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John McHale
John McHale
"Karakoram Highway 2000: Pakistan"

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Copyright © John McHale, 2002.



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Karakoram Highway 2000: Pakistan

After several weeks of planning, I’m finally on my way to complete the Karakoram journey I attempted two years ago. This time, I’m flying directly to Pakistan to experience the famous Hunza valley, which from all accounts is the highlight of the journey between Kashgar and Gilgit. During my last Karakoram trip I was unable to make the crossing from China over the Khunjerab Pass, and I’m anxious to see what lies on the other side of those mountains.

Other than this, I have no specific interest in Pakistan. I just know it as a country where women dress in bed-sheets, and little boys play with real guns. In fact, I have heard nothing but bad things about Pakistan, and this has made me apprehensive. During the two weeks I have available, I’m hoping to get into the mountains as quickly as possible, and minimise the time spent in lowland cities.

Day 1 : TAIWAN - LAHORE Sunday 8 October 2000

Friends have done nothing to dispel the notion that Pakistan is a fundamentally bad place, and I’m feeling nervous on the way to the airport. I’m finally on the plane and able to relax a little, but during the onward flight from Bangkok I start to get nervous again. It seems I’m the only passenger not wearing a shalwar chamiz and beard.

The plane lands at midnight, reloads, and then flies out again all within the space of an hour. This is a once a week run for Thai Airways, and clearly they are not interested in hanging around here. Lahore International Airport seems more like a domestic terminal, and baggage collection is chaotic. But surprisingly, I’m feeling fairly relaxed and amused by it all. In contrast to my expectations, there seems to be a general atmosphere of friendliness here. I clamber over the conveyor belt to grab my bike, and then start looking for the official Money Exchange area. I’m directed to a free-standing desk surrounded by a few guys lounging around on chairs. I’m quoted 62 Rupees to the US dollar. Wow… that’s almost twice what I had anticipated. My trip is going to cost half as much as I had budgeted!

There are no late flights to Islamabad, so it looks like I will have to cycle into Lahore and find a Hotel. This was something I was dreading, after all the reports I’d heard of this city. Eventually I head out of the airport area. While I’m getting organised with the bike, a man and his son come out of their home to offer me some water. The friendliness of Pakistani people is beginning to impress me.

As I set off there are still lots of people out. The streets are so wide and clean: it reminds me of a typical New Zealand suburb, and I’m feeling fairly comfortable. As I get further into the city the streets get narrower and dirtier, and everything starts looking more and more like part of a Third World scene. I chat with a local named Aser as we cycle along side by side, and he shows me the way to the Orient Hotel. I’m wondering if he wants payment for this service, but he just leaves with a wave. The room is basic with no hot water, but otherwise fine.

Day 2 : LAHORE - ISLAMABAD Monday 9 October 2000

A noisy fan has prevented me from sleeping well, but I get up early to survey Lahore during the daytime. The Monday morning street-scene is a lot different from last night, and the chaotic traffic seems really scary. But even more disconcerting is the complete absence of women.

I need to change more money. I’m directed to one place, but can only manage 61 Rupees/US there. Eventually I set off again on the bike back to the Airport. After my initial panic subsides, the Lahore street-scene begins to excite me with trucks, cars, bikes and horse drawn carriages coming from all directions. I’m tempted to hang around longer and take photos, but I remind myself that this is not the object of my trip.

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I just make it to the airport in time for a commuter flight to Islamabad. In fact, they have to re-open the door to let me on the plane. I’m sit next to a businessman from Islamabad, and we talk for most of the half hour flight.

Islamabad Airport is a fairly relaxed place. It occurs to me that it is really a very small city with only 1 million people, and a further 300,000 in Rawalpindi. I chat with a friendly security guard who is holding a very unfriendly looking sub-machine gun. He says it is called an "MIB5", or some such thing.

The ride into Rawalpindi is easy, although the traffic is even more chaotic than in Lahore. Rawalpindi seems nothing more than a grubby, congested village but is clearly more interesting than Islamabad with it’s modern, bureaucratic planning. I eventually locate a guest-house in "Pindi" which is well set up for travellers, and has a rooftop which gives a good view over the city.

