1 US$= 8.2 Yuan
Torugart Pass (Chinese Side)
It’s not over yet. Yes, we’ve cleared the border, but Chinese customs lies ahead of us. Despite a pit in my stomach from the anxiety, I’m in awe. Yeah! We’re in China! Taking it all in, we slowly pedal down the single lane road lined with trucks waiting to drop their load—a mirror image of the Krygyzstan side. Even the people look similar. Kind of Asian. Kind of Turk-like.
Ok. It’s go time. We’re passing a row of storefronts and shacks. Halfway down is a Chinese flag flying outside. We’ve left Ben and Mike behind, thinking they’d be more of a liability getting us through on this side. Wearing our “China Tour” hats and IAX jerseys, we approach the customs office. Incredibly, the Chinese lady is quite congenial, but obviously confused by the six names on our invite and only two guys in front of her. We give her the run-around, explaining that Ben and Mike are coming shortly, and that the two other guys are deathly sick because of the terrible Russian food. She gets it and laughs when we do the sick as a dog mime thing. She moves us from room to room, making us wait, and wait some more. All of a sudden, she returns with our passports and tells us we are free to go. Of all the stories I’d read about Chinese authorities messing with us, this wasn’t what I expected. Finding a bank, we change some mone than get out of there fast, still looking over our shoulder for the spy vehicle. The road is empty. Dusty red clay riverbanks weave their way down river ahead.
Then it comes. A truck comes trundling up behind us, dust swirling, horn honking. Oh no. Here we go. It honks some more, forcing us to stop. To our joy, it’s Ben and Mike. They, too, got through without a hitch, and thanks to our official invitation. Slowing to say goodbye, we stop for a photo, and give our “China Tour” hats to a couple of kids who have stopped to check us out.
Still a bit paranoid, we put some miles behind us and the border, then make camp out of site from the road, on a sandbar below the river bank. Cooking our remaining pasta, we’re pretty much out of food. This is okay. Tomorrow we’ll be in Kashgar. I write in my journal till after dark, still expecting someone to find us.
5865 km to date
It’s one of those, “on-fumes” days. Not much food left, but with lots of desire, we haul our way into Kashgar, passing fields and increasingly frequent donkey carts as we get close. Having the Lonely Planet’s guide to the Karakoram Highway is a help. At least we have a few places to stay in mind and a city map ahead of time. We’ve mowed the mileage down by early afternoon.
We’ve chosen the Seman Hotel, which, we learn, was once the Russian embassy during the days of the “Great Game”. Up the street is the Qin Bagh hotel, once the British counterpart during that intriguing period of history. I sign the registry, “Neil Young, occupation: Hollywood stuntman”, just to mess with them. Maybe Brent will notice this when, if, he gets here.
Savoring a Coke on the outdoor patio, we’re taking in the scenery still wearing five days of road filth. Lots of activity. Backpackers come and go. Feels good. We haven’t really seen backpackers yet on this trip. Just then a jeep full of them pulls up beside the hotel. A guy about thirty gets out wearing a “UBC” sweatshirt. Ha. A Canadian. We introduce ourselves and enjoy a good chat with him. He’s been studying Mandarin in Beijing for the last three months and came out here for a vacation. He’s definitely got a bit of an edge on—been in the country too long maybe. But he’s good for a story. “Have you seen anyone shitting in the street yet? You will. You will.” I buy him a beer and we hit if off with more stories of his time in China.
That night he takes us, Ben and Mike (who arrived yesterday) to the Uiguer night market next to the Ida Kah mosque for a huge bowl of rice and stir fry. Delicious. What a bizarre scene. The five of us are around a table piled high with plates of laghman, pilov, fried fish and rice. Around us six televisions play six different violent movies, each with the volume blaring through loud speakers into the market. John argues with the waitress when she raises the price of beer from three to three and a half yuan. Suddenly we’re surrounded by a pack of local Uighurs. It’s dark and noisy. Not wanting a knife in the back, we relent, each paying the extra dollar and getting out of there fast.
He and I later pound back way too many drinks back at the hotel. My first piss-up since Whistler.
It’s nice to have a day off in a place where there’s actually lots to see. I spend hours each day wandering through the markets and, yes, department stores that actually have goods for sale. Amazing. We restock and replenish, bellies protruding. Anticipating our next Chinese experience, I buy a Tibetan phrasebook from a French backpacker staying at the Qin Bagh. Alex gets steel clamps made for our rear panniers at the blacksmith market.
The Seman Hotel is a ripoff joint to be avoided.
I’m starving, hustling back from the market to meet John for lunch at the Seman. I saw a hamburger, or at least it said, “harbugee” on the menu last night, and I’ve been thinking about it all day. When the waitress brought it to my table, even she seemed a bit embarrassed to serve me that piece of crap. No ketchup. No moustard. Nothing but a bun and a little gray pattie. Worse, as I work my way through the five page menu, no matter what I order, I get the same, “meiyou”, or no, we don’t have it, for every item. “Sorry. Apple pie finish.” Finally, I get some noodle dish, but make the mistake of ordering “chocolal cak”. It’s even more pathetic than the burger. Just some Bette Crocker white cake with a slab of brown icing on the side.
