A Spiritual Ride to Muktinath by Ankur Baj 

Spiti or Ladakh? That is the dilemma most bikers face when the touring season begins. Especially when they are like me, salaried professionals with a limited number of holidays. However, with familiar photographs and videos of Ladakh and Spiti doing rounds on social media, I had already started looking elsewhere. And that is when I came to know about Upper Mustang. Regarded by many as the mother of off-roading in the entire Himalayan region, this ride appeared to be a daunting task. I applied for leaves three months in advance and started prepping my Suzuki Gixxer SF for the same. All in all, I was able to muster around 11 days for touring with one spare day, just in case.

However, there was an unpleasant twist in the tale. With just one week to go for the ride, I came to know about the rules for foreigners in Upper Mustang. Requirements? Minimum two riders, a Nepalese guide and 500 US Dollars for a 10-day permit! Being a solo rider, it was, but something had to be done for the desire to explore a new country. So, I still went ahead with a plan to explore the Mustang region. I redrew my plans. The original plan was centred around Muktinath. It still turned out to be by far the most epic tour I have ever undertaken, promising freedom and an intense sense of adventure. Not only has it marked a personal milestone of a transnational ride, but also an opportunity of riding up to the terrain of Muktinath which none of my fellow riders have explored so far.

On a beautiful Thursday morning, I started from Gurgaon leaving the comforts of the metropolis, heading out towards an unknown terrain. The road expansion around Rudrapur did present some challenges, but nothing too worrisome. After riding for around 380 KMs, I reached the Banbasa border. While I kept riding, I wasn’t sure if I had already crossed the border. There were a lot of people on foot walking in both directions. I realised that for the locals on either side, it is a daily affair.

I finally crossed a small check post, and that was it. I was in Nepal. The only requirement was to get a customs clearance document for my motorcycle called – Bhansar. Before I headed out to the customs office, I got currency exchange done in a freestanding one-floor building nearby. I exchanged INR 10,000 for 16,000 Nepalese rupees (NPR). No receipt was provided. I walked towards the customs department with a plan to get Bhansar for 12 days. It is advisable to obtain permits for additional days as the penalties are enormous. And it hardly costs around NPR 80 per day. As I reached the counter, they asked for my details and an original RC. I replied in affirmative and started looking for the RC in my tank bag and boom – It wasn’t there. I couldn’t believe that I was not carrying the original RC. I just had a photocopy and that too in black and white. As I was not riding to Upper Mustang, I didn’t seriously consider the final touring checks. Big mistake on my part.

I kept arguing, and they kept denying Bhansar politely. I was losing the argument, and as time passed, my body language deteriorated, but I kept showing other documents such as passport and Aadhar. Finally, they said that if I could produce a better photocopy version, they might just reconsider the application. I came back 5 KMs, riding back into India and found a small printing shop. The best version came out on a premium photocopy paper on the 7th attempt, and I went to Nepal again travelling between two countries in a matter of minutes, like a boss. I submitted the ‘premium’ copy of the RC, and the customs official looked at me. My heart was in my mouth. He smiled and said this is perfect. Phew! I thanked the official, paid the fee, collected Bhansar and also one more document called Indian Tourist Vehicle Checking Card for 50 rupees. I was exhausted and hence, decided to stay at a hotel in Mahendranagar. And this was just day 1. At the hotel, I met a senior Indian biker. He was almost twice my age and was also riding solo. We had similar destinations with a slightly different route map. He said the real scenery is in Zanskar and he is riding to mustang only for adventure. After an exchange of biker thoughts between the two of us, I decided to call it a day and I must add, a very exhausting day.

Next day, however, was much better. No signs of Himalayas yet. Most of the roads and landscape is flat and tranquil compared to what bikers desire — continuous curves and picturesque mountainous terrain. However, I was still able to cherish riding with traffic not being an issue, beautiful forest areas on either side of roads, lakes such as Ghodaghodi Lake, and smooth trails, compared to what I experienced on the previous day. Petrol pumps were also never an issue in plains. I stopped in Lamahi due to a downpour in the evening only to resume my ride early morning next day.

From Lamahi, I headed out west towards Butwal with an aimed to reach Pokhara before 4 pm. It was imperative to arrive on time to get permits for Mustang from the Pokhara Tourist Service Center. I made it to Pokhara by 2 pm. It is a beautiful city with sights of towering peaks covered in snow, lakes, with no honking zones and speed limit of 20 Kmph in and around an area known as Damside. I went straight to the Damside area, where the centre is located. The centre was closed. It was a Saturday, and no government official was operational that day. Luck hadn’t been on my side so far. I got a hotel in the vicinity and spent the rest of my day exploring the lakeside and cafes alongside Pokhara Lake. I realised Pokhara is a tourist city, with hardly any tourists.

On the 4th day of my ride, I was early at the Pokhara Tourist Service Center just like a few other trekkers. The service centre timings are 10 am to 4pm. I filled up two forms – one was the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACA) entry permit form. I opted the option of Jomsom – Muktinath Trek for five days. The cost along with VAT was NPR 226. And the other is a registration form for Trekker’s Information Management System (TIMS). This is a one-time entry permit and has a fee of NPR 600. A photographer is stationed at the centre and provides 4 passport size photographs for the form with no additional charges.

