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John McHale
John McHale
"Karakoram Highway 2000: Pakistan"

Page 2


Copyright © John McHale, 2002.



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DAY 5 : INDUS - GILGIT 12 October 2000

I wake up and get dressed just before the locals arrive to investigate. After a quick breakfast of biscuits and water, I set off about 7.30 am. I’m keen to get as many kilometres in before the full heat of the sun. It’s a barren, dry gorge, but it’s mostly down with now minimal traffic. I’m still feeling tired, but plug on through the gorge admiring the frequent rapids. The Indus is a big volume river with lots of big recirculating holes. It seems scary from a kayaking point of view, but otherwise looks like a great river to paddle.

The small towns roll by as the morning progresses. After miles of desolate rock I eventually reach an idyllic spot with grass, where I rest and finish the rest of my food. Finally on to Sassi: the first "major" town on the map. But there’s no bottled water available - so I push on, conscious of my limited supply.

The gorge opens out again and returns to being dry and barren. Very hot now and increasing uphills. I’m confused about the distance markers on the road, and then I realise the 170 km total distance refers to the length of the Indus Valley down to the Karakoram. Clearly it will be an additional 40 km from the river junction to Gilgit. It’s tough going through the remainder of the gorge, but the sight of distant snow-covered mountains reminds me of why I’m there. I finally make it to the bridge at the junction in the afternoon, and I’m very tired and thirsty. The locals at the bridge give me some water which has been tapped from somewhere. It’s probably not clean, but I’m too thirsty to care.

I hang out in the shade near the bridge, and decide to try to catch a lift to Gilgit. I’m not interested in killing myself today. A Swiss couple appear on bikes and stop for a chat. They’re on their way up to Skardu and I give them as much detail of the road as I can. They’re really loaded up and wearing the prescribed long sleeves and trousers. I’m feeling exhausted after riding down the valley with minimal weight, and yet here they are preparing to ride up the valley – but they look like they’ve been travelling for some time, and are probably much tougher than me.

I finally get a ride after crossing the bridge and getting onto the Karakoram Highway. They first say 200 Rupees but agree to 150. I’m in the back of a small covered van which they drive like absolute maniacs. I’m seriously wondering if it’s worth the risk, but after 10 km’s they get stopped at a checkpoint for illegally transporting timber. I get bored waiting for them to sort out their problems and bail out of the van. I’m feeling a bit better on the bike, and it occurs to me I could try to make it to Gilgit after all. After 5 km’s the van catches up to me (minus their timber), and they want me to get back on board. I tell them the price has gone down to 50 Rupees. They can take it or leave it as far as I’m concerned. I’m prepared to ride all the way to Gilgit if necessary, but eventually they agree. The hills that appear around the next corner make me glad to be back on board.

Given my tight schedule, I’m beginning to think I should spend most of my time in the upper part of the Karakoram Highway and perhaps try to fly out of Gilgit. In any case, my immediate concern is whether I will get to Gilgit without experiencing a really bad car crash.

We finally enter Gilgit. After paying the driver, I lecture him on how his driving habits suggest the need of some pyschiatric help, but of course he just shrugs his shoulders and disappears. I’m tired and dirty when I arrive at the Taj Hotel but they welcome me in. It’s been a hard start to the trip, and a shower is much needed. The Hotel dhal/chapatti is very good, and I spend a relaxing, but chilly evening walking around Gilgit.

I go in search of a bus station where I can catch a morning bus to Sust. The locals here are all very friendly. It seems also that there are a number of foreigners living in the town. Back at the Hotel I meet a British/Pakistani: Sagheera. He’s straight out of London, but of course has a good insight into the culture. Like me, he is enjoying Pakistan as a tourist.

DAY 6 : GILGIT - SUST 13 October 2000

I’m up early, but breakfast isn’t available until 6.30 so I go out for another walk. After breakfast I go to meet the bus. The guy selling tickets is very keen to buy my bike, and I smile nervously while tying it to the top of his mini-bus. At the same time two women in saris walk past talking English with unmistakable kiwi accents. This causes me to stare after them. But all I see are their beautiful silk outfits draped over their heads, which make them indistinguishable from dignified locals.

The bus is off by 9.00 am and travelling fast. As we head up the valley the scenery becomes more and more impressive, but I wince every time I see a potential uphill for the bike trip down. We pick up two Japanese couples along the way. The guys share space on the roof with the bike, until the bumping around eventually scares them back inside the bus. We arrive in Ayitabad just above Sust at around 2.00 pm, and I’m wondering if I can get up to the Khunjerab Pass that afternoon. However, there are no buses, and in any case there is a strange arrangement whereby you are not allowed to get out of the bus unless you are continuing across the border to China.

