The 12-seater prop plane lands on a postage stamp of tarmac in Nepal's Mustang Valley. I pry myself out of the sardine-can cabin to take in the scenery around me.
The Mustang Valley is the deepest valley in the world. On one side, it's flanked by Annapurna, and on the other by Dhaulagiri. Once its own kingdom, parts of Mustang weren't opened to climbers, trekkers and travelers until 1992. It's pristine, isolated and starkly beautiful, the landscape dominated by shimmering, glacier-capped peaks. But it's the powerful, rambling and wide Kali Gandaki River that sets the bass line for the Mustang's geography, and for this trip, Yeti's First International Tribe Gathering.
Like many people who visit this valley, I am here to mountain bike. Riders–24 of us–from Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the US, Indonesia and Canada have made the trek from around the world to celebrate Yeti Bicycles' 30th Anniversary in the home of its mythical mascot.
"Yeti Bicycles has a special connection with Nepal," says company president Chris Conroy, who is along for the ride.
"You're in for the ride of your lives," promises Euan Wilson, owner of H&I Adventures, Nepal mountain biking specialists and Yeti brand partner, which has developed the routes, managed logistics and assembled a team of local guides.
As we start to pedal along the Kali Gandaki with mouths agape, Wilson is giddy with excitement–as giddy as a sober Scotsman gets. The first suspension bridge spans the broad river basin to our left, and Wilson turns sharply and pedals across. Hundreds of prayer scarfs stream from the wire handrail, snapping in a stiff wind hundreds of feet above the river. I make the mistake of looking down as I cross and a gust shoves me precariously close to the loosely laced gunwales. I nearly pee myself, praying not to die, and I spin my pedals as fast as I can with my eyes glues to solid ground on the other side. I arrive breathless–it's one of the coolest experiences I've had on a bike. "You have no idea," Wilson laughs at me. "Just wait."
"This is a place I've been dreaming of my whole life," says Jared Connell, who works for Fox Suspension. "It never even occurred to me that I could bike here until Yeti announced this trip. I've never done an organized tour, but it makes this stunning, beautiful, friendly place accessible."
There are no marked mountain bike routes, and the Mustang Valley has no purpose-built singletrack. But the trails are world class. At the end of every day we clink glasses toasting to yet another top-10 ride.
One day we coast from Jharkot, at 11,546 feet, onto what looks like a dead-end footpath. Rolling around a corner, we find ourselves on high-speed singletrack that oscillates with scrubby vegetation. We climb steeply, sucking as much oxygen as we can from the thin air, while trying not to get a mouthful of yak shit-infused mud puddles. Cresting the summit, we skirt the flanks of the precipitous hills in front of us on a velvety brown ribbon. It's high fives all around when we regroup at a shrine marking the top of 13,451-foot Lubra Pass. Australian 'Darwin Dave' sums up the collective sentiment with one sentence: "There can't be anything better than that on earth."
"Nepal is open," says Wilson. "And Nepal is absolutely awesome."
"The mountain biking here is world class," agrees Conroy. At the top of Luber Pass, he confirms that the day's ride ranks among his favorites. And we haven't even started the descent. We roll down a mountain of loose, technical switchbacks that cascade back to the Kali Gandaki. We rocket across more suspension bridges, through more switchbacks, then whoop through a floodplain garden of river-polished babyheads, a high-speed line that rattles on for exhilarating miles. At the end, Conroy can't talk his smile is so big.
I had no idea that the riding would be this good. Over frosty post-ride mugs of Everest at our teahouse in the white-walled village of Marfa, we're high from the day.
"Can you believe those switchbacks?" asks Aussie Trevor Page. "That riverbed was the best riding I've ever done," exclaims another rider. Everyone in the room has had a top-five or top-ten ride of his or her life here, regardless of where they are from or how much they ride.
In the news, the only thing we're hearing about Nepal is the shambles it was left in post April 2015 earthquake. What we should be hearing about is how the scenery, the culture and the recreational opportunities in Nepal are as great as ever. So are the people. Even more than the epic singletrack, the Nepalis we've met, especially our guides, have made an impression as deep as the Kali Gandaki.
"They're awesome, these kids," says rider 'Double D' of our local staff. "Their level of love for this country is amazing, and they love to ride bikes, and they're fucking good at it."
H&I has assembled a Nepali staff that includes Mandil Pradhan, a lead guide so well-connected that he could could probably produce a unicorn if one was requested, RJ, the 2014 Nepali Downhill National Champion, and a handful of other insanely personable young men who are also talented riders, mechanics and guides.
It's these guys, in conjunction with operators like H&I, and brands like Yeti, who are growing cycling culture in Nepal. They're working to bring a steady stream of visitors here on regularly scheduled tours, as well as on special trips like this Tribe Gathering. With other riding friends, they're organizing events and races like the high altitude Yak Attack and the Nepal Mountain Bike Festival. And they're doing humanitarian work. Pradhan raised more than $60,000 to rebuild 20 homes near Kathmandu that were leveled by the earthquake last April. Members of the Nepal National Mountain Bike Team have started a project called Nepal Cyclists Ride to Rescue, and beginning this month they'll build seven schools in seven weeks in some of the areas most affected by the quake.
For the Nepalese, life has become significantly harder since the earthquake. Two months ago, India closed the main trade routes to landlocked Nepal, which has prevented the mountain villages hit hardest by the earthquake from getting building materials, cooking fuel and medicine. Traffic trickles through Kathmandu's streets, which are usually gridlocked with bedazzled buses, whining mopeds and the occasional cow grazing in the median. Families wait in line for seven hours at a time to fill their cooking fuel tanks, often returning home empty-handed.
Yeti's Tribe Gathering is helping the country, and more specifically the locals who we interact with: tea house owners, drivers, guides, waiters, shop owners, barbers, the people who own the laundromat, the guys who carry cases of Everest through the cobbled streets to our tea houses and the bike shop owner who rents one Tribe member a drivetrain for the week.
"The more people who come, the better for our economy," says Pradhan. "The Nepalese are very hospitable and friendly people. We're resilient, and we are content. People haven't been able to buy fuel for two months, but there are no riots in the street. And there is absolutely no sort of ill view toward people who visit."
To the contrary. As we set off for our last day of riding, we're a spectacle. Villagers photograph the visiting troupe of fat-tire clowns on their smartphones as we roll past. Kids chase after us shouting “Namaste!” Later, a yak driver chuckles as he shoos his herd through the narrow alley lined on both sides with bikers stripping jackets as the sun climbs past the mountaintops to warm the valley below.
This trip has opened all of our eyes to the beauty that is Nepal and her people. Watching life and recovery here has made all of us rethink our personal priorities and reconsider before complaining–about anything. It's also been a great reminder, that sometimes, if you really want to help, the best thing you can do is show up.