Located between the two most populous countries of the world, India and China, lies a small stripe of land which is a federal republic since 2008: Nepal. The Himalayas form a natural border between the two competing super powers with Nepal as a buffer zone in between. Indian influence in the south, Tibetan influence in the north and many disparate settler groups from outside make it a really diverse country. According to Wikipedia there exist 123 different languages spoken as a mother tongue in Nepal. Unnecessary to say that compared to a population of only around 27 Million people it is a lot.
Cycling in Nepal
When we were visiting Nepal in November and December 2015, the political situation in the country was very tense and it was pretty adventurous to go there. Violent protests in some parts of the country and border blockades were going on. India had laid an unofficial oil embargo on Nepal which lead to a shortage in gas, food, medication, and other basic supplies. Restaurants were closed and everything was twice as expensive as normal.
Since petrol was either unavailable or crazily expensive (in Kathmandu one litre of petrol cost $8 on the black market!) there was virtually no traffic on the Nepalese roads. Even the highways were completely deserted and most of the time we were surrounded by goats, other cyclists or pedestrians. Only a couple of busses passed us during the day. People were selling petrol in plastic bottles next to the street. Once we passed a gas station that opened for a couple of hours and hundreds of people were forming a crowd trying to get a little bit of petrol.
If you are interested in the political reasons that lead to the crisis, you can read about it on Wikipedia.
I have to be honest – the roads in Nepal are among the worst I ever cycled on. We got off the highway a few times and every time we did that I wanted ditch my bike after half an hour because it was shaking so much. After a while we set our GPS to the navigation mode for trucks in order to stay on halfway decent roads. For a country as poor as Nepal it is very difficult to build and also maintain a functioning transport infrastructure. The only paved roads are the highways and a couple of other roads. Bridges are almost only found on the highways, all other rivers you have to cross by actually wading through the river.
As a consequence, the main roads and highways are extremely busy. As there are so few roads to choose from, everybody takes the same route and the highways are usually crowded. On the other hand, if you take a lesser frequented side road the road surface is “problematic”.
Hence it is a good idea to bring a bike with shocks or even a mountain bike because it will make the ride much more comfortable and highly increase the number of roads that you can choose from. It means that you can take lesser frequented side roads and avoid the nasty traffic on the highways. Plus you will have a much bigger adventure because there are not so many tourists on the side roads!
As I explained, we didn’t experience the normal traffic during our tour due to the oil embargo. However, I can tell you my general impressions and what I heard from the locals and other people. Apparently the highways in Nepal are usually extremely busy as there is just no alternative route. Busses, cars, motorcycles and other vehicles fill the roads and create constant noise, dust and fume. They are also dangerous to cycle because some Nepalese bus drivers are speeding like there’s no tomorrow. We saw several burned out busses lying next to the road.
As soon as you leave the highway however, the traffic is getting instantly less. In the mountain regions only a few cars/jeeps per day passed us. The reason for this is of course that the road condition is much worse on the side roads.
All in all I would say that Nepal isn’t the easiest country for cyclists traffic-wise. The best option would be to go on a mountain bike on the side roads to enjoy the beautiful nature and avoid the highway traffic. If you want to tour the Himalayas on decent roads with little traffic I recommend to check out my post about Uttarakhand in India.
- Except for the Western Terai, you can find accommodation and food every few kilometers for very little money. The only exception to this is the Western Terai. You can read about it further down.
- As accommodation and food is available everywhere there is no need to bring camping equipment with you. I’m not sure if camping is even possible because the country is heavily populated in many parts. I think it can be difficult sometimes to find a good place for your tent.
- There are some pretty good mountain bike shops in Pokhara and Kathmandu. They are not comparable to a bike shop in a western country but certainly worth a try.
Information On The Country
Regions Of Nepal
Nepal is split into three main regions:
The Terai in the South is located in the south next to India. It is almost entirely flat and covered by subtropical rain forest. The altitude of the Terai is below 700m and is the green area on the map.
- Middle Hills
Nepal’s two biggest cities, Pokhara and Kathmandu, are situated here. The hill region is situated between the Terai and the mountains. The elevation is around 700m – 3000m which is marked red on map.
The mountainous region is everything above 3000m in elevation which is mostly found in the north of Nepal. It is characterized by alpine terrain and densely populated. It is corresponds to the white area on the map.
