Ride the Mustang: Journal of a Mountain Bike Tour in Nepal

December 11, 2019

Seen during the bike tour in Nepal, the slope of a mountain in Nepal cutting diagonally across bottom half of image with blue sky behind it.

Won­der­ing what it’s like to ride two wheels through the world’s high­est peaks? Read author and pho­tog­ra­ph­er Bryan Cole’s expe­ri­ence on one leg of our moun­tain bike tour through Nepal, the 12-Day Trea­sures of the Himalaya Ride. (You can also check out Mandil Prad­han’s write-up of our tour on Pink Bike.)

Sto­ry & Pho­tos by Bryan Cole @bcolective

A Tour Guided by the Top Rider in Nepal: The Mountain Bike Adventure Begins

Thanks to a loose thread of an email and a mind set on explor­ing the poten­tial for leg­endary Himalayan moun­tain bik­ing ahead, I intro­duced myself to Mandil Prad­han, long time Nepali pro rid­er, a thriv­ing moun­tain bike guide and busi­ness own­er. For­tu­nate­ly, our paths came to cross through our mutu­al sup­port of the recent film “RJ Rip­per” by our friend in com­mon and super rip­per in his own right, Joey Schusler. Mandil was a key play­er in pro­duc­ing the film, but more impor­tant­ly, Mandil is the one behind pio­neer­ing a lot of the moun­tain bike scene in Nepal and help­ing Rajesh Mag­ar (com­mon­ly known as RJ) find his path to free­dom and his career as today’s top rid­er in Nepal. Run­ning all of the on-ground oper­a­tions and guide ser­vices for Sacred Rides Moun­tain Bike Adven­tures, offer­ing mul­ti-day moun­tain bike trips and cul­tur­al immer­sions into the Himalayan high­lands, Mandil hired RJ as a guide and has helped him over the past few years to con­nect with spon­sors and refine his tal­ents as a moun­tain bik­er ready to rip and race in a more glob­al arena.

Mountain Bikers in Nepal
Mandil Prad­han (right) and RJ (mid­dle): On a tour like this, you only want the best moun­tain bike rid­ers in Nepal guid­ing you!

Soon after drop­ping into Kath­man­du with my fam­i­ly, at the start of a six week explo­ration of all things adven­ture and advo­ca­cy, Mandil and I met up for a drink and quick­ly began to dis­cuss the best way to get out rid­ing togeth­er and shar­ing our pas­sion for rolling through wild places. Mandil has been scout­ing trails and guid­ing rides through­out Nepal for the past two decades and has built an incred­i­ble net­work that brings peo­ple from all over the world to join Sacred Rides Nepal for unfor­get­table two wheeled expe­ri­ences and cul­tur­al connections.

With a deep pas­sion for full-blown adven­ture rid­ing and over 20 years in the adven­ture tourism indus­try, Sacred Rides wel­comed me to jump in on one leg of their Trea­sures of the Himalaya trip to ride along, snap some pho­tos, and share a few words to cap­ture the expe­ri­ences that we shared along the way. The fol­low­ing is a por­tion of my per­son­al account after a few days incred­i­bly well spent with Mandil, RJ and a hand­ful of strong rid­ers from around the globe.

A mountain bike tour in Nepal is only for the most serious of adventurers (and earliest of risers)!

Octo­ber 23rd, 1:00 am — I’m wide awake and the alarm is set for 4 hours from now. It’s not time yet, but there’s no way I’m going to miss my 20-minute flight out of Pokhara straight to the south­ern ter­mi­nus of the Tibetan Plateau. My des­ti­na­tion? The incred­i­ble Mus­tang region of North­ern Nepal.

2:00 am comes and goes , then 3:00 am and 4:00 am. 

Final­ly it’s time to get up. I grabbed my bags, kissed my fam­i­ly good­bye, and bolt­ed for the sleepy Pokhara street and hailed the only cab I could find. “To the air­port.” Gouged for the fare by nor­mal stan­dards, I pay the equiv­a­lent of a whop­ping $3 U.S. dol­lars for a 10-minute ride. A drowsy board­ing, sun­rise from the sky over the Anna­pur­na mas­sif and the icon­ic Macha­puchare and a few short min­utes lat­er we are descend­ing into Jom­som, alti­tude 8,976’ (2682m). 

