In the north of Pakistan a few mountain ridges meet: Hindukush (Afganistan), Pamir (Tjazikistan), Himalaya (China, Nepal) and the Karakoram (Pakistan). Through this area the Indus river flows. Along the Indus (and the Gilgit and Hunza rivers at higher altitudes) there is a path which is known as being a part of the Silk Route. From 1966 to 1978 (actually, until today) this road is covered with asphalt, and with that a difficult to reach area has been opened up, and with it the Kunjerab pass at an altitude of more than 14,000 feet.
This area is the target of this part of my journey: mountains with passes which are amongst the highest on earth, and the thrill of climbing them effortlessly on my bike. Travelers call this whole area 'the Karakoram', and so do I... There are four long, easy to travel valleys crossing 'the Karakoram'.
From east to west they are the Kaghan valley, 100 miles long with a nearly 13,000 pass at the end. That pass (the Babusar) should lead to the Karakoram Highway, but there is nobody who knows for sure. Everyone advises me to stay away from that route.
The next valley to the west is the one of the Indus, along which the Karakoram Highway is built. This is the road which follows the Indus river and then leads to the Chinese border along the Gilgit and Hunza rivers and over the Kunjerab pass.
Next one is the Swat valley - The Suisse of Pakistan, they call it. The Swat river winds through this valley which isn't very long: about 60 miles. The highest point is at the end of the valley: about 6,000 feet.
The last valley has a city on the northern side, called Chitral. That name now has a magical ring to it for me: the name is linked to the route Gilgit-Chitral, and is the source of many will-I-do-it or will-I-leave-it doubts.
I came here from Iran, through the desert in Baluchistan and over the pass which took me (after being hit by a truck) to the Indus valley. This valley is very wide: there are many rivers in all sizes linked through the valley. Together they deliver the water that the Indus brings to the ocean. The landscape surrounding the river is very flat, and to the east it becomes a bit hilly. The stretch I covered along the river is very desert-like. lot of sand, and vegetation can only be found at places where man is involved. From Multan to Islamabad there are many fields with crops, with sand dunes between them.
The eastern, hilly part of Pakistan is less desert-like: there is rain during the monsoon (July and August). That is why I saw so much greens in Islamabad, and it's probably the reason that farming is so prominent in Punjab. The area in the north is delimited by the Karakoram. A part of that gets some rain from the monsoon, but the more north you go, the less it will rain. The county of Punjab is not very high (as I expected it to be), but is a mere couple of hundreds of feet above sea level.
Back from the border of Indian Kashmir we take a detour through Abottabad and Manshera, to end up in the Kaghan valley at the end. In Manshera I manage to crash into one of those Suzuki vans: too much attention to my map in my tank bag. I look up and immediately I brake heavily. I feel the ABS kick in, but the braking power doesn't return. This was the last action of the system, it is now completely broken. My restart-while-I-ride method also won't work anymore. Oh well, off-road actually is better when done without ABS, and here I rather disable the ABS system, if BMW hadn't made those irritating flashing lights. But now it's settled - no ABS. I hope the flashing lights burn through quickly...
There is a fair amount of damage to the van: the rack they weld on here to carry an extra four passengers which hold on standing or hanging is bent. The red 'beak' of my bike is scratched - the bending of the rack has been done by my front tyre. Again I am unscathed. The driver and I shake hands and that's that.
I don't complain about the quality of the road - it was bad. We arrive in Balakot and find ourselves a sleeping place just before sunset. Our plan is ambitious: stand in the snow as soon as possible. The Babusar pass at the end of the Kaghan valley should show us some snow from up close, being almost 13,000 feet high. The scenery is beautiful. We are in an area influenced by the monsoon: there are things growing everywhere. The valley is narrow and steep - we have an excelent view on the Kaghan river which find it's way about 300 feet below us. The road is paved and easy to ride on. When we stop to take in the view and have some lunch clouds are accumulating in the northern part of the valley. We take some more pictures while the first drops of rain are falling. A bit later on we can get out our rain suits. A thunder storm comes down on us, but it stops just as quickly.
We know the road won't be this good forever. North of Kaghan it will be unpaved, until the Babusar pass. We decide to act as though we are sensible and to turn around when it gets too bad, but actually we count on seeing the snow this evening. The road deteriorates: we wind up on an unpaved piece. Sometimes a river runs under the road, but that is normal in these areas. Bridges are expensive things, and you cannot perform nuclear tests when you spend your money on foolish things like improved roads with decent water management. Some of the river crossings are muddy, and we stumble upon a truck which is stuck. Meanwhile the fallen rain is helping the river - it is getting difficult in the mud. We see it's raining (again) in the direction we are going: we think we are very sensible when we decide to turn around.