John explains that we should stick to eating with the locals. As for “meiyou”, he says it’s a word we should get used to you. Simple, dismissive, best delivered with a sneer, it literally means, “don’t have”, but it’s an easy way for a snotty waitress or hotel lady to blow you off.
Later that night I’m in the hotel, writing in my journal, when there’s a knock at our door. It’s the surly floor lady with charcoal drawn across her forehead to give her a unibrow look, and a man I haven’t seen before.
“When cleaning. When cleaning. Please pay two hundred Yuan. You break shower.”
I’m stunned. I let them in. They show me a crack in the shower stall. Clearly, it was there before. Maybe they try to scam every whitey. Two hundred yuan? What the heck?
“You must pay two hundred Yuan. Break shower. Break shower.”
I fake, “no speakee”, and manage to shoo them out. But not fifteen minutes later they’re back. This time three of them, but before they can say a word, as loud as I can I shout, “FUCK OFF!” and they scamper away. If they come back again, I promise myself I’ll answer the door naked. That’s the last we hear of them that night.
The other ripoff feature of the Seman hotel involved an incident this afternoon as we were trying to find fuel for our stove bottles. John Hu, the manager, offered to fill them for fifteen yuan each. Thanks but no thanks, Alex takes them to town and has it done for four yuan total. Stay away from this evil place.
135 km time 7:14, climb 1290m
6000 km to date
We rise early to avoid further confrontation with the floor lady and her allegations of the shower damage. It is foggy outside. Quietly we carry loads of baggage to the lobby, heavy with yesterday's food shop. There is little said as we bring load after load, but the silence of the morning lobby erupts at the appearance of our bicycles. We quickly hook the bags on and strap on the rest while the lobby manager sends for help. "you must pay two hundred yuan!" she repeats, but we take turns ignoring and arguing with her. Her list has expanded, fining us now for piling the cushions and breaking the television.
Asking where we are going, we lie and say we must leave quickly to catch a bus to Urumqi. She is suspect, and wants to see our tickets. We refuse, using the Jedi mind trick, “you don’t want to see out tickets.” The level of chaos escalates as clearly we plan to leave without paying the contrived fine. My final image of the Seman hotel is of the lobby manager pulling on the back of my bike as I bounce it down the stairs to the street. I grab her arm, give her a good shove, and look for Alex in the street.
Paranoia weighs on us through the morning. Every uniformed officer, and there are hundreds, seems to look at us for too long for comfort. How easy it would to be to apprehend the shower busting fugitive American velotourists. In Upal, an outlying village, we stop for a noodle lunch. The noodle maker bangs the dough on the table to string them into lengths. We are beginning to calm down when sirens fill the air, drowning out the screeching of donkeys hanging from carts. The moments pass with each of us dreaming up our escape plan, but the cars continue past the noodle stop.
The fog from Kashgar still shrouds the countryside. So widespread that it seems more like a dust cloud. Dusty, and dry, that we have had to oil our chains every day since entering China. There is little to see but desert plains and river valley cliffs. Occasionally we speed past crews of road workers. Armed only with shovels, it is not clear what road maintenance they are working. Each one picks gingerly at weeds and bits of gravel that have intruded the river. Meanwhile, a 100m section of the road has been claimed by the Ghez river, forcing a rocky detour 50m to the west. Somehow a truck, loaded to twice its capacity and bouncing it's passengers clinging to it's cargo, narrowly avoids being toppled by the makeshift detour. Amazed at the stupidity and determination of the truck, I stand and watch the ordeal from behind, standing well clear of the truck as it tips from two wheels to three and then to four.
The valley narrows, and we begin to climb steeply into the upper Ghez valley. Water is grey and frothing.
Easing our mind are waves of logic borne from the observation that the probability that communication exists from the hotel, to the central police station, to the outlying police stations, to the individual police, is miniscule. Still, as we approach the Ghez checkpoint our casual conversation ceases, smothered by nerves. An officer emerges from the hut looking confused. He shouts to another, looks back to us and begins to laugh. He is delighted when I present him with a lapel pin from Air Canada, but his superior is jealous, so I dig out another for him. The superior frowns, pockets the pin, and asks if I have "coins".
Up the Ghez valley we continue, with few places to pull over to camp. So narrow is the valley that is places the blasting has formed a half tunnel for the road to sneak above the river. Later we are lucky to find a clean tributary to draw water with a flat platform large enough to make camp.
128 km time 7:17, climb 1745m
6128 km to date
30km before Taxkurgan, China
Early start today to get to Karakul for lunch. We leave the narrow, steep river gorge and the gray water behind. Scenery opens up to a very wide grassy plain with steep, rocky mountains opposite us. Two men on horseback ride through the plain in the distance. They look timeless. This area has been called the Marco Polo flatlands. The road snakes around the plain and spills us at the foot of the steep mountains I saw an hour before.
We reach Karakul sooner than we thought. Mutztah-Ata points skyward before us in a rare clearing of the ongoing dusty vista. It looks smaller than the 7500m it reaches but our base elevation of nearly 4000m accounts for this relatively small change. With a gentle grade on the north face it is one that many have climbed. Before this road went in, it used to be the biggest challenge just to access the base. Now the KKH passes right along the flat plateau from which the mountain emerges. A group of French climbers are stationed at the base making preparations to ski up the mountain unassisted by oxygen.
