A loud splatter of rain mixed with the angry rumble of thunder greeted my semi-deaf eardrums at 4am. My return to the Karakoram was being warmly welcomed by purple streaks of lighting brutally flashing through the sky.
I turn to look at Rowan, another aussie riding an XT660 to Europe from Australia. The gingerbread man and I had met two days previously in Islamabad through a mutual friend of ours, Ray (who did some crazy riding through the east on his GS).
Gloriously, the 4.30am departure from Islamabad had left the road open only to us and the occasional smoke blowing jingle truck. The first major road block of outrageous traffic on the Karakoram is generally always Haripur, followed by the heavily trafficked cities of Abbotabad and Mansehra – unless of course, you have enough discipline to leave early morning.
Barbecued chicken in a bank – Besham City
Prowling around for a barbecue chicken at lunchtime in wet Besham City proved to turn up nothing, since no one gets the barbie burning until after 5pm in Pakistan. So we settle for chapati and vegemite (an immaculate australian delicacy extracted from yeast) in our humble room before snoring the afternoon away.
Wandering out to the balcony below a live wasp’s nest that evening, four blokes were hovering over a glowing red grill, fat dripping noisily onto hot coals. The dousing rain we’ve been enduring all day is still carrying on worse then a howling baby.
“Walicoom al Salaam! How are you? Are you hungry? Come and eat with us!”
So over the pair of us toddle to the bank next door. The whole bank staff is there celebrating a fellow colleagues promotion, and after all the greetings we sit down and share a meal of barbecued chicken and karahi with another 10 people.
Through mouthfuls of chicken and naan, Rowan and I recount our stories to our curious new friends, who are listening intently and throwing in the occasional joke. We leave our brothers from other mothers late that evening with many thanks, and call it a night – another long day ahead tomorrow.
We’re off at 7.30 am, for the 330km stretch to Gilgit. After two brief check ins at the security posts, Rowan and I glance up at the darkening sky, and pull over to thundering booms resounding through the valley. Now is a better time then never for the wet weather gear.
Heavy drops of cold rain slap down on us as we dodge the occasional rockfall spillage the rest of the way to Dasu. The sound of thunder continually booms and I’ve given upon looking at the crumbling overhanging rocks which leer at us from above. I’d rather not know what’s coming from the Karakoram rock heaven to crush me into human flavoured ketchup.
Notorious for its poor road condition and landslides, the “road” between Dasu and Chilas lived up to its reputation. The rain had all but briefly stopped, but we were greeted with a new challenge – a landslide. While jingle trucks bulled their way over the makeshift muddy track, I get cornered on the edge of the cliff face, and Rowan just below another pending landslide.
With no one wanting to give way (which is fairly customary here in Pakistan) Rowan and I lean back and watch the heavily laden jingle trucks battle the steep slope over the landslide. Silenty I hoped the rocks would be nice and not roll. Although I am partial to rock and roll… Here’s to hoping!
Suddenly, a sharp whistle pierces the air from behind us. Small rocks have begun tumbling down the mountain we are directly under, and all the locals are all legging it!
“Lets get the [email protected] out of here!” Rowan roars, and the gingerbread man leaps into his yamaha’s saddle like it’s a bucking brumby. Rowan gasses it out and over the edge of the landslide and I go to follow suit… unfortunately two Pakistani’s won’t partake in the wild dash to safety – they are trying to shift a rock bigger then both of them out of the way with a steel fence post.
With the falling rocks getting bigger, the pair of them decide they like running from rocks more than moving them, and they finally leg it. I’m on route at last, rocks tumbling down to my right, narrowly skirting around a roaring jingle truck on the cliff edge who is spitting mud everywhere on spinning tires. The air shifts from scary to tense as the few cars at the bottom of the first landslide begin reversing to avoid ending a feature of the new landscape.
The fun bit.
After our narrow escape we decide to carry on without a pause. Numerous fun parts have been added to the Karakoram highway since I was last here. In one section the road has transformed into a small flowing river, with nothing on the base but sand and rock. Luckily, it was flowing in the right direction – straight ahead!
The rain is relentless, my gear is holding up well, but Rowan has bent over a bit funny after a wee and tore his waterproofs at the bum seams. Every tight corner has become a water crossing. I underestimate a ‘puddle’ and end up two foot deep in brown water for a few short seconds. My sister always says mud baths are good for the skin. Knew I should’ve ridden nude.
We carry on, regardless of the weather but a little on edge after the landslide and rockfall incidents. Sometimes we get a few kilometres of smooth tarmac, other times it’s a few kilometres of rutty, potholed dodgeball on a bike. Still, we’re both having a blast and enjoying the adventure of it all, even if Rowan does have wet nuts now.
The dry bit
Soon enough the weather relents, and we get a break from the pelting rain. I’m straight off with my waterproofs at the last checkpost outside Chilas. After a brief 10 minutes, we have our GB cards and can now access Gilgit – Baltistan. I’m almost wetting myself with excitement – which defeats the purpose of any wet weather gear.
The police insist on following us but are happy to let us flog it and so we lose them about ten seconds after leaving the outpost. Hot sunrays beat down on us as we ride into what I now refer to as ‘Prometheus Valley’. The following picture explains why such a reference is used.
The scenery is raw, unadulterated and it feels we are finally closing in on the mighty Karakoram and her sisters, the Hindu Kush, Pamir and Himalaya.
