A man I met in a half-remembered dream once worked in a laboratory. He would measure how much of a dispersant chemical was required to remove mica and quartz particles from clay. The clay would become filler between wood pulp fibres when making paper. Not only did these impurities make the white stuff look grey, they were extremely abrasive. If left in the clay, these microscopic rocks completely ruined the industrial machinery involved in paper making, not to mention printing. Therefore, these silicate materials were a bad thing. We found them again in the Himalayan river silt, which means we found them everywhere.
After days of plugging away up and down the Khali Gandaki river valley, Stein would have his fill of these incredibly fine, abrasive mineral dusts. The brakes would stop working, the stands would cease to function, and turning the wheels would be met with protest. Even our clothes would begin to malfunction as our boot zips became frozen in place.
We wanted to enter the Annapurna Conservation Area and view the peaks from the trekking routes. The road appeared to climb to Muktinath at 3,600m, so we were planning a gradual ascent by bike over about 5 days. We would then trek for a few days using Muktinath as a base. We had left Pokhara a bit later than planned, at midday. This meant we were leaving the end of the tarmac at Beni, a little before 16:00. We had the 2 hours before sunset to do 22km on a well used dirt track to the next town uphill. This seemed an achievable goal with Google predicting a 1.5 hour journey. Unfortunately it was a wet dirt track, so much of it was slimey slurry. 4 wheels good, 2 wheels bad.
The bike had to be ridden extremely gently and smoothly to stay upright. Even with knoblier tyres this was barely possible. At every large puddle or rut I had to wait for some other vehicle to plunge through and test the depth first. Nickiy spent an increasing proportion of these twilight hours portering in front or behind the heavily-laden machine. Eventually as the light faded further, we came across a bus and a jeep stuck in frictionless mud. They could not get up the hill and were side by side blocking the slope. We used this opportunity to preemptively remove all the luggage from the bike. We carried the bags up the hill whilst both vehicles reversed down and re-attacked the rutted slope.
Eventually we got our run at this olympic gradient and predictably I span to a halt. My balls and Nickiy’s hands (not together) managed to push Stein over the crest. The nightmare continued. Darkness enveloped us and we approached a river crossing in the murk ahead. Some large vehicles on high-beam bounced through it. It was fast and not too deep but fording it lit with only one motorbike headlight looked way too dangerous. We were next to some houses and we couldn’t continue. We needed to stop and sleep. Somewhere. 2.5 hours of extremely hard, gravity-defying work had only gained us 10km along this road. This was less than half way to the first town.
I parked by the building and Nickiy talked with the owner. Her shop was also a guest house, of sorts. We were absolutely shattered, wet and coated in the silty mud. It was dark and we just wanted to lie down and die. We’d fallen off more times that afternoon than we had in the whole other 7 months of riding. Luckily the lady owner could supply us with food and amazingly, beer! Then we squeezed into the miniature room, laid down and died. We could have slept on nails.
In the morning we eased on our wet clothes and crusty boots and surveyed the scene in front of us. A boulder-strewn confluence separated us from the rest of the valley road. And it was full of big, hairy goats. Impressively Stein made it across the fast water and I only got one wet foot in the process.
This was a good start and we now had a whole day to get to the town of Tatopani. We stopped for breakfast at the first available opportunity and caught more glimpses of the spectacular mountain peaks between the clouds. The views along the valley were magnificent but we still didn’t get much chance to admire them en route. Although the going was slightly better, it included a slippery, wet, stepped rock climb, half-tunnelled into the rock face. This would have been challenging enough, without the distracting sheer drop to the raging torrent below.
Just as the sun approached its zenith, we reached our goal. We were in the aptly-named town of Tatopani, or “hot water”. We were only at 1,300m in altitude! The 22km off-tarmac had taken us 6 hours over two days. Before I could dismount, one final steeplechase awaited; the narrow pathways of an Himalayan village. Finally Stein declared, “no more”. We were glad of this, because we too were incapable of continuing the full distance to Muktinath. I ached all over and Nickiy was bruised and battered. Our crusty clothes maintained a human shape even when hung up to dry.
Our planned driving adventure to 3,600m in altitude had failed spectacularly and would have to continue on foot. Nickiy had already walked half of the distance up the valley, following (and pushing) the bike, so walking now seemed the best option. Once our bodies had recovered, we embarked on a 3 day trek around Tatopani. The bike could stay where it was!
It did not escape our attention that we had to back-track down that horrible road to return to Pokhara at the end of our trek. Thankfully when we did so, the road was mostly dry and easy. Bumpy, but easy. Even with stalling and falling in the big river, we did the same 22km journey in only 2 hours heading back downhill. When we got back into Pokhara, Stein needed a lot of attention to get him happy again. What had we learned? There is a reason mountain villages haven’t had roads before. Two feet is better than two wheels!