The stranded truck has got company: a second one stands in an impossible position acrss the road, the nicely decorated back touches the one of the stranded truck. Trucks are a feast for the eye. The drivers must have some special bond with their vehicle: every part of the truck has given some extra attention. Like the feeling I get when I enter a house which is decorated by someone with a sense of ambiance. The feeling for detail - that last spot that has to be integrated - that which I try to accomplish but will never reach.
The loading body of the truck is elevated at the front, against all laws of aerodynamics, and extends over the cabin. Usually the cabin is smaller than the loading body, but in Pakistan they remove the original doors and build new wooden ones parallel to the loading body. The loading body is made of metal, with square panels on the side. Those are painted individually, starting from the edges. The truck itself is mainly yellow, many accents are in blue and black. Trucks with an open loading body often have a beautiful picture on the inside of the body against the cabin. It is only visible when the truck doesn't ship carge. To finish it off, the fenders are decorated with chains of bells, which tinkle when the truck hits a hole in the road.
The newly arrived truck is just 1 meter from the canyon, the road is blocked. The driver tries to back up (up the hill) to avoid damage to the loading bodies. Another man throws rocks under the spinning wheels. Now and then the truck backs up a bit, only to slide back again. "This will take some time", I think, and decide to try and pass them. Some honking attracts the driver, and I wrestle myself past the truck and the cliff through the mudpool. Just as I am next to the truck the driver accelerates again, and the truck comes at me. I accelerate as well, and manage to avoid a crash with the sliding truck.
I feel my heart pounding in my throat. I look back and only now I start to think about this action - Harmen is ready to follow my move. Just for a moment I contemplate the consequences of a fall of 300 feet into the river. Luckily Harmen manages to slip past the truck as well - Nathalie walks this part. The truck driver resumes his attempts. We return to Balakot and ride on to the Karakoram Highway. No snow for us today. But also no rain, this stays behind in the Kaghan valley.
We ride westwards, to the Indus. We reach the Indus for the first time when we are just 1,500 feet above sea level. And we want to go to more than 14,000 feet! Here too the Indus river is huge! And it is October - the water level is at its lowest. You can see by the color of the rocks te water can get much higher. At its current level the river is awesome, but I sure want to see it when it is filled. The valley is fairly open now, and at some points the river bed is 150 feet wide. The mountains are covered with growth, partly with fields in terrace shapes, partly with natural vegetation.
Harmen and Nathalie had planned on resting a couple of days in Islamabad. The troubles with the rear tyre and the illness of Harmen caused them to abandon this plan - after this adventure we travel little, so Harmen and Nathalie get a chance of resting a bit. And I'm always in for a bit of idling around. After a very short day trip we camp on a terrace in front of a hotel looking out over Chattar Plains along the Highway. The next day we ride to Besham, because from there we can easily reach the Swat valley. We expect a busy scenery in Besham (Harmen wants to buy a shalwar qamiz as well) and we plan on staying a few days there. We save the actual Highway for now and first want to see the Swat valley, otherwise we have to make a detour to see this valley.
Of course we plan to take the Highway after doing the Swat valley, and follow it to the Chinese border. Then an excursion to Skardu (base for expeditions to the K2 mountain), and from there via Gilgit on to Chitral. That is the route we dare to ride together, but not alone. From Chitral back to Islamabad. Those are our plans, but we have learned that plans and traveling are not the best of mates.
We are searching for accomodations in Besham, when we spot a very beautiful building surrounded with walls which is placed on a hilltop so you can look down on the Indus. This place also has a view on Besham. We can't see whether this is a hotel, but it looks big enough. I ask a police officer how we can get to the hilltop. A man next to the officer wants to know why I want to go up there. "We are looking for a place to camp for 2 days", I tell him. The man says: "Follow me, I'll show you the way". In the end he gets on the back of my bike and we circle the hill with the building on top. "It is the house of my uncle", he explains. "Of course you are welcome in our family, I just have to tell my uncle".
I am at the foot of an incredibly steep hill and I doubt whether I can scale it. Some four men (the usual group of spectators had accumulated around us) drags me through a couple of sand dunes and with a spinning rear wheel I reach the top. The view is gorgeous - only the uncle fails to appear. Harmen stayed at the foot of the hill smoking a cigarette. So I descend again. Harmen says he won't make it up the hill. I tell him that when the uncle has been traced, I would love to take them up on their offer. Harmen isn't thrilled, but at that moment the gate swings open. We decide to climb the hill.
We are visiting the Shah family. The uncle is called Wasi Shah, but everybody calls him 'Baba'. He is the patriarch, the 'don' of the family. And our host. Next week he'll move, and then this house on the hill will be his domain. But today he gladly puts this house at our disposal. The man who pointed out the way is Ahmed, and promptly it is explained to him that Baba expects him to stay for the evening, although he is expected back home. Baba is a bigshot in this social hierarchy. He is a retired chief-constable. And having a couple of foreigners visiting is status-enhancing, but it has to be visible. Solution: invite some 10 people over for diner. His wife (whom we have never seen) has to cook a meal for 15 people...
