February 13, 2009 GMT
No.19. Pakistan. To the Chinese border.
After miles of desperately bad roads literally carved out of the mountain sides I was flagged down by a Police officer - another passport check - or so I thought. 'Do you want to see a snow leopard?'. Er, why not? He waved me into an walled compound and closed the wrought iron gates behind me. Odd. I realised then he wasn't dressed in Police unifom. Four other men stood around. One of the guys was washing a white van down - Jeez! He's washing out the evidence of the last tourist they sliced up and fed to the 'snow leopard'...'This is it. I'm going to be robbed!'.....
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At that moment a man came from behind the building followed closely by - an unchained snow leopard! He put it on the bike, then gave it me to hold. It was a huge cub, about 6 months old, and it soon wrestled itself out of my nervous grip. They'd caught it and were going to release it after 10 months. Right. I thought of the BBC guys who’d waited in a freezing ‘hide’ for six weeks and had only managed a long telephoto shot of this rare creature. Amazing.
Over the next few days I pushed on up the KKH driven on through the deteriorating weather by thoughts of the warm welcome awaiting me at Sost. It would have been - if they'd had any power. I rode into town and was invited to join Bin Laden's brother for tea. At least, that's who he said he was....
Click on MORE below for dramatic tales from the KKH and travelling the legendary Khyber pass - with an armed guard.
The Khunjerab Pass.....4750m. With a lightened bike I began my attempt on the summit. 85kms away. Easy. If it hadn't snowed above 3000m. I paid my National Park entrance fee and, waving confidently, I rounded the next corner and rode into - ice. The entire section of road that was in the shadow of the surrounding peaks was a single lane width of grooved ice. This was going to be a long day.
Two kms further on, I nearly called it a day. A Chinese Earthquake supply truck had jack-knifed off the edge into the ravine due to thick ice on a down hill section. Luckily no one was hurt and recovery work had begun. The locals eased me through the worst section with my back wheel sliding out from underneath me. My God…. I was still 40kms from the top - surely it’s going to get worse? 'No Problem!' 'Road OK to top'...Sure.
With my heart in my mouth I eased the bike through the icy patches and climbed steadily thinking of only one thing. No, not my sofa, but the Chai house at the Chinese border crossing where I'd be greeted like a hero by the hardy local traders and the Mongolian truck drivers amazed that I'd ridden solo to the peak..... You know where this is going, don't you.
Chisel-jawed I leaned into the icy wind as km after km passed slowly by. It was COLD but at least the sun was shining. At last, the terrain levelled out and I picked my way along the icy road, passed frozen lakes and, at last, the border came into sight. It really is the last few kms that are the worst. I whooped! Euphoria was short lived as I realised the border crossing was one man stood by a barrier. No cafe. No wood burning oven. No congratulations from the mountain men of Asia. Nothing. I wanted to cry. Instead I put all my remaining clothes on, took a quick photo and began the descent......dreaming of my sofa, a log fire and a pot of tea.
Hotel 'Sky Bridge' obviously appears in the same guide book as Hotel Paris. No hot water. No heating and intermittent power . There was one 'bathroom' (I use the term loosely) for the whole Hotel. It should be in the Tate Gallery next to 'Unmade beds'. Someone had set fire to the plastic cupboard above the sink and the whole thing had melted down to become 'one' with the sink. Bizarre.
"Next morning I pushed the bike through the crowd that had gathered at the Hotel. Men shook my hand proudly, the women tried to hold back the tears...Miss Sost 2005 leaned forward and kissed me pressing her mobile phone number into my hand. What a party that had been last night......."OK. OK. In reality the Hotel owner grunted as I struggled through the doors with my bags. I pulled my collar up against the biting northerly wind and I set off southwards with the prospect of another long day in the saddle.
My Pakistan visa was running out. I really wanted to get to the legendary Khyber Pass so had a couple of long, hard days over some of the roughest roads I'd ever ridden, arriving at a heavily polluted sunset at Peshawar, about 50kms from the Afghan border. (See map)
Peshawar is 'Bloke City'. Where ARE the Pakistani girls? Tis a drab life these guys lead. I looked forward to the Bollywood Girls of India.
