Long Live Pakistan
|First Mountain Views in Pakistan.
Traveling anywhere in the world can
be risky if you don’t do your homework before hand.
Government organizations are overly cautious, the media
sensationalizes and second-hand travel stories are exaggerated
more often than not. The best advice is to read up on where
you want to venture, heed the warnings, keep alert, but
do not allow anyone to disuade you from following your travel
After selling all our possessions in
2006, we handed in our rental keys to the none-the-wiser
woman behind the counter at the Arnhem council office in
The Netherlands. At this point, we could hardly envisage
what was in store for us as we ambled our way down the bike
path and across the German border on our way to distant
Pakistan. About one thing we were certain: the much talked
about Karakoram Highway would be one of our biggest cycling
challenges. That was why when we finally reached it—18
countries and almost one year later—realizing our
dream became more than just a dilemma over whether to cross
the border or not.
To Follow Your Dream
Tashkurgan, bordering western China
and northern Pakistan is not a raging metropolis. In fact,
apart from a single crossroad of activity, where you can
purchase almost any basic thing you need, everywhere else
is pretty quiet. At present, photocopying documents is out
of the question, due to a malfunctioning machine. The bubbled
tins of tomato paste, stamped with use by dates from early
2006, are unmistakably dubious. On the other hand, there
is a small market with plentiful supplies of shopkeepers
sporting wide smiles and reasonably fresh products. Right
on the junction, pool tables stand out in the open-air,
further warping with every breeze. Goat skins hang from
peddler’s arms. And a hearty lagman soup made of meat
and thick noodles, which you can slurp up with as much noise
as you like, costs just $US.75.
|Shopkeeper in Tashkurgan.
Up until two days ago, we had pedalled
just 293 kilometers of the infamous Karakoram Highway: a
1,200 kilometer-long stretch of road beginning in Kashgar,
China and ending in Havelian, Pakistan. As the highest paved
international road in the world, it comes as no surprise
that this pathway is a touring cyclist’s dream just
waiting to be conquered. Snaking its passage around some
of the tallest mountain ranges in the world, the highway
is renowned for its instability and subsequent landslides.
The ever-changing landscape must never cease to amaze locals
and Chinese road workers alike. For us, being crushed by
the mighty force of nature is the least of our concerns.
Just a week before we had arrived, a
bloody aftermath resulted when government security forces
and militants came to loggerheads at the Red Mosque in Islamabad.
A day prior to our arrival in Tashkurgan, suicide bombers
strike in two isolated incidences in the North Western Frontier
Province. And tomorrow three more bomb attacks will confirm
that there is definitely enough tension in the air in Pakistan
for us to feel some trepidation about entering the country
Instead, we enter the internet café looking
for news updates, but with China’s strict internet
censorship and the incredibly slow land-line connections,
it is difficult to find out much more than what we already
know. There are also very few posts on the usually helpful
travel forums. Unplanned pedalling “back to anywhere” is
a cyclist’s pet hate, but judging from the current
travel advice issued by the embassies, we may just have
to get Plan B up and running.
Australian officials strongly advise
to review any decision to travel in Pakistan due to “a
very high threat of terrorist attack, sectarian violence
and the unpredictable security situation.” The Netherlands’ Foreign
Commission echoes this warning. According to both representatives,
terrorist attacks can currently occur anywhere in the country
and targeted cities include every major township on the
map. They further call for vigilance in basically any place
likely to be considered a terrorist target. Ironically,
the list not only includes their establishments, but every
public location you can think of. So it is impossible to
steer clear of the dangers—unless, of course, you
don’t mind starving to death or sleeping on the streets.
Pakistani Independence Day is just under
a month away, and more news that militants have a preference
for attacking on and around days of national significance
adds yet another cross to the cons column of our plight. Accordingly,
no one seems to be going in or coming out of the country
either. By this stage, we really should be packing the panniers
and heading back to Karakol Lake. But something inside both
of us keeps the search going—any justification to
cycle into Pakistan.
As we exit the internet café the
following day, after another few hours of wasted effort,
we head to the hotel room and resolve once and for all that
we have to move forward. We will stay until the weekend
and do some more research on our exact route. But unless
anything really big breaks out, despite the warnings, despite
our path taking us through areas of concern, and, not surprisingly,
despite my Mother’s pleading emails to come back home
until it is safe, we will head into the 220 kilometers of
no-man’s land between Tashkurgan in China and Sost
in Pakistan. Due to a few cyclists wandering astray a few
years back, the steep mountain corridor that forges you
up and over the Khunjerab Pass (4,733 meters) is no longer
an option to travel by bike. You must purchase a bus ticket.
