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  • The Karakoram Highway – Part 1

The Karakoram Highway – Part 1

Where they found old Osama

Abbotabad, Abbotabad, why is the driving here so bad, Abbotabad? What an absolute chaotic mess. When you can’t beat ’em, join ’em I guess.

Shah and Matty as usual, were sifting through the abysmal mess of the Abbotabad karakoram highway traffic jam, while I buggered about with my huge panniers like an overweight mule who had too much to drink. The gaps grew smaller, the cars grew in number, and I may or may not have grown my collection of side mirrors. That we’ll never know.

“This is where they caught Osama Bin Laden” blurted out Shah with a customary grin.

“Just as well they had a helicopter” I thought to myself. God knows how the Americans would’ve caught anything more then cancer and a sore middle finger if they were doing it as a road directed capture. Jingle trucks billowed out lung cancer inducing smoke, which I never really got used to, even though I did eat alot of it. Shah smoked like a chimney, so I guess he barely seemed to notice.

Karakoram Highway

Break time with Shah

 

The karakoram highway begins – Becham to Chilas

After a breakfast of toast and jam, Matt and I were unceremoniously late for our 9am “sharp” meet with Lizzy and Shah. The poor old police were stuck staring at our miserable unorganized mess of documents while Shah lazily smoked away on a cigarette. Nothing ever seemed to bother the bloke, there always seemed to be a cheeky twinkle hidden in his eyes.

Matty, my riding partner for extraordinary capers up the Karakoram highway

The first checkpoint on the karakoram highway was a few kilometres outside Becham, where it was the straightforward process of greetings and book filling. Planning ahead, Matt and I had photocopied our passports and written all relevant information on them for a breezier pass at the upcoming checkpoints. It didn’t really help much, we got asked the same questions anyway.

Karakoram Highway

The greenery around Becham begins to fade away as we head further north up the Karakoram Highway.

We were apparently in the ‘red zone’ now. The only time I was seeing red was when oncoming traffic decided to overtake on a blind corner, which resulted in a few near misses. It definitely didn’t feel like a no go zone – Police levies stayed behind us and let us go as quick or slow as we liked.

Not even minutely bothered when we stopped for pictures, the police just chilled and brushed their teeth with twigs, which I found to be a very awesome trick to employ in my future endeavours. They were quite sociable and relaxed, happy to have a chat or let us be.

Karakoram Highway

A cool bunch of Police dudes on the way to Chilas

The whole lot of escort changeovers was done flawlessly, each toyota swapping shift without a stop on the road. As in Balochistan, police were armed with automatics and walkie talkies, and would tell us a little about the ‘troubles’ in the areas we were entering.

With such a smooth system in place, there was ample time to enjoy the snow capped mountains as the Indus flowed a cool light blue below us. Time to enjoy the magic of the karakoram highway.

Karakoram Highway

Lizzy having a bo-peep at the Indus river, between Becham and Dassu

Dasu’s road of potholes

Creeping to a halt in Dasu, we snuck to the front of the queue of hulking jingle trucks as a huge yellow chinese bulldozer tackled a landslide covering the muddy road. Chinese engineers looked on as the yellow dozer, flying a Pakistani flag, tackled the daunting pile of rock. We begged and pleaded with the traffic man to let us through – 3 poor riders who just wanted to enjoy a day ride into the mountains – and eventually he buckled and let us through.

Karakoram Highway

Waiting for this yellow monster to clear the way for us little fella’s

This was the “old” karakoram highway, the ridgey didge road that I’d read about so many times, and heard all the stories about. I could see why it was so notorious, even with the occasional patches of new asphalt laid amongst longer patches of potholed muddy “road”. Looking up was a somewhat daunting – the rocks looked ready to crack off at any minute and crush us into human jam. I contemplated half the time whether our bones would crush into powder or fragments, or would be like marshmellow jam?

Karakoram Highway

“Would you like some rock with that?” Rockfalls and landslides are a common occurence along the karakoram highway. This bugger caught us a bit off guard though!

The potholey-mud strewn road was fun, well for me anyway, I had a new suspension system installed back in Greece. Not sure about the 150s, though I assume anyone riding a bike is grinning underneath their helmet. I couldn’t deny that I was enjoying the smooth new asphalt sections alot more then usual – they felt like glue!

Karakoram Highway

The karakoram highway begins to show off a little bit… and those mountains only got more amazing from here!

Amongst all the enjoyment, rocks the size of small trucks appeared on the everchanging road as if to reaffirm the dangers of riding the karakoram highway. The new asphalt sections already had large craters decorating the road with impressive foot deep potholes, some of which I may have not have seen, resulting in a resounding whack in the balls occasionally.

