An odd start to the day getting accosted and checked over by a plain clothes official in the hotel dining room. We had to make some copies of our Visa pages in our passports before he was satisfied. Today it was just Me, Martin and Xenia Oki having left early in the morning. Karimabad was the goal, only a short ride but we had a few stops planned, lots of photos to take, and easing back in to riding was a good idea after 7 days of almost none.
The roads did not disappoint, incredible scenery all around, some of the tallest mountains in the world are in this region and it shows. We were already at 3,000m and the mountain ranges lining the road were towering over us. The Chinese have put a lot of effort into opening up and maintaining the roads here for trade, so it made for awesome riding. The people were surprising the whole way, always waving from their bikes, 3 grown men on one tiny bike waving away and grinning at us was not expected at all. I nearly fell off the bike laughing as one guy rode passed, dancing from the back of his friends bike.
We made our first stop of the day at Hussaini to see the suspension bridge, it’s incredible, at least 100m long spanning the gap over the fast flowing Hunza River. It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t look like it was built by 5 drunk guys who found some wood and steel cable and decided to make a shortcut home. The wooden planks are evenly spaced at “1 Human” width apart and the handrail cable only secured enough to give it a good 2 meters slack. I went out heading for the other side very cautiously but the further out, the more it swayed, I realised even if I did keep my nerve enough to get all the way across, I had to come back again. We ventured far enough on to get some nice pictures then teetered back solid ground again. Mission accomplished.
Back up on the road we got a coffee from our new friend. He really was a friend too, he was so happy to meet people, he serves pretty much everyone coming to the bridge; little stones line his shop with messages written on, and stickers from travellers on his doors.
We got to Karimabad a few hours later after more amazing riding and views. We were aiming for a hotel we’d heard about in the hills above the town, Eagles Nest, though we didn’t realise quite how high it was. The tiny road leading up the hill twisted it’s way around villages for an age, very steep, slippery with gravel and some very sharp hairpins. The rooms were pretty expensive for our normal hotel budget so we grabbed a triple room to share the cost. Connecting back to the internet properly for the first time in over a week was nice, China blocks so much it made it impossible to work properly.
In the morning Martin and Xenia left and headed North to a valley they wanted to explore. I hung around until lunch time making the most of the calm and internet after China, then headed South toward Gilgit. Only a short ride on some more amazing roads, but ended up circling around in the rain for an hour searching for a hotel, not planning ahead wasn’t a great idea. The president was staying in a hotel in town which didn’t help things with police and security everywhere. I tried a bunch of hotels, put off most by the prices, much higher than I’d expected of Pakistan, some of the places the locals pointed me too weren’t even allowed to take foreigners. So I resigned myself to the cheapest I’d come across, still the most expensive I’d used for 3 months.
A little stroll around the town and try and get a SIM card, a very lengthy process in Pakistan, but the guy in the store waived all the formalities and got me one straight away. It meant he put his neck on the line, since if I do anything bad, it’s his name on the paperwork, but he was so happy to help a traveller and have a good chat. We spoke about how Pakistan is portrayed by western media and what my experience was like so far. A lot of people seem painfully aware of what most westerners think of their country, and they’re trying so hard to change it, bit by bit.
I packed up nice and early to get on the road, hoping to make it to Islamabad in 1 day, a long way but I was ready for a nice long ride on some great roads. It didn’t really work out that way though. A few locals had told me to take the shortcut road through Naran instead of the main Karokaram Highway, it was much shorter on the map, and should have less traffic since the trucks take the main road. A few hours later, freezing my ass and hands off on the top of a very high pass and soaking wet in the snow, I regretted listening to them. The pass should have been beautiful and quiet, instead it was foggy so I couldn’t see anything and lots of roadworks diverted me onto long slippery muddy stretches.
I made it to Naran a little pissed off and cold, at least I was dry by then, my gear did a good job of keeping the water on the outside. I found a decently cheap hotel, with a room full of flies and got unpacked to another surprise. My remaining half bottle of emergency whiskey I’d bought in Kyrgyzstan had spilled in my bag, now everything stunk of alcohol, in a country where alcohol is illegal for locals. I spent an hour cleaning everything and left it to dry while I went for some food. The town seemed to be a big destination for Pakistani holiday makers so it was packed with touristy shops, flashing lights and, thankfully, good food. They didn’t seem to quite have the power situation sorted though, one minute the hotel across the road would go dark, then when it came back up, the restaurant next door would go dark, rinse and repeat all evening.
