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Those Views from Himalayan Peaks Can Only Be Had for a Steep Price

October 14, 1990|GRACE LICHTENSTEIN | Lichtenstein, a former New York Times reporter, writes frequently about adventure travel

NAGARKOT, Nepal — So you think you're a good cyclist? Try Nepal. I did, and I can assure you that riding in that Himalayan kingdom is mountain biking with a capital "m."

My adventures occurred almost by accident. Attending a dinner one night in Katmandu several months ago, I mentioned that I was an enthusiastic bike rider back in the United States.

"A group of us are going mountain biking tomorrow," a table companion said. "Would you like to come?" He belonged to a club called the Gear Wallahs, made up of Westerners who live and work in Katmandu, he explained. Each Sunday morning they tackled a new route.

The opportunity was too good to pass up. At 8 the next morning, dressed in tights, shorts, a sweat shirt and his extra helmet, I found myself bouncing on a borrowed fat-tire bike over the dirt streets of Patan, the town adjoining Katmandu, following my new friend.

Shortly after I left Nepal last spring, Patan turned out to be one of the centers of revolutionary activity when protesters swarmed through the streets demanding more democracy. The riots brought down the government of Nepal and forced King Birendra, once an absolute monarch, to agree to reforms incorporating multiple political parties and a constitution.

According to a Nepal specialist with the U.S. State Department, the political turmoil that rocked Katmandu and Patan was not aimed in any way at visiting Americans. Demonstrations ended in late spring. The State Department says the country is quiet right now, although it suggests that tourists act with "caution." Americans are urged to be aware that there is an unsettled political situation, and to register with the U.S. Embassy upon arrival in Nepal.

I'm not sure Katmandu will ever be perfectly safe for timid Western mountain bikers. My first half-hour of cycling was the hairiest. The streets of every Nepalese city teem with people, cars, bicycles, trucks, dogs and an occasional cow. Weaving through such chaos requires quick reflexes, steely nerves and a working bicycle bell.

I had the latter, which made for a good start. By the time we came to the meeting place on Ring Road, which encircles greater Katmandu and Patan, the nerves and the reflexes were making progress.

About 20 Gear Wallahs showed up, included an American dentist and his wife, a teacher, a professor of linguistics, a Peace Corps volunteer and several members of the Agency for International Development. We rode single-file east of town, occasionally dismounting in a hurry as huge trucks or buses roared past.

Miraculously, the traffic thinned within half an hour. One right turn onto a good, hard dirt road and we were climbing rapidly into rural countryside, with a forest on one side and picturesque valley views on the other. We followed irrigation ditches along rice paddies, passing thatch-roof houses in tiny villages.

The foothills of the Himalayas, rising out of the morning mist, began to materialize in the distance like a scrim on a theater stage. I did not have a whole lot of time to gaze at them, since I had to pay close attention to the boulders, bricks and other paving materials on the road. My companions were very tolerant when I was forced to walk my bike up some extra steep inclines.

We meandered over paths as rough as any I have ridden in either the Rockies or the Green Mountains of Vermont. Luckily, several Gear Wallahs spoke fluent Nepali, since we kept on getting lost or running out of road. Occasionally, we had to portage our bikes across streams or over rock piles.

It was exhausting . . . and exhilarating. Even though we were only about 10 miles outside the Nepalese capital, I felt as though I was seeing a patch of rural Asia from an entirely new perspective.

After three hours of rambling, bumping, speeding and grinding, we were suddenly back at a sure sign of civilization: a town with a large "Vicks Vapo-rub" billboard painted on the side of a building. Within a half-hour, we were back in the bustling streets of Patan.

My appetite thus whetted, I was delighted the next morning to meet Frances Higgins, an Atlanta native who runs Himalayan Mountain Bikes, a 2-year-old company with an office in Katmandu's Thamel area. A slender young woman who is married to another American dentist, Frances was the first to offer commercial bike tours out of Katmandu.

"Mountain bikes are perfect for this terrain," she said, gesturing toward Ganesh Himal, the snow-capped range that towers in the distance over the Katmandu Valley.

I promptly signed up for her two-day excursion to Nagarkot, a village about 20 miles from the capital, where we would spend a night at a charming country inn. According to guidebooks, the views of the Himalayan high peaks from Nagarkot are to die for. What they don't say is that the same is almost true about getting there by mountain bike.

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