Motorcycling in Nepal isn't for the faint-hearted
Updated: May 19
If you're after a heart-pounding adventure, a motorcycle ride of a couple of thousand km right across Nepal, consider a trip to Rara Lake in its Western part. A challenging ride that is not for the faint-hearted.
Most people know that Nepal is home to Mount Everest. But maybe less known is that the world's highest peak lies in a country that barely spans a few hundred kilometers north to south at sea level. It's a testimony to its unique, scrunched-up topography. The awe of incredibly challenging terrain—an endless jumble of hills, rugged mountains, and steep gorges.
Navigating your motorcycle to Lake Rara—well-hidden in a remote corner of Western Nepal—takes you straight through this beautiful mess.
Nowhere in Nepal is motorcycling easy. Most of the roads across the tiny country are still in deplorable condition and require resilience and skills in mad traffic. Remote areas like Lake Rara continue to be challenging to get to. Only a few men and even fewer women have dared to journey to the lake on a motorcycle.
So be prepared; this motorcycle ride to Rara Lake isn't for the faint-hearted. But therein lies the challenge some of us simply seek.
The magic between Nepal's many flaws
The traffic is insane along the only westbound arterial road that takes you out of Kathmandu. This first stretch nearly boots you off your bike. You are stuck behind old trucks that blast jet-black soot straight into your face while reckless driving on twisty roads makes for heart-stopping moments. The never-ending pollution clouds your goggles and your initial enthusiasm in no time.
No doubt, the start is brutal. But the rewards come thick and fast once you get out of the congested valley. On the first 600 km westwards, Nepal shows off its magnificence as if on a silver platter:
You follow rushing rivers on roads skillfully winding along their banks, catch glimpses of the Himalayas, with their snow-capped peaks skimming through nearby forests, and cross through national parks, which cover part of the pancake-flat southern Terai.
Intimidating signboards warn you about the danger of some severe wildlife, including elephants and tigers. A startling moment if you're riding by yourself.
The easier winks
Without time pressure, I was cruising along through sunny days, stopping somewhere in nowhere and often enjoying random chats with locals along the way. Thanks to an extended stay in Nepal years ago, I still master the local language well enough to get by without a problem.
If you're not too fussy with food, you'll get along just fine. Nepal's national dish called "daal bhaat (rice with lentils and vegetables) is always cooking somewhere on a local stove. It's reasonably priced (including refills until you’ve had enough) and heavenly tasty. Even more so, if you can manage to eat with your hand, which many Nepalis still favor over cutlery.
And it provides rocket fuel to power through some exhausting riding days.
The unforgiving highway
Things change dramatically once you hit the final 300 kilometers, which follow the famous Karnali Highway.
Named after the Karnali River, it remains one of Nepal's most extreme and, in parts, hazardous roads. Once you leave the outskirts of the metropolitan area of Birendranagar, the road quickly becomes a scattered on-off-mess, with relics of former road surfaces sticking out here and there.
Karnali Highway is pretty much single-laned despite traffic that would require two. As a result, motorists often witness hair-raising reversing and overtaking maneuvers on dizzying slopes.
The tiniest mistake can end deadly.
Dust, dust, and ever more dust— it's perhaps the biggest challenge on this mountainous highway as it meanders up and down through countless tiny roadside wards. It relentlessly wraps around humans and nature like a second skin. Locals simply shrug their shoulders while patiently waiting for the tarmac to arrive at their doorstep one day.
The terrain becomes more rugged the closer you get to the lake. Where people have diligently sculpted a path into the rock face, buses, jeeps, cars, and a few motorcycles now inch forward at a snail's pace. The passage is tricky. It curls over endless mountain ridges and drops down into steep gorges before climbing back up again on ever-changing road surfaces.
I had little time to enjoy the surroundings. Though the going was slow, my gaze remained glued to the road in constant search of the best track across slippery sands, gravel, mud, or waters.
The grand arrival that wasn't
Final stop Rara. It dawned when I finally got off the bike after a strenuous day's ride. Cold, tired, and with terrible shoulder aches, I was looking forward to a hot shower and a comfy bed. I was demoralized to find out that the shore of the lake was still several kilometers away from where I had to park the bike.
I was loaded onto a ramshackle pony along with my motorcycle gear. "The very last stage," a skinny horseman promised while he smiled at me reassuringly as we trotted off into the darkness. When we finally reached the lakeside accommodation two hours later, it was pitch black. What welcomed me was a taste of long bygone times.
The iconic (and only) lakeside hotel turned out to be no more than a basic shed beneath peeling green paint with small openings masked by thick foil. After the first whiskey, my initial distaste meldet into acceptance in no time. I was too exhausted to resist, anyway.
And never had a razor-thin mattress and a cold shower felt more satisfying than in this scruffy lodge.
The jewel at last
Lake Rara is probably one of Nepal's remotest and most inaccessible destinations. But it plays a vital role in the life of the Hindus. Every devotee is said to have visited the lake at least once in their life. Nepal's largest lake, which swallowed part of the royal family many years ago in a tragic helicopter crash, lies tucked away and deeply buried in between the rugged mountains of Mugu.
At 3,000 meters, it's pleasantly cool up here after the suffocating heat of the lowlands. The scent of the trees encircling the lake like guards in a kingly place keeps wafting through the air. Silence hovers over the lake like a blissful veil, only occasionally interrupted by the steady beat of horse hooves cantering along its sandy shores. Lake visitors usually don't arrive by motorcycle but via the nearby local airport if weather permits.
The tranquility at Rara is heartwarming and a stark contrast to the business of the regions you need to cross to get to the lake. As if time stood stands still, which allows the onlooker to immerse in the lake's exquisite serenity.
There is nothing left to do but enjoy it moment by moment.
A quench of courage
Although the ride to Rara has fantastic sights, it is not Nepal's most scenic route. But in terms of the challenge, yes, it's probably way up the top of the list. For several hundred kilometers, it's an ordeal with severe climbs and drops. You keep disappearing in clouds of annoying dust while you ride close past dizzying spells that will have your heart hammering your throat several times a day.
And you may face the urge to turn around and give up. Ultimately, it takes a quench of courage to keep pushing until you reach the final biking point. Something you can't test carefully but is hugely liberating once you do.
But without gathering courage sometimes, we will miss out on extraordinary journeys that teach us what we're capable of once we let go of fears and self-limiting beliefs.
The truth is, it got hooked and will be heading that way any time soon.
If you're an adventurous woman and ready to take your riding skills to the next level, head over to our upcoming motorcycling trips for women in Nepal for more inspiration.
Or, if you are keen on riding to Rara by yourself or in a small group, please reach out to me. I am more than happy to help in whatever way I can to make this ride happen for you.
Some of us just want to ride away for days, weeks, months—or maybe forever.
Thank you for reading, and I hope to see you out there!