The French are put up in the plastic replica "yurts" erected by the Chinese in the park near the base. John in Kashgar had warned us about these scenes. "The Chinese have a different concept of how to preserve a natural site. You'll see." Before us, on the shore of the small lake Karakul, a Donald Duck paddle boat is moored. At the centre of the park is a building with a restaurant. Inside, it seems a woman, the hostess, is in a mortal argument with a man who seems to be the cook. They are both Chinese, and seem to me to be going a bit stir crazy, stationed so remotely. She hisses how I have inconvenienced her when I ask if we can order food. A karaoke machine is unplugged.
The cook comes outside soon after with two bowls of vegetable stir fry we convinced him to make for us and a couple of Jianlibao. It is expensive but tastes great after the rice of the past few days.
A young man, a student, from Urumqi sits next to us and attempts English. He is very interested in Canada and tells me he has many questions for me. I say I would be happy to answer his questions. He sits silently, smiling, asking no questions. "You are very crazy people. Very crazy."
We have a big climb out of Karakul. Steep switchbacks to a pass of 4100m. Right at the top of the pass I feel the bowels bulge and engage in the highest crap I have ever taken to date. Higher ones to follow, no doubt. From the top we can't see very far ahead as the fog envelopes the land below. Grassy hills decline ahead into a brown haze that covers the Subash plateau. Big, huge descent from 4100m pass. A winner for us, as the descent is much more gradual than the ascent following Lake Karakul. One of the few times of the trip I take advantage of my far too large 50 tooth chain ring. Man, that one was a bad idea.
Over the top though and our cruising descent is stalled by howling winds coming from the south. The fog or dust or whatever it is has come back again to obstruct any views. We approach a small garrison village that will be our last before the Keylar checkpoint. Brown mud huts dot the landscape. Similar brown walls encircle more clusters of brown houses forming an enclosed courtyard neighbourhoods.
The wind is howling so strongly we look for a sheltered place to set up camp. Seeing no one around, we clamber towards a seemingly abandoned mud building. There is no door, the windows are simply holes in the walls, and the roof has long since been blown off. Entering, rooms break off to the left and right of the corridor we stand in. We choose the right as our campsite. With no roof, we choose to set up the tent right there in the living room. The walls are a good shelter to the blowing outside.
Culinary hell has resumed. For the fifth meal in a row we cook rice for dinner. The saving grace is my addition of a curry like spice I found in a market in Kashgar. With the cilantro and raisins, it is almost an acceptable meal. Also developed in that nondescript little mud hut was the future staple of the trip, rice pudding. Made right after evening dinner, more rice is cooked. Lots of it, right to the brim of the pot. Once a boil develops, Alex adds generous portions of sugar, cinnamon (also found in Kashgar) and raisins. Boiling continues until all water has been absorbed and the rice is well cooked, almost a rice mush. Left overnight, it is a high energy, fast, filling breakfast that gets us off the mark. MMMmmm.
About the time we begin cooking our breakfast for tomorrow, three Takjik men enter the house cautiously, almost as guests, to watch us set up camp, cook, and just lie there. The usual conversations ensue, the men staring and smiling when we speak. They talk amongst themselves, "Man, check out the curly hair on that guy." "I'll bet he's a terrible horseback rider." Our patience with our observers wears thin shortly after they arrive, and I suppose they got the feeling, as they left soon after, returning a few hours later with new faces, and to take our peaches.
140 km time 7:02, climb 1100m
6268 km to date
Khunjerab Pass, China
We immediately lose big from our climbing yesterday. Easy morning descents are cold, and we glide and pedal easy for two hours. The village of Taxkurgan is our lunch stop. We have lost 1600m in elevation, and will cross Khunjerab tomorrow at 4700m. Lots of lost climbing effort.
The town exits to the left. In cruising mode, we glide to the centre of town, buy a melon and cut it up and eat it while leaning on our bikes. Children stare curiously. The people are not Chinese. This is a Tajik town, I read somewhere. Nomads cross the mountains to the west all the time, from country to country, on ancient trails and mountain passes. Now they all seem to be here, no one is in a hurry or has to be anywhere quickly. A loiterers paradise
The feeling here is of a bus station outpost. Buses belch through the streets, filled with Pakistanis en route or returning from Kashgar. Storefronts are small shops, mostly "variety" stores, selling inedible chocolate, incense, beads and other useless trinkets. Lunch at a noodle stop leads to confrontation with the Tajik owner when he tries to charge us twice for our food. The noodles were delicious, along with a couple of Jianlibaos each. Spicy vegetable broth with stretched noodles. We leave angry. Our first impressions of China have been scarred with scam artists and hostility. We are excited for Pakistan.
The road remains flat out of Taxkurgan, delaying our climb until tomorrow. The dust cloud has lifted in the afternoon, and we can see rolling, rocky desert mountains ahead. The road beyond town is deserted. The checkpoint at Keylar sees a young Chinese soldier cheering us on as we glide through. In appreciation of our hosts thus far, Alex leaves a huge shit in the middle of the highway. We haven’t seen a truck in either direction in half a day.
We camp at 3900 m, well short of the 4700 we will cross tomorrow morning. Searching for campsites becomes a game of spot the clean tributary before it joins the silty gray river below. We find such a river, icy cold, beside the highway, surrounded by grassy plain, invisible from the road.