The rest of the crew is behind me on a slight­ly lat­er flight, but I quick­ly found my way to the Om’s Home Hotel where I met up with our guides and Nepal’s finest rid­ers, RJ Rip­per and Nis­hant Shah. Man­i­cal­ly build­ing bikes to make the arrival of the froth­ing and ready to ride crew, I sat at the near­by café and fueled up on Dal Bhat and bot­tom­less milk coffee.

Guides & Riders prepping equipment  for the mountain bike tour through Nepal
Famous Nepalese moun­tain bik­ers stand­ing over a blue moun­tain bike as they pre­pare for tour group arrival

Ramped up and ready to roll, the gang comes togeth­er, I intro­duced myself and before we know it, our gear is gath­ered and we are slow­ly rolling out of Oms Home head­ing high­er into the Low­er Mus­tang (the world’s deep­est val­ley) en route to our first nights stop. As we roll out of town, we are in the shad­ow of what appears to be the equiv­a­lent of Mt. Ever­est from our per­spec­tive. It turns out the peak we can see is Nil­giri 23,166’ (7061m), the 99th high­est peak in the Himalaya. Ho hum. Only num­ber 99. But high­er than any oth­er non Asian peak on the planet.

Suck­ing wind on an extreme­ly low angle uphill dirt road, every­one feels like a fish out of water. Wild­ly excit­ed to final­ly be ped­al­ing our way through this oth­er­world­ly land­scape and way out of our com­fort zones at the same time, I am beyond words excit­ed for the days ahead, Mandil intro­duces the day as our “eas­i­est”. A few miles of rough dirt road, which is the “high­way”, and we regroup before the first of many skin­ny, swing­ing, sus­pen­sion bridges across the Kali Gan­da­ki riv­er. Excit­ed to leave the dou­ble track, I race ahead and cross the bridge, to reach the far side and fire off a few pho­tos of the rid­ers oncoming.

The author begins his tour by crossing through the mountain “semi-desert” by bike on the way to the Upper Mustang in Nepal.

Group of Bikers on Gravel Road

Most­ly famous for the Anna­pur­na Cir­cuit, per­haps the most well-known mega trek in the world, we can­not wait to leave the well trod­den super­high­way and ham­mer into our first big climb of the trip. Off the cir­cuit and up we go. Up and up and up into the town of Phalyak, 9,514’ (3200m). Mandil stops to gath­er the group and impart on us all how spe­cial this place tru­ly is. The peo­ple of this small vil­lage still live in the old ways, most­ly sub­sis­tence farm­ers and prac­ti­tion­ers of Tibetan Bud­dhism. Rarely vis­it­ed by west­ern­ers, but thanks to Mandil’s long stand­ing rela­tions, we were warm­ly wel­comed onto a rooftop for the cus­tom­ary hot tea and soon to be famous amongst our crew, Coconut Crunchies. If you ever get to meet Mandil in per­son, be sure to have him sing you the jin­gle. The locals could not have been more friend­ly. With the biggest smiles you’ve ever seen, they draw you in with their time­less eyes and opened their hearts to each of us through their silent­ly wel­com­ing ways.

A woman and child in Nepal, sitting on the ground in front of stack of wood as the mountain bike tour passes by

After our casu­al refu­el, the cama­raderie of the group has begun to build and it’s time to turn tail and rip our way back down to the riv­er side. We sin­gle file our way down and out of the nar­row cob­ble­stone alley ways. Before I know it we are mob­bing full-speed down some sandy, loose and down­right laugh­ably good sin­gle­track. I quick­ly have to remind myself to back off the gas. A fall here would be bru­tal. We are deep and any med­ical help is hours away at best. About 20-min­utes lat­er and we are back by the river’s edge, cross­ing the same swing­ing bridge. Only this time, the wind is whip­ping so hard it’s most­ly unride­able, but way too fun to not try. Lungs and legs com­plete­ly blown and we are back on the road and ram­bling our way fur­ther up our ini­tial dirt road towards the vil­lage of Kag­beni, our first day’s des­ti­na­tion. Hours lat­er and proud of our first “easy” high alti­tude day, we wind into town par­al­lel­ing flow­ing aque­ducts of fresh water and make our way to the Red House, an ancient monastery turned trav­el­ers home­s­tay. Lit­tle has changed there over time with the excep­tion of the peo­ple who inhab­it it and the lay­out of the indi­vid­ual rooms. Beers and cider served and the sweet­ness of sin­gle track already fad­ing fast into mem­o­ry, I show­er up and feast on local fare ready to hit the sack and ral­ly again. Tomor­row is going to be big!

