When you think about Nepal, you will probably imagine a remote country perched somewhere on the Himalayan mountains. When I first thought of Nepal as a possible destination for a trip I knew nothing of it, as usual. It was just a small country somewhere north of India, a country with the highest mountains and probably the cutest flag in the world.
I read something about it and if dreaming of seeing the Everest and all the Himalayan mountains was not enough, then name of its capital, Kathmandu, was conjuring up memories of an ancient and magical past. It was not along the Silk road – it was more like an important route for trade between India and China – but that was exactly the feeling it gave: an ancient and long forgotten place full of history and mystery that reminded of the travels of Marco Polo. So how much of a fit is Nepal to motorcycle travelers?
Nepal is a small country on top of the highest mountains of the planet, right in between China and India – ever heard of the Everest, the Annapurna or the Kala Patthar? – In fact it’s most popular among trekkers and mountaineers or people looking for a particular spiritual experience.
If you have a look at some online map you will notice there are very few cities and roads. One of these roads travels north from Kathmandu, the capital, to Tibet and China. The others connect to Pokhara, the second largest city in the country and popular base for trekkers, or to the cities in the much populated territory close to the border with India. While the upper half of the country seems to be incredibly empty, that strip of land is completely different from the rest of the country being flat, humid, hot and populated almost like India!
There are no highways: all roads have just one lane per direction.
Roads in the south, the Teraj region and between Kathmandu and Pokhara are paved and decent at most. Roads to most of the other destinations are in poor to terrible state, especially after the rain season. Read more below.
How’s Nepal for a motorbike trip
Nepal is a fascinating place, no doubt. It’s a poor country but its people are simply amazing: reserved, grumpy or closed at times, as typical for mountain people but generally decent, honest, sweet and willing to help. I cannot count the times I was lost or had to lift the bike after I fell and I immediately met young guys, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, buddhist monks who helped me even without knowing a word of English.
There are many places to see, even though not all of them are easy to reach. That said, it’s not hard to visit many of them planning a circular itinerary starting from Kathmandu or Pokhara. Places generally look very authentic: even when you go around the most touristy ones like Pokhara, Chitwan, Bakhtapur it looks like mass tourism hasn’t come to take their soul away yet.
Nepal is very cheap. Forget about supermarkets, cafes and nightlife, if not in Pokhara: outside the two-three main cities there’s not much more than small shops and modest places to eat or sleep, but everything is very authentic and very cheap. Unlike India or Myanmar I felt food was ok and less “dangerous”. Gas stations are quite easy to find and gasoline is very cheap. In cities it’s also quite easy to find ATMs where your credit card works.
The bad & the ugly
Roads: there are no highways and apart those running through the flat southern regions, roads are winding through the mountains and have one lane for each direction. Especially after the rain season, which is quite intense, they are often interrupted by landslides or slowed down by roadworks. Secondary roads are usually unpaved and are often in such a poor condition that it looks like they have been bombarded.
Apart from that, one of the worst nightmare is… nails! Roads are often covered with potholes and for some reason those function as collectors for nails: it’s not uncommon to get a puncture and you will soon have to learn the Nepalese word for mechanic: “mistrì”.
Traffic: while Pokhara is a quiet and tidy town, the same cannot be applied to Kathmandu. Its roads jammed with cars, buses and swarms of small motorcycles are legendary. Go around at rush hour and be ready to breathe gas and spend hours on the ring road. Outside Kathmandu the situation is not much better: having no trains Nepal relies on buses and small trucks for transportation of goods and people. Moreover drivers feel authorized to overtake whenever they want: just a blow of horn and you’ll see them jump right in front of you as if you were invisible or coming out of a bend right in your face. Dodging them is up to you! You don’t believe me? Check my video!
Cleanliness: it can’t be said Nepal is the tidiest place in the world. It’s a relatively poor country so be ready for garbage, whiffs of bad smell hitting your nose and modest family-run hostels and restaurants.
Where to go
I have to say, as for other trips I found the inspiration for this one checking organized motorbike tours. Most of them have one clear destination: Tibet. An association I used to travel with was organizing motorcycle tours from Kathmandu to Lhasa. I remember I had a look at pictures of the capital of Tibet: it simply took my breath away. I thought that I absolutely had to go there.