As we're cooking noodles and onions for dinner a gas attack hits me that lingers for hours and leaves me doubled over in cramps. Alex can only watch as I writhe. He's concerned, no doubt thinking about the fate of the trip if this is to be my exit. After hours of long farts, the pain passes and I can eat again. What a scare.
We sit with the radio on, listening to American short-wave. I'm in the usual squat-seated position, squashing my sleeping bag while it is still stuffed. I stir noodles while Alex makes camp. Listening to the radio in places like this amplifies the remoteness of our present. I feel a long way from home. It's a feeling quickly dismissed with the reality of 6500km still to conquer.
158 km time 9:00, climb 1035m
6426 km to date
A cold wake up. We're up high and can feel it. We lie in our sleeping bags, spooning back our creation "rice pudding" which will become a staple later in the trip. The radio is on, on Voice of America, telling us about the OJ trial and a review of the new Free Willy movie, the one Alex poured his heart into.
Our biking begins with a slow climb, recovering the lost elevation from Karakul at 4100m to Tashkurgan, at 2500m. We have to cross Khunjerab at 4700m today, so there's work to do. The bikes feel heavy and I'm sore, aching and out of breath. Need to stop and rest much, but there is more climbing ahead. Alex pushes by me as I stop on a steep switchback and try to gather some energy. It's not there for me today. Eventually the steep climbing graduates to a gentle slope, grassy valley with snow-dusted peaks around us.
With the border post in sight, the thundering sound of a helicopter rises. From Pakistan it comes, circling behind us and descending to buzz the road. The pilot waves. He is a white guy. "Hey Doug! It's CNN!"
The border guards have been awoken by our arrival. Looking at our watches, it is noon Beijing time, which means it is about 8 am here. I never quite grasped the Beijing time concept. The guards are groggy and bothered by our arrival. The usual confusion ensues. The guards don't know how to deal with guys on bikes. There is no formal rule on this, so they let us proceed.
Atop Khunjerab Pass, the highest international border crossing in the world, we pose in front of the boundary line and take photos. The helicopter lands. The pilot is Canadian and is selling the machine to the Pakistani army. It is a new, high altitude helicopter useful for those Kashmiri border wars.
The temperature drops like a rock. Clouds roll in as a frigid wind begins to howl. Ice pellets blast us and we are shivering. Quickly we don all of our cold weather clothing but too late to ward off the chill. My thermometer has dropped from 12 C to 4 C in under 20 minutes. Worst of all, is that we now have to descend. A wasted descent: steep, freezing cold and wet. Our brake pads grind against the rims as the silt mixes with water. Hands are cramped and numb from the constant braking and cold. As we pass a group of Swiss cyclists ascending the climb, we barely manage "hello", but both notice that they were wearing open toe sandals on their feet and short pants.
Shivering, we hardly notice the abrupt change in scenery. The rolling, grassy hills of China have been replaced immediately by the "karakoram" or crumbling black rock. Steep, rocky spires reach up as we weave our way down. We are following the raging Indus river from its headwaters. Cold, fast, and milky white, it dissolves river bank at every bend. Parts of our highway have long since tumble into the froth, forcing the workers to chip further into the rock. We laugh at the remains of a feeble power line. The aluminum towers are half standing, some cable is visible, reaching from tower to tower, bending to the ground, buried with rock. The rest of the towers have long since fallen, some of them pathetically bent in half.
Thankfully, there is little traffic. We are too cold to yield or have our wits about us. We did remember to change lanes at the Chinese border, driving now on the left side, which leaves us on the edge of the cliff. We get our first look at Pakistani lorries, dressed up elaborately in gold tassels, murals, chains and bells. We will see many more of these up close on this highway.
With the change in geographic scenery comes an abrupt change in the appearance of the people. This is obvious, as the Pakistani people have quite different features from the Uygers and the Han. More remarkable is the hospitality which is extended to us on our arrival. Each Pakistani we encounter is excited to see us, to meet us and know about our journey. The Chinese greeted us with suspicion and contempt. We pass villages and children wave and chase us. We are happy to welcomed.
The rain quickly stops and the sun dries us out. The spectacular Karakoram peaks are revealed to us as we continue a more gradual descent. Steep cliffs descend from the peaks nearly vertically right to the river. Somehow the highway is carved into the walls of the cliffs. We can imagine the maintenance time demanded by this road.
We arrive in Sust, which appears to have a relatively high tourist presence compared to most of the towns thus encountered on the trip. More Pakistani lorries are brightly decorated and washed for tourist photographs. Stopping for a hot meal, we conclude after a tasty curried rice that we have exited culinary hell. This is a fattening up country, should we stay healthy.
Well I'm tired now, and ready to call it a day. This is one of those situations where Alex is ready to keep going and I’ve had enough. My limit seems to come at the eight hour mark plus about one minute. You can almost set your watch to it. Today it has been about that time when Alex asks for more. Passu, the next town is another 14 km beyond Sust, the downhill has ceased, the sun is setting, and the headwinds are blowing. I'm through now, absorbing little of the stunning scenery we pass. Persuasiveness gets the better of me as I stumble, head down, the final dozen kilometers to a very small village of a few houses set at the base of the great Baltit glacier. Amazingly, the glacier seems to reach almost to the highway. How did they build this road?