I'd read that I could travel up the Khyber Pass on the bike with an armed guard but, to be honest, by now I was feeling knackered and 'Mountained Out'. I accepted the persuasive ways of a local guide - Mr Prince - who arranged all. The following morning I squeezed into a dented Suzuki taxi with Mr Prince and swarthy driver, and gunned it to the place where 'No foreigners passed this point without Armed guard'.
I forgot to mention that I'd had another haircut. At one point I'd decided to leave it and grow a beard but after 3 weeks I realised I looked less like Clint Eastwood in the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and more like Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees circa 1975. The last haircut, in Turkey, had left me looking like an officer from the 163rd Panzer Gruppe - this one had me looking like an American GI on leave. Just the image I needed at the Afghan border.....
Negotiations and hand shaking followed and an 'Armed guard' joined our party.This was it.The Khyber Pass - steeped in History....So with Pakistani Pop music blasting out of the tinny radio and drinking Coke, we raced up the pass which was busy with trucks and overloaded minibuses heading for Kabul. Apparently, a lawless stretch of road populated by rival tribes. There were, indeed, murderous looking armed men at regular intervals along the road - mixed with laughing, waving children in blue school uniforms. Bizarre. A chai in a rough street cafe, photos overlooking the Afghan border clutching Kalashnikov then back down to Peshawar.
Rawalpindi. The tales I could tell about Rawalpindi...but I won't. So many stories are hitting the cutting room floor - to reappear in The Book!
I steered through the 'Pythonesque' closing ceremony at the Indian border and enjoyed my first beer for weeks. Amritsar was the first stop. I'd planned on booking into a really comfortable Hotel but found myself meandering into the narrowing alleyways of the Old Town. I was waved through and, before I knew it, I was at the gates.'
'What are you doing at the Golden Temple?!' demanded the bearded guard. Now what?!
To be continued.
Posted by Simon Roberts at 11:08 AM
January 28, 2009 GMT
No.18. Pakistan. The Karakoram Highway.
Disaster strikes!! Shaft Drive failure?
As the bike cooled down, the silence grew. The desert road seemed…deserted. It was. Almost. A speck on the horizon grew and two armed men pulled up…on a moped. Baluchistan frontier police. Saved! Or was I?
They’ll call a pick-up truck and I’ll be in a garage within the hour. No. An hour passed as they tried my helmet and sunglasses on, read my magazines and took photos of each other. We eventually got our act together and flagged down an empty flat bed truck which slid to a halt in front of us.
Now the only problem was how to get the bike up onto the truck……
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'No Problem Salmon!' (my name for the next few days). The truck was backed down into the scrub and we eased the bike across a plank onto the truck - “On the road again...” Yes!
You can read the rest of the story by clicking on MORE below.
What I hadn't realised was that I'd just signed up for Pakistans favourite Driving Game - Chicken Run. Overtaking. This meant more points the longer you stayed out on the other side of the road while overtaking. Double points if you could run them off the road too. Luckily I was assured "Don't worry Salmon, Allah is with us!". Unfortunately he was with everyone else too. The only thing in our favour was that we were the biggest truck on the road. I then found out I was down for the Advanced version of this 'game' -The NIGHT version. AAAARRRGGGHHHH!!
These guys were going straight through - literally - until Lahore. Horns constantly blasting it was nightmarish.. I quizzed one of the overtaking moves and the driver, Sedaq, looked at me, threw his head back and howled with laughter... I crouched behind the seats and braced myself for the inevitable head on collision.
To cut a l-o-n-g story short, I spent four l-o-n-g sleepless days and nights with these crazy guys (at around 30 mph due to a heavy load of rice picked up en-route) who got me all the way to Pakistan's only 'heavy' bike mechanic in Lahore. It involved switching vehicles so we could get the bike into the congested streets of Lahore...arriving at 4 o'clock in the morning. Try arranging this kind of 'hospitality' in a European country.
