I am reporting from the bustling metropolis of Peshawar where I have been thawing out after the last few days of subzero shenanigans. Here, for your edification and information , is how you land yourself squarely in the shit in Northern Pakistan....
About 10 days ago I was back in Gilgit (after a trip to Skardu, a small town situated on the upper reaches of the Indus, which you get to by traversing the wall of a steep gorge). From Gilgit I wanted to go to Chitral, which is in the North West Frontier Province and is overlooked by the mountains of the Hindukush. Chitral crouches in a remote valley, reached by a main road from the south over Lowari pass (3100 m). However, an alternative is to cross the jeep track which climbs direct from Gilgit over Shandur pass (3500m), and has been described as "the highlight of any Pakistani off-roading". Now if that isn't a warning to wear your brown trousers, I don't know what is. But did I listen? I did not.
Ken and Carol, Mark and Clare, Near Skardu, Pakistan
Day 1 was sunny and warm, and the Ghizar valley above Gilgit positively glowed. The valley is more wooded and cultivated than any I've seen so far, and the river provided a deep azure contrast to the golden foliage.
The riding became fairly demanding by my standards, being largely an offroad virgin and unused to a road surface, which seems to actively try to unseat you at every opportunity. It seems possessed of a malevolent intent and rudimentary cunning, and has an arsenal of tricks to throw at you -
Here are some of my favourites....
1) Wobble dust - deep powdery dust with big wheel ruts in it, which is found on low flat stretches next to the river. The dust is of course inhabited by small goblins, who grab hold of your front and rear wheels, and make them squirm sickeningly from side to side. Their objective is to pull you so far off course that you end up at right angles to your original direction, at which point you topple gracefully off the bike, while petrol pours from your carb and fuel cap. The goblins then drink the fuel and fall asleep, pie-eyed and satisfied.
2) Gravel traps - Areas of deep traction-free gravel which are found frequently in villages and their approaches. There is not much to do in Ghizar valley, so villagers pass the time by collecting golfball sized rocks, and then painstakingly sanding them with glass paper (it's OK Dan, they've got goggles...)until they are perfectly spherical. These rocks are then placed in carefully dug deep pits, next to comfortable seating areas.
The villagers then wait for passing bikers to provide entertainment.
3) Big spikies - In areas where small rocks are not available, an interesting alternative is to collect huge great lumpy buggers, which are chiselled to form wicked points and sharp edges. Installing these in the road surface takes many patient hours, but these guys are persistent.
The net result is a kind of ratchet-shaped road with peaks and valleys, over which the bike bounds and leaps with mechanical protest, as your teeth rattle in your head, and your biscuits bounce out of the panniers to be eaten by passing donkeys. So that's where they go, I thought as I bounced closer to Shandur pass, becoming more apprehensive by the minute.
The final ascent to the pass was a steepish slope, though not as steep as my imaginings had made it. I knew for a fact that another biker (Hi Luke, hi Nikki) had made it this way some weeks earlier on a lardy BMW street bike (respect), so it had to be possible. Trouble was, the road surface was a piece de resistance combination of all the hazards previously encountered, kind of like the last level of some masochistic video game. I half expected a big bald muscle-bound bloke with a sword to be waiting at the top.
Shandur Pass, Pakistan
I gave it my best shot, standing up on the pegs as the bike pitched and bucked and the wheel fought for traction. This effort bought me about 200 yards before I lost it into the rocks at the side of the track. The falling off routine, which I have perfected by now, consists of struggling with straps and ties to get the luggage off, and heave the bike upright with my eyeballs popping out, before I lose too much precious fuel into the dust from my dodgy filler cap. I decided to try to get the bike up the hill and worry about luggage later, so I took off again for another 100 yard battle before stacking the thing again into the rocks on the other side of the road with a painful broken-plasticky kind of noise. No time to worry about that now, up again and away.......or not, as the wheel spun and I lost it again into the dust and rocks. This represented kind of a low point for me, as I heaved the bike upright and lost it again five times on the trot. I counted.
Lots of flying dust, the smell of cooking clutch and petrol, lots of happy inebriated gnomes....I was getting nowhere and propped the thing up on a rock, too tired to lift it again. It suddenly occurred to me to wonder what would happen if a jeep crested the rise and came tanking down the hill, as my bike was lying kind of across the trail and both it and me were nicely camouflaged by a coating of grey dust. It is amazing what a bit of motivation can do, and once again I strained to lug the bloody thing upright again, and took off.
Shandur Pass, Pakistan
Swearing incoherently through gritted teeth (this is actually quite hard to do, I suggest you try sometime), we made it over what proved to be the last difficult stretch and I parked the bike on level (ish) ground for a breather. Great. Except that my luggage was now about 500m back down the pass. I have some advice for people who are planning on carrying heavy luggage up a dusty trail at 12000 feet in full bike leathers, but it is not printable.
So that was Shandur pass, and I smugly congratulated myself on the way down the other side towards Chitral, as I knew that the road over Lowari Pass was a dream, a masterpiece of sweeping asphalt, a poem in black tarmac.
Oh foolish, foolish paddy asshole.
But such revelations were for the future as I spent a couple of happy days resting up in Chitral, catching up with Kiwi Brian and Japanese Junko, both of whom I'd met in Gilgit, and who had come over the pass much more sensibly by jeep. The weather closed in a bit, and I was vaguely concerned that the Lowari pass to the south might get a bit of snow (OK , I can laugh now...) but I was waiting for Ken and Carol, who were planning to come in by this route, so I hung on.
The day I finally met them in Chitral, the rain was beating down, and the pass was irretrievably closed. Ken had been one of the last through the previous day, and graphically described how he had effectively skated down the road from the summit, trying to stop the back wheel overtaking the front. If Torvill and Dean had owed a BMW, this is the sort of ice choreography they might have dreamt up. We can only speculate.