Rather than waste time in Ayitabad amongst the rubbish and lethargic locals, I decide to make use of the remaining daylight and ride up towards the Pass as far as I can. I head away fairly fast. It seems flat for miles and a good road following the river. I set my sights on an out and return to Dih 30 km away. As evening approaches it starts getting steeper and colder …..much, much colder. Eventually I’ve got all my gear on, but the cold is still biting. I’m determined to get to Dih, but finally I bail out 3 kms short. There’s a strong headwind now, and it’s getting dark.

Going back down, I realise how steep the road has become. I can’t believe I rode all the way up this. After rolling down fairly fast the darkness eventually slows me down to a crawl. I’m worried about an impact puncture, or buckling a wheel on a stray rock. This time there’s no moon, and there’s a seemingly endless period where I am feeling my way along nervously and trying to discern the road in the pitch black. I curse myself for not thinking to bring lights.

It’s such a relief to finally see the distant lights of Ayitabad. My head and fingers are now numb, but I continue through the first collection of buildings to the Old town of Sust and stop at the Mountain Refuge Guest-house. I’m the only one there. Tourist season is over, and all the owner can give me for dinner is a basic potato dhal, but it’s good to be inside away from the freezing night air.

DAY 7 : SUST - KHARIMABAD 14 October 2000

I’m up early as usual, but the Hotel owner says there’s no kerosene, so no breakfast… hmmm. It’s too cold to ride, so I go back to the room. The scenery around is impressive and I decide to wait for the sun to fill the valley and take some photos.

Eventually I head off down the valley to the Dreamland Hotel in search of some breakfast. It’s very pleasant sitting on their terrace in the sunshine, and admiring Rakaposhi and the surrounding mountains. God knows how many barrels of oil have been used to cook my omelette, but my instant coffee mix goes down well. Still a little chilly when I head off again. I stop to take photos at every opportunity. So many beautiful mountains, and the riding is easy.

I make Passu for lunch and again it’s very pleasant in their garden with grass and trees and a fantastic view of snow covered mountains. I’m not looking forward to the 4 km climb up to Yashvandan, but ultimately it’s not bad. After Yashvandan the run down to Ghulmet is fast and easy, but it’s only 2.30 pm and I see no reason to stay. I figure Karimabad is only about 30 km’s away and that it would be a better place to spend the evening. I’m also intending a rest/maintenance day tomorrow so I continue energetically in an effort to get there. However there is now a headwind, and some further climbs to deal with.

Starting to feel noticeably tired as I enter a barren gorge which undulates around recent landslides. It’s not a good place to hang around in. This time I have plenty of water and I push through doggedly. It’s a long hot, dusty climb through the collapsed sections of road, but finally….finally, I’m out of the gorge with a long down hill ahead of me to Ganesh.

It’s a great run down, and as the road levels out I spot a female cyclist on the roadside taking a photo. Seems like a good spot, so I stop also to take a photo and chat. Funnily enough, she’s a kiwi. We chat easily for ten minutes, and then cycle along together to meet up with her husband who is waiting a kilometre or so ahead. The two of them seem very nice, but also strangely familiar.

After a further period of talking the woman suddenly asks me "did you go to Victoria University?….and then after a brief pause "were you part of the kayak club there??"….and then, after a further pause "… John!??". I respond with my usual tact by saying "Uh, yeah - who are you?", and in a quiet voice she says "Anna".

I momentarily draw a blank: Anna...??, and then it hits me. This person with her jacket hood up and wearing sunglasses is Anna Pool: an old girlfriend from my university days in New Zealand!

I’m also well disguised with a full blown beard and cap, but even so, she guessed before I did, which was a little bit embarrassing. Her husband: David Tyler, also completes the picture. During that time 15 years ago, I remember him now as a quiet boy in the background. This is a wonderful coincidence, and we cycle into Karimabad together talking non-stop. They’re great company, and it’s reassuring to be with old friends and enjoying Pakistan together.

Karimabad is nice, but as expected, very touristy. I accompany David and Anna to one Hotel, but it’s too dingy for me. I’m suddenly feeling tired, and get a little stressed in the search for another Hotel now that the sun has gone down. This is compounded by a sudden and unexpected dose of diahroeaa. It’s a close call finding a toilet, but eventually I’m settled in the Karim Hotel with a good view over the valley.