Day 2: The Double Drop

Up ear­ly and into break­fast, Mandil sets the stage for what sounds like an incred­i­ble, but chal­leng­ing day of rid­ing ahead. First,we will get a shut­tle up to the sacred town of Muk­ti­nath 12,171 ft (3,710 m) and then from there we will do a climb of 1,300 ft up and over Lubra pass 13,451’ (4,100 m), before we get to drop for what will feel like days down towards Lubra vil­lage and the deep val­ley below. Eas­i­er said than done. My legs are sore, my lungs smoked from yes­ter­day and I’m get­ting wind­ed while eat­ing break­fast. Oth­ers com­plain of mild and typ­i­cal symp­toms of alti­tude sick­ness, headaches and some real­ly rough nights of sleep­less toss­ing and turning.

Despite the expect­ed sore­ness though, spir­its are high and every­one is chomp­ing at the bit to get going. Camel­Baks full and CLIF Bars and Bloks packed we load the bikes into a truck and hop onto a local bus to head for the high­er country.

Man Driving Bus
For this leg of the tour, you have to get off your bike and on to a local bus for a steep moun­tain climb to Muk­ti­nath, Nepal.

Forty-five min­utes of wind­ing up in the bus, and it feels like we are head­ed to the top of the world. Full blown views of Dhaula­giri 26,795’ (8,167 m), one of the most promi­nent and beau­ti­ful 8,000 meter peaks of the range, and the mag­ni­tude of this land­scape begins to set in for what lies ahead. We park near Muk­ti­nath, which is the most sacred Hin­du pil­grim­age des­ti­na­tion in the world and start our ride from there. A slow roll down a cruisey dirt road leads to the begin­ning of what turns into our most sub­stan­tial climb yet. Not a huge climb by stan­dards of ver­ti­cal gain, but when you are start­ing at over 12,000 feet, every ped­al stroke up feels more like a a hun­dred. Most­ly easy uphill ped­al­ing with the excep­tion of a few switch­backs and steep pitch­es for the ham­mer­heads to throw their com­pet­i­tive testos­terone at and we reach the sad­dle which makes our high point for the day. 

Dhaulaghiri looms way out across the val­ley per­fect­ly framed in a blue­bird sea of sky. Eager to drop in, the crew falls into our nat­ur­al sin­gle file of stoke and it’s on! Down­hill for days and what looks to be a nev­er end­ing drop of sin­gle track leads us out onto the alpine plateau below. Sec­tions of sear­ing flow lead into steep­er pitch­es of puck­er and drift. Down, down and down we go. Hoot­ing, hol­ler­ing and tru­ly hav­ing the moun­tain bike time of our lives. It goes on and on and on and seem­ing­ly dips into the realms of unbe­liev­able before we final­ly bot­tom out back in the Kali Gan­da­ki riv­er val­ley. From there we hit the road from yesterday’s ram­ble and roll our way back to the Red House for lunch. Our rid­ing day is only half way done!

Dhaulaghiri Mountain Peak, as seen from the trail on the bike tour in Nepal

Post lunch every­one is clear­ly feel­ing worked but keen to ral­ly for anoth­er lap. We take the same shut­tle and repeat the climb. Only this time, just off the top of Lubra pass we hook a right and hit the spiny ridge line fea­tured in the RJ Rip­per film. Mandil is gid­dy to share this gold, and it is absolute sin­gle track heav­en! From pure flow up top, to steep techy rocks and high speed loose sha­ley run outs. I can’t believe the qual­i­ty and cal­iber of what we are rid­ing. Had the con-sequences of a fall not been so real, I sure­ly would have stopped to pinch myself, take an extra breath, or sim­ply take in the views of Dhaulagiri.