The brutal nature of the Karakoram is shown on the passing cars – cracked glass, dented bonnets and rock spillages litter the road. With such a mesmerizing view of the mountains, I hardly even pay attention to these glaring warnings. While we soak in the beauty, we cross the bridge into Gilgit – Baltistan, where the new tarmac section has been laid. It’s grippy, it’s smooth, but still spread with peanut butter like rock in places.
Gilgit appears on the horizon, and waiting there at the entry monument is Rahim, a good friend from when I was last up in a much colder January. A hug and handshake later, we’re on the way to his home, and parking under the cherry blossom tree in his fathers front garden.
The wet bit.
It seemed the rain was long overdue, and I woke to the loud patter and slap of rain on rock. Moaning at the grey sky, we pack all our gear in the rain, and I was left wondering why I didn’t have an auto body soaper so I could shower on the way as well.
Leaving the front garden, someone got a bit overexcited with their throttle control and ended up sliding a rear wheel back and forth on a very slippery patch of muddy track. A circus of spraying mud ensued. Said person did not let go of the throttle however, and manage to save the fish dance and avoid going headfirst through a brick wall.
With Rowan laughing hysterically at my antics, we rolled out of town towards a soaking Nagar valley. The rain wasn’t all bad however – it had given the surrounding Karakoram a dramatic setting, low clouds settled around the higher measures of the orange and grey mountains outside Naltar.
I couldn’t pass through Nagar valley without stopping by to see an old friend, so we pulled over at Esan Ali’s place for a hello. If you’ve been following these dribbles that I type, you’ll know Esan Ali is the tailor that works at the sawmill along the KKH in Nagar Valley. Being the legend that he is, Esan Ali had two cups of steaming tea waiting for us after being showed around the flour mill and belt sawmill.
The last kilometres to Karimabad were spread with cherry blossoms – baby pinks, marriage whites and sexually frustrated purples. This was my first time seeing the reknowned cherry blossoms of Hunza and the beauty of them wasn’t lost on me for a minute. As Karimabad grew close, so did masses of cherry blossom trees spread all over Hunza – all the way up to the roof of the world.
The Karakoram Highway (KKH)
For the first time in five days, I don’t wake up to the familiar sound of the sky crying. I have a peekaboo outside and the sky is wearing a cute shade of blue.
“Not a bad day for a ride aye Ro’?”
Taking advantage of the good weather, we’re out of town by eight and on route to Deh (a rangers outpost 30km north of Sost). Right after leaving Karimabad, we get walloped by the stunning view of yet another valley, this time near Ahmedabad. The day just gets better from there.
While Rowan runs into the concrete edge of the tunnel while filming me disappearing into the blackness, I’m looking forward to the next stop on Attabad lake. Well it’s kind of secret spot, so I can’t really tell you where it is exactly. It doesn’t take us long to get there however, and before long we are enjoying the view of the seven year old Lake Attabad.
Turqoise waters reflect the tiniest amount of sunlight between the many coloured behemoths who watch us with thousands of rocky eyes from across the water. The old KKH is broken and defeated on the edges of the mysterious karakoram mountains. Parts of the KKH have disappeared completely either into the lake, or buried under huge mounds of rock.
Amjad remembers me from my last foray up here with Matty and wanders over with a hug and a handshake. He puts some chicken noodle soup on the get down stove while boiling us a few eggs. After our hot meal Rowan and I wander off to the Husseini bridge, where I almost fall off trying to walk it without using my hands, and where we also meet a Korean couple on their honeymoon.
Shortly thereafter we pull up at Pasu. The Pasu cathedrals are still just majestic as the last time I was here. Rowan is totally blown away, not that I blame the bloke, I’m the same way every time I visit.
Dirty yellow and oranges rock shines in the sun while at the other end, sharp black mountains moodily glare across the way. Mountaintops lick fiercely at the low hanging clouds, endeavouring to pierce them in all kinds of earthy colours. Really the Pasu Cathedrals are such an amazing set of rocky teeth, you probably wouldn’t mind getting munched into mince by them.
Tearing ourselves away from Pasu, it’s only a short sojourn to Sost, where the temperature has dropped five degrees. While trying not to lose our fingers to the low temperatures, we gravitate deeper into the Karakoram. We manage to convince the national park rangers at the gate to let us ride to Deh outpost at a late 5pm.
Deh is located only 50km from Khunjerab Pass, the highest border crossing in the world. There is a rangers post, a police post and a road. Oh magnificent scenery too. Arriving halfway into a cricket match, after recieving out visitors pass, Rowan wanders over for a bat and a bowl while I fall half asleep on some nice, comfortable cold rocks.
The ground is sprinkled in frost and the mountains around us are powdered in bright white snow. Surrounded by a thin forest, it feels like we are getting closer to finding the middle of nowhere. Sort of.
Rowan, I and the rangers move into their kitchen, which consists of two boilers – one with a large pot of stewing yak bits, and the other heating up water for tea.
Everyone is pitching in for dinner – well except Rowan and I, we are having a good old chat with the blokes instead. One fella is preparing the dough for fresh chapati, another one is on wood gathering duty and of course, there’s a bloke by the teapot.
Well fed, well looked after, and full of yak and dhal mash, we bunk down in our minus-something storage room for the night. Khunjerab tomorrow!