Unfortunately, there was just one tiny little problem: China. You know, Tibet is currently part of China and you won’t find hard to believe that the Chinese government doesn’t want people to freely roam around the region. So the story is: you need a special permit to enter Tibet. This permit is issued only to authorized, guided tours. Indipendent traveling is not permitted. Only certain areas can be visited, no journalists and so on.
So if you decide that this is your destination, be ready to join an organized tour with a Chinese guide and be brought to the places they want you to visit. That wasn’t my thing, so I turned myself onto something different.
The Everest lies on the border between Nepal and China. Forget about it. It’s unreachable with a motorcycle: it’s all poor, unpaved mountain roads. And “poor” Nepalese mountain roads means very bad, so no way you can cover a medium to long distance that way.
Pokhara and Kathmandu are equally popular places to visit and you can quite easily rent a motorcycle there. West of Kathmandu lies the Valley of Kathmandu, a green area where it’s quite nice to drive that hosts some nice temples. The old capital, Bakhtapur, lies in the middle of it. If you want to try spotting the Everest you can climb the road going up to Nagarkot hill but you’ll need a certain amount of luck to be able to spot the mountain as it’s often surrounded by clouds.
The Annapurna park is probably the most popular place for hikers. Starting from Pokhara you can try to venture into the region, called Mustang, with a motorcycle. Be aware that the road is terrible, especially after the rain season and landslides blocking the road are frequent. The inner part of it, the upper Mustang, is a considered a sacred place and those who want to visit it must buy a permit that costs hundreds of dollars. Plus be ready for a really punishing dirt road.
The flat south of the country is mostly popular for two places: Chitwan and Lumbini. Lumbini is the birthplace of Buddha. Apart some modest ruins of the stone where Siddharta was born, Lumbini is a lovely, huge and peaceful area filled with buddhist temples built by several countries. Chitwan instead, is the largest national park where you can spot wild animals like rhinos, deer, bears, crocodiles and hopefully, tigers. Well, tigers are very, very difficult to spot, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t see any. If you want to increase your chances you might want to visit the Bardiya park, similar to Chitwan but much less touristy and crowded where tigers can still be seen at times.
Check the google map of my trip here.
Renting a motorbike
In Nepal, as well as in India and other close countries it’s quite popular to rent Royal Enfields. Royal Enfield is a formerly British brand acquired by Indians which keeps on producing motorcycles exactly as they were in the 50s. These vintage models are now quite popular among foreign travelers rent and you will often meet people on guided tours going around on Royal Enfields. Pros: it’s cheap, very resistant and easy to repair (by hearsay). Cons: it feels like you are driving a giant iron and your butt will probably need to be replaced at the end of your trip.
I can tell you about my experience with a local rental shop. I read on some blogs one of the most popular in Kathmandu is “Bikemandu”, so I arranged the rental of an offroad model: considering I wasn’t high on renting a Royal Enfield Classic, I looked for a conventional offroad or enduro. You won’t find much more than Hondas CRF250 or Royal Enfield Himalayans. The first one is too light and not the best option for long trips, so I went for the latter.
I was expecting a rental shop (as they have in Pokhara) but this Bikemandu is a garage in the outskirts of the city that provides no bike delivery.
They had a bunch of decent-looking classic Royal Enfield models and just one Himalayan.
I have to say it was a bit banged up and not that cheap imo. The rental I found in Pokhara was slightly more expensive, but had a few more models and was right in town. All in all, my experience with rental was positive.
I have to admit Nepal has been the most brutal biking experience so far. Its rugged land and driving conditions are will test you endurance and driving skills, plus you won’t find many facilities to back you up if you are in need and alone. That said, people are usually nice and helpful and I’m very proud to have explored this corner of the world on a motorbike. How many people can say that? Whenever you explore a land and get to the heart of it with your own forces you bring home some unique memories.
Driving experience – Challenging. Poor roads and driving habits make it a tought one, no doubt.
Organizing it – Fairly easy. Excluding Tibet, arranging a moto tour around Nepal is quite headache-free.
Cultural experience – Very Good. Its temples, cities, mountains, parks will add a special meaning to your trip.
Landscapes – Nice. While most roads have little to offer in terms of views, all the mentioned destinations are absolutely nice to see.
Rentals: Fair. At the time being, there wasn’t too much of a choice in terms of rental shops and bike models to choose.
Value for money: Very Good. Excluding access to mountains areas, Nepal is nicely cheap.