China Cycling Travelogues

Do you have a China cycling travelogue you would like to share here?
Contact us for details.

John McHale


John McHale
"Karakoram Highway 2000: Pakistan"

Page 3

Copyright © John McHale, 2002.


Skip to:   John McHale - Page 1 | John McHale - Page 2 | John McHale - Page 3

DAY 10 : CHALLAT - GILGIT 17 October 2000

After a basic breakfast I give the owner a handshake and head off early. Again it’s very pleasant ambling out of the village and waving to children on the way to school. I’m taking a back route which leads to another bridge and back onto the KKH. It’s easy travelling on the highway with minimal traffic and I look set to reach Gilgit by lunch time.

Sure enough, after an interesting short-cut via Dainyor, and across an impressive bridge, I arrive at 11.00 am and I’m welcomed back into the Taj Hotel. The shower and lunch is good, but I’m left with a feeling of dissatisfaction. My trip is over too soon, and in hindsight it’s all been too easy. I have this longing to continue. Suddenly I wish I didn’t have a job to go back to. I’m starting to feel much fitter and comfortable on the bike. My brain starts racing. I could continue down the valley all the way back to Lahore, and then overland to India, Nepal…south towards Thailand, Laos?…maybe Indonesia?, through Australia?… and then across to New Zealand ….in time to see Mum for Christmas? ….or maybe it would have to be next Christmas…?? But no - I know I’ll be back at my desk on Monday morning. Hmmm ….I wonder if there will ever be a stage in my life where I have the courage to completely let go like this, and follow my heart.

In contrast to my previous Karakoram trip, everything in Pakistan so far has gone right, and I’m convinced now that, logically, something bad has to happen. I’m still faced with the prospect of trying to get a flight out of Gilgit which is very weather dependant, and I’m feeling rather pessimistic about this. Sagheera turns up again at the Hotel: having caught the bus down from Karimabad, and offers to go with me to the PIA office.

The ticket office is crowded, although Sagheera suggests that four out of five of the people there are probably relatives or friends with nothing better to do. We are told to sit down and wait for confirmation on whether they can issue me a ticket. Chatting with Sagheera helps to pass the time while I am waiting. After forty minutes nothing seems to be happening on either side of the counter, so I stand up and try pushing the issue.

To my surprise, they look up and then casually begin writing me a ticket: as if they had been waiting all along for me to get impatient. Even Sagheera doesn’t fully understand this, and we leave with a ticket for a flight tomorrow morning, feeling both relieved and confused. This is one aspect of the culture here which has my western sense of logic completely stumped.

I leave Sagheera to talk with his local friends, and wander around Gilgit alone taking photos. I’m hoping the plane will be able to get in tomorrow. In fact it is a bit of a risk because, given my schedule, I would then have to abandon the flight ticket, and rely on a 16 hour bus journey.

Sagheera and I meet later for a nice dinner in a "fancy" restaurant , which has the combined cost of 2 GBP. I’m in bed at 10 pm. After ten straight days of beautiful weather I’m still feeling confused by it all, and convinced that it can’t continue. Most likely this "run" of weather will break tomorrow, at a time which is most critical for me.

DAY 11 : GILGIT - LAHORE 18 October 2000

During a final breakfast the Hotel owner tells me his friend wants to buy my bike. Again I smile nervously, and then cycle off quickly to the airport.

There are a few clouds in the sky and I’m a little worried. The airport guards with their big guns maybe sense this, and look at me suspiciously. The check-in is a frenzied, chaotic process, which is ridiculous given that we are then left to wait in the departure lounge for half an hour. By now the clouds have burnt off and I’m assuming that since we have checked in a plane is on it’s way. Sure enough, a plane quietly appears from behind a mountain and lands on the tarmac. I’m the last one onboard while taking a last look at the mountains surrounding Gilgit.

My seat is on the right, which is not ideal for taking photos. Nor are the small windows. I resign myself to not getting any photos, but after take-off the Hostess sees me: a solitary foreigner fidgeting with a camera, and immediately invites me to go up to the cockpit. I can’t believe my luck.

The pilots are great guys, and I spend the rest of the flight up there with them talking about the current cricket match between NZ and Pakistan, and of course taking photos of the wonderful mountain scenery. The plane is 30 years old and the cockpit interior is showing it’s age, but the pilots have done this run numerous times. We pass over many ridges quite low and weave in and out of valleys, and it’s a great experience. I stand balanced between the two pilot seats all the way until we finally touch down in Islamabad. This is the highlight of my trip, and it puts me on a high the whole morning. What a great country!!

On arrival I get a ticket for the 1.00pm flight to Lahore. Everything now seems wonderful and easy. Instead of waiting at the airport I decide to kill time by trying to cycle into Islamabad. It’s further than I think, and I’m not impressed by the riding conditions on the motorway, so I return in plenty of time to catch my flight.

Back in Lahore, I head once more into town. This time I try the more "upmarket" National Hotel, but the obsequious porters there irritate me. So I return once more to the tatty, but more down to earth, Orient Hotel. I go walking in the evening looking for food, but now things don’t seem so easy. Lahore really is a nightmare city in places. People starving amongst incredible filth on dark, muddy streets. There’s a kind of mad desperation in the air, with people yelling and vehicles coming out of nowhere. I’m glad I’m not noticeable in the shadows as a "rich" foreigner. It’s also hot down here on the plains, and I’m drinking lots of sweet soft drink. Shame I have to spend another day here before my flight out.

I’m exhausted when I return to the Hotel at 9.00 pm, and after a cool shower I’m asleep straight away.