That afternoon I head down to the PIA office to enquire about flights into the mountains. It seems that the best way of including Skardu in my trip is to fly there, and then bike "downhill" into Gilgit. Apparently, flights have been cancelled for the last five days, but a Business Class seat is available on tomorrow’s flight. Clearly, this doesn’t make sense….perhaps it’s just a veiled form of baksheesh. In anycase, I don’t care. The 3400 Rupees seems worthwhile, given my tight schedule. It’s interesting also how the attitude of the staff changes once I become a "commercially valuable" passenger.

Riding back to the guest-house I casually get bumped by a vehicle in the chaotic traffic, and it strikes me that Pakistanis have quite a different attitude to driving. Downtown Taipei seems like a kiddie playground in comparison.

Day 3 : ISLAMABAD - SKARDU Tuesday 10 October 2000

A noisy fan has again deprived me of sleep, but I have a great seat on the early morning flight to Skardu. The fare seems more than justified once we enter the mountains. The view is fantastic, and I bang off a whole roll of film. After landing in an empty dust bowl I already feel like I’ve achieved a lot by coming here. I just hope the weather holds.

It takes a while to get ready, and I spend some time chatting with locals. Finally I’m off: cycling towards Skardu 6 km away. Fantastic mountain scenery, and I’m taking photos at every opportunity, even though the light isn’t quite right. Arriving in Skardu, it appears like a kind of "wild west" town. I opt for the K2 Hotel at the end of town which faces the upper valley to the east. Great room with a hot shower and view – it’s newly opened, and after some further discussion is available at a discount.

The evening is spent climbing up to a nearby fort and admiring the scenery. The only other foreigner is a rather quiet German. In any case, I’m more pre-occupied with the scenery. There’s a full moon which lights up the whole valley. Eventually it falls behind a mountain and I head back down in the dark. Intermittent power cuts encourage me to go to bed early, but I fall asleep easily.

Day 4 : INDUS VALLEY 11 October 2000

I’m up early to try and change more USD, although it involves a little more hassle, and the rate up here is much less: 55 Rupees. I’m beginning to regret this piecemeal approach to changing money.

I finally set out at 10.00 a.m. for the ride down the Indus Valley toward Gilgit. Again, perfect weather and some good photo opportunities. I start off cycling strong, and the scenery gets even more interesting as I enter the gorge at the edge of the Skardu Plateau. Below is a Police Checkpoint and I stop to take photos of an interesting bridge as a foreground to the mountains behind. This almost lands me in trouble since this bridge is associated with the checkpoint. In Pakistan, taking photos of police/military installations of any kind is simply not allowed, even if it’s nothing more than a mud hut with a flag on top.

I’m feeling a little embarrassed after my first scrape with Pakistan bureaucracy, but it’s a beautiful ride down the gorge. Mostly down, but later in the afternoon the ups start to increase, culminating with one steady climb where I’m eventually forced to get off and push. I hate it when that happens, but I remind myself that it’s my first real day on the bike.

I have my sights set on staying in Thowar, but it’s so basic when I get there. The locals all go quiet and stare, like some wild west movie where someone will eventually say "strangers ain’t welcome in this here town". So, after buying some biscuits and water in this atmosphere of silence, I push on. I figure it’s better to maximise distance today so that tomorrow is easier.

Evening is approaching, and 90 km down the valley I’m starting to feel very tired. OK….it’s my first day, I tell myself again. In spite of this I push on in the darkness thinking I’ll be able to camp out on some grass flats somewhere. But it seems now that I’m in a never-ending canyon with no space to pull off. Occasionally large trucks roar past with headlights blazing on the narrow road which cuts into the side of these steep mountains. It’s getting pretty nerve wracking, but eventually I spot the lights of a village on the other side of the river. I figure there must be a bridge somewhere nearby, and after fooling around in the dark I eventually find a small track leading off the road down to the river. It’s a relief to get off the road and away from the trucks. Sure enough I spot the bridge below, although I’m content to stay on this side of the river tonight and not go into the village.

It’s about 10.30 pm when I finally get my sleeping bag organised on a flat terrace outside an abandoned hut. The moon comes out and lights the sheer face of a mountain side across the river. The scale of my surroundings here is awesome. I’m worried about rain, mosquitoes, snakes, etc, and anything else that could make me unhappy in this strange environment, but eventually I get to sleep with the sound of the Indus river roaring below.

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