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 02:25 PM
And then there were six...
Five weeks away and I think we're starting to get the hang of this travelling lark. We're getting used to the large crowds that form every time we stop to look at a map. Developing techniques for getting rooms for $4 instead of $5 is of course essential for any one on the road. But when you start to get a little too cocky, certain aspects of a different culture, such as what may be considered a normal introduction, can always pop up and leave you damn well speechless. "Hey mister, where your hair gone?" was certainly one of those moments.
Meeting up with Cliff, Jenny and Andreas to cross the Baluchistan desert from Iran to Pakistan changed our travelling experience to a small extent. Whilst we all felt more 'secure' in a group crossing such a difficult region, there was no doubt that everything took more time - from loading the bikes in the morning, to getting fuel from oil drums at the side of the road, to finding safe parking at night, most things take more time and progress slows. Of course, everybody travels for different reasons and it has made us appreciate even more, if there had been any doubt, that our schedule is a tight one and we don't have much slack for taking things easy.
The guest house at Bam was clean and cheap so we spent two nights getting organised, changing oil and so on before making our break for the border. During this short stay, Jenny and I became better acquainted than I would have preferred when, due to a faulty lock, she 'interrupted' me in the lavatory. Weakly disgusing her horror, she apologised and made her retreat without realising that she had now locked me in the loo. Some time later when I had only partially dismantled the door, her husband heard my pathetic pleas for help and released me from my by now rather pungent prison.
Peter Cotes Building Ltd. are proud to present their latest conservatory
Leaving the guest house at 6:30 would in theory allow us plenty of time to reach the Pakistan border in daylight - and we knew there was a government run guesthouse just over the border in Taftan that would make an ideal stop for the night. As the day and miles progressed, it became pretty hot, the water carried on the back of the bikes heated so much that it could easily have been used to make tea. And although we are now well accustomed to the beasts, our first wild camels were spotted so we of course stopped to take photos. Even more exotic were the dead ones. For some reason that remains unexplained, dead camels at the side of the road are turned into a sort of peculiar monument to the beast's own supercillious stupidity. Stones are piled up high around the rotted, parched carcases and bushes or foliage placed in their mouths. A custom that is unlikely to catch on in the UK. Headless dogs remain a perverse source of amusement and discussion on our now operational bike-to-bike intercoms.
The border crossing into Pakistan went smoothly and, although it was now dark, we found our way to the guest house without problems. As both generators had failed, by the light of gas lamps we ate some sort of prehistoric creature that must have had seven necks, three lungs and one kidney. Chicken it was not, and if we couldn't see to eat it, how the hell did he see what to cook? The morning after we declined to pay $6 for our coffees and headed for a planned stopover in the desert town of Dalbandin 200 miles further into the desert. Now this was a town, and the first time that we really felt that we were somewhere 'different'. The streets were full with people from different tribes and the noise, heat, dust, smells, sights and sounds were like nowhere else we had been. We really felt like adventurous explorers, as did the retired couple staying in the suprisingly decent hotel who had just cycled there from the South of England.
The day after saw a difficult ride to Quetta. It was one of those days when we just couldn't get it together and it seemed that every lorry wanted to force us of the road and every police checkpoint wanted us to stop and say hello. Even finding and negotiating for fuel proved tedious and laborious in the noon-day heat. However, at the checkpoints it is often necessary to sign in with passport and visa details so we noticed that a Dutch motorcyclist, Maarten, was only one week ahead of us. Maarten and I have often communicated via email during the run up to our own trips and I couldn't believe it when we finally discovered that he was in a hotel less than 1km away in Quetta. Maarten had just recovered after being holed up in his hotel room for 3 days with food poisoning, so obviously we all went out for a rather superb Pakistani curry and some blackmarket beers.
Loralai was the next destination for the now not-so-magnificent six and we made good progress until the road finished. Jenny was leading the pack and I started to doubt her navigation skills when we found ourselves riding along a dry river bed. This section turned out to be a 10 mile stretch of road being built almost entirely by hand. Gangs of workers sat at the side of the road breaking up road stone with hammers. In a country with 80% unemployment, I guess labour is cheap. But the scenery was beautiful with, astonishingly, trees and grass providing some relief from the monontony of the desert landscape of the last few days.
On reaching the small town of Loralai, we were immediately swamped by people, causing a fairly serious traffic jam in the narrow dusty main street. The atmosphere was not particularly friendly so we were glad to park the bikes and retreat to the guest house to get cleaned up. Shortly afterwards whilst I was in a tea shop discussing the Iraqi threat with a rather intense Afghan, Adrian popped by to let me know that there was now a policeman in our hotel who had politely informed him that this was a tribal region and our 'lives were in danger'. To the obvious delight of the hotel staff, the solution to this threat (whether real or imaginary) was to provide us with a small chap carrying a big gun. He was a sweetheart, clearly incapable of guarding anything but ours for the duration of our stay. So we took him out to eat, took him for a stroll around the town and joined in as his machine gun was passed between us and the hotel staff for photos.
Following an unremarkable overnight stay in Fort Munro and after discovering our most unpleasant lavatory yet in a Khoshab hotel bedroom, we arrived filthy and tired in the Pakistani capital city of Islamabad. One aluminium pannier had been damaged when Adrian embarassingly toppled gently from his BMW (in full view of the entire population of a small town) and this, in combination with a lot of hot miles and a horrendous sand storm in the Thall desert, meant that that a blow out was clearly in order. All six of us were really pleased to check into a decent hotel for a couple of days 'r and r', laundry and essential maintenance. Only $20 a night is affordable, even on our limited budget and Islamabad is a rather nice place where we can pass virtually un-noticed in the streets. Although restaurants as such are fairly limited, the food available from street stalls can be cheap and delicious and so I am rather worried to observe that I have actually put on some weight over the last five weeks!
Tomorrow, our group of six will split, as Adrian and I wish to spend less time than the others exploring the Karakorum Highway that leads over 600 km towards the Chinese border. This road is said to be incredibly beautiful and one of the wonders of the modern world, climbing to something like 5000m at our first stop at Gilgit. After this climb, we turn back, head for Lahore and then into India...
Posted by Sean Kelly at 04:44 PM
Stop press: Across the desert into Pakistan
Just a quick note from a friendly internet company. Cliff, Jenny, Andreas Adrian and I arrived safe and sound in Pakistan yesterday after crossing the Baluchistan desert from Bam in Iran to Quetta in Pakistan.
The border crossing went smoothly, if slowly and the only problems were one flat battery and a plug lead disconnected. It feels amazing to be able to stop at the side of the road and watch a camel train meandering across the desert.
We are sticking together for a week or two as we attempt to climb the famous Karakorum Highway into the Hindu Kush which should prove challenging and interesting...
Iran proved difficult for staying in touch, both with phones and internet but things should improve from here on in. Even some of the mobiles are now working!
Posted by Sean Kelly at 10:42 AM