Mountain Biker on Path

Day 3: The Pilgrimage

Our group has got­ten into the groove on mul­ti­ple lev­els and though most are feel­ing the rides so far, we can­not wait to mount up for the day ahead. After anoth­er bus ride up the pass to the same park­ing lot as yes­ter­day, today’s ride promis­es to be an ele­va­tion doosey. Our high­point sights are set on the west­ern base of the Tho­rung La at over 14,108 (4300m), which is the high-est pass on the Anna­pur­na Cir­cuit. Suck­er punched by a wind­ing wan­der uphill through the roads of the ancient vil­lage of Muk­ti­nath, we pass throngs of believ­ers and seek­ers bound for the tem­ple and the final point of their sacred pil­grim­age. Peo­ple arrive on foot, by horse­back, car, moto, jeep, local bus, and more to pay respects to their most holy temple.

Pass­ing by in a some­what med­i­ta­tive roll into our mis­sion of the day. And before we know it, we are beyond the mass­es and mak­ing a hard right turn up what is clear­ly going to be a bru­tal climb. I’m not sure I can go any slow­er and still stay upright, and at the same time, I want noth­ing more than to get this bear of a 500 m uphill bat­tle over with before I am com­plete­ly blown out. We are eas­i­ly more than an hour into the up and our group is entire­ly spread out. Each rid­er has to man­age their own chal­lenges that can only be faced alone. And from there? We dive deep­er and dig into anoth­er ped­al stroke of painful but beau­ti­ful up. Seared lungs and scream­ing legs and I final­ly reach the refu­gio at the base of the pass.

This marks our high point. I’m around the mid­dle of the pack and thank­ful for some rest time while we await the final few. Though we climbed what turned out to be a most­ly dou­ble track road, the pic­ture per­fect descent quick­ly made itself obvi­ous on top­ping out. Swoop­ing sin­gle track revealed itself in plain view ele­gant­ly mak­ing its way down from the pass and into the abyss below. Giv­en the scale, it was hard to ass­es the length of the drop to Muk­ti­nath, but after watch­ing the first rid­ers roll in, it was obvi­ous that this was going to be anoth­er long one. No less than 20-min­utes of sus­tained down­hill dream track, and then we were only at the tem­ple, with so much more rid­ing to go.

From there we tra­versed across Muk­ti­nath and con­tin­ued down­hill link­ing a series of small moun­tain­side vil­lages with time-trod­den trails of vil­lager and live­stock. Old stone walls, rocky ride through tun­nels and water ways wound us down, around and through these ful­ly func­tion­ing slices of ancient life. Rarely did we pass a soul along this wild path. We final­ly found our­selves peel­ing our hands off our bars to enjoy some tea and more Coconut Crunchies at the Nir­vana Tea House in the vil­lage of Jharkot. Still anoth­er cou­ple thou­sand feet of down­hill to go.

Day 4: Cross Gandaki Deluxe

Spir­its high and ready to ride anoth­er day, we packed our bags for trans­port and pre­pared to ped­al our way down the Kali Gan­da­ki Val­ley. Dis­tance wise, this day was our biggest. 27+ miles (40 km) of cross coun­try good­ness, plus a bonus option for those who sim­ply couldn’t get enough. We left Kag­beni on the dirt road that we had come to love and hate over the past three days and soon found our­selves back on the orig­i­nal Anna­pur­na Cir­cuit trail. Skirt­ing past the bustling hub of Jom­som and high on the hill across the val­ley from the famous and breath­tak­ing monastery vil­lage of Marpha, the ped­al­ing and scenery could not have been more dream-like. The rolling vil­lage track turned to punchy uphills, sus­tained techy down­hills and end­less skin­ny swing­ing bridges bot­tom out in ram­bling riv­er bed rolls as we con­tin­ued our push towards the vil­lage of Kalopani. With today’s ride deliv­er­ing near­ly 3,000 ft of descent and anoth­er 1,500 ft of climb­ing, it’s guar­an­teed to be anoth­er good one.

Dumped out on the dirt road again just before lunch we arrived at the High Plains Inn. Known for it’s apple crum­ble and yep, you guessed it, arm wrestling. WTF? Out here in the mid­dle of nowhere and there is a Dutch guy named Patrick Maas, who with his Nepali wife and pas­sion for alpine climb­ing decid­ed to make this place home. And not only does he make amaz­ing apple cob­bler, but he also wel­comes any­one to chal­lenge him in a arm wres­tle after lunch. Just read the sign on the door. Smells like a sand­bag to me? The prize you ask? A free night’s stay for two, a meal, drinks, and of course, brag­ging rights. Fat and hap­py on lunch, cob­bler and cof­fee and all eyes were on one of our ped­al­ing com­rades to step up to the match.