Karakoram Highway

Not sure what Matty is so stoked about here, was it a sneaky fart? Or is he pleased to get a respite from the dented road? I guess we’ll never know!

Shah suggested we stop for lunch at a local hotel, which we all did happily. Sipping on sugary cups of tea, we ordered fried chicken. Ten minutes later 4 plates of “Beef” biryani came out.

“I’m pretty sure this is organs and not meat” Liz commented, poking at the ‘meat’ with a fork.

“Nah, no way, it’s muscle for sure” Matt claimed, shovelling it in his mouth like it was the last thing he’d ever eat. I always wondered if he actually chewed his food.

“It’s some sort of muscley fat I think” – which I said right before I found some kind of artery looking ventricle object in my “meat”.

Shah as always, gave us a cheeky grin, ate in silence, sighed, lit a cigarette and blew soft smoke clouds at the ceiling.

Karakoram Highway

Soaking it all in before reaching our stop for the night, Chilas.

Chilas to Nagar

Arriving in Chilas in the early evening, Matt, Shah and I went to do some research on hotel rooms. Finding a 2000 rupee room for two (US$20), made us all pretty happy so we settled at the Shangri-la. With poor Lizzy in a full throttle nose blowing, lung rasping cough mode, the three of us went for a walk to look for fried chicken and “Aloo” chips (potato chips).

Karakoram Highway

Goodnight KKH, see you in the morning, Chilas.

The last three days of riding had been long, so we agreed on late start and a lazy day of riding to Karimabad, inside the Hunza valley. Known for its dried fruit and stunning mountains like Rakaposhi (7778m, 27th highest in the world) and the Golden Peak (7027m), we were all pretty excited to get there and groove it out on the karakoram highway.

Karakoram Highway

Shah. The man. The smoking chimney. The riding tank. Some say he throws thunderbolts at the mountains just for kicks. What we do know is, his name is Shah, a Karakoram biker.

Landscapes changed from what we had between Mansehra and Chilas. The greenery was being exchanged for rocks. Lots of rocks. Big ones, small ones, some shaped like a head. The mountains however, grew evermore grandiose on the horizon. Every corner we leaned around shouted at us to stop and take yet another picture. We probably would have stopped a little more if we hadn’t noticed that virtually every car or truck on the karakoram highway had smashed glass, dented bonnets and welts in the boot from continual falling rocks.

Karakoram Highway

A not so early start got us to this place. Matt summed it up nicely – “it looks like another planet”

On the way to Nanga Parbat (8126m, 9th highest in the world), Matt and I found a rather large rock, bigger than a B double sitting next to the road. It had rolled down the hill and played roller coaster with the edge of the karakoram highway. Being me, I got so excited I dropped the bike in the most undignified fashion, much to Matts delight, Lizzy’s looks of confusion and Shah’s twinkling grin.

Karakoram Highway

“YOU SHALL NOT PASS” I roared with an outstretched palm. And that my friends, is how that rock came to be.

Nanga Parbat was partly hidden by frosty clouds by the time we arrived to catch up with Shah and Lizzy, who were enjoying a coconut tea. Matt and I joined them for a cuppa and a soft bun while overlooking Nanga Parbat and the clouds playing tag over the top of the range. It was a desolate, barren run across to Nanga Parbat, dry dirt and rock leading all the way across the deserty looking plain. The greens of yesterday were all but gone, along with the warmer climate.

Karakoram Highway

Old Nanga Parbat in the white dress, hidden by the clouds. The terrain around here is super barren, the coconut tea however isn’t.

Into Hunza

After dragging our wheels at the final few checkpoints, the dark night fell quickly. Our little group finally turned left up the road to Karimabad, inside Hunza valley, only able to see the winding road and the buildings alongside it. It seemed like there was a torrential amount of hotels, half of which were closed for the winter season. Managing to find a cheap room (1500 rupee) Matt, Shah and I destroyed 2 barbecue chickens at the local barbecue joint next door.

Karakoram Highway

There’s always some timber around these parts and I don’t know where they get it all from, because I haven’t seen any forests. Anyway, this bloke was cool enough to let me take of photo of him getting down to business near the police checkpoint at Hunza.

The next morning a storybook opened and pages flicked over as a local family tended to their apricot garden (or was it cherry?) preparing it for the coming season. Hunza scenery screamed out to me through the frosty glass windows of our modest room. Rakaposhi glared indiscriminately, snow blowing off the top into realms where few humans dare to enter. To my right, ranges soared skywards, scattered with snow, more brown than the ice white of Rakaposhi and friends.

Karakoram Highway

The confluence of the Indus – Gilgit rivers, and where 3 mighty ranges meet – Hindu Kush, Karakoram and the Himalayas. Epic eh?