I am thankful to reach the Passu Inn, the only accommodation in the village. With such a small area of flatness, camping is out of the question. Besides, it is merely four dollars for the night. The place is deserted save a Finnish man who quietly answers Alex's questions about post war Finnish/Russian relations. Soon I am asleep in our dormitory room, the last to bed as usual, and the one responsible for the extinguishing the lantern that has kept me awake far too long.
6484 km to date, climb 1655m
I awake today, as I often do along the way, with a panicked feeling of not knowing my whereabouts. A look around the room and my thoughts collect. Rain beats on the roof. Outside is a different world than the sunny afternoon we left in Sust. Clouds hang low this morning. It looks like an all day rain. Our friendly innkeeper prepares porridge for us. This is luxury through our eyes, and somehow the familiarity of porridge for breakfast elevates our enthusiasm for the country as a whole.
The rain is cold and misty as we first roll from the Passu, but we are prepared today, we think, dressed for any weather that can be thrown at us. How wrong we can be.
Drizzle escalates into steady rain, which worsens to driving rain. Rivers of gray silt wash from the steep cliff sides to the road, forming pools for us to plow through. Some drop deeply to submerge our panniers. In some pools the silt has been deposited and mixed with the water to such our tires and feet into a thick muck.
Erosion is so live that small boulders tumble from the mountain onto the road even as we ride. This should be alarming to us but the steady escalation of the weather has desensitized us to the absolute danger of our presence. "Alex, boulder ahead on the right." At some points the boulders are so large that they have been left in the middle of the road. Buses weave by where space permits. Other times passengers file out and lend a hand in pushing the rock to the edge of the road and into the river below.
Still we weave by, thanking our mode of transport for our versatility.
Progress halts at a long line of buses and trucks. Again, we snake past the lineup to the front to see whether our bikes can handle whatever obstacle has stopped the rest. 200m beyond the last bus another line of trucks and buses has formed, this line facing us. Between us is a waterfall cascading down onto what used to be the highway. Mud oozes around our tires as we sink to our axles on the edge of the hole. Mist from the waterfall soaks us.. There is no hope of crossing this gorge.
To the left, the waterfall collects into a raging torrent and spills quickly to the Indus. Occasionally a Pakistani man might approach the edge of the torrent, 20m wide at this point, and hop from boulder to boulder until reaching the opposite side. A crossing, we think, and set out to portage our bikes in the same way.
The only viable crossing is down the waterfall, some 100m to our left. The bikes are to be unloaded and portaged in stages across the torrent. Our first steps into the muddy froth indicate to us the force behind it. We lean against the current to retain our balance. Instantly our feet are numbed by the recently thawed water. Boulders bounce past our ankles with a low rumble. On the opposite side, after our first crossing, we wonder if four more will be possible. Just one has drained our strength and resolve, but now committed, we hop our way back to our belongings for another try. Three more follow and we sit, exhausted, on the south side now, wondering how much further we can drag ourselves today. It is only 10:30 in the morning, but we are both whipped.
In a shack not far from the bank, back on the road, a man burns tires and wood scraps for warmth. We join him to thaw our toes and scrape the sediment silt that has built up in shoes from the river crossing. Soon we are riding again, but we are physically drained, and agree to settle in a Hunza village after an hour of more boulder dodging and puddle jumping.
Climbing to the terraced village above the highway, I am marveling at the greenness of the valley around us when my tire blows out with a loud bang. A sidewall rupture, the first of the trip, but not the last, as we would see.
The Old Hunza Inn is our choice for the night. The owner, Mr. Haider Beg, makes it clear that, although there is another Inn in Hunza named "Hunza Inn", his is the oldest and the best. The owner of the competing establishment simply registered Mr. Beg's name before he had a chance to do so, and thus disqualified Mr. Beg from officially carrying the historical name of his Inn, which, for 20 years, had been The Hunza Inn.
Names aside, we stand on the patio overlooking the magnificent valley, hang clothes to dry and repair my flat tire. A Swiss family of four with two young children are the only other occupants. English speaking, they are Christian missionaries stationed in Rwalpindi, here on vacation. Great, bible thumpers, I think as they introduce themselves. I brace for a night of conversion conversation, and I am not disappointed. Mr Swiss dishes out more than a helping of Phil Graham speak over dinner. Haider quietly serves, and cleans while we politely nod and try to change the subject. Even his wife seems impatient with the rantings. Soon Alex leaves me to nod politely on my own with the missionary. It’s a good time to fake nodding off to sleep.
107 km time 6:38, climb 850m
6591 km to date
We leave Haider Beg an the New Hunza Inn, fully understanding why this is now called the “New” Hunza Inn, since a competitor down the valley stole the name “Hunza Inn” before Haider could have it registered with the government. Even though he had the name for more than twenty years, it seems that town council would not give him a break. He’s in marketing mode now, ensuring that we spread the word nodding with his hands pressed together under his chin as we depart. “salam alekum”.
And speaking of spreading the Word, we’re happy to see Swiss Family Ned Flanders off and his love of Phil Graham
Cloud still hangs low off the steep mountains, but it’s drier now, and we make leisurely progress along the river. The Hunza terraces, lush and green on both sides of the river, rise like stairways high above us. Our road takes frustrating thousand foot rises and dips, hardly noticeable in a car, tough going on a bike.
