, at least this section, was carved into crumbly Himalayan granite—a sheer cliff rose on our left and the right fell to a jagged scree slope and stony riverbed below. To our rear, the snowcapped massifs along the Nepal/Tibet border gleamed serenely, but ahead about 200 yards, a small river gurgled down from some hidden glacier and gushed into the road. Much of it tumbled across, but a good portion did not, turning our route into roughly 100 yards of river.
A vehicle had attempted to cross but was stuck just after the major water crossing, right at a sharp turn and steep incline. It was high-centered, kicking up rocks and mud with its rear wheels. Five or six Nepali drivers worked to free it while everyone else adopted the Nepali wait-and-see attitude, which usually meant things would take a while.
Alam and I shrugged. We’d seen this sort of thing before, and being on a motorcycle gives you license for improvisation. We edged our way to the front and decided to give it a try. Sure, it was sketchy, but this is what we had come for.
Our ride had already taken us through hot, steamy jungle and shifting Himalayan foothills to where we were now—high mountain desert. Our one support vehicle, which carried luggage and spare parts, plus a local guide and driver (without which one cannot enter the Mustang) would have to wait in the queue, but we weren’t worried. We had a rough itinerary giving us just over two weeks, willing and ready riders and bikes we figured could handle the challenge.
The road was lined with slippery rocks that you couldn’t really see under all that water, and they tossed our bikes this way and that. Alam braced with his feet out to either side while the rest of us ran along beside and behind, helping with any especially deep holes or larger obstacles. John and Chris followed suit. There was a lot of walking and pushing and splashing, not to mention heavy breathing (because tough work is even tougher at 12,000 feet), but eventually everyone was across. Except me.
I decided to get up on the pegs and do my best, and the Himalayan responds well this way. I’m no giant, but even at 6 feet tall standing is comfortable and the bike feels nimble. I jostled my way through water and over rock and have to say, felt pretty damn good about it—until I found myself wedged between the offending, stuck Mahindra and a rather nasty boulder, about a 2-foot gap to shoot—all along that sharp turn and steep incline. My rear wheel kicked up mud and gravel, I lost purchase, and with no room to plant my feet started going over…only to be propped up by the Nepali drivers who emerged like dusty angels to push me on my way. Nepal is like that, always surprising you.
Cities, for instance, are insane. Traffic comes from all directions and in all sizes. The sheer number of vehicles that cram onto the streets should be impossible, or at least illegal. But somehow they all fit, and it all flows. Horns are more important than brakes, and it’s not just vehicles—anything can and will step in front of you: chickens or children, tourists or cows, diplomats or dogs. It’s like a video game, except more extreme and the stakes are higher.
By the time we reached Pokhara, traffic had dwindled substantially and we were navigating hilly back roads with ease and pleasure. And the Himalayan is a lot of fun here. First of all, it’s comfy. In keeping with its enduro styling and like its Royal Enfield Bullet 350 and 500 predecessors, the riding position is upright, which keeps you alert and relaxed. The seat is wide and soft enough that a long day in the saddle is pretty easy. Though it’s not the fastest bike on the road, speeds are lower in India and Nepal. You simply can’t ride fast in towns and cities, and in the countryside 100 kph feels like you’re flying.
Just when we thought we’d gotten the hang of things, the pavement ended at a little village called Beni. From Beni onward there is a single road up to the major pilgrimage site of Muktinath, and then on to the Upper Mustang. It is all dirt, cut into the hillsides and riverbed, and in stable terrain—through villages for instance—is smooth and hard-packed. But elsewhere it can be more difficult. Ascents tend to be jarring and steep, a mix of mud, rock and runoff.
The only real difficulty we had with the bikes was clogged air filters after days of extreme dust that coated face shields, mirrors, nostrils and lungs. It was more intense the farther we went, and when it wasn’t in the air, it laid on the road sometimes a foot and a half deep, absorbing all light and erasing definition, masking a labyrinth of sudden holes, rocks and ruts underneath.
We arrived in Lo Manthang, Mustang’s capital city, by mid-afternoon. More like a tiny medieval town than a city, early November winds rustled the poplar leaves that line the main road and though the sun beat down intensely, dark clouds menaced around the surrounding peaks. It was the end of tourist season up here. Weather was on all of our minds as we explored Lo Manthang’s narrow, winding lanes and hidden corridors. It felt nice to stretch our legs after days of riding. By the time we found real espresso and some truly terrific apple crumble in a local café, the wind was fierce and it was downright cold. Mustang may be very dry, but winter is no joke in the Himalayas and a bit of snow or even a rainfall can close the arterial road that connects it with the rest of Nepal.
We headed toward the Tibetan border in the late morning, giving the sun a chance to thaw overnight ice but before the afternoon wind had a chance to cool things down again. Clouds to the west hid snowy hills behind them but the sky above was that deep blue that I have only seen in the high mountains. We took our support vehicle, a Land Rover, just to give our butts a break and our boots a chance to air out. There was a feeling of tense excitement. Locals talk about getting too close to the border and being snatched by Chinese guards. It’s hard to tell whether this is real, but their fear is palpable.
We got as close to the border as the village of Chhoser and the Shija Jhong caves, and our driver would go no farther. We’d seen hundreds of caves along the way—dark holes in cliff faces above the road or in the rocky sides of mountain ravines. The region has thousands, some dating as far back as 3,000 years, and all carved by human hand. Some were used for burial in ancient times, some to store treasures from invaders, and some were the dwellings of the ancestors of the current Mustang residents.
The ride back down to the lowlands was adventurous, but went smoothly enough. We visited the 108 cold-water springs at Muktinath and gaped as pilgrims stripped down to their skivvies and submerged themselves in freezing water. And we encountered a complete surprise—pristine asphalt on the way up to the shrine—some of the best road I’ve ever ridden. It was like a weird dream after days of tough dirt, especially knowing we had a couple more days of rough road back down to Beni. And perhaps a personal highlight for me: the stunning views as we rode below the Annapurna and Dauligiri massifs, the world’s 10th and 7th highest peaks respectively.
It is strange how an adventure can change you. On the way up, Pokhara was just an overnight, but on the way down, it was heaven: drinks and a stroll along Phewa Lake as the sun caught the tops of impossibly high peaks above the foothills. Pokhara’s exotic food, bazaars and nightlife were almost overwhelming after the quiet of the high country.
Our final destination before returning to Kathmandu was Chitwan National Park and an elephant ride into the jungle. These giant pachyderms lumber along, slow and gentle, but the power you feel beneath their skin is intoxicating. Tigers eluded the group this day, but to see a rhino in the wild—incredible!
And then, success! After more than 1,000 kilometers on the mighty Himalayan, we were back to the chaos and luxury of Kathmandu. We said our farewells—I flew on to south India, Alam headed back to Dehradun, and Chris and John went back stateside until the next adventure.
The author’s father, Patrick Moffat, founded Himalayan Moto Tours in the mid 1990s. For more information visit himalayanmototours.com.