Wandering into an old tea house five hundred metres up the road, Matt and I sat down inside. The locals barely noticed us, more interested in their Cawa (mountain tea) and morning conversations than the sight of two foreigners. It was a strangely comforting change of pace.

Amongst the whiff of a rough cigarette and burnt matches, an omelette and thin paratha came out fresh hot from the kitchen, accompanied by that milk tea that I’d come to love so much. Being our lucky day, the electricity kicked in again and the EPL came onto the telly, and so to our immense enjoyment, we watched the last 15 mins of Manchester United versus Hull City. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

A walk to eagles nest

Deciding to have a day off from riding, Matt and I elected to walk up to Eagles nest from Karimabad, about a 2 hour walk up the lower mountains. Houses and shops were scattered all the way up, as the Pakistan national symbol of Massey Ferguson 240 red tractors roared along the small dusty roads amongst the dried out apricot orchards. A group of older men were squatting away, hidden in a corner, a cigarette dangled from a pair of lips over a cheeky game of cards. Looking over a shoulder, they saw their observers and grinned cheekily, as if to say they were up to a boyish no good.

Keepin’ it real in the corner. These dudes were having a mad laugh at each other the whole game, and snuck us a few cheeky grins too. Hunza is great!

Gradually the houses became less congested, and there were open spaces of nothing but stunning views of small orchards winding down into Hunza. The immense size of the valley gradually began to dawn on us, the higher we walked, the bigger the Hunza grew. What a remarkably beautiful place. Cows mooed at us as we wandered past, except one who ran away up the road when Matt tried to pet him. Goats continually ‘baa’d’ from the strangest places, sounding like they’d been sucking down two packs of cigarettes a day since birth.

On the way to Eagles Nest, a beaut place for a wander, innit’?

At long last (because I’m much too unfit to be doing any kind of excercise except picking up Trumpet) we reached the eagles nest.

Eagles nest

Golden peak and yours truly. Bonser day out, the first clear day in 2 weeks!

Essentially, the eagles nest is a high point accessible by one road, which has a few hotels and camping sites. The Golden Peak at the opposite end of the Hunza almost looked like it was challenging Rakaposhi’s reign of towering beauty. I can’t say I wasn’t awestruck, because I was. We’d been lucky enough to get the first clear day in two weeks in the Hunza, so to see the Golden Peak and Rakaposhi in one hit was pretty special.

Look out world, Matt the Magician is here!

Shah and Lizzy rocked up a half later, on the comfort on their 150cc Suzuki. Having enough of the below zero weather, wrapped up in our new lambs wool Chaada’s, Matt and I sought some tea and “Aloo chips” at the only cafe that was open behind the eagles nest hotel. Two benches sat inside a picturesque empty orchard on the mountains edge, so we sat there and waited for our humble meal while munching down on some sugary chocolate bars to a very cool sunset.

Attabad Lake

The temperature dropped to minus 8 that night, which was evident by the struggle to get out of bed that morning. How do clothes get that cold just by sitting on the floor? Bloody hell. It was starting to feel like winter in Stockholm all over again.  Omelettes and mango toast went down the hatch at our ‘regular tea house’, which unfortunately this time had no electricty for us to enjoy some football.

Karakoram Highway

Attabad lake, when the weather started getting real dicey on the karakoram highway

Shah and Lizzy caught up with the pair of us at Attabad lake. You could see exactly where the old Karakoram highway had collapsed on the sandy banks of the new lake. The chinese had built a new tunnel which ran straight through the mountain, although the electricals seemed to be non existent.

Karakoram Highway

“Where’s Matt?” “I thought you knew” “Nah dude, no idea. Probably over there somewhere” Lizzy scouting out from her bike in the rear view.

Taking a good look around, I began to understand what a much easier time we were having on the karakoram highway, as opposed to previous trailblazers such as Will and Kate. Old colourful ‘Tuk tuk’ boats were half sunk in the freezing lake, and I pictured the hell of trying to get a 240 kilogram bike on a plank from shore to boat without losing the thing in the water. Yeesh. A perfectly good house sat underneath the cold blue lake, a white roof barely poking above the calm water.

Half sunk into the icy water, these boats were used to ferry things across the way before the new road was built. Come to think of it, they still are in use.

 

Pasu to Sost

After departing Attabad lake, the wind blew at us like a nutter who had eaten too many gummy bears. This wind is a notable characteristic from Attabad heading to Khunjerab, not exactly sure why, but that’s the way it was. Another checkpoint later we all stopped at Amjan’s tea house for tea, cake and eggs on a hairpin turn just outside of Pasu, next to the immense Pasu Cones and that famous suspension bridge.

The suspension bridge at Pasu swinging in the wind while this bloke just walks on through, fully loaded and free handed. What a boss. The cones are too bad either.