Mr. Waheed's bikeshop on the Grand Trunk road. A remarkable establishment with a distinctly 'Dickensian' flavour. Full of small spanner wielding urchins. Go there if you get the chance. It should be included on a tour of Lahore. I was given one by Usman, Mr. Waheed's nephew who's own 'white knuckle' driving style certainly shortened my life expectancy. Oh how I laughed as we drove into an unlit busy underpass - the wrong way and then, realising he'd taken us in the wrong direction, promptly did a 3-point turn. What joy.
But time flew by and within a few days I was bidding farewell to Mr Waheed and his young mechanics who (amazingly) had found the necessary spares to get me back on the road. I asked no questions. I was just glad to be back on my way to the Karakoram Highway. Thanks be to Allah. Thanks be to Visa.
It was with some trepidation that I turned off the GT Road heading north up the KKH leaving the autumnal warmth of the plains behind me.
As I climbed higher, the weather deteriorated. I became aware of Relief camps left and right of the road. It was a sobering sight. People wrapped in blankets, some squatting round fires, others queueing for supplies. I rode steadily through the crowds - I hadn't expected this so far west. The recent earthquakes had obviously effected a larger area than I'd thought. Farm buildings lay all around - completely flattened. I'd never experienced anything like this. I shuddered.
The road climbed higher up the valley and the rain continued to fall and the temperature dropped. I have to confess, for the first time, this 'Gritty Biker' was overwhelmed with the desire to be at home, on the sofa, in front of a log fire with a mug of tea watching an old movie....A big thanks goes to the man who fitted my heated grips - tears came to my eyes as their warmth glowed through the dampness.
I made it to Besham that night, on the banks of the Indus. Hotel Paris. A fine establishment which would have had more 'stars' if they'd been able to offer hot water. They weren't. Or heating. Or electricity. That night I dreamt of log fires.
Loud rumbling woke me from my lounge sofa. This area had also suffered in the earthquake - the hotel owner had lost a sister and her children. That makes you sit up. I thought of land slides and secondary earth tremors. After the rain these things happen, don't they? I was almost relieved when I realised it was thunder. The rain had eased but the sky was still threatening. If it's raining here what's it like at higher altitudes? Where's that sofa?
After miles of desperately bad roads literally carved out of the mountain sides I was flagged down by a Police officer - another passport check - or so I thought. 'Do you want to see a snow leopard?'. Er, why not? He waved me into an walled compound and closed the wrought iron gates behind me. Odd. I realised then he wasn't dressed in Police unifom. Four other men stood around. 'This is it. I'm going to be robbed!' I thought. Like a kid who gets asked if he wants to go with a man and '..see some puppies'.
One of the guys was washing a white van down - Jeez! He's washing out the evidence of the last tourist they sliced up and fed to the 'snow leopard'... At that moment a man came from behind the building followed closely by a snow leopard - unchained.
What the hell was I going to do?! See the next gripping episode of 'The Road to Kathmandu'...coming soon.
Posted by Simon Roberts at 02:34 PM
January 11, 2009 GMT
No.17. Pakistan. Crossing the Baluchistan Desert
At last, the story resumes....at the Iran-Pakistan border.
Pakistan. PAKISTAN! How many people can say they’ve ridden a motorcycle overland to Pakistan?! I was e-lated!…and then, very nearly e-longated. Pakistan’s traffic drives on the left. I was riding on the right. One learns quickly.
My route was to take me across Baluchistan to the 'wild frontier town' of Quetta near the Afghan border then on south.
Three days later my world would to be turned upside-down on the wind swept desert road south to Sukkur - “…not recommended if you are traveling independently.”
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Click on MORE below for the highs - and lows of this stretch of Dusty Highway...
I’d left Bam at sunrise fearful of the 600kms that lay between myself and Quetta. Crossing the border at Mijave I’d made it as far as Notkundi before I was ‘encouraged’ off the road into a police compound – for safety reasons. This stretch of road was not the place for that romantic night out under the stars. There's bandits in them there hills.
The men who'd kindly fed me (after sunset) the previous evening, had gone. I packed and rolled out onto the road and turned East, once again heading for Quetta. I arrived in 'Crazy hour', that time shortly before sunset, and the town was chaotic - doubly so after the (near) isolation of the desert road. The Lonely Planet lead me to the Hotel Bloom Star - an oasis of calm.
