Departing Islamabad (and the pollution) with Connor (XT600 Tenere) we make Besham on the KKH late on the first day. The mountain passes were choked with horn blasting mini buses and diesel belching trucks but this is all part of the fun and challenge. Our 700 rupee room was over-priced but the hot shower and good food compensated.
The "meat" of the KKH started today as the rough paved road cast its spell over us. Carved into the cliff face high above the Indus River, signs acknowledged the military companies that had built and now maintain that particular section. We stopped numerous times enjoying the view, taking photos and acknowledging the musical truck horns as they laboured past. To stop on the edge of the road, boil the billy and eat warm roti and jam under a bright blue sky, snow capped mountains in the distance... bliss.
The Indus River and the KKH
This road is no sports bike road. It is "rough", there is the occasional landslide being repaired and the odd rock or two tumbles down the cliff face onto the road in front of you. In addition to these obstacles Pakistani drivers tend to take the corners on the wrong side of the road. Amazingly there were few accidents seen.
Arriving in Gilgit just on dusk, it had taken us over eight hours to cover 350 kms. The hustle and bustle of this northern provincial town caught us unawares after the solace of the KKH. Busy people crossed in front dodging the meandering livestock that were looking for food scraps. Madina Guest House caught our fancy and the good food, relaxed atmosphere and hot showers justified the recommendations passed onto us by previous travellers.
Near Passu on the KKH
After enjoying a quiet day discussing future excursions we tackled the section north to Sost. The autumn colours dappled amongst the terraced farms made dramatic scenery. Some were perched above us and some below. Our camera shutters were working overtime. Meanwhile the Hunza River flowed relentlessly south creating white sand beaches from the grey glacial rocks and soil. We paused for a coke at the glistening Ghilmet Glacier but we were too late to photograph the splendour of Passu Glacier. The temperature at Sost was much cooler and our resolve for an early departure to Khunjerab Pass saw us ride through the "landslide" area with little difficulty.
Carol at Khunjerab Pass
After paying and signing into Khunjerab National Park the vegetation ceased as we climbed past the 3,000 metre level. The last 13 kms to Khunjerab climbed steeply and the flowing creek, slowed with lumps of ice, became a solid mass at the top. The Pakistani border guard informed us it was -7 degrees under a bright blue sky. Photographs with a group of Chinese soldiers topped a great ride.
Frozen River near Khunjerab Pass
Chinese Army and Pakistan Guards at Khunjerab Pass
The return journey was interrupted by severe problems at the "landslide" area where the road was blocked with another pile of rubble. This slide was less than 20 kms from Sost. The brave bulldozer driver charged relentlessly at the rocks and soil pushing them into the fast flowing Khunjerab River while dodging missiles the size of footballs. With the path finally cleared (1 hour) a passenger bus tackled the road first as small rocks and soil continued to roll down. We were next and on the signal of the whistle blowing boss man we dashed across the 80 metres as rocks danced passed us. We were fortunate enough not to get hit. Back in Gilgit we related our experiences and heard similar tales, one from a Belgium couple whose transit van had dents from rocks bouncing into the side at the same landslide area.
Landside closing the road north of Sost
Our late departure from Gilgit the following day (too much talking to fellow travellers) caused us to arrive in Skardu after dark. A flat tyre enroute slowed us down and although the road is still paved, the curves are tighter, the surface rougher and there were a few livestock problems (blocking the road). It was at the Indus Motel we hoped to make contact with a local tour operator (friends of friends), however we were three days too late as he had gone to Rawalpindi. Fresh trout and chips at Satpara Lake highlighted our trip and when our English/Irish friends arrived the next day we had no hesitation in sending them out the rough gravel track to savour the delicacy.
The road from Skardu to Gilgit
The return journey to Gilgit saw the "team", Mark, Claire, Connor and ourselves back together again. Madina Guest House was cramped with bikes that night as we collected another overlander (Mike a lanky German riding a Motor-Guzzi street bike) on the way through town. Another two German riders turned up that evening on a DR800 Suzuki so motorcycles dominated our conversation for quite a few hours.
Our team was broken up once again as Mark and Claire attempted the Khunjerab Pass for the third time. Mike followed on the Guzzi a short time later and Connor after much deliberation decided to tackle the Shandur Pass to Chitral. Our placid pace allowed another rest day in Gilgit.
Lowari Pass was our next challenge. We planned to meet up with Connor in Chitral and lie about which was the toughest route. We made Dassu on the first night, crossing the Shangla Pass from Besham the next day to reach Dir just on dusk. The weather that night closed in and storms greeted us the following morning. We mulled over our greasy omelette at breakfast as our host at the Abshar Hotel assured us the weather would clear.
The road from Dir to Chitral
Leaving Dir around 10am the paved road indicated on our map turned to damp, hard packed dirt. Progress was slow as numerous trucks blocked the narrow track. We must say however that Pakistani truck drivers were extremely courteous and generally responded quickly to our horn blowing when we wish to overtake. A couple of shallow creek crossings with a slowly deteriorating track (mud) had us wondering about the top. Closing in on the top the mud turned to a slurry of ice and snow churned up by the slow moving trucks. The top was a skating ring with the slurry refreezing.
Lowari Pass looked bad from here
Then it got worse!!
The downside (northern) was unrideable for the first 50 metres as the tyres slid with my feet as skids just holding the bike upright. Sliding to a stop, Carol abandoned ship and hitched a ride on a recently overtaken truck. I proceeded down slowly for almost a kilometre to just past the snow line with Carol rejoining the bike after thanking her lift profusely. We don't think they were really unhappy about having a western woman aboard though.