Read more about the regions here.
Although it is difficult to generalize the people in Nepal, it was more overall more relaxed to travel than India. The people had a higher sense for privacy and quietness. Wherever we came the people welcomed us and were happy to help. I felt that especially in the bigger cities, the locals were closer to the western world than in India.
The only exception to all of this is the Terai as the Indian influence is strong. We had some odd situations there because the people weren’t used to foreigners at all. Some people thought we would give money to them or sometimes they raised the prices a lot because we were foreigners. This even happened to us when we were buying food. Therefore, we started to ask for the price beforehand in order to avoid weird situations.
For tour cyclists in Nepal, route planning is fairly easy as only a couple of roads are in line for cycling. When on a mountain bike however, the options are numerous.
Western Terai & Western Hill Region
- We crossed the border from India into Nepal and obtained our Visa on arrival as we got there. This was no problem at all, but the border crossing office is so small that we missed it at first.
- The Western Terai is mainly characterized by agriculture. The highlights of the region are the Shukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve, the Bardia National Park and some original villages such as Thakudwara. It is heavily populated area and we rarely had a minute to ourselves – the people were very excited to see us on our bicycles.
- The Western Terrai is rarely visited by tourists so the infrastructure there was not as good as in the rest compared to the rest of the country. Sometimes there was no hotel or restaurant for 50km of cycling. Therefore it might be a good idea to plan the route in the Western Terai more detailed in order to avoid getting stuck.
- Between Bhim Datta and Nepalganj there was no ATM when we cycled there. Hence it might be a good idea so bring extra cash with you for this part. We were once running out of cash and we had to hurry a lot to get to Nepalganj.
- Between Nepalganj and Tulsipur we didn’t find any hotel to sleep at so we slept at some people’s house.
- We made a short side trip into the Himalayas to Tulsipur and Gorahi which was very beautiful and a nice contrast to the Terai. You have some beautiful views on the Terai and the West Rapti River river.
- Be careful: a hotel in Nepal is not necessarily a place where you can sleep at. Often it is just a regular restaurant! They are both called hotel.
- The people from Pikes On Bikes also made a side trip into the mountains, as you can read here, but apparently the road condition was really bad so they had to push their bikes often.
Pokhara – Kathmandu
The main route from Pokhara to Kathmandu is via the highway. But since the highway is very crowded and dangerous to cycle, it might be better to take choose a different road. There is supposed to be an alternative route that leads through the mountains north of the highway. We were not eager to cycle this though, due to the bad experiences with the road surface before. You can check out the alternative route here and here.
A short note about Kathmandu: The traffic there is terrible. We had to wait in a traffic jam several hours and even though we were on bicycles there was no way to get through. The air pollution is so intense that you cannot see the mountains anymore. It was the only place on the tour where I was wearing mouth protection.
Eastern Hill Region & Eastern Terai
Cycling from Kathmandu down to the Eastern Terai was absolutely beautiful. The road we took was brand new and because it was so curvy the downhill parts were so much fun. I think this road is a must-do if you cycle through Nepal.
The Eastern Terai was more industrial than the rest of Nepal. Actually we were a little bit afraid to go there as there had been violent protests the weeks before we went there. But as we cycled through, we found the people in this area were especially friendly and hospitable. Whenever we stopped for a tea, a crowd of 20-30 people formed around us and our bikes. We had to shake hands with everybody and take photo shootings with all the people. They were very happy to show us their temples (which actually had some questionable practices) and culture. Highly recommended to pay this area a visit!
There are some interesting side trips that you can make in the Eastern Terai:
- You can leave the highway in Itahari and go back into the mountains to climb up to Dhankuta. Dhankuta is a small Newari town and the administrative headquarters of Eastern Nepal. From here you can try to go even further north to Khandbari although I am not sure about the road conditions there. Khandbari is the main departure point for trekking to Mount Makalu.
- Another highlight of Eastern Nepal is the city Ilam, the tea capital of Nepal. It offers some of the best tea of the world for a fraction of the price in Darjeeling. In order to get you Ilam you can go directly north from the East-West Highway. If you also did the side trip to Dhankuta you could try to go to Ilam directly via the mountain street.