Everything was set, and I left Pokhara. The first stop was in Kushma. I had seen some videos and photos of bikers riding their motorcycles on a suspension bridge. As there is hardly any space to manoeuvre on the bridge, only one bike is allowed at a time from either side. These bridges are put up for the convenience of locals, and hence, one needs to be patient before getting onto the bridge. Oh man! what an experience it was. Technically it wasn’t tough. However, the views from the bridge were mind-numbing. Especially for a guy like me who has a phobia of riding on the bridges in the Himalayas.

Next stop was Beni. Beni is a small town situated at the banks of Kaligandaki river. The roads from Pokhara till Beni are mostly paved, with few diversions. I stopped there for a short break in a small sweet shop run by an Indian. Having Jalebi and samosas made me feel at home. Afterwards, I resumed my ride. The roads conditions quickly changed. The road was all muddy and had slippery slush often concealed and difficult to spot. There was hardly any paved area left, and I was riding on muddy tracks lefts over by JCBs. Unlike my past rides, where JCBs are generally pressed into action for clearing landslides, here they were working tirelessly to put a proper tarred road. As the road work continued, the traffic was stopped thrice. The progress was now getting tracked in meters literally. I met a group of motocross riders at one such stop. Their tour leader remarked, “It’s only now, Welcome to Nepal”.

Somehow, I made it to Tato Pani, which means hot springs, before it was dark. After finding a lodge to stay, I went to the Hot springs. The dip in hot springs indeed helped my sore muscles to heal. I felt better. As I relaxed, I wondered how tough the remainder of the journey would be as I was yet to enter Mustang Valley. I went back to my lodge and cleaned my motorcycles’ chain and lubed it. Diligently checked key functionalities, with a focus to see if there were any leakages. All these measures were a minor morale booster, but on the inside, I knew I had grossly undermined the ruggedness of the terrain.

Day 5 began quite early in the morning. I loaded my claw and tank bag on the bike, and I left my guest house. I crossed Ghasa which is the entry point of the Mustang valley. As I kept moving steadily, the pine forest cover got thinner and cold mountain desert became more prominent. The view was reminiscent of my past visit to Spiti valley. I reached Marpha, which is known as Apple capital of Nepal, is a small village in Mustang. This is where I experienced the unique Himalayan culture. Marpha provided me with insights into the Thakali culture and lifestyle. I loved riding slowly through the village’s narrow cobblestone alleyways which are retained from medieval Buddhist architecture. Also, there is a beautiful monastery in Marpha which is undoubtedly worth visiting. I had a bowl of spicy chow-chow which draws similarities with Maggi.

I left Marpha only to be greeted by vast Kali Gandaki riverbed. Gixxer SF’s low ground clearance became an issue here with the engine belly taking hits as I progressed.  There were endless trails in the riverbed, and I was unsure of which path to take. Fortunately, a wise man had put a small board in the middle of the river bed which indicated to take left direction for motorbikes. Wow!

After a lot of battering, I reached Jomson. Jomson is a relatively bigger town and also has a small airport. I took a breather before continuing the journey again. I crossed old Tibetan village of Kagbeni, but I skipped exploring the village as my priority now, was reaching Muktinath. It was only now that I started to gain some severe altitude, but Gixxer SF’s air-cooled, the carbureted engine performed well in the circumstances.
What’s more – the last 10 KMs to the temple was a proper tarred road. I couldn’t believe that the best route in Nepal was up there. I visited the temple and enjoyed the picturesque terrain. After capturing the beauty of Muktinath, I came back to Kagbeni where my day’s odyssey came to an end. I took a homestay and updated my friends on the internet. Surprisingly, WiFi in these villages is readily available which reminds me of a particular scene from Doctor Strange where he was provided with the WiFi password which he thought was his Mantra. Anyway, I still had some time to explore Kagbeni village, so I visited the monastery and then kept riding through the narrow cobblestone alleyways. It was tougher to ride here than Marpha due to the number of goats running around. I curtailed riding further as I came across a board which read “Stop – You are now entering the restricted area of Upper Mustang” I got down from the bike and walked towards the edge of the path. The view was one of the most magnificent I have witnessed in a long, long time. It revitalized my wandering spirit; I felt all the trials and tribulations I faced during the journey were absolutely worth it. As I, was enjoying the vistas, I heard a familiar voice – “I told you”. I turned around to see the aged Indian Biker who I met in Mahendranagar. He continued “the real sceneries are only in Zanskar”. And we both started laughing together.

This was one of the most challenging rides I have ever taken up, but I would say that it was one of the best ones as well. The vistas, the scenery, the journey, the destination(s) all proved to be worthwhile, and it also healed my broken heart (caused by not being able to go to upper mustang). But the most significant impact was on my soul which hungers for exploring new places, all on two wheels. I feel that a rider grows with every ride and this one, was undoubtedly a massive leap for me.