Frost crunched gently underneath leather boots as I wandered over to the rangers communal area. A sheet of true blue spread across the sky as if it had just been freshly ironed. Sunrays that hadn’t appeared in almost a weeks riding massaged my cheeks with warmth.
‘F%*k yeah’ I thought to myself. What a great day for riding (well isn’t any day?)
Ducking my head as I entered the communal space, the rangers and Rowan both were tucking into fresh made chapati with butter and some jars of jam we’d hauled from Hunza. Time to join the feeding frenzy.
After a quick pack and load, and one last police checkpost, Rowan and I made tracks for the last 50kms of the Karakoram Highway.
A new hello came in the form of hairy Yaks. Draping themselves across the tarmac, they basked in the heat on their thick furry coats. Bright white snow burnt into my eyes, reflecting the bright sun as Rowan and I configured a way between the oversized fauna of the Karakorams.
Pyramid shaped mountains covered in thick sheets of snow glanced serenly over the top of us. Dancing snowmen greeted us wildly on lazy corners, so we stopped and danced too. It was a pleasant 25km of nice asphalt, not a car had appeared, and this great patch of road was solely ours to enjoy – for just a little longer.
Rounding an off camber turn into a deepening valley, an oversized snot coloured avalanche made us aware of it’s presence. Stacked metres in the air, rocks of all shapes and sizes were mixed in with the snow, making it look like an oreo mcflurry.
Upon close examination, 4WD tracks climbed up and over the frozen snotty mess. The tracks leading over the several metres high obstacle were carved into packed ice and some rather terrifying gouges. Should we give it a crack anyway?
Rowan took the initiative and decided to give it crack on his XT660. He got about 25 metres in before he began melting the ice with a spinning rear tire. We bounced, we shook, we pushed and we dragged. Rowan’s yamaha was in a ‘no’ kind of mind. So were we.
Instead of spending the morning riding over an avalanche, we befriended some locals and danced with them instead.
Riding jeep track to Chapursan
Taking a nifty hint off a certain Mr Naveed Khan, well known for his outrageous journey by foot from Khunjerab to Karachi, the road to Chapoorsan was on our hit list next.
The pair of us snuck by the police igloo none to quietly, spitting gravel and leaving behind clouds of dust. Knowing the whole section was gravel and packed dirt, our buzz was up and the road was perfect for riding!
Not only was the jeep track bags of fun, but the surrounding views were insanely beautiful. Enormous, tooth like mountains glared down from above onto the dirt track. The valley appeared to be so raw, so… tough. Even so, life still existed here between the Karakoram and the Pamirs, near the edge of the Wakhan Corridor, Afganistan.
Wild Yaks crossed the cool river, gently butting at one another with their curved horns as they wandered along the riverbed. Gliding birds shot overhead to land on invisible rock crevices. Meanwhile, we droned along the 70km track to Zudkhun, feeling like two miniature ants.
A wakhi man.
A broad shouldered man of middle ages drove a tractor into the dirt driveway of a freshly planted property. I recognised how tiny my hand felt as it shook Alam Jan’s bearlike one.
“Welcome to my home, please come inside”
So inside we went, and learnt a little of Alam Jan, how he built his settlement from the ground up himself, planting spring onions he gathered from the mountains and working with glass for the first time. He grinned as he recalled how he had built his home from nothing.
He was a Wakhi, a mountain man, first and foremost, which is why he loved his wife – she was happy to let him roam the Pamirs, crossing glaciers on the backs of Yak. Wisdom and visions of faraway places seemed to glint out the corners of his shining eyes. The more I learnt about Alam Jan, the more of a personal hero he became.
We wandered his garden where he had planted all kinds of fruit trees, which was a first in the region of Chapoorsan, and especially Zudkhun. Green shoots of the first spring onions had begun to squeeze through the soil. His daughter Coom Coom ran amongst the the new trees, playing hide and seek with us as we walked.