It's funny people don't immediately see I'm a foreigner when I wear my shalwar qamiz. I had one of those traditional Pakistanian outfits made in Islamabad - the first ever tailor-made outfit in my life. In Quetta they did sell them off the shelf, but they didn't fit well. European men are built differently: when I was at the barber's I had to sag in my chair, otherwise the barber couldn't reach the top of my head... Such a suit is very comfortable, and in my case it is an exelent disguise preventing lots of curious looks when I'm in bazars. But this evening I probably did my host a favor by appearing in my jeans. Several guests are surprised this stranger doesn't speak Urdu, but is a real 'Englesh'. Every foreigner is called 'Englesh' in Urdu, regardless what his or her origin is.
When the sun has set, and we have finished the chicken curry, the 'dal' (a dish with yeast which I don't like) and the flat bread, a fifteen year young man enters through the gate, in his left hand a Kalashnikov of Chinese build and in his right hand a real M16. The M16 (with the inscription 'Property of US Government' still on it) is handed to Ahmed. The boy is his son, he has brought the weapons. Father Ahmed doesn't walk the streets at night without M16. "The disadvantage of being a prestiguous family is that sometimes others want to settle arguments using force", Ahmed explains. He tells me the price of an M16 - smuggled out of Afghanistan it costs about 500 dollar. That is a half year's pay for the common man here. I suspect it is also a bit of a status symbol.
Meanwhile Nathalie has struck up a conversation with one of the guests: the English teacher of the elementary school. Nathalie is a teacher herself, and she immediately accepts an invitation to stop by tomorrow during school. The next day I get to see 2 classrooms from the inside: a private school and one paid by the government. The private one is fairly tidy. Kids wear uniforms, the classrooms are well equiped. However Nathalie shivers at the thought of having to work here. We visit every classroom, and all the kids can have try their English on us. They are tought English at a very early age - they are 6 years old. Almost all of the lesson material is written in what they call here the 'international language'.
The Islam has found its way here too: on average there are 5 girls in a classroom of 30 pupils. In the higher grades there are no girls at all. The head master is proud of the modern ways his school has adopted with those mixed classes. Some boys wear pins on their uniforms with the word 'Proctor'. They are the class elders. They have much more responsibilities here, they are supposed to maintain some order for instance. In the higher grades boys wear different kind of feathers on their hats: here they have a two-layer hierarchy!
When we arrive at the second school they already know we first went to the private one. All teachers do their utmost to impress us with what their children have already manage to learn, despite the poor conditions. And it works: I'm surprised at what they teach a 13-year old. It probably has to do with the early quitting of many of the children. Just a few finish elementary school and enter highschool. In the Swat valley they count the number of people able to read and write instead of those who can't, because that figure is about 85%. They think that this number among women in some villages is 99%.
Later that afternoon we leave Besham via a secondary road of the Karakoram Highway. Turns out we aren't very resilient to the choking hospitality of Baba, and again one of the planned days of rest is gone. The road is in one of the most beautiful little valleys I'll see. We are in no hurry, and make regular stops, in which we thoroughly absorb the scenery. The landscape is dominated by steep hills which are covered with terrace-shaped fields where possible. We cross many little rivers - everywhere there is water flowing. We pass a couple of sheep- and goat flocks with shepherds waving friendly. There is lots of greens, both planted by man and naturally. Higher up the hills the small rivers are 'tapped', and the water is directed over the terraces. And apparently this is done for quite a while already, for along the irrigation channels there are fully grown trees profiting from leaking water.
A big river runs through the Swat valley, even in this time of the year. Here too the Swat river is fed by small currents which are tapped to irrigate the fields. When we get higher up in the valley there is less green, and the scenery looks more like the Alps, far above the tree border. Actually, more desert-like, because just a small amount of water is sufficient to let something grow. And because of the height it starts to cool off - finally. Ever since I left Italy I haven't seen a day below 30 degrees Celsius. Even now, in October, we daily reach these temperatures (and more).
We cross the small village of Kalam at the end of the valley, and look for a place to sleep. Suddenly the road gets smaller, and traffic is almost non-existent. Kids throw rocks or try to poke sticks in our wheels. Grown-ups stop waving at us. We don't feel welcome, and we decide to return to Kalam, which is infested with hotels. We share one room and decide to leave the lake north of Kalam for what it is and return to the Highway.