Later that evening I returned to the Hotel having eaten in a nearby restaurant ( I use the term loosely). Four or five locals were engaging the owner in an animated conversation. They fell silent as I walked in. " And now a cartoon?!" suggested the young man at Reception. I'd told him earlier of my skills as a Caricaturist. Looking round at the assembled 'party' - I regretted it. To cut a long story short - I survived to tell the tale...(Flick back to 'Episode 6a -Pakistan' for the full nerve wracking story).
Gearbox oil topped up and I was away at 8.00am on the road south to Sukkur over the legendary Bolan Pass. The British army had built a railway through this dramatic region in the 1800s, steep gradients and 20 tunnels - each one named. The project had cost them dearly...
The sun beat down on the road south. The tarmac shimmered, deserted. Quiet. Quiet that is, except for a nagging rumble coming through my footpegs. I'd felt it in third gear over the previous days but now I was picking it up in all gears...and now louder ...and LOUDER. I stopped. Checked oil. OK. Started the engine, engaged first gear...kkkeeEERRRUUNCHH!!! What the F*ck? Gearbox? Shaftdrive failure? This is it. It's all over. I slumped to the ground and lit a cigarette. It should have been a Hamlet cigar......
Is this it? The end of the road for our Gritty Biker? Find out in the next 'gripping' episode - coming soon...!!!
Posted by Simon Roberts at 08:03 PM
February 19, 2008 GMT
No.6(a). Pakistan. The art of travel.
Hang on. Pakistan? What happened to Bulgaria? I thought we left our gritty Biker sweeping down to the Black Sea coast?
Ah, yes. But what I've done here is fast forward to a scene in Quetta near the Afghan border. As I mentioned I need to put the first three chapters of 'The Book' together to approach publishers and, rather than start at Dover, I've opened the first chapter in Pakistan.
I picked my way through the day’s debris back to the Hotel, quickening my pace as dogs crossed the road. This was their time of day. During the daylight hours they cowered under tables, scavenging for scraps but as darkness fell they’d race through the streets like packs of hyenas. Best avoided. I was relieved to reach the gated parking lot of the Hotel Bloom Star. I was not ready for what followed...
‘And now you draw us, Mr Simon!’ said the young man on reception, excitedly. I glanced around and my heart sank. Seated in the foyer were a dozen swarthy looking men. Dangerous looking men. The 4x4s double parked outside indicated they were also important men.
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Earlier that evening, I’d chatted to him about my trip, mentioned that I was an artist and that I could draw his caricature after I’d been out to eat. A mistake.
I dutifully fetched my sketch book and pens and the first victim, sorry, subject was volunteered. I looked up from my pad at a man who could have been Bin Laden’s brother. Thick beard, hooked nose and piercing eyes under a mono brow. Normally perfect material for a caricaturist. But this was not normal. This was not a Company Christmas party. This man was not drunk – or smiling. A drop of sweat ran down my temple.
Click on MORE below for further excerpts from the rough draft.
I sketched feverishly trying to do a drawing that would not result in me being dragged naked behind galloping horses. I knew he was expecting something grand. A falcon on his shoulder…women at his feet…a proud white stallion rearing up in the background. I should have warned him that I didn’t do horses. Instead I concentrated on his head and shoulders – hoping to keep mine connected.
I turned the drawing round. He frowned. An expression of confusion bordering on anger. I swallowed hard. He showed the rest of the assembled ‘frontiersmen'. Silence. Then one started laughing. And another. Then all of them guffawed with laughter which set my subject off. ‘ Good! GOOD! Now you draw all of us!’
I rubbed my neck, smiled nervously, and moved to the next man.
Within weeks, cartoons of Mohammed, published in the Danish Newspaper Jyllands-Posten were causing uproar throughout the Muslim world resulting in angry protests, embassies being set alight and death threats for those responsible. My journey east could have been very different if I’d left the UK a few months later.
The Lonely Planet says...'Quetta. A meeting point for numerous tribal groups.Unlike most other Pakistani cities, it exudes the air of a wild frontier town'. I read on. 'Although the main township is safe for tourists, occasional tribal clashes do spill out onto the street'. Right.
Posted by Simon Roberts at 04:25 PM