Only the hardiest riders attempt the treacherous, 100-mile motorcycle trip to reach the temple of Muktinath. Find out what happened when one man gave it a shot.
In the former Kingdom of Lo, a high-altitude desert straddling the Nepalese Himalayas and Tibetan plateau, is the monastery of Muktinath. Known for the 108 bull-faced water spouts in the monastery's outer courtyard, Muktinath is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus and Buddhists, who often travel great distances to visit the sacred space. To me—a devout traveler—Muktinath also appeared to have the makings of an adventure destination writ large.
It's now possible to access the temple by taking a half-hour flight from the lakeside city of Pokhara to the region's capital, Jomsom, which is only 15 miles from Muktinath, but the infinitely more interesting way to get there is a 100-mile overland journey along an ancient thoroughfare that connects Nepal to the Silk Road. The trail skirts the Kali Gandaki, a sheer-sided ravine that climbs 18,278 feet from its river bed to its tallest peaks and is the deepest gorge in the world. And it intersects the Annapurna Circuit, a popular trekking route with alpine scenery and indigenous Sherpa culture rivaling those of the Everest Base Camp Trail.
In recent years, the route has also attracted a small but determined number of extreme off-road motorcyclists who ride from Pokhara to Muktinath solo or as part of guided tours. Although they travel on mechanized beasts, the road is fraught with difficulties. “Only those who are willing to undergo physical discomfort and rigor can go to Muktinath,” wrote Indian journalist G. R. Narashumhan. With 12 years of experience riding motorbikes on terrible roads in places like East Timor, Papua New Guinea, and Cambodia, I was confident I could withstand anything the road to Muktinath threw in my way.
The first 50 miles were deceptively easy—a sealed road peppered with gravel and potholes that cuts a path along glacial rivers overshadowed by snow-capped peaks. But after the town of Beni, the road degenerated into a cauldron of such unseemly surfaces it appeared to have to been created for the sole purpose of puncturing tires.
Beds of jagged slate rose from the dirt at every conceivable angle, concealed, oftentimes, by river crossings, landslips, washouts, and deep pits of warm, grey mud. My motorcycle, a more-than-well-used 30-something-year-old Royal Enfield Bullet, emitted a chilling metallic shriek every time I dragged its entrails over tectonic junk. I snickered inwardly at the machine's metal-stamped logo—"Made like a Gun"—when the muffler fell off, and then swore profoundly to the heavens when the bone-breaking conditions caused the chain to grind down the teeth on the rear sprocket wheel that radially projected the bike. With no other option in sight, I reversed course, rolling downhill in neutral gear for three painstaking hours until I reached a village where a roadside mechanic used an angle grinder to carve new teeth for the sprocket.
After two days of constant battering I arrived at Jomsom. The sub-tropical vegetation of the midlands is supplanted with an arid moonscape that, with the exception of steel-cabled suspension bridges, appears untouched by time. Withered men in skullcaps sat in front of tea houses regurgitating memories. Enormous long-haired yaks chewed clumps of grass on the roadside. Women draped in saris walked through potato fields to collect water from caramel-colored rivers. And then there were the Sherpas, Nepal's illustrious high-altitude porters, trudging uphill under impossibly heavy loads.
Higher and higher the road climbed, a stairway to heaven littered with debris from hell. On occasion it dropped so sharply over the crest of a hill that I assumed I'd taken a wrong turn until I inched forward to see the road fold into a deliriously tight switchback only a few meters below.
At the Tibetan village of Kagbeni, I battled for legroom on cobblestone alleyways swamped by herds of pointy-horned mountain goats. Set atop a rocky outcrop honeycombed with caves, Kagbeni offers front-row seats to of one of the widest sections of the Kali Gandaki—a gargantuan canyon running nearly a mile from rim to rim. Yet it pales in comparison to the vista I was rewarded with later in the day when my odyssey terminated at Muktinath.
Two snow-capped peaks frame the monastery, which sits in a walled compound with a gold-plated steeple in its center. Eagles soared in cloudless skies. I sat on a flagstone to take in the dune-like environ, a sharp contrast to the white-capped mountains on the horizon, when an Indian pilgrim engaged me in conversation. He listened intently as I shared the trials and tribulations I faced on the road, before saying: “Well, if you made it up here, it must mean something.”
Hearts & Tears Motorcycle Club in Nepal offers 7-day Royal Enfield motorbike tours from Pokhara to Muktinath from September to May. Rates are $1,750 per rider. Royal Enfield rentals are $50 per day.