Next day we race through Besham in the hope of avoiding our hosts of the other day - we suspect we won't be able to survive another dosis of their hospitality. We ride short trips, trying to find a place where Harmen and nathalie can get some rest. We sleep in Pattan - the city which still carries the scars of the earthquake which happened a few years back: the people are even more religious than elsewhere in this country. Again we find ourselves a beautiful spot: we set up our tent in the garden of a resthouse. When we are all set up, they tell us we have to be gone at 7 AM next morning. The resthouse is a government building, and the next day the local police will gather for a meeting. We have to be gone by then...
Things are not going well for Harmen and Nathalie - they need some rest now more than ever. We go to Chilas, and share a hotel room which we get for half price, even when we sleep there with the three of us. We get in a bit of an argument about the accomodation. Nathalie would have preferred sleeping in the garden again. I was a bit quick with the negotiation - although I would have taken the room even if I had used it by my own. Again we only stay one night: we are off to Gilgit.
There I arrange a room for myself, and a place for the tent in the garden. Jan and Maaike have emerged again: in Gilgit Maaike suddenly approaches me. They are busy buying curry in one of those shops where they have small towers of curry in colors ranging from bright yellow to dark red. A boy creates the desired mix. Jan and Maaike invite us for a curry-laden meal the next day - I offer to cook. Then they start looking for a place to stay, and end up at 'the Mountain Refuge', where they find a place in the backyard with Ibrahim (the owner).
Again we use a day which was meant for recuperation on troubles with Harmen's bike: the support which holds the cases keeps breaking. Together we come up with a plan to replace the support with something which will hold for more than 3,000 miles. Through a man I met in the garden of the hotel (he is part owner of this hotel and others: nicely shoot the breeze about hotels, investments, business and such) we end up at an iron worker, he can perform the modifications on Harmen's bike. Harmen is excited about the results; we then go to the Mountain Refuge to have the meal with Jan and Maaike.
Ibrahim, 48 years old, is married with a young lady of 24. They have an adorable baby girl of one and a half - she has many of the charming features of her mother. Ibrahim is an idealist who has stepped into the hotel business, but often he comes into conflict with his surroundings. Ibrahim is not commercial: he calculates the room rates based on the cost price, not based on what the tourists can pay. A room costs about 2 dollars, far below the average others charge in the places where they have driven him out. But here too the other hotel owners have complained about the price erosion. But that doesn't hurt him - he only wants to be the best host he can be for his foreign guests.
I make us an improvised vegetarian meal with colifwoler and the curry Jan and Maaike bought. After that we return to our hotel and tent. Harmen and Nathalie inform me they think it is best if we would go our separate ways. I get angry - they have, so they tell me, decided that morning they wanted to travel alone. In that case I didn't have to wait for the case support and could have moved on... They think I'm too quick: I ride too quick, negotiate too quick, decide too quick. And here I am, thinking I'm having a relaxed trip... Lucky them they didn't have to put up with me when I was with Klaas! Gilgit-Chitral is now out of the question, and that is actually the biggest disappointment.
I go to Sost - the last city before I reach the Kunjerab pass. I stay at 8,000 feet altitude in a hotel also called Mountain Refuge: one of the hotels Ibrahim has deserted. Ibrahim lets them use the name without payment. I place my bike next to the building and order tea while recapitulating the road I had traveled:
From Gilgit on 4,500 feet the road slopes upwards very slightly. About halfway there is a village called Karimabad, in a narrow part of the Hunza valley. They have engineered irrigation channels on a large scale - the valley is all green. It is a beautiful place, covered with vegetation, amidst the bare surroundings with its inaccessible mountains. But without human interventions nothing will survive here, apart from some grass species and small shrubberieson the northern, cooler slopes. Just the opposite from what we see in the Alps (or Rocky Mountains), there the southern slopes are covered the densest. And the sparse green patches are used intensively by the many goats and sheep I meet. The shepherds pull the branches from the few trees and bushes to feed their stock.
The mountains are high, but not spectacularly so. Here and there I see summits which attract so many mountain climbers - just north of Gilgit is the Rakaposhi, about 24,000 feet high. But most of the mountains look like someone has built a hill with a bucket of sand, but not using enough water in the sand. Everyone has had the sad experience of seeing a tower of sand slowly crumbling down, causing their sand castle to fail. The mountains here are sagging from just under the summit, creating huge piles of gravel and sand - the Indus river and its colleagues are trying hard to carry off all the rubbish. The roads are built on top of those mountains of rocks and gravel - the Karakoram, and also the deserted jeep roads I see on the other side of the river. In some places these jeep roads are blocked by avalanches of gravel. I start to see why the Highway is so difficult to maintain.
Near Passu the view becomes spectacular: finally I reach above 6,000 feet. I look at peaks, which seem as though a piece of wood is protruding from this sand bath. But then some 15,000 feet, with snow on the summits. Later on I realize I'm looking at the plates which are colliding. The story about the Indian and Asian continental plates which cause these high mountains. The Nanga Parbat, some 26,000 feet high, grows 7 millimeter each year - faster than erosion can take away - because the plates are forced against each other. Then I realize why the light stripes in some of the mountains are slanted, sometimes almost vertical, although I know those stripes could have only been created horizontally al those milions of years ago. The mountains are tipped over by volcanic activity and earth slides.