One of the sights we’re supposed to see is the Rakaposhi glacier. Once again, the low cloud takes away from our view, and we see only the lowest fingers of the glacier reaching down on the other side of the river. I guess monsoon season is close.
Gilgit is in sight, and we’re on the suspension bridge on the final approach when Alex lets out his, “God damn!” Circling back, Alex has hic bike on the ground. “God damn it! I’ve broken my frame.” This is bad news. Where the chain stay meets the seat stay, his frame is literally in two pieces, dangling freely under the weight of the panniers. Where the hell are we going to get this fixed? I used to mock Alex for packing a carbon fiber and resin repair kit. Looks like we may need them.
We agree to meet at a pre-arranged hostel in Gilgit. I ride into town while Alex hitches. Hours later, after checking in, hanging out with the some of the other backpackers, Alex shows up at the hostel. He’s fixed his bike, hiring a welding guy and getting it done on the spot. He says he got some snapshots of his bike glowing orange. Hope they turn out.
He’s not totally satisfied with the repair. In true engineer style, Alex spends the rest of the next day having a steel reinforcing bracket built that would sit inside the welding joint.
Al breaks a chain. Tourist cottage and Ohio guy Doug tells great stories. Discover mango shakes in chaotic Gilgit.
138 km time 7:24, climb 1200m
6729 km to date
Big day. We can make miles in this country, but it’s hard work. It never seems like we’re really getting much in the way of down hills—we always have to brake hard to stay on the road, and the up hills just keep coming. Even our maps are misleading. The contours, showing thousand foot elevation changes, show us descending the Indus for the next four days. All down river, right? We must be climbing nine hundred foot hills or something.
We get a bit of rain today. The rain has become a bit of an afternoon fixture. It’s nice to cool off a bit but the bad news is that the runoff—muddy, glacial, silty stuff—has been really hard on our bikes. I blew through a sidewall today, the rubber just kind of rotting off the rim. A look at my brake pads also revealed that we’re eating through our pads fast. The grit in the silt is like sandpaper. Alex is concerned that our rims could be weakening. Not sure how we’d find good replacement rims in this country.
Tonight was our first hit of “Larium” malaria medication. We have to take it once week until we’re into Tibet. Apparently this stuff can make you a bit psychotic, make you more aggressive, or give you bad dreams. Just what Pakistan needs!
131 km , climb 1000m
6860 km to date
Couldn’t seem to get enough water down today. It feels like the humidity just hangs in the air. Solid miles today, but at a price. I’m pretty worn out. Our big highlight today was reaching the halfway point of the KKH. A vertical pneumatic drill marks the spot on the side of the road.
In our destination town, a group of kids sees us coming, and as usual, blocks the road to try and solicit “one pen” from us. Rather than negotiate our passage through the gauntlet, Alex plows through, the children dodging out of the way. I decide to follow, but, as usual, the kids have closed the gap as they stare after Alex. It’s too late. I can’t stop. I thread the needle….almost…taking out one child with my front pannier. Pretty sure I just grazed him, I keep riding till we’re out of sight. Damn. I really hope I didn’t hurt that kid.
105 km time 6:50, climb 1225m
6965 km to date
Last night’s hotel is up there for one of the worst yet, but we’re just happy to be able to get off the road and get some rest. Most of the patrons (they seem to be truck drivers), it seems, don’t sleep in rooms, but prefer to sleep on the roof on rope beds. Our room is up a very narrow blue staircase—getting the bikes up there is a chore, especially with a beggar blocking the way refusing to get out of the way, and us refusing to pay him to do so. Two guys with bikes win. But maybe he gets revenge on us later by paying all the truck drivers to honk their horns outside our window all night. Rough night.
Listless in thick afternoon heat, we lie on rope beds beside a roadside food stop eating dahl and sipping three Coke’s each. Enjoying the rest, and feeling kind of worn out after a poor night sleep, we’re in no hurry to get back on the bikes.
Takot is little more than a couple of dozen buildings at an Indus river crossing. We find a naan bakery and enjoy some of the hot stuff right out of the oven. It’s an impressive operation, with three men working the dough, rolling, and the oven, and a forth working the till. The guy sticking his head in the oven every fifteen seconds appears to have the toughest job of the four. I wonder how the till guy got off so easy.
Later, we find a shop—a normal, everyday storefront—selling semi-automatic weapons. The plucky manager happily shows off his wares, offering to us to try them out for size. Why does this not seem right?
7015 km to date
We’re not five kilometers out of Takot when we hit a landslide. Similar to the slides we’ve seen up river, there’s a long line of trucks we have to weave through to get to the see a single, pathetic bulldozer trying vainly to clear hundreds of tons of rocks away from where the road used to be. It’s not looking good. The “over” route is a steep hill up over the slide. The “under” route requires us to ford a swiftly flowing river, but seems easier. At least there are lots of boulders for us to wade between, but due to a curve in the river, will require two crossings. A cool bath would be nice in this stifling heat. We unpack the bikes and portage down the hill to the river’s edge.
The “under” route is a failure. A steep section in the middle forces us to literally bob our way across one section and it’s faster moving than we thought. Alex gets pulled under and we’re humiliated by laughing Pakistanis, who seem to leap from boulder to boulder in their bare feet.
