THE 30-SOME ATHLETES were all eccentrics in their own right. They came from breweries in the UK, adventure races in Canada, dairy farms in Wales, and cycling schools in East Germany. This ragtag group of internationals were up against the best of the home squad, a national champion, a kid off the streets, and a 16-year-old coca-cola-sipping ladies’ man.
Once the race was over, I got to find out why Aussie Paul Bolla was in Nepal, and why a guy who “doesn’t particularly like bikes” risked his well-being and the contents of his bank account to ride one — for the second time. Turns out, he’s in love with the country, its people, and his extended family — the orphans of Social Development Center and Mitrata Nepal, and a little spunky lady named Nanda.
Because it takes considerably longer to walk one of the world’s toughest races than to ride it on a bicycle, my work here also presents a wandering gaze on Nepal and the Nepalis — a country and people who’ll roast your expectations and serve up milk tea and dal bhat as remedy for anything. But it’s delicious and you’ll love it, and them, and everything else as well.
[Editor's note: This article is one of Matador's 2012 Projects. Matador Projects provide individual or select teams of writers, photographers, athletes, artists, musicians, and filmmakers with financial assistance and an exceptional publishing platform for realizing original, documentary-based work.]
Day 1: 7am Kathmandu time
Feeling uprooted and delightfully strange - the early morning light ushers in day 1 in Kathmandu, Nepal
With naught but a passion for two wheels and lycra, the participants of Yak Attack 2012 congregate and eat "veg noodle soup" while remarking at just how tight and bright this scene is.
Rice patty dodgeball
Aboard a bus and trailing the riders by miles and hours, I was afforded plenty of time to watch some local boys wade through rice patties in an impromptu game of dodgeball.
Second stage finish line
Finish line in Dhading Besi. The end of the 56km second stage marks the vertical low point for the course. At just 1000 feet above sea level, the way onward is also the way up.
4000 Rupees and a 4am departure and I've got a motorcycle! It's day 5 and I'm up early and keen. Today we climb from the lowlands into the Annapurna foothills. With added time and mobility, the motorbike will afford footage representative of the geography of the first 3 days.... But of course that doesn't pan out. Snow Monkey, Chief Race Coordinator / Trail Marker, and aptly named "mountain man" has a bike as well - and it breaks down, so he hijacks mine with a phone call and I start my long walk.
An unidentified rider crosses a bridge on the way to Taal. The last rideable section before a 10km bike-carry, mule-dodging, 800m ascent.
Youth watching riders below
Peering over the cliff face, a young boy watches as the first riders begin winding their way into view.
The Annapurna Circuit is a world famous trekking route and a curious place to carry around a bicycle.
The close of the first day trekking, I trailed the last of the athletes into town. At race headquarters, the first participant to bow out cites heart palpitations and nausea.
Porkesh, my Nepali muscle / porter, catches his breath over a Snickers bar while Bessie the dog braces against the wind. We sat here after 12 hours and 35km on the trail (Bessie only 20km and a lot less Snickers bar) and waited for 2 hours for a final rider and my best chance for a money shot. Not till we stumbled into camp did we learn that he turned around before sun-up - Yak Attack is down its second rider.
Climb the ridge
Mustering the energy to climb a nearby ridgeline, 'rest day' is spent alongside Paul. Previous experience and a keen memory leads us to a monastery, perched atop the mountains surrounding Manang. Outside, we are greeted by Lama Dosha and his daughter, who informs us that the Lama has been up here for 45 years and is in his 95th year. For a fine Swiss chocolate bar we are blessed and given a colourful string. Paul was really excited about the chocolate and hopes sincerely that the Lama knows he should eat it.
Om Mani Padmi Om
The Lama's view is similar to that of the camera's lens in this photo. A truly epic vista and fitting place to sit and breathe and sit and breathe. Om Mani Padmi Om.
Aside from the price gouging, the hospitality found in most guesthouses along the trekking route is fantastic. When you know that every brick, every tea bag, every jar of jam is brought in on the back of a man or a mule, expectations remain low and the results do please.
Boys will be boys
"Picture, Picture." "Picture, Show!" "Picture, Picture." "Picture, Show!" The boys and I had quite a photo shoot.
The 28-degree heat of the Kathmandu valley is only a five-day pedal away, but day 7 sees us into negative temperatures for the first time. The longjohns go on and don't come off.
Into thin air
A rider crests the bend on the path from Manang to Thorung Phedi. The mountains get bigger, the air gets thinner, and the going gets tougher.
View through a prayer.
Atop Thorong La: 5,416m, -30 C. An unidentified rider drops everything and mumbles for black coffee at the teahouse atop the world. A well-insulated man demands a price through a layering of balaclavas - at this altitude and temperature, the price is neither haggled nor considered. I roll on the ground trying to warm myself. Failing to do so, I begin a jog over the other side of the mountain - three days of altitude sickness and extreme dehydration has me feeling very strange. 500 yards down the trail, I fall and shit my pants. I seek shelter at a boulder 100 yards off the trail, but knee-deep snow makes the crossing laborious. Once there, I strip down and, facing a naked snow shower, remove my glove to reveal frostbite.
Upper Mustang Valley
Sweet oxygen, sweet shower, sweet relief. And then I'm on a bus with the sherpas and bounced along a road forever. Eventually we came to the end of the race. Tatopani, a hot spring, and good-time haven. Apologies for a lack of finish line drama: by our arrival, the gang was liquored and thawing in the springs below. Everything in the world demanded I grab a couple of frosty beers and hustle down to thaw out the digits and soak away the hurt. Paul is a champ and the most unsuspecting athlete in the show. Finishing under 30 hours, he bests his previous time by nearly 7 hours, thus securing his finances whilst successfully raising $12,500AUS for his efforts. But in typical fashion, he decides to give away half his cash.
The family shown here is that of the Social Development Center just outside of Thamel in Kathmandu. This is Paul's extended family, and they're some of the happiest, most loving people I encountered in the country.
Boys flash peace signs in varying degrees. Shot outside the future school of the kids at Mitrata - the orphanage will receive a year's rent and support from Paul's gritty effort in the Yak Attack.