I'm disturbed in my thoughts by someone talking English. "I saw your bike and thought: now I have finally caught up with you. Good afternoon, my name is Lance." Lance is from New Zealand and is on his way to Australia, coming from England. He hasn't been in New Zealand in over 5 years, because he got his MBA at Yale. He rides a BMW F650 to his new job in Sydney, Australia. He starts on the first of December, and is in a bit more hurry than I am. About four months more hurry. But since Iran he trails me by one or two days, he has learned from hotel registers and checkpoints. And finally we meet. Maaike already told me about Lance - together with the Australian cricket team they celebrated the victory of Australia over Pakistan. The remainder of the afternoon and evening are spent with getting acquainted and talking about all sorts of stuff - for instance, we decide to travel together to the Chinese border and agree to meet again in Australia.
Traveling alone in the Karakoram has taken exactly one day: but now I can enjoy the company of a biker who rides just as Menno. We ride from Sost to the Chinese border in a quick tempo. Great! Just using the throttle and scaling about 6,000 feet in a few hours, effortless. We cannot enter China with our bikes, we might be looking in one of those forbidden areas in China, but they do allow us to walk a bit, to the middle of noman's land, until we reach the signs marking the border of Pakistan and China. And this is something completely different! Walking 600 feet at these altitudes is quite an effort and our bodies protest against the cold, height and dehydration. End of effortless.
But less effort when we descend on our bikes: we now know the quality of the road and we don't have to look out for unexpected potholes. The scenery is more desert-like than ever: human activity is minimal because within one month this place will be covered with snow for at least four months. No place to live. At 11,000 feet we still are below the snow border, but it is cold enough to freeze over the small water currents. It is desolate in a beautiful way: protected by my suit, sitting on my bike which has less problems with the thin air than I have, I ride through the mountains where I daren't come without these aids. Undoubtedly this is what attracts the mountain climbers: to reach something where others won't come...
We keep on going and we reach Sost again. We think we can reach Gilgit without problems - we go for Gilgit without stopping. Meantime Lance was impressed by my stories about Skardu - just as he decides to stay an extra 2 days my clutch fails. We are in Hunza (Karimabad) when I change gears and notice the clutch doesn't give me any resistance. I expect a broken cable and curse myself for not laying a new cable alongside the original one. We stop (to buy some gas) and I see the cable is OK, but the lever of the clutch is broken! This is a molded piece of aluminum, and it is pretty complex. We continue to Gilgit and stay in the Mountain Refuge, with Ibrahim.
Traveling the Highway without a clutch is easy: I act like it is a Sunday afternoon and I am on the back stretch of the Franchorchamps circuit doing some slightly illegal racing. But off-road is out of the question, and the road to Skardu is said to be bad in some parts. There is only one solution: back to Islamabad without clutch... One of the guests of Ibrahim suggest fixing the broken part - I think this will be hard to do, but I decide to give it a try. Lance doesn't have enough time to stay three extra days: he leaves the next morning for Islamabad.
The man in the workshop start with a 'no problem', and for me that's a synonym for 'muchas problemas'. I tell him to go ahead, providing I can stay and watch. And so I am witness to the removal of the needle bearing from the broken part, and the selection of an old axle of a tractor to mold it into a new lever. I don't think this will work, but being a day in a workshop is fun too. Nine hours later (it is dark already) the new part is ready and my faith in it has grown. The next day it appears to work perfectly - I'm off to Skardu.
Just before Gilgit the Indus bends eastwards and the Highway continues to the north, past the Gilgit and later the Hunza river. When you keep on following the Indus you finally reach the plateau where Skardu is situated. The road follows a steep, narrow valley, more spectacular than all of the Karakoram Highway. The walls of the valley are so steep there is no point in building irrigation systems, apart from some places. No human intervention, just rock faces and the Indus winding its way between them. I owe the metal worker a lot more than the quarter of a month salary I paid for his work.
In Skardu I call JC to tell him I'm at the base of the K2. Hah! No way! I have to scale a mountain pass of about 16,000 feet to be able to look at it. Three days of walking (there are no roads above 13,000 feet), only to get a glimpse... And because of the time of the year the odds are it will be shrouded in fog and clouds, or so I'm told by the guide who tries to sell me a trip with two helpers. Sounds like fun: a carrier/cook and a guide/carrier would take me to 13,000 feet in a Jeep, and then a one-day climb to 16,000 feet. Once I did a climb from 7,000 feet to 9,500 feet without luggage, and I thought I almost died when I reached it. Not me! And certainly not after walking 600 feet at 16,000 feet...
