Learning to Ride Bikes at the Top of the World

Lukla, Nepal, is home to the world’s highest bicycle park where locals and visitors can learn to ride.

A quick hop over a crumbling stone wall leads to the world’s highest bicycle park. It is located in Lukla, Nepal, a small town in the country’s northeast and the starting point of the infamous trek to Everest Base Camp.

This was the trek I had just finished when I stumbled across the field full of people on bikes. The park is at a cliff edge, just past the local monastery. During prayers you can hear monks chanting.

Much more pronounced is the sound of laughter. There is also the sound of rusty chains grinding in objection and seat springs squeaking as bicycles bound over the pockmarked ground and occasional mogul. Boys and men of all ages yell out in Nepali, taunting and teasing, as someone hits a turn too fast and skids into the dust.

The park is a big dirt field with pebbles and stones scattered loosely throughout. When the wind picks up, dust billows across the expanse like tumbleweeds. It is also the only place in the Khumbu region where people can ride bikes. Motorized vehicles and bicycles are not allowed in the area. Transportation is strictly limited to human foot power as well as a steady stream of donkeys, horses, and cows all carrying goods to villages along the trekking path.

This space was converted to a park from a potato field two years ago by Fulmaya Tamang and two other land owners who realized they could help the community and make more profit through a bit of entrepreneurship.

“We mostly run [the park] for the children who come here, since we hope it will be easier for them to learn cycling further, like riding motorbikes and other things,” said Tamang, through a translator. “I enjoy watching all the children have fun. I know everyone who comes here.”

The bicycles are shipped by plane to Lukla from Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, about 87 miles (140 kilometers) away. There are currently just over three dozen bicycles lined up on display at the far side of the field. Two kinds of bicycles are available, simple fixed-gear bikes and multi-geared mountain bikes, each of which cost about six to seven thousand rupees. The bicycles are all Indian-made, which, according to the riders on hand, are much more reliable than Nepali-made bikes.

“My daughter used to live in Kathmandu and she would send the cycles here,” said Tamang. “Now we have connections with local shops and markets, but we still need to buy the bikes. It’s not free.”

User costs at the park vary. Fixed-gear bicycles can be loaned out for 30 minutes or an hour, for 50 and 100 rupees respectively. The mountain bikes cost twice as much. Riders can also spend their money and time at a tin shack at the corner of the park. A simple sign is emblazoned with “Welcome to Tea Shop” and a gaggle of boys stand outside playing Nepalese shuffleboard.

It was tourists that first sparked the interest in cycling in the Khumbu region, said Angbhurba Sherpa, a chairman for the Lukla branch of the Himalayan Club.

“Some tourist groups would bring their bicycles here and the children and the people would get very excited and would run behind the cycles,” Sherpa said. “In those days, the cycles were too expensive, but now they’re cheaper in this region because they can come by airplane.”

One of the riders on this Thursday afternoon is Lukla resident Gyanendra Rai, 28. He sees me standing with happy bewilderment at the scene and rides over to me, offering a friendly “namaste” and a ride on his handlebars. Rai said he frequently visits the cycle park when he isn’t serving as a porter for one of many base camp treks.

“After I finish a trek, I enjoy cycling here. It’s better than walking any more,” he said. “I want to eventually ride on the roadside in Kathmandu, but in the meantime I am just trying, just learning here.”

Rai has the battle wounds of learning to ride in a bumpy field. He pulls up his pant leg, revealing a spot on his ankle where it recently got caught in a bike chain. “The problem is that sometimes the brakes don’t work properly. That’s why there are so many crashes!” he said.

As if right on cue, two boys on bicycles slam into one another.

“Sometimes we injure ourselves and we go to the hospital,” Rai said with a shrug. “But we come back again because we enjoy it so much.”

While the Lukla cycle park remains the sole place for cycling in the area, bicycle tourism is on the rise in Nepal, said Sherpa. According to him, the Himalayan Club, along with the buffer zone branch of Sagarmatha National Park, are planning a new cycling route throughout the Khumbu Region, with construction tentatively set to begin later this year.

Until then, the cycle park remains a playground, classroom, and community gathering point in Lukla.

“This is the highest place in the Khumbu Region where you can ride,” Sherpa said. “There’s only one place like this in the whole Everest region, so it’s a very exciting and a really special place.”

Hilary Duff is a freelance journalist and photographer currently living in Sudbury, Ontario. She spends her days working for Canada’s national broadcaster and trying her darndest to teach fellow cyclists and drivers alike that bikes should and do have a spot on the narrow northern Ontario roads. She traveled to Nepal last fall to trek, explore, and gawk at colorful rickshaws. Her blog can be found at hilarymakes.com.

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