The trouble with mountain biking in Nepal is that you’re surrounded by distractions. Fields of bright orange marigolds and golden mustard flowers look like a sunset splashed across the earth. Chubby-cheeked babies bathing in buckets of water cause my second near tumble. Then there is the sight of the campsites sheltering people still without homes.
I’m biking through Sankhu, a town 20 miles east of Kathmandu that suffered extensive damage after a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal in April. Some reports say that 90 percent of buildings in this rural community were damaged. Rebuilding efforts here and throughout Nepal, have all but come to a halt during a three-month long blockade of the main border crossings with India.
India, Nepal’s neighbor on three sides, accounts for more than 60 percent of Nepal’s foreign trade. When Nepal passed a new constitution on September 16th, members of the Tharus and Madhesis who are ethnically and culturally close to the people of Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, demanded greater representation. As a result, the Birgunj checkpoint – the country’s largest trade artery with India – has been blocked by protesters from the Madhesi community since September 24th. Nepal blames India for supporting the Madhesi, while the Indian government blames the blockade on internal unrest in Nepal.
Photo by Chris Reichel.
The blockade means hospitals can’t get medicine, restaurants are running out of cooking gas and the Nepalese government has been forced to ration fuel, killing the engines of the vehicles that were transporting building materials to disaster sites, and the motorbikes that get most Nepali people to and from work each day. The fuel shortage is also responsible for the unusual number of cyclists I see both on the trails of Kathmandu Valley and on the city’s eerily quiet streets.
In Kathmandu, traffic is at a standstill. Taxis, cars and motorcycles snake around blocks as their owners wait for fuel. So instead, some are turning to bicycles as a means of transportation. The Kathmandu Post reported local bike shops selling 20 to 22 bikes per day versus the normal three to four. And in Pokhara, the Himalayan Times recently reported demand for mountain bikes has risen from 150 to 1,500 per day, due to the recent blockade.
In 1989, when India closed 19 of the 21 border crossings with Nepal, most people didn’t have the option to turning to bikes, according to Sunil Sharma, the race marketing director of Yak Ru, a multi-stage mountain biking race held on Nepal’s famed trekking route, the Annapurna Circuit. “No one was importing mountain bikes then,” he says. “Now more than a dozen brands have presence in the country, like Trek, Giant, Marin and many Chinese brands. During this fuel crisis, all the bike stocks were snapped up within days.” Sharma estimates that more than 8,000 people took up mountain biking in the Kathmandu Valley alone, which has been hit hardest by the fuel crisis.
While the fuel crisis has caused more interest in buying bicycles, that does not mean all new bike owners are interested in cycling. “Most people have only started out of pure necessity or in some cases pure laziness, as the next alternative would be walking,” says Saloman Shrestha of Epic Rides Nepal. “It is certain that many people who have purchased bikes will stop riding as soon as the fuel crisis has been resolved.”
But many hope the habit will stick. There are virtually millions of tracks crisscrossing the entire length and breath of Nepal and the well-established tea house and lodge infrastructure for hikers makes it very easy to get around on a bicycle. In the last decade, the Annapurna Circuit has become a Shangri-La for hardcore mountain bikers, in particular the Manang and Mustang route, where the landscape varies from altitudes as low as 1,000 feet to 17,700 feet.