I meet Harmen and Nathalie for the last time, on my way back, during a tea stop. They are arriving when I want to leave - they want to try and walk a couple of days. And they are still looking for a few days rest - I hope they will accomplish that. They tell me Jan and Maaike are still in Gilgit. I return to Gilgit, and meet them, in the company of Mike from England.
Mike has just finished Chitral-Gilgit with public transport, and arrived sick after a 5-day journey. He traveled to Chitral first,and took the Shandur pass to Gilgit. But he was unlucky: one of the bridges was temporarily removed and replaced by a new one. This job has taken about 7 weeks, and traffic resumed slowly. Mike had to walk some 25 miles of the trip, because there were no jeeps. Walking 2 days, and encountering just one vehicle going the wrong way. No food - the natives only eat flat bread (chappati) and that yeast stuff (dal). Water was not present - Mike drank from the irrigation channels.
But he also told me the scenery was worth the effort - at least, as far as he was able to tell. The drivers of the Jeeps all smoke pot and do the strangest things. And the Shandur pass is so steep, the Jeeps had to back up twice to make the curves. When he finally found a Jeep, there was only room on the roof. Poor Mike has died a thousand deaths during the off-road trip along the cliffs...
I want to see this! If I can't make it through the whole trip, then at least the Chandur pass. After a day of rest (with a polo match) I leave Gilgit for a long detour: all the way back south, to the Swat valley, and then up north again to Chitral. Because the Chandur pass is much closer to Chitral than it is to Gilgit. In Istanbul I had a conversation with Gerard and laura and an Austrian couple about the roads here. They told me the road to Chitral is partly unpaved. This turns out to be the Lawarai pass of about 9,500 feet high. I cross this dusty pass in some 2 hours - a 30 mile distance. I will encounter those 15 mph more...
After a two-days trip I arrive in Chitral, and I inform about the condition of the Chandur pass. The hotel manager thinks it is a shame I want to continue this trip right away: he advises me to try the Kalash valley. That means riding back for about an hour, and taking a Jeep road into the valley which is occupied with non-Muslims. Those people have survived all those years of pressure from the Islam, they have managed to keep their own beliefs. With women walking around, their own dress style, etcetera.
A short day trip after two days of continuous traveling appeals to me. I enter the Kalash valley on a Jeep road. No matter how bad it is, it will only take a day, and there are many people who can (and will) help me. This valley runs not north-south, but east-west. This has consequences for the vegetation: combined with the altitude (at the end about 8,000 feet) almost anything will grow here, because the intense sun doesn't burn down on it the whole day long. Every hotel has its own lawn, and everywhere I see signs advertising camping grounds. This is the perfect place for Harmen and Nathalie!
I pause under an enormous wallnut tree, enjoying apples (from two trees up ahead) and tea. I really like it here - suddenly so green and everyone seems to think nothing of it! I have seen so many deserts a few trees make me happy now. And I am doing something I thought I would never do: I ride through the river beds at the bottom of the valley for hours at a stretch, all on my own. It doesn't go fast, but that's unimportant. And the fact that I'm alone doesn't hurt me - there are plenty of other people. On top of that the inaccessible terrain is not so bad. Bumping along I reach my goal, and I'm sad when this 'road' comes to an end. I'm promptly invited for tea - the next pause.
My host (incidentally converted to Islam) is farmer of profession. That wasn't his choice, but the choice of his family. He wanted to pursue higher goals. He speaks English rather well - I can tell he has read more English than he has spoken. He speaks in long, grammatically difficult sentences. And he counts a couple of professors in the anthropology from the international circuit among his friends. He maintains a regular correspondence with them. That's because these Kalash people are somwhat of outcasts - this valley was at one time even its own kingdom. His great grandfather has written a book which has been analyzed by one of these professors.
But still this isolated farmer has a pretty tough time. Apart from the hard labour on his farm he often yearns for a decent conversation, judging by his reaction to my political challenges. He knows about Lewinsky, the political situation in Nehru (the prime minister has his own little shack in this poverty-stricken Pakistan worth 24 million dollars, not counting the tennis court and the swimming pool, those aren't finished yet), and the disciplinary actions taken against countries performing nuclear tests.
And then things got interesting: the US support the Taliban, because they oppose Iran. But the sceme of the CIA backfired, and now they oppose the Taliban, and therefor Pakistan, because they too are Sunnites. And that's why the US are bombing Afghanistan and Pakistan, under pretences they call 'Bin Laden'. My ears are flapping at this amount of nonsense, and I tell him that. He gets furious - he reaaly believes this! I learn something about the power of propaganda, and let the conversation end peacefully, we agree one of us has been misled by propaganda. (I think 'he', and he thinks 'that foreigner'. And to be honest sometimes I have doubts myself.)