It would take us at least three crossings times two to get across. We’re exhausted after just one, so we trundle back up the riverbank to the road to check out the “over” route.
Swallowing our pride, one of our better decisions we make is to pay a some of the kids to help carry our gear over the steep landslide. Watching them closely to ensure our stuff stays in sight, they blow us away with their strength. Wiry, sure-footed, and wearing only sandals, they leave us in our tracks as we clumsily balance our bikes up one side, across the slide, and back down. Fifty rupees well spent.
Soaked with sweat, probably as wet as if we had forded the river, I’m feeling just knackered when we reach the other side. There’s a busload of whitey’s stuck waiting for the bulldozer to clear the way. They snicker at our bedraggled appearance. Hey, at least we’re not stuck here.
I hang from Alex’s back wheel our of Takhot, but he goes it alone into Battagram. Knowing that we have a big climb up onto the Chatter plain, I realize I’m done for the day. For the first time in the trip, I realize I’m going to have to hitch a ride to keep up. I’ve been going downhill since Gilgit. As Alex has energy and rides on, agreeing to meet in Abbotabad tonight.
For the past few days we’ve been carrying, and refusing to throw away, the most disgusting cookies (or are they crackers?) of the whole trip. Indigestible, they simply reduce to dust in your mouth, making swallowing, even if you wanted to, impossible. Apparently Alex was successful in pawning them off on a group of the roadside children who normally call out for “one pen, one pen!”, as we ride by. This time, as I pass them perhaps a half hour after Alex has cycled through, certainly long enough for them to sample the dust, they throw the cookies back at me in disgust. Nice one, Alex.
In Battagram I’m in no hurry to move on. I sip tea in a dark restaurant and try to get some energy back to make a plan to find a ride. Sharing my tea with an English speaking banker, I ask him where all the women are in Pakistan. To this point I have no recollection of actually seeing a woman in a public place. He assures me that as we move south, things will get more progressive. Just then a family, including a wife, enter the restaurant and are escorted behind a curtain. Private seating I suppose.
I pick away at my rice dish, trying to get some hooter back in the legs, thinking about how to get to Abbotabad. No sooner has this thought settled in when a young pharmacy truck driver, Azhar, approaches me, and speaking perfect English, strikes up a conversation. It turns out he’s heading to Rawalpindi with his assistant, Nazeem, and he’s got space for me in his minivan if I don’t mind a few stops along the way.
As we bounce down the road in his Suzuki, he peppers me with questions about our trip. His curiosity and command of the language are refreshing, but soon he has steered the conversation to religion, and it’s clear he has an agenda. For a man who says, “I am not a religious man Douglas”, his zeal sure says otherwise. “Islam is the perfect, perfect, perfect religious. How can a Hindu consider a statue to be the creator of life? It is impossible! And please, Douglas, I simply cannot accept the immaculate conception story of Mary. A man cannot be the son of God! No!” I am hoping that my silence sends a message.
My condition worsens, and over next several hours I phase in and out of a feverish daze, listening to Azhar marvel at the wonders of Islam, wondering if I’ll make it to see Alex alive in spite of Azhar’s maniac driving. We run out of gas, and while I wait for Azhar to fetch a jerry can I’m quivering in a cold sweat under the van, feeling a step from a coma. He stops on the Chatter Plain for prayer. I shiver in the passenger seat, watching the faithful wash up before entering the mosque. I consider joining them at the fountain to splash a little water on my face. Is that blasphemy?
And we do see Alex at one point, just as Azhar is lecturing me on the importance of having clean hands before eating and how eating with your hands is better than with utensils because of the secretions from your fingernails. Alex looks like shit. Before I can say, “Alex, don’t swear, this guy doesn’t like foul language”, Alex lights up.
“Holy fuckin shit, Doug. This little fuckin bastard just fuckin threw a rock at me and just missed! Look at the fuckin dent in my top tube!” Indeed, he’s got a peach pit sized dent in his bike about four inches from his groin. Ouch. Azhar and I drive along in relative silence. I’m guessing he’s never heard anyone speak like that.
“Douglas, I do not like this word, ‘fuck’. But tell me, do Christians engage in sexual relations before getting married.” Sure, I say, of course. He is silent, then blushes. “Douglas, this minivan has just become very uncomfortable for me.” I enjoy his silence for the next five minutes, wondering how he’s imagining us non-believers can ever get to paradise. Then he lights up again and adds the topper, explaining why women should keep themselves covered, because, “the female body is a disgusting, dirty place. It must stay out of sight all of the time.”
Incredibly, we arrive in Abbotabad alive. Nazeer, his co-pilot, goes nuts at the sight of women, though they are covered in the burqa from head to foot. Can the sight of an ankle do that? As they drop me off at the Bolon Hotel, Azhar is nearly in tears. “Douglas, I will not forget this day. You are the third friend I have ever had. I will write to you on October 1. That way the letter will reach you in Canada when you arrive home from your incredible journey. He hugs me tightly, as if we are lifelong friends parting for good.
I promise him many letters and am left alone waiting for Alex, watching TV in the hotel lobby. At 150 rupees, this is our most expensive hotel of the country.
Alex arrives. He’s beat, looking like I felt earlier today. Saying little, he collapses in bed.
