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2009 Narrative Travel Writing Contest Finalist

Long Live Pakistan

Pakistan Mountain Views
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 dreams.

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 or Not?

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
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 on bicycle.

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.

Official Humdrum

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 can cause.

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 imagine.

A broken-down bus resembling a pageant float
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 local inns
Guests are certainly wanted at local inns.

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
Mountain range near Pasu.

Outside Karimabad
Outside Karimabad.

Dangerous Country

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.

Insignificant forms on a bike.
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
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 fo the
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.
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 our tent.
The Pakistani military guards our tent.

Crowds gather at polo match.
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
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 lessons.

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 haven.

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.

Long live Pakistan.

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