Matt and I couldn’t help ourselves, and had to cross the bridge in all the blowy business. The views of the Passu Cones were stunning, and so were the huge gaps between the foot timbers on the suspension bridge. Upon closer inspection halfway across the bridge, I found the cables at hand height were only held together with some thin wire.

“Well, it’s better than duct tape” Matt commented.

“Well, it’s better then duct tape”

On our way across, back came a local crossing the bridge without a worry in the world, free hands with a load of vegetation on his back. What a hero! Making the other side of the swinging bridge, I waded out into the freezing lake, precariously testing my waterproof boots while Matt climbed up the stone stairway next to the bridge. Turns out my boots are waterproof, but not cold proof – I couldn’t feel my toes until later that night.

Those beautiful Pasu cones. The picture doesn’t do it justice, but they are quite spectacular.

 

Shrinking winkies in Sost

So came the time to split paths, Shah and Lizzy were heading back to Karimabad, while Matt and I were continuing towards Sost. Saying our goodbyes, we headed back into the ever nippy winds of the far north. The mountains continued to get more outrageous, looking like a rough pack of razor blades stabbing at the white clouds surrounding them.

Where the gang parted ways!

Sost was only another forty kilometres away, so before long we entered into town… or what was left of it. Ninety percent of the town was closed, and the main street consisted of about twenty people, a few cars, five or six shops, and one or two “restaurants”. Ice and snow littered odd sections of the side streets off the karakoram highway, and all the hotels were seemingly shut.

Matt looking very optimistic about the weather.

We did find a great little “restaurant” tucked away down an icy street, and sat ourselves down inside.

“Salaam alicoom” we chimed together.

A small fellow by the name of Khan happily welcomed us inside with a

“Waalicoom Salaam. Chicken soup, eggs or Chicken Biryani?”

“Two chicken soups with eggs and green tea please”

A cool minus ten, we were absolutely stoked to find a good soup in such a bloody cold climate. Soup downed and tea swallowed, we thanked Khan and headed out for the ‘hotel room hunt’. After trying five different places, three of whom were closed, the Riviera and one which was 1000 rupee more then the previous, we chose the Riviera to sleep in for the evening.

Scenic view, miserably cold weather. Great tea though!

 

The turning point

“You’re kidding me, the window is frozen… from the inside”

Matt just laughed and came through with a cool “Really?”

We had two separate beds with mattress heating, and Matt confessed he’d been sweating on top of his heated mattress most of the night. I of course, had managed to score the one that didn’t work in the google measurement of minus twelve (to be clear, it really felt like the minus twenty I’d been enduring back in Norway). Thankfully, I rubbed life back into my frozen toes in front of the small gas heater we’d been provided. A breakfast of chocolate, nuts, figs and coconut ensued before we got back on the road at a lazy 11am.

Karakoram Highway

Not this again. Memories of nathia gali came flooding back, especially after our “there’s too much snow” chat with the police. They only had 2 feet of ice stuck to their car. Valid point gents, valid point.

Riding two kilometres up the road got us in touch with ice covered roads sprinkled with patches of snow. The further we got, which wasn’t very far at all, conditions just seemed to worsen. Our fears were confirmed with the police hilux coming the opposite way, who told us the road was at least knee deep in snow, which was evident just by looking at the frame of their vehicle.

Looking at the clock and at the road, I sighed and discussed with Matt what the plan was. We came to the conclusion it was best to turn around and live to fight another day, Khunjerab was always going to be there after all. We really weren’t prepared well or experienced enough for the snow, and didn’t relish the idea of picking up bikes every few hundred metres just to hit the deeper snow later on. Being stuck in the middle of nowhere in -10 didn’t sound like a great idea.

Back to Karimabad.

So we turned around. I’ve never felt a cold like I did that day, except for the snow storm I was caught off guard in Turkey with. Wind cut through my five layers of wool and windstoppers. Although the weather wasn’t in our warm favours, it still put on a remarkable show on the jaws of the karakoram highway.

Karakoram Highway

Winter on the Karakoram highway.

Enormous toothlike mountains tussled with the incoming snow squalls. Dark rocky browns and black cones waged a fierce war on the white mists that hovered around immense peaks. It made me think of these great ranges I was a lucky witness to see as the ‘teeth of the world’. Every mountain I had seen before these, excluding maybe Nanga Parbat felt wimpy by comparison… and I am still yet to see the Gasherbrums, K2 and a thousand others!

Jaws of the Karakoram

Amjan was happy to see us again at his modest teahouse outside Pasu, and served us up 6 boiled eggs, 2 cakes and 4 cups of tea. I was happy just to warm my hands over his gas stove and eat cake to be honest, the rest was a bonus.

Next week – the craziest night ride of my life on the karakoram highway!