It was a kind of special bliss away from everything for an afternoon and a night, completely surrounded by the snow covered Pamirs. The evening was the most peaceful I had been privy to in a while. Even the stars twinkled their agreement.
The sheep skin for my seat that I had been offered by Alam Jan was unfortunately an Ibex skin (you need a special permit to take these kind of things out of the country). So making a promise to return (which I am really looking forward to doing), the gingerbread man and I set on our way back to the Karakoram Highway.
While taking out my wind proof layer, a kindly old gentleman wandered over and returned my lazy hello with a handshake and a shoulder embrace and invited the pair of us for tea. Rowan wasn’t overly impressed with my over savouring his tea with salt – although the locals found it hilarious!
Soon enough we cleared Chapoorsan, and hit the KKH again. With plenty of time on the clock, Khunjerab beckoned. The avalanche had been cleared – a relative term, since there were precariously high walls of snot coloured snow stacked willy nilly either side of the road.
Yaks stood by as the pair of us tuned through the snow covered Upper Karakoram. Perfectly smooth sheets of terrific white powder covered the sides of the mountains, blending in with the dreamy clouds chasing two riders up the pass. Tiny lakes and waterfalls froze in time, bleeding strands of blue ice down the sides of cold rock.
Finally, rolling past the last checkpost, Khunjerab was only a few kilometres away…
A snow covered road greeted us.
I have a terrible track record with packed snow and roads. Memories of trying to get up Nathia Gali (the Gali’s are located in Murree, Pakistan) in heavy snow came flooding back, and I threw in the towel after losing the front end a few minutes in.
Rowan succeeded in getting a little further, but returned shortly thereafter with a grimace. Turns out he’d dropped his XT660 twice on the way back down. Snow was knee deep all the way to Khunjerab, time to call it a day. We’d made it this far, and that was good enough for me.
The reality of the Karakoram highway, was that it had spoilt us with it’s immensely rich views. How can another corner of the world rival such an area of indescribable beauty? As the saying goes “this is best view, until the next best view”.
Headed due south with the added thrill of being offroad again, the pair of us opted for a cheeky afternoon ride into Bagrote Valley. This is one of the lesser travelled, lesser known valleys located on the route to Haramosh.
Choppy gravel road met our front tires as we ground our way up, deep into Bagrote. Beginning as a dry, dusty climb, the greenery slowly came to life the deeper we rode. Soon enough, pink cherry blossoms were littering the road with petals, as we passed by children finishing school for the day.
Villages consisted of no more then a handful of houses and one or two general shops, spread along every few kilometres. The main mode of transport here was the MF240 Tractors that are apparent all over Pakistan. Cheery farmers waved at us as we squirted past down the roller coaster road. Not a terrible place for spin if you want to get away for a while.
Riding to Skardu (S1).
After a days rest in blossoming Karimabad, Skardu was next on our hit list.
The road was dusty. Grit crunched and crackled between my teeth after crossing Alam bridge. Sand flew through the air behind the overladen jingle trucks roaring slowly ahead. Diesel smoke belted our senses. So this was the S1 eh?
Riding to Skardu was a fun, which usually means ‘sketchy’ experience. The S1 is really only a single lane ‘road’, that runs on the edge of a cliff for a good 120km, with a steep drop straight into a raging river. Add in the rocky overhangs, potholes, the no mans land sections and you’ve got yourself a bagful of riding. Surprisingly though, drivers tend to be well behaved, which is a hefty bonus considering all the squeezing throug that needs to be done!
Flogging the first 150km out of the way, we didn’t find a need, or really a place to stop. With the road being so narrow, it didn’t leave us any safe options for a stop – so off we went.
Eventually the road climbed out of the drab brown valley, and we saw for the first time, the sandy river bed outside Skardu. Mountains never cease to amaze me, and here was no exception. Tipped in white, they pointed skyward, guarding the sandy river bed and completely encircling two grubby riders from Australia.
Finally, we had reached the meeting of the Himalayas and the Karkoram – this time in the east of Gilgit-Baltistan.