We wake early, pack and wheel down the
measly 590 meters of the barely used, immaculate, double-lane
highway towards the bus-station. At the depot, you can purchase
tickets in Chinese Yuan, Pakistani Rupees, or US Dollars. As
we hand over a mixture of monies, the question of whether
we have made the right decision plays havoc with our minds.
However, the soon to be badger-session to get the driver
to put our ten Ortlieb bags in the luggage compartments
and not on top of the bus takes precedence over all other
thoughts. Before I can pause to think again about our possible
vulnerability, we are chugging our way high up to the sky.
So far, we feel safe, though security
is tight throughout the entire trip. There are head counts,
passports scrutinised over and re-checked, but nothing quite
as frightening as the atrocious condition of the roads in
the wild and woolly world that greets us on the Pakistani
side. In some sections there is barely enough room for the
bus to pass as boulders as tall as two men have wedged their
jagged edges deep into the remaining asphalt. I have the
impression we are riding through a quarry site for giants
and imagine that, at any moment, a monstrous foot will come
crashing down next to the bus and put everything into perspective.
Naturally it doesn’t, and I spend most of the journey
completely awestruck at the endless height of sheer-faced
mountains and the magnitude of the damage roadside rubble
After six hours of extremely competent
manoeuvring, our driver pulls up to the border gate weighted
down by a rusted tin can full of rocks. We are in Sost.
What Is All the Fuss About?
I didn’t expect to meet with open
fire, nor watch people dashing for cover, but I did think
there would be more zest than the laid-back feel this sleepy
town emanates. Still, we are in the north of Pakistan
and trouble has been isolated in areas closer to Gilgit.
Maybe we will notice more unrest as we go further south.
The biggest fuss over the next few days comes from me, as
I squeal with glee every time I feast my eyes on a Pakistani
truck. The owners have definitely got a competition going
on to see who can adorn their vehicles with the most color—more
vibrant and entertaining than any pageant float you can
|A broken-down bus resembling
a pageant float.
We take it easy pedalling to Karimabad—the
Hunza Valley’s Capital—which pleasantly enough
is just as relaxing as the unpretentious border village
and Pasu—where we came to rest last night. Establishments
like Mr. Baig’s Batura Inn sparsely dot the highway
and the one thing they all have in common is they are empty
and they all want you to stay overnight with them. The facilities
vary, so it pays to shop around, but you will hand over
little more than $US2 per night for very basic accommodations.
|Guests are certainly wanted at
Mr. Baig, a placid man in full Pakistani
attire—white salwar kameez, beige woollen
vest and matching beret—has been running his place
since 1974. Proudly reminiscing about his business when
it was bustling with foreigners, he hands us several tattered
books as proof—full of only praise for his services
and wealth of knowledge. As we thumb through, it becomes
apparent that the entries stop just after September 2004.
From then on, only a handful of travelers have passed through.
The same story can be heard in nearly
every guesthouse in Karimabad as well. And it is no wonder
that this area is a mountaineer’s and trekker’s
paradise. Everywhere you look, you are dwarfed by colossal
mountain ranges abundant with dramatic snow-capped peaks
stabbing high into postcard-blue skies. Sadly, apart from
a spattering of local trade, tourism is pretty sparse these
days—which offers perfect evidence that if the only
media coverage this country receives is negative then foreign
travelers will remain at bay.
|Mountain range near Pasu.
Our tiny insignificant forms move slowly
on along the undulating, unguarded track on cliff-face drops
that meet the surge of the blue-grey waterway below. There
are some smooth sections; lots of bumpy bits; certain segments
that don’t resemble a road at all; and a couple of
spots where nature has reclaimed the man-made terrain back
as a river.
|Our tiny insignificant form on
a bike against the cliff-face drops.
We venture into Gilgit and then through
to Thalichi—where our lives are threatened by dehydration
and overheating in the 55°C canyon furnace. Sweat stinging
our eyes, we squint up enviously at the snow-covered Nanga
Parbat peak (8,126 meters), which is also dubbed “Killer
Mountain,” as it claimed many lives in the first half
of the twentieth century. This sure is dangerous country
alright, but not by means of any terrorist attack.
|Snow caps above the seering heat
of the canyons.
After the heat and exhaustion of today’s
cycling, the simple bucket bath at the back of the “soon
to be” hotel , the primitive mud floor room filled
with charpoys (rope-strung beds), the traditional
meal comprising fresh chapatti, and a couple of
dishes of okra and tomato-fried eggs are luxurious in comparison.
|With the owners of the "soon-to-be-hotel."
We push on further towards Chilas and
transport is organized to cross the Babusar Pass. It is
just 24 hours before Independence Day and coupled with entering
the Kagan Valley—yet another area allegedly inhospitable
for foreigners—we are doing everything the embassies
have told us not to do. Apart from feeling a little out
of place in Chilas, since not a single woman was in sight,
the only problems we deal with are the continual bus break
downs over the long and arduous 9 hour, 45 kilometer journey.