Kristoff was not only the biggest of our clan, but also the most bois­ter­ous and keen to step up to the chal­lenge and take one for the team. Rules explained, crowd gath­ered, arms locked and BOOM! It was over. Kristoff got smoked. Most­ly all good and all laughs, except for some appar­ent elbow ten­don dam­age. Look­ing back at the expe­ri­ence it doesn’t take long to learn the les­son that we already knew. Nev­er accept the chal­lenge of an arm wres­tle match post­ed on the out­side of a build­ing by a yoked Dutch mad­man who was clear­ly a for­mer pro­fes­sion­al and still train­ing daily.

A lit­tle more than mid­way at mid­day and we were back on the bikes and con­tin­u­ing to bust a move down val­ley. Dirt road for a bit and a cou­ple more lit­tle vil­lages found us at the cross roads of deci­sion time. To bonus sec­tion with a big climb or take the road more trav­eled down to our last lodge? Not sure when in the world I’d ever be back in these parts, I opt­ed for the up, which is sure­ly to be reward­ed with a killer down. I fig­ured I can always walk if need be, and I know I’ll still get to the same spot as the rest, even­tu­al­ly. Well that didn’t take long. We weren’t ten min­utes into the uphill when a hard left turn ramped straight up into out­er space. Time for a nice hike….with a bike.

Member of the Nepal tour walking their mountain bike over a rough path with bikes laying on the ground behind them

Way up and off the riv­er val­ley the high dessert land­scape quick­ly turns to immac­u­late pine for­est. We top out before too long and with the excep­tion of the lurk­ing 8,000 m peaks in the back­drop, the scene lends itself to the feel­ing that we could just as eas­i­ly be in the High Sier­ra or parts of Col­orado. We catch our breath and ready our­selves for what to me feels like the most famil­iar down­hill of the trip yet. Nar­row, wind­ing and rocky down off the top into tight trees and steep roll overs through swoop­ing big cor­ners with even big­ger vis­tas. Sec­tions feel like home in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia and make me almost miss my old famil­iar trails.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly for us all, it’s over before we know it, and we are rolling back through farm­lands towards the road. A final spin out of the legs for a cou­ple km and we’ve made our way to our lodge for the night in the vil­lage of Kalopani. Beer, cider and ami­gos reunit­ed as we watch the sun drop with dust­ed faces and mem­o­ries of yet anoth­er mag­i­cal moun­tain ramble.

Hopping off the mountain bike for a break at the Hotel & Restaurant, "Nirvana" - which is pretty much what this tour in Nepal equates to!
Hop­ping off the moun­tain bike for a break at the Hotel & Restau­rant, “Nir­vana” — which is pret­ty much what this tour in Nepal equates to!

Post ride fam­i­ly style din­ner of bot­tom­less dal bhat and oth­er local del­i­ca­cies again and we are offi­cial­ly worked…and prop­er­ly stuffed. Full of stoke from anoth­er fine day and Mandil sets up a ran­dom and rare treat in these parts; a big screen view­ing of RJ Rip­per on the only screen any of us have seen since we set out. Though by now every­one had wit­nessed RJ’s tal­ent­ed rid­ing, few had seen the recent­ly released film about him. Boost­ed to instant hero sta­tus and all eyes turned to the ever hum­ble and silent giant. RJ tried his best to shrug it all off, but when a smile is as big and infec­tious as his, it’s hard for him to play it total­ly cool despite his best intentions.