Shouting man above hairpin curve
But, I asked, the road is good asphalt, yes? Ken looked at me with that expression which he reserves for clueless poms. It transpires that the road is a churned up dirt nightmare, little better than that which I'd already traversed.. While we were mulling over what to do next, buoyed up by an endless flood of excellent milk chai and the best chips you've ever tasted from a stall on the corner, another stray biker arrived to join us as we sat "up Chitral creek". This was German Mike, who had somehow managed to get a low slung Moto Guzzi cruiser over the Shandur in a foot of snow. If this feat does not earn him the handle "Mad Mike", there is no justice in the world.
Retracing our steps over the Shandur was not an option (both Mike and I went a shade paler at the thought), and the Lowari was likely to be bike-hostile for some weeks. However, the third alternative presented itself.
'Moto-Guzzi Mike' Eierle and Rosi
The ubiquitous jingly-jangly truck is a large Bedford with prehistoric suspension and capable of speeds of up to 0.1 mph on steep slopes, but it does have the advantage on snow of having 4 wheels, which a bike has not. So this was how we came to spend 24 freezing hours in the back of one of these things as it churned its way over the pass along with dozens of its fellows, escaping from Chitral in a window of good weather.
Ken's bike in truck, Lowari Pass, Pakistan
The journey over the pass was enlivened by the frequent long delays as trucks got stuck and were pushed and dug out, or inched past each other on the forty -odd dizzying hairpins which cling to the valley walls. Mike and I were pressed into service as BMW holding up devices, as we all bounced and rattled down the far side, spending more time in the air than in contact with the floor. The driving skills displayed by the truck jockey were nothing short if awesome, and really pushed the envelope between genius and madness.
Trucks in Lowari Pass, Pakistan
We finally descended to the small town of Dir, a room in a hotel which was above freezing point, and the best chicken karai on the planet.
We had escaped from Chitral's freezing grasp for the sum of 1000 rupees each (18 dollars and cheap at the price).
I am now enjoying the sensation of being warm again in Peshawar, and in no hurry to move on.....another pot of chai, please...
More from Islamabad in a few days, Mission control, you can send my parcel of spares now, as I will be there soon to pick it up.
Last days in Pakistan
I spent a frustrating fortnight in Islamabad, waiting for a consignment of spokes from the UK, without which I could not proceed further. Would you believe that spokes for 21-inch front wheels are not available in Pakistan! For want of 36 metal rods, I languished in the living hell that is Islamabad tourist campsite, making my daily sacrificial visit to the subarctic wasteland of the shower block, and haunting the DHL office like an anaemic, hopeless ghost, repeatedly being told:
"Your parcel will arrive tomorrow, or the next day, inish'Allah".
I was glad to finally get moving Eastwards again, and finally left in the company of team Duval, Angela (Honda Dominator) and Ollie (Honda Transalp).
The traffic on the Grand Trunk road to Lahore was its usual anarchic self, which was unfortunate as I hadn't ridden the bike in over
2 weeks and was decidedly rusty. My confidence was not boosted greatly when I lost traction on a slippery corner and dropped the bike within the first ten minutes.
Coping with the cheerfully homicidal antics of other road users was taxing enough, but due to the recent outbreak of Ramadan, it was difficult to obtain any form of liquid refreshment during the hours of daylight from the numerous teashops along the route. So without the soothing benefit of frequent chai-stops, we battled on towards Lahore.
The drivers of the overloaded, colorful and charm-adorned Bedford trucks are a cheery bunch, and you are often greeted by the sight of a truck hurtling towards you in the middle of your side of the road, the driver waving and grinning like a madman.
(We have been told that many of the truck-jockeys smoke opium to relieve the boredom of long hours in the driving seat). This is all very well until you realise that he's actually waving with both hands, and you are prompted to wonder what the hell he's driving with....
Often the truck's cab has about five people crammed inside, all smiling beatifically - the effect is that of a single huge grin which runs the entire width of the vehicle. Very uplifting.
Clare (the Flying Nun), on her XT
Lahore is a vibrant city in much the same style as Peshawar, and we have used any excuse to hitch a ride in the brightly painted motorized rickshaws, which are local equivalent of the black hackney carriage. You haven't lived till you've experienced a ride in one of these supersonic
3-wheeled "comedy cabs". They appear to be exempt from any form of traffic regulations, and are driven by failed fighter pilots (I think...)
I spent the better part of a day wandering round the city trying to find a fiberglass repair shop to fix a damaged plastic side panel, a result of my "smashing" time on Shandur Pass. The Pakistanis are an eternally friendly and accommodating people, and before long I had a self appointed guide and benefactor to aid me in my quest. Very shortly afterwards, I found myself perched on the back of a tiny motorcycle, hurtling through the streets, whilst my ever helpful guide tried to engage me in a debate on the relative merits of Islam and Christianity, over his shoulder, seemingly oblivious of the traffic swerving and screaming in his path.
Perhaps this was a stratagem, as by the end of the ride I was prepared to convert to the bloody Moonies if only he'd let me get off.
So I left with the promise that I would indeed be sure to read the Qu'ran, just as soon as they bring out a children's version, perhaps with pop-up prophets.
The food in Lahore was excellent, as it had been throughout Pakistan - I experienced difficulty in buttoning up my trousers by the end of my stay, and had to cut an extra hole in my belt.
I felt that stockpiling lard in this way would be a good idea to prepare for the assault on India, where I planned to go fully vegetarian.
My last evening in Pakistan was spent watching the numerous kites, which are flown from the tops of buildings in the sunset haze, another pleasingly nutty Lahore pursuit.
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