There is another important thing I learned: the condition of the road depends on what you expect. I expected an impossible route through the mountains, and it turned out to be not that bad. "Wait a minute - if that is the case, then Chitral-Gilgit is just a problem between my ears!", I realise. As usual I fill up my tank from which I just used 5 liters of gas today, and I buy some cookies and water. I won't starve to death.
The next day will be the day. I start off early and ride the first 30 miles in one hour using the last asphalt before I have to do the next 200 miles. Then it gets worse: my speed drops to 15 mph. But the view is spectacular: deep canyons, small villages, a few irrigation systems, and then the mountains and me. The mountains are of the failed sand pie type, but because the valley is much narrower they look more impressive. I feel tiny compared to the sand displacements towering 6,000 feet above me. Luckily the road isn't blocked anywhere. On the offramp to the last village there is a surprise for me: the gas station is on strike. They don't sell any gas to me. My reach should be just enough, but I'd rather have something to spare. It was a good thing I filled up last night... (Later on I would find out just how lucky I really was.)
I can just make the curves where the Jeeps have to back up. And a good thing too, for if I have to stop I can't balance the bike, my legs are too short. This is very steep indeed. And in some places the road consists of solely fist-sized rocks. Now I finally learn how to ride off-road, despite all the practice sessions in the Ardennes. But I love it - I haven't seen a soul in two hours - I have the mountain and this area all for myself.
The flattened summit of the Shandur pass is used for a polo competition in the first week of July. Ten thousands of people in Jeeps and hundreds of horses traverse this road to reach the top, and sleep in a tent camp on top of the pass. And there they play their games of polo, at 13,000 feet altitude! Therefor, the road from Chitral is the better one. When I reach the top I think (because of oxygen deprivation in my brain ?) I might just as well go on to Gilgit.
Initially the descent is a disaster. The road is steep, and again full of gravel and rocks. The bike wants to go faster and faster, even in first gear. Braking with my rear wheel causes a rough fall: the wheel locks up and the bike is out of control, while I'm still gathering speed down the mountain. Finally I start to skid and I fall. The cases (yes, those again) fall off, the already damaged left case lid is now completely broken. I leave behind a part of my inside when I manage to put the 300 kg heavy bike on its wheels again at 12,000 feet altitude. I never knew touring on a bike could be so demanding!
A second and a third fall are necessary to let me realize what I'm doing wrong: when the road is fairly straight, I just have to brake with my front wheel, gravel or no gravel. The corners go in first gear, and when things start to speed up again down the mountain I applyu the front brake. Slowly I descend, and after a day's trip through a scenery dominated by (planted) willows and poplars I reach Gupis, at two-thirds of the distance. This tour will take me two days by the looks of it.
The attraction of this area is the planted trees. In Pakistan the Northern Areas are special: poorly reachable, stubborn people with various ethnic backgrounds - in short: no favourite of Islamabad when it comes to management and control. That's why the PSO (Pakistan State Oil) is organizing a strike here - they are not satisfied about the treatment.
To try and get the standards in these areas to a higher level they constructed a program which these people can (have to) fill in themselves: the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP). Nowadays this is one of the most succesful small-scale aid programs. Every village can design its own proposition, a plan for improvement, which then will be financed by the AKRSP. Many villages start off with irrigation, and then they want to cultivate new forests to prevent erosion. The amount of cattle has increased exponentially, there are too many farmers now, and they have a waste disposal problem, but you don't want to solve all the problems in one go. Where else should all the development funds have to go ?
It is green here. Comfortably green - at this altitude in the mountains there is enough water from the glaciers which is 'diverted' over fields which are surrounded by trees. The valleys are all small and very deep - they add to the gorgeous views over the river far below me, and to the feeling that the mountainsare not those sagged heaps of sand in the distance. This is the first time I have the feeling of being in the mountains.
Here in Gupis it is hard to find something to eat (apart from chappati and dal), and I'm glad I have my LU cookies with me. LU, better known for the Bastogne cookies, has got a license holder here. He makes cookies which are very similar to Bastogne cookies. But I do seem to have lost my water supply. Stupid! Fortunately I have a small burner with me to heat up tea water from the irrigation channels. When I get up in the morning I hear a couple of explosions- road construction, I presume, and I don't pay any attention to them. Half a day later (this last part from Gupis to Gilgit is dull desert area) I am back at the gate of Ibrahim in Gilgit.
In one and a half day I ride back to Islamabad aqnd I arrive on Saturday afternoon. The customs are still open, and I hurry to the airport to retrieve the stuff Menno has sent me. This time the Dutch Car Association has helped, and the stuff is accompanied by an officially looking document which boldly states the value of the shipment (a case lid, a speedometer cable, the side stand switch, a ring, riveting pliers and a vizer for my helmet) is about 15 dollars. This same document explains these goods are for private use, and therefor excluded from import taxes. They don't believe the 15 dollar value, but it is hard to find out the real value. I have to call in the boss of the boss, but finally they decide not to chaqrge extra taxes for this (and so they prevent extra work: the estimation). Good job from the Car Association! Excited I go to the camp site where Jan and Maaike have arrived as well. With a bit of improvising I install the new parts and that same Saturday I'm ready to go to India.