Day 5: Dropped

Bags packed and that bit­ter sweet feel­ing of an incred­i­ble time soon come to an end, we cir­cle up after break­fast and ral­ly on for our final ride of the trip. Day 5 of 5 in this region. Out through the pine for­est sin­gle track of Kalopani for an hour or so and soon we pop out onto the main track out of the val­ley. This day is all about the drop as we will most­ly be rid­ing the mul­ti use dirt down hill. And while at first it didn’t sound that appe­tiz­ing to ride a dirt road down­hill, I’m pret­ty sure that none of us had ever rid­den a dou­ble track this good! Entire­ly scenic all the while, we found rhythm in a blis­ter­ing pace due to the near­ly per­fect sus­tained down­hill pitch­es. From open moun­tain sec­tions, to cool forest­ed drops, to riv­er cross­ings and more. It felt like it would nev­er stop. And with enough momen­tum, the few uphills blew by like downs and before we knew it we had arrived in the vil­lage of Tatopani. Tatopani means hot water in Nepali because of it’s nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring hot springs. But there was no time for us to soak, for at the end of to-day’s ride we had a sol­id 4+hours of crazy bus back to Pokhara.

Anoth­er great lunch, fol­lowed by giant pieces of choco­late cake and cap­puc­ci­nos of all things. Espres­so machines are not exact­ly the norm in these parts, but holy smokes did these cof­fees hit the spot. Stiff legs, sore bod­ies, and every­one plas­tered with dust and dirt, we ral­lied our-selves to roll on and put this ride behind us. Bat­tered from doing the first half of the day’s bat­tle we looked like bunch of road war­riors. And with a cou­ple more hours of down into the val­ley ter-rain, the more water, mud and vehi­cles we encoun­tered. More occa­sion­al cars, trucks, motor bikes and busses were ful­ly on the gas up the dirt and rock hills and some­how man­aged to ap-pear most­ly on blind cor­ners. Talk about adding some seri­ous spice to the last leg of jour­ney! Spread out and most­ly ham­mer­ing down hill, the heat had offi­cial­ly set into the low­er ele­va­tions and every­one was cooked.

Two riders going down a mountain path in Nepal on the last day of the tour

One by one we round­ed the final bend in the track and crossed the rag­ing riv­er into the town of Beni. There we were met by the slow­ly gath­er­ing group, our gear bags and our trans­port. We ditched our bikes, grabbed our clean clothes and made our way to the waters edge for the oblig­a­tory glac­i­er melt riv­er dunk. Though I was chal­lenged to remem­ber cold­er water in my life to this point, there was no way I was not get­ting in. And as any rid­er knows, there’s absolute­ly noth­ing bet­ter than freez­ing cold water to rinse off the wild after an adven­ture of this mag­ni­tude. Cleaned up and feel­ing entire­ly refreshed and accom­plished, we packed our bikes and bags and pre­pared to set­tle into the ride back to Pokhara. On the return road I turned around and looked back out the win­dow of the jeep and up the val­ley. Off in the far dis­tance, I spied a famil­iar look­ing peak from a place I was still unsure I had ever vis­it­ed. What was on our first day a loom­ing mega­lith tow­er­ing down over us as we rode in it’s ear­ly morn­ing shad­ow, was now the high point on the far­thest hori­zon I could see. Nil­giri. The 99th high­est peak in the Himalaya. Ho hum.

About the Author/Photographer

Bryan Cole has over 20 years of lead­er­ship expe­ri­ence in the out­door and envi­ron­men­tal indus­try, and spent a good chunk of his career build­ing the Adven­ture Sports Mar­ket­ing pro­gram at CLIF Bar. Work­ing close­ly through­out his life at the inter­sec­tion of adven­ture sport, trav­el lifestyle, and envi­ron­men­tal advo­ca­cy, Bryan is a Free Agent for Change run­ning his own one man mar­ket­ing agency (B.COLECTIVE LLC) and holds advi­so­ry board roles for Wheels for Life (a Hans Rey non prof­it), Pro­tect Our Win­ters (found­ed by Jere­my Jones) and All Good, an organ­ic skin care com­pa­ny. Bryan is present­ly call­ing Hood Riv­er home after hit­ting the road for the past year with his wife Alli­son and adven­ture world school­ing their son Fish­er, age 7. Amidst the end-less out­door pur­suits and world learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties, Bryan con­tin­ues to seek and cap­tur­ing immer­sive expe­ri­en­tial, cul­tur­al, and advo­ca­cy ori­ent­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties along his path into the future.

Fol­low @bcolective to see what Bryan is up to now. Want to con­nect for poten­tial pro­fes­sion­al projects or col­lab­o­ra­tions to come? Drop him a line at

For more infor­ma­tion on our moun­tain bike tour through Nepal, check out our 12-Day Trea­sures of the Himalaya.