Attempting to get the bus up the boggy landslides takes
several goes. The most successful method being when the
first two thirds of the bus disembark to assist by pushing
from outside, while the back passengers remain seated for
rear traction and the white-knuckle ride.
|Pushing the bus.
It becomes apparent after several clashes
with boulders, and a very nasty odor of a burning clutch,
that the bus is not really up to it. Just 1.7 kilometers
before the Babusar Pass (4,175 meters), the axle lies split
in two with its innards sprawled across the middle of a
switchback. We take the crossed-arm signal from the
bus driver as indicating the death of our transport. After
hauling our gear off from the roof rack, to my bewilderment
the axle has been tied back together with none other than
a piece of string. The bus takes off; looking like it is
actually going to make it over the top. From this day on,
I will place a little more faith in the Pakistani ability
to repair a broken-down vehicle.
We still have to push our way over
the top of some difficult and high altitude terrain before
plummeting down the rocky slopes into Gittadas and all the
finery and flair of a Pakistani celebration. Tonight all
we can muster up is the search for the food tent, followed
by sleep. Tomorrow we’ll have the loan of a gas burner
because our petrol-stove won’t work; we’ll be
invited to drink tea with officials; and the military will
guard our tent as we are ushered into VIP seats for the
inaugural event on Pakistan’s Independence Day—the
world’s highest polo match between Chilas and Gilgit.
|The Pakistani military guards
|Crowds gather at the world’s
highest polo match between Chilas and Gilgit
Keep Living the Dream or Leave?
Time passes quickly in Pakistan. Before
we know it, our 30-day visa is running out. When we finally
make it to Islamabad, we have to decide whether to renew
it or to leave promptly.
On the road, you either contend with
the challenge of soaring temperatures, landslides, lack
of bitumen, or the complete madness of the toot-happy truck
drivers. In any township, you will be the center of attraction:
there is friendliness wherever you go and people go out
of their way to help you with anything you need. People
will dart through traffic to come and shake your hand or
drop what they are doing to escort you to the hotel you
are looking for. You will be called Sir or Madam with genuine
concern. Policemen, security guards, and officials actually
smile in Pakistan and locals yell "welcome, welcome,
thank you," as you pass through their village.
|Moral support from the locals.
The decision is so much easier than
the one we had to make a month ago: we will stay.
Long Live Pakistan
Making the decision to travel through
Pakistan by bicycle even when the media, authorities, and
loved ones warned against it has taught me a couple of compelling
Adverse reports of terrorist attacks
in far-flung corners of the globe will have the rest of
the world in a frenzy. People will start cancelling their
tours and re-routing airline tickets when their itinerary,
more than likely, takes them through areas both politically
and geographically isolated from any concern. Put in the
hands of the international media, even the most minor incidents
are blown far out of proportion. So great are the distortions
that it could well appear—from the comfortable confines
of your breakfast table—that an entire country is
focused solely on mass destruction.
Foreign Embassies simply have to do
their job: they have little choice but to be as politically
and responsibly correct as they possibly can.
And then there is darling Mum, safe
in the confines of the home zone, reading all sorts of tragic
annihilation in a country where her daughter is intending
to bicycle. Of course there is major fall-out in the form
of those influentially pleading emails to surrender to safe
But once you remove the sensationalism,
the suspicion, and the dramatics, the problems caused by
minority groups should not be enough evidence to keep you
from experiencing a new culture. I can honestly say
that I felt safer wandering the streets of Islamabad at
night than I did in East Hastings in Vancouver, Canada.
Ask the intrepid few what they thought about Northern Pakistan
and they will tell you it was magical. At least, that is
what we say when questioned about the place.
In fact, we would go as far to say that
it was one of our most treasured journeys in the “what
a wonderful world tour” to date, and we have already
penned in our return trip. Needless to say, this time round
we will read the media and take the hysteria with a pinch
of salt; we will look at the embassy’s travel advice
warnings and note them in the back of our minds; and we’ll
not tell my Mum until we are just about to cross the border.
But our individual convictions are totally
ineffective on a large scale and there is still such a lack
of confidence from the majority of the world that the primitive
infrastructure, already in place in Pakistan, is slowly
dying at the hands of this speculative negativity. I saw,
with my own eyes, what an effect it had had on the tourist
industry. While I am the first to wave my hands in the air
and shout out, “don’t forget to add Pakistan
to your list of places to visit,” a part of me doesn’t
really mind if you don’t. Tourism can bring about
changes that indisputably damage natural beauty and cultural
atmosphere. Selfish as this may sound, we will have the
place to ourselves again in our following trip in two years
time. If you dare to visit the land you will be chanting “Long
Live Pakistan” along with us too.