But I had promised Olaf, the Dutch embassy delegate, to get in touch with him. But I don't have his private phone number, and I decide to spend Sunday reading a book and doing some Internetting (that's when I sent off journal #12). Olaf immediately invites me for dinner on Monday evening when I give him a life sign. I accept this invitation and spend the night at Olaf and Aafke.
Olaf was the one who gave me the 'letter of recommendation' when I wanted to go to China - which was declined by the Chinese. We met again in 'the Canadian Club' - the weekly diplomatic gettogether organized by the Canadese. Then we started talking and I promised to get in touch again. And then we noticed we could get along OK.
The Islam Republic Pakistan is 'dry' - they don't sell any alcohol, unless you have a license to buy it. Like we do with guns. Aparently alcohol is much more dangerous than an M16 in the eyes of the Muslims. Foreigners are allowed to drink - when you are able to buy the stuff. The Corps Diplomatique orders the booze centrally - Olaf even had some Talisker! It turned out to be a great evening. Olaf even thought about getting real filtered coffee instead of instant!
On top of that: he was even able to help me with one of my uncertainties in my world trip - Indonesia. Of course he knew someone from the Indonesian Embassy, and he explained to us exactly what I have to do to get my 1100cc bike into the country, where everything above 450cc is illegal. And Wednesday I got my visum for Indonesia, with a statement for the bike, stamped in my passport. The Embassy in Jakarta is going to create a missing document for me, and then I'm all set.
That Wednesday I went to Lahore, the last city before entering India. I wasn't able to find a hotel in this dirty town, and I continued to the border. There I spent the night in a guest house, to prepare for next day's border crossing.
The border between Lahore, Pakistan and Amritsar, India is closed. That is, closed for the people of both countries. Only foreigners are allowed to cross. And goods, but they can't walk as well as foreigners. Walk, because India doesn't allow Pakistanian vehicles, and Pakistan no Indian vehicles. There are numerous carrier people with colored aprons. One color for Indian, the other for Pakistan carriers. Believe it or not: a truck is unloaded in front of noman's land, a carrier with a red apron takes the goods to the barrier, another guy with a blue apron accepts the goods, and walks them to another truck.
The travelers tell eachother nice stories about this border, too. The story goes that if you arrive in a camper, you have to unpack everything, lay it all out on the ground, and drive the camper to a weighing station. The camper is not sufficiently unpacked when it weighs more than is noted on the license plate forms. And so the water tanks have to be emptied, the installed cabinets removed, gas tanks, the lot. Whether this is true or not I don't know - no campers in sight this morning, just a German doctor on his bicycle, a British couple with backpacks and an elderly couple from the Tzech republic who were visiting Lahore. And me.
The British couple has been to the Karakoram as well. They had to abort the Chitral-Gilgit trip, one day after I had arrived. The strike amongst the gas stations was just the beginning of the unrest in the North-Western Frontier Provinces: they had blocked the road. Just before Gupis (where I slept after a very long day of riding) they even used explosives for that purpose! I heard the detonation, but then I was on the right side already...
The only problems of today are those which I cause myself. When the smooth trick with the carnet and passport has been pulled off, I'm ordered to ride to the Indian part of the border. I accelerate, pass under an opened barrier, and am called back by a furious whistle belonging to a man in another color shalwar than the stamp officers. I'm in a good mood, I'm not such a bad guy, and I turn around. "Passport!", the man barks. I say: "Passport _please_???" - but saying 'please' turns out to be hard. I go and fetch the commanding officer of the man (they are army personnel) but I can't prevent that the barker tells a long story to this officer in Urdu. Now it was harder to let him say 'please', so I have to be content with not being checked.
The Indians make excelent bureaucrats. It takes quite some time, but in the end things seem to work out OK. It starts off with the Health Inspector. I already have visions, but he stamps my passport immediately. The rest goes slow but steady. But now I have to unpack everything and carry it indoors for inspection. "I'm not going to do that", I tell the man. "Inspection - OK, necessary, I understand, but it has to be done here, next to my bike." He accepts without trouble! In 5 minutes he has examined all unrelevant parts of my luggage (act nervously), and the camera's, the world receiver, the spare parts which you have to declare, and the cell phone are missed (ignore them relaxed).
Oh - I spot an old acquaintance. An Audi 100 with British license plates belonging to some Australians. The owners had to leave it behind sealed and all. No carnet. I thought they would run into trouble...