October 23, 2002 GMT
The Longest Day


We weren't too sure if we could do it, and nobody else was even vaguely interested in trying, but Adrian and I overslept soundly before leaving the others in an ultimately pointless attempt to climb the Karakoram Highway (KKH) to the town of Gilgit in one long day. Cliff, Jenny, Andreas and Maarten were to take a rather more 'relaxed' approach to the Highway and we expected that we would cross paths somewhere on the road after maybe two or three days.

Started in 1966 and completed over the next 12 years, the KKH was cut from the rock of the massive Karakoram mountain range with all the elegance of a student vet's first castration. This phenomenal road twists, crumbles and periodically disappears along the path of the original Silk Road to China, where it meets the highest border post in the world. At 380 miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, Gilgit is about two thirds of the way along the KKH and is considered by many to be the start of the Highway 'proper'. The place where the seriously high and twisty stuff begins.

Alongside occasional memorials and graveyards to those careless or unfortunate enough to be killed building it, the KKH not only clings precariously to the side of the Karakorams, but also passes the intersection of the Himalayan and Hindu Kush mountain ranges. You may never need to see another mountain after travelling this road 'cos here there are mountains in all directions (but predominantly upwards) for thousands of square miles. It has long been a dream of mine to ride this road and now that dream is finally achieved, I find myself wondering what I can find to replace it.


The first hours of the journey are spent dodging the many goats and cows that pick at the rubbish in the streets of the numerous small towns and villages en route. In one tight squeeze, I attempted to remove the bull-bars from an over-laden mini-bus with the aid of only an aluminium Touratech pannier. (Note to self, breathing in, no matter how hard, cannot realistically be expected to reduce the excessive width of the bike.) But like hair at a Kelly family re-union, the towns become sparse and a small measure of isolation begins to be felt. Average speeds are of course low because there are hardly any straight sections - just corner after corner after corner. And after 5 or 6 hours, our trance-like state is only occasionally interrupted by an on-coming lorry or, worse, mini-bus appearing on our side of the road. We had long since stopped worrying about hopping onto the gravel at the side of a road in these situations, but on the KKH often there is no gravel. Just a sickening plummet to the valley floor below.

Of course we are hardy travellers now and our pioneering spirit was not dampened in the least when we met two German ladies at a remote and wind swept police check point who were patiently waiting for a bus. "Had we passed it on our way? It should have been here 7 hours ago..." Unable to offer a lift, we shamefully abandoned our two Frauleins to an uncertain fate and pressed on. The last 70 miles seemed to take an eternity and darkness fell earlier than we had anticipated, being that much futher north. We were forced to break our No.1 rule by riding the last 30 or so miles in the dark. Fortunately, this section of road was in reasonable repair with marginally fewer back-breaking pot holes to swallow our front wheels. Also, you can't see the horrendous sheer drops when it's dark so my periodic attacks of vertigo were relieved. It was with some relief that after a total of 12 hours in the saddle we finally arrived in Gilgit where yet another friendly local on a small Honda showed us the way to our hotel. We checked in and, exhausted, fell promptly fast asleep.


I don't know if Adrian's bike hit more pot holes than mine, but on examination next morning his rear tyre had, approximately, no air in it at all. More worrying was that some lumps of tread were starting to come away from the canvas. The not-so-round black rubbery thing stayed inflated after it was filled with air of the pure mountain variety and we resolved to keep a close eye on its condition. If the tyre starts to deteriorate further, we could lose a lot of time and cash having a spare shipped over.

We drove 70 or so miles futher towards the Chinese border and a little place called Karimabad. There are vast snow capped mountains around every corner, glaciers, lush valleys, rivers, rapids - a true paradise for trekkers and climbers, and I really can't begin to describe it. Apparently it just gets more and more beautiful the higher you go. The thing is that there are no trekkers or climbers here. Since 9/11, the tourist industry in this region has totally collapsed - a situation no doubt compounded by the recent elections and the predicted violence that failed to materialise. We could easily have spent weeks exploring this area, but it was a close to China as we would get, so we reluctantly turned around and meandered our way back to Gilgit.


We had half expected that Cliff and the others would have appeared at the hotel by the end of the second day, but weren't too concerned when they failed to materialise and continued with our own plans to ride to the town of Skardu in Baltistan. This is a close as we could get to the infamous K2 without undertaking the 10 day hike to base camp. The road turned out to be a 100 mile roller coaster and despite covering 8000 miles since leaving home, we both enjoyed the ride 'enthusiastically'. Following our earlier concerns, we were pleased to note that despite the abuse Adrian's rear was holding together and that his back tyre was fine too. However, our planned loop around to the main road had to be abandoned as the jeep track we had intended to follow was interrupted by a somewhat impassable river. In consolation, we filled our 43 litre fuel tanks (just to make life difficult) and hurled the bikes up a steep, tricky rock path to a very idyllic lake just below the tree line. The next day, as we headed back down the Highway towards Islamabad, we found out that the other four had only just passed through on their way up to Gilgit!


There was no way that we could ride from Skardu back to Islamabad in one hit, so we resolved to break the journey and spend a night in one of the empty hotels that line the KKH through Chilas. We obviously chose a hotel with a slight resemblance to the one from 'The Shining' and even negotiated a reasonable room for $6. That evening, a strong wind slowly built up outside as we ate dinner, alone in the large dining room. We even took fright when the force of the wind burst open one of the shutters and sent the curtains and table cloth flapping violently. It really seemed like something evil had forced its way into the room and joined us at our table. Unfortunately for us, something awful had indeed intruded. Into Adrian's intestines in fact and his dose of food poisioning can only be described as explosive.

Next stop, India...

Posted by Sean Kelly at October 23, 2002 02:25 PM GMT

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