Negotiating the remainder of the 40 hairpins was slow and we wondered whether we had made the correct decision to press on. Arriving at Chitral we met the Danish couple (Poul and Pia met at Gilgit) who had crossed Shandur Pass in their Pajero 4WD arriving the same day as us after four days of travelling. Our enquiring "Have you seen Connor?" was met with a negative response and we assumed that Connor had turned back due to the difficulty of the track.
Our first attempt to get back over Lowari Pass
Inter-netting the next day, we met Conner. He had made the Shandur crossing in two days. But all was not well as rain had set in and the mountains surrounded Chitral were blanketed with snow. Lowari Pass was now closed!! We sat the whole day huddled around a bowl of burning coals drinking sweet milk tea saying "what next?" Our hopes were raised the following day as we were greeted with sun and a blue sky. We determined that Lowari would be tackled the next day.
The road after Drosh was severely affected by the rain with many washouts, stones and loose gravel forced down from the mountains. We reached the first hairpin and contemplated our next move. Reports that the pass was still closed with 60cm of snow concerned us. Mini vans and 4wd's slid pass us heading upwards. We stopped a pick-up full of Pakistanis coming down and asked about the road. They shock their heads glumly saying "not open". The last kilometre over the top was blocked by snow and people were walking this distance taking some 2 to 3 hours. We headed back to Chitral.
Contemplating our dilemma over some chai (tea) at the Al-Farooq Hotel we heard the rumble of a large bike outside. Staggering up the stairs came MGM - Motor-Guzzi Mike. He had just completed the Shandur Pass through 20cm of snow crashing (touch downs) some eight times. Shandur would be closed for sure. Mikes' smiles on greeting us changed when we told him Lowari Pass was closed. He was unaware there was even a pass to be negotiated.
Being stuck in Chitral was not all that unpleasant. Our host at the hotel was very helpful, the tea was hot and sweet and the chicken karai was great......what more did we need? But we had to escape the winter. We crossed to the other side of the river in Chitral and negotiated with a truck driver a price and planned our escape. Two days to allow the pass to be bulldozed clear, three bikes, four people....3,000 rupees, a bargain. The truck was an over decorated Bedford. While paying the deposit the next day we were informed that another truck would be used and more bad weather was anticipated. We must leave ASAP. 5.30pm that day we departed Chitral. Mike and Connor in the back with the bikes resting on 200kg of river sand (ballast) and Carol and I up front. Our escort would be an open tray truck carrying sand and rocks (the traction truck).
Trucked over Lowari Pass
At 1am the next morning we were stopped at a police barrier. The pass was closed until 6am. Sleeping upright in the front of the truck with temperatures around 0 degrees is not fun. Sleeping in the back of an open truck on a wet bed of sand is even worse. Between 5 and 6 am all hell broke loose as the trucks around us burst into life and the co-drivers screamed directions. We were on the move. By the fourth or fifth hairpin the snow was 30cm deep and the track as slippery as a greased pig. Progress was slow with many stoppages with the narrow track being blocked by bogged or broken vehicles.
Our driver was quite impressive and we deduced he was no run of the mill truckie. Each congested stop he left the truck and started organising a remedy for the chaos. Where other trucks were using large chains on the wheels to negotiate the frozen, slippery conditions, he was still relying on naked tyres, skill and sand from the traction truck. The track finally beat him and the rear wheels were wrapped in a 12mm steel cable. There was no stopping him now. When other chained trucks got stuck he would fly through using momentum, deft gear changes and engine torque. We were impressed. Near the top the track was pure ice, snow fell at erratic intervals and the traffic congestion increased. Bouncing off the snow walls on the road we breached the peak of the pass with a cheer and proceeded to slide down the decent. It was all but over.
Snowy hairpins on the pass
After 25 hours we reached Dir and unloaded our bikes. Our stressed and exhausted disposition did not take kindly to the dirty bed sheets that confronted us in the best looking hotel in town. They were promptly changed. After a tasty meal of chicken karai it was sleep at last.
Recovered, we made Peshawar the next day. This city was really pumping.
Perhaps we had been in the country too long. We walked the bazaars for hours as Mike was on a mission. Quality hand made leather saddle bags for the Guzzi. Success was achieved late in the day so our departure back to Islamabad the next day was assured.
All lined up for the beer and steak at the old Australian Embassy in Islamabad
The Islamabad Tourist Campground has a feeling similar to Uphill Campground in Nairobi, Kenya. A pleasant relaxing atmosphere with plenty of overland motorcyclists, 4WD's, backpackers and the odd truck. Meetings around the campfire discussing past adventures and future travels, mechanical help and advice and the ever present dormant traveller waiting on a parcel of spares, documents or a visa approval. It's a happening place.
THE BIKE: Serious breakages occurred during this section with the Koni shock spring breaking outside Chitral. While repairing (welding) it, cracks in the main frame were found under the seat. Back in Islamabad the shock mount on the swing arm cracked again. The stresses of our journey are telling now as we approach 200,000 kms. The spring feels much softer, hope it gets us home. While servicing, an oil filter bolt came out with the thread still attached. A longer bolt appears to have done the trick. If not Connor on the XT is now carrying a Heli-coil kit. Stick around Connor.
Fun on a local taxi in Lahore. Oli, Angela, Connor and Ken.
Our stay in Pakistan is drawing to a close. Motor-Guzzi Mike has met up with his lady Rose and has headed off to India. Mark and Claire are already playing with the Delhi traffic. Connor's bike is all but repaired after completing a heli-coil repair on an oil filter bolt and a complete respoke of his front wheel (rusty spokes kept breaking). India is next but our aim is CHRISTMAS IN KATHMANDU. We have a few overlanders joining us but the more the merrier.
The crowd gathers as we leave Lahore for India
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