Pakistan’s spiritual leader: the Aga Khan, has status akin to the Messiah, and will be visiting Karimabad in four days. Already people are celebrating with fireworks, but I’m not in the mood, and feel intimidated by all the explosions close by. I seem to have a mild dose of Giardia, and sleep for an hour before joining the others at a restaurant. In addition, there is another Swiss biking couple: Sandra/Stefan, who became acquainted with Anna and David in China. The company is nice after two days alone, but I leave fairly early after eating very little. I go straight to bed to nurse my stomach, hoping I can sleep through the worst of it.

DAY 8 : KARIMABAD 15 October 2000

I wake up feeling happy that I don’t have to ride my bike today. My stomach seems reasonable so I go for a morning walk where I meet up with Sagheera again. Small world up here in the mountains. We exchange stories, and then I return to the Hotel in time for another toilet stop. I feel tired and out of breath. I wonder if it is altitude induced, or simply a symptom of my Giardia?

It’s nice sitting on the verandah outside my room and doing nothing except to admire the view. The morning is clear, but I can see some high cloud developing. Maybe it’s time now for this clear run of weather to end?….but the Hotel owner says that during this time of year every day will be fine and sunny.

I eventually get organised to clean and oil the bike, and then sleep again for an hour or so. In the afternoon I make my way up to the Baltit Fort. This is the major tourist attraction here. The restoration of this historical fort has been sponsored by the Aga Khan Foundation and it’s easy to understand why this organisation, and the man himself is so well-respected. There’s no English speaking guide at the Fort, but the presentation is translated for me by a nice British/Pakistani couple. It’s a great view from the fort which occupies the highest point above the town, and the sight of birds wheeling in the sky against the backdrop of mountains is very dramatic.

On the way down I meet up with Sagheera again and a few other tourists. This place is so small, and it’s easy for travellers to meet and mingle while enjoying the spectacular scenery. The others continue up to Baltit Fort and I head towards the smaller Altit Fort.

I meet up with Anna and David as they are coming back from the Fort. Seems we are all doing the same things, but at different times. We agree on a restaurant for dinner, and I continue towards the fort in the late afternoon.

Altit Fort has not been restored with the same attention given to the Baltit Fort. In fact it’s nothing more than stabilised ruins. The village below seems far more interesting. I completely forget the advice in the travel books that the locals do not like being photographed. It’s only when I get yelled at by one of the villagers do I realise my mistake. I put my camera away sheepishly, and walk back to Karimabad village feeling very much like an ugly tourist.

On the way back I pass by some very pretty Hunza women. Their faces are uncovered, and many have striking western type features such as fair hair and skin. Their manner also strikes me as very proud and self-confident. I can’t help thinking that this is a characteristic of mountain dwellers throughout Asia.

I have dinner with the others that night. The food is simple but good, and I’m able to manage eating again. I’m intending to leave tomorrow, so after dinner I say good-bye to Anna and David, and I’m in bed by 8.30 pm.

DAY 9 : KARIMABAD - CHALLAT 16 October 2000

It’s overcast this morning. After an early breakfast and a cold shower, I’m back on the bike heading down through Karimabad to rejoin the Highway. The travelling is mostly downhill for several hours, and the bike is running so smoothly after it’s cleaning and oiling. Aliabad comes up sooner than expected and I roll through quickly. Again there are regular stops for photos along the way. Finally I stop for lunch at a collection of roadside restaurants where there is a good view of Rakaposhi.

In one of the restaurants I meet a friendly Canadian who is running a business in Gilgit. Also at the table are a group of Afghanis, and since I have never met anyone from Afghanistan before, I strike up a conversation with them also. Most of them are older men who do not speak English, but the youngest there has travelled throughout Asia. He tells me they are working in the jewelry trade. They all seem very civilised and pleasant, and with a quiet sense of Afghan pride. But like many Afghanis at the moment, they feel safer living in Pakistan.

While we are eating, an avalanche rolls off Rakaposhi, and we are close enough to hear it also.

Looking at the map: Chalt seems easily possible and I amble on. More downhill and the weather is now hot and clear. I arrive at the Chalt turn-off late afternoon, and since Challot seems a better place to stay, I make my way down the gravel road to a bridge crossing the river. The approach to the village is very pleasant with a tree lined track leading to the main guest house in town. Again, I’m regarded by everyone with a mixture of curiosity and mild suspicion, but I’m now hardened to it all. There’s no power in the village at the moment so after settling into the guest house I buy a coke and go for a walk up the river nearby.

When I finally return on dusk the power is still off and the village is in darkness. With nothing else to do I’m in bed at 6.30 pm.

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