The scenery changed a lot in the next days riding, it started to get very green and very hot, almost tropical trees around the road and covering the hills. I was making good progress toward Islamabad until I made a wrong turn and rode for 30 minutes down a road that was a dead end to me. It entered into part of the Kashmir region that is disputed between India and Pakistan and I would need a permit to enter. I was pretty hot and bothered so the border guard was really getting on my nerves, I was trying to understand why I couldn’t pass and he was being anything but helpful, shouting at one point, ignoring me another. I turned around and had a break to cool down, literally and mentally, chatting to a shop owner and some kids. I figured out a new route and set off on some small village roads, course correcting.
I spotted a little place for lunch on the road and pulled up to see what they had. I’m in the habit now of just walking into the kitchens and asking to see dishes, it’s much easier than trying to ask, the dishes vary so much under the same name. Does the Biryani have chillis in it or not, is the dal a spicy one or not, is the meat on the bone or not. This way, I can just go by what looks good, they’re usually happy to have the weird foreign biker wandering around anyway. I sat down to eat and a guy who just pulled up in a car asked if he could join me with his dad and little brother. We chatted a while about my trip and his life, he had been between jobs for a while and was driving his brother back from Cadet college for a family gathering. When we left he offered to pay for my meal, I refused about 5 times, as you should in this part of the world, to separate genuine offers from politeness but he insisted, so he paid the whole thing, I was honestly humbled, not a lot of money for me on this trip, but significant enough for him with no income.
Somewhere along the main Karakorum Highway I took a wrong turn again, my GPS did it’s derpy best and gave me a more direct route into Islamabad, through the villages and back roads. It turned out to be the right choice anyway. The road was tiny, one car wide in most places, winding through villages and farm land all the way through to Islamabad. I found out later it also let me avoid a bunch of armed escorts that you would usually have to follow on the main road, score!
Riding into Islamabad was beautiful, my accidental road brought me over the hills at the back of the city, so I was winding down the mountain looking out over the city at sunset. I did not expect however, that it would look like Milton Keynes, with more Mosques. It’s a purpose built city so all the roads are straight and wide, the grids and blocks well placed and thought out, and it’s a doddle to navigate. It’s also very modern, and western-isms are creeping in, just down the road from my hotel was a Hardee’s burger place and a Subway. This was not at all the city I was expecting.
I headed over to the Visa agency the next day to get my India Visa application started. It took a lot of running back and forth printing various things out, photocopying this and that and getting enough currency to pay the fees. Once that was in there was nothing else to do, my passport was tied up with them for anything between 5 and 15 days. I could potentially travel on a photocopy of my passport but it wasn’t certain whether it would be a problem or not. I decided to stick around until my passport was ready with the Visa, I needed a break and had plenty to do. My hotel wasn’t as cheap as I’d like but it had air conditioning and internet.
Ten days later I had my visa! I had to go for a little interview at the Indian High Commission, they asked about the trip and what I was doing in India. They also wanted to know why I needed “Multiple Entries” and I listed out my 6 entries I would need, they said they would see what they could do as it wasn’t normal at this office. What they could do was ignore me entirely and give me a “Double Entry” instead. Bugger. I spent the afternoon re-planning India to make it work with only two entries, since I’m flying to a few places in Asia in November and December, that will have to happen from Nepal now and a trip to Sri Lanka will be much more difficult.
I intended to do some riding back to the North of Pakistan once I had my visa to see some things I had passed by in my rush to get to Islamabad. Though a combination of small illness, laziness and the promise of very poor roads with armed escorts meant I didn’t leave Islamabad at all in sixteen days! I was sick of sitting still by the end of it though, I’d blogged, planned, watched TV, played games, read a book, eaten at all the local places and basically ruined a hotel room in that time. Time to move on toward India!
24/08/17 to 11/09/17