DAY 12 : LAHORE 19 October 2000

I’m up latish in search of breakfast on the bike, but it turns into a protracted, tiresome exercise. Nightmare traffic and hunger makes me irritable. Everything is so spread out and it takes a long time to get anywhere. I finally eat a local burger at 10.30 am and set out for a look at the Red Fort and Old Town area. Traffic is getting worse and I’m feeling quite scared and vulnerable on the bike. In addition, there seem to be so many people begging and starving on the streets amongst the chaos of vehicles and dust. I circumnavigate the Fort, but the light is hazy and not good for photography.

I decide to go back through the maze of alleys within the Old Town. Although it’s still a little bit nightmarish, it’s much quieter and a relief to get away from all the vehicles. I stop for a series of people shots within the busy alleyways, and then I’m back into the main fray of traffic outside. At this stage I really want to get back to the Hotel

Finally I’m back, and it’s such a relief to roll into the sheltered Hotel compound. I’m hot and dusty, and the cool shower is heaven. I rest in my room with no windows. I see no reason to go out again, but I know I should eat. Eventually I ride out to the Bhaktawar Hotel nearby. The meal is a little strange looking, but the coffee is good. I feel much better as I head back for another cool shower and rest.

I want to stay safe in my room until the final ride out to the airport tonight. I’m feeling paranoid about the traffic, and worried that I’m going to die here on my last day. I check out of the Hotel early evening, since it occurs to me that it would be safer riding while it is still light. I nervously pick my way through traffic: keeping a lookout for anything that seems life-threatening. Once I’m on The Mall, which is the final stretch out to the airport, things seem ok.

Just short of the airport I decide to stop at a shopping area and waste some time. First outside a new MacDonalds, which has to be the most artistic I have ever seen with a beautiful mosaic ceiling. Eventually a bored guard decides to move me and my bike along. I’m bored also and have time to spare, so I decide to stay put and have a philosophical debate with him. The fact that he doesn’t have a gun helps, and eventually he wanders off mumbling. It seems like a hollow victory though. This kind of petty mindedness just makes me depressed. Unfortunately it’s a particular feature of Pakistan officialdom, and my reaction to it can often make things worse. It’s the same elsewhere around the shopping centre. It seems I’m not able to spend more than five minutes in one spot before a soldier or guard of some kind feels obliged to move me on.

Eventually I continue on to the airport, although I still have a few hours to wait for my flight. I have to change my remaining Rupees back to USD, and I’m able to do this over a fence with some locals. It turns into a fun exercise. I chat for a while with these guys, and they give me a free coke.

Finally I head towards the check-in area, but the soldiers at the entrance stop me. Something on my ticket confuses them. Most of the passengers are being let through, but some others like me are prevented from entering. The time of the flight is approaching, and I’m becoming increasingly frustrated by these morons with guns. I finally blow my top when another security guard wants me to leave my bike outside. Whatever is happening here, the system for checking in is clearly very disorganised.

Eventually I calm myself down and try to think rationally again. I locate a small office upstairs where some Thai Airways people are working, and they help to clarify things with the airport authorities. They are equally angry and frustrated themselves with the military’s lack of understanding. Eventually I’m let through to the check-in area with minutes to spare. But once inside I’m subjected again to the usual delay involving questions and a luggage search by more soldiers. I’m very conscious of the time now, but this time I manage to keep my cool.

It then occurs to me that these guys are just bored and curious, so I try a more indirect approach. I start chatting with them, and show them on a map where I’ve been. I tell them how beautiful their country is, about the fantastic weather, what wonderful experiences I have had here….and how wonderfully friendly Pakistani people are… fact, anything I can think of to make these guys mellow out. Finally they start smiling and nodding, and then wave me through. I throw everything together and race for the plane.


In spite of this unpleasant final episode, my memories of Pakistan are of phenomenally beautiful mountains, and the many relaxed and friendly Pakistani people I met. Most of the bureaucratic problems I encountered were associated with the military and probably could have been dealt with better using greater diplomacy, and perhaps more of a sense of humour.

In any case, I’m pleased to have proved my friends wrong about this country. Although I was glad to leave Lahore, I very much look forward to going back to the mountains of Pakistan again.

For what it’s worth, I also believe the problems experienced by western women in Pakistan cities are almost always a result of inappropriate or inadequate dress. Many of the women travellers I met who had attended to these very basic requirements (covering the head, arms etc) experienced no problems whatsoever. Sure, women are under more constraints than guys in Pakistan….but that’s just the way it is. It’s a different place, and it’s up to them whether they want to have a good time there, or a bad one.

Given the current hysteria over Muslim extremists, it may also seem that there are greater hazards for westerners travelling in this area. My trip took place before the terror attacks in New York, although during the time I was in Pakistan there was already a lot of suspicion by westerners towards the Muslim world.

Islam is a peaceful religion and Muslims feel it is their duty to others. My experience in Pakistan has shown me that the vast majority of Pakistanis are fundamentally peaceful people, who feel nothing but goodwill to visitors. I am convinced that this is still the case.

My trip to Pakistan also inspired me to do some belated reading. I can thoroughly recommend the book "Kim" by Rudyard Kipling, to get an insight into the depth and wisdom of the culture in this area, along with many of the Peter Hopkirk books which give a fascinating account of the history.




Photo by John McHale

John McHale.

Skip to:   John McHale - Page 1 | John McHale - Page 2 | John McHale - Page 3

Top of Page

Bike China Adventures
Main Page | Guided Tours | Photos | Bicycle Travelogues | Products | Info | Contact Us

Copyright © Bike China Adventures, 1998-2005. All rights reserved.