Alex is exhausted and going downhill. He won’t be riding today. He has that drawn, lifeless look I haven’t seen on him since Turkmenistan. As for me, I feel much better. My appetite has returned so I eat breakfast twice.
I walk through the Abbotabad bazaar while Alex lies asleep. It’s chaos, but impressively, has the most consumer goods we’ve seen in one place since Istanbul. I buy sweet cinnamon buns from a man who personifies the character played by Peter Sellers in, “The Party”. Ok, maybe that’s inappropriate in this day and age, but listen: “Yes, yes, verry, verry good. Yes. Sweet, sweet. Only one rupee sir. Sweet, yes, sweet, sweet.” I buy five, then return later to buy five more, bringing Alex along to meet him. We also buy a round of our new found delight, the mango smoothie.
We then get down to business to find a bus to Rawalpindi. Alex is still hurting, and I should probably take a day off too. We have a phone number of a sister of a work colleague of Alex’s who lives in Islamabad. It would be nice to visit someone we sort of know.
The bus trip involves the usual negotiation to get our bikes on board without paying triple, and we manage to secure some nice seats in the front in the half filled minibus. Minutes before departure, another ten people pile in and we find ourselves crammed on the bench. Alex finds some floor space between the driver and passenger and threatens to puke on anyone who lays a hand on him. The old feigning car sick routine works.
We are dumped in ‘Pindi at a chaotic intersection in some intense afternoon heat. There’s a distinct urine stench that hangs like a cloud in the humid air. The good news is that we’re only blocks from an ice cream store that boasts fifty flavors. We haven’t seen much beyond Russian “marozhnoe” since Turkey, so we make the side trip. We both order the biggest sundae on the menu and down every morsel.
We’re running late and decide to take a cross-town bus to get to the home of Fida, Alex’s contact. As usual, it’s a production getting aboard, and the bus is more than crowded—it’s jammed. We wedge our way on board and we bump our way through city streets. Suddenly, I look over at Alex and I see the sundae we just downed coming back out of his mouth. I retch at the sight of the clumps. Amazingly, so do the passengers around us. With almost no effort, we have the back half of the bus to ourselves. Thank you, Alex!
My first impression of Fida was his reaction to our arrival. Islamabad is like a gated community where Rawalpindi is what you’d imagine a Pakistani city to be. As he answers his doorbell, his first words are, “you can’t stay here.” Renovations have dirtied his house so there isn’t room. Then a long pause, and horror in the realization that we’re being turned away. It’s dark out. We have no options. Then he continues, “I’ll have a driver take you to the other house, but come in for supper now.” Moments later we’re sitting around the kitchen table, feasting on mince, cheese and curry.
And that’s how we spend the next three days. “Our house” is air conditioned. A driver comes by in the mornings to bring us to breakfast at Fida’s house. His kids are cute. His wife is an amazing cook and runs a specialty dessert company called, “Kitchen Cuisine” as “a hobby”. They take us to dinner at a swish Italian restaurant. Sadly, Alex can only stomach “husk”, a stomach remedy prescribed by Fida. I almost feel bad, slurping down my fettucine alfredo.
It’s nice to recharge. I cruise around Islamabad while Alex recoups. I sleep late, have breakfast with Ali or Mustafa and run a few errands around town. This is a big, concrete, soulless, planned, but I don’t really care. Even though bureaucrats are everywhere, and just getting my mail from the consulate takes an hour because everyone seems to go on break the moment I walk in the office, I don’t really care.
Streets are named with numbers A sector is named “F-7”, for example, set like quadrants in “Battleship”. Each sector is divided into four quadrants. Stamped across the city are sectors, except for the slick “Blue Zone”, where businesses are set up.
Street 34, Sector F-7/1
Street 31, Sector F-10/11
After a call home and reading my mail, my thoughts are dominated by images of home. Not a longing to be home, no. This is a gut anxiety of what lays beyond October 14—the day I return home. What coast will I live on? Where will I set up? Whistler? I’m getting pretty tired of the transient life up there. But then again, I sure seem to have a lot of friends who, at 24, seem so much older and boring.
There’s a break up letter from Carolanne. I read half of it, and then throw away the rest, already to scribe my caustic response. What a silly, foul mouthed, sad girl. I regret I didn’t make a clean break there before heading out here.
Our night time conversations with Fida are filled with insight. Turns out not all Pakistanis hate Indians after all. “I met a few of them when I lived in London and they really weren’t such bad guys.” Apparently the national literacy rate is 21%, which, while pathetic, is not so shocking to us. For a country that spends 80% of it’s GDP on the military, there seem to be some very easy wins behind steering this country straight. Put down the Kalishnakov and pick up a book!
It’s been a while since we’ve biked. As Alex was still feeling off in Islamabad, and considering how busy we knew the stretch to Lahore would be, we opt to bus to Lahore and then cross the border into India on our bikes.
Lahore is no less chaotic than ‘Pindi. Holy crap. It’s the usual pinball game with traffic, with monsoon rains filling the streets with water and questionable looking floaties. Yeech. Deciding to call it a day, we spend the rest of the day wandering Lahore, past the Red Fort, settling into an uncharacteristically clean rest house (for Pakistan). A sticker stuck to headboard reads, “Free Tibet”. It won’t be long till we’re there! I can’t imagine what we’re in for. Could the traffic be any worse?