The dammed lake.

(Emily) The day had finally come for the challenge we had been anticipating since before we’d even left the UK. Back in January, a colossal landslide had dammed the Hunza river, alongside which the KKH runs, causing intense flooding (which destroyed at least 30 villages in the valley) before the waters settled to form a huge lake. As a result, there is now a 23km stretch of the KKH that lies underwater (to give an idea of scale, the ‘lake’ is now 23 km long and 150m deep!) We’d read many reports of the disaster when we were back at home and had been keeping tabs on the situation periodically while we were travelling. At one point, we heard that several people had managed to get bikes across via helicopter which, although rather dramatic, made us think it was at least possible. Then we read that boats had started to run from one end to the other – even better. However, shortly before we all met up in Kyrgyzstan, news was filtering through that the government had prohibited crossing of the lake on safety grounds as the pressure on the dam meant it was at high risk of bursting. This, together with reports of the broken bridge near Sost, very nearly put some of our China group off Pakistan altogether – I think James mentioned that people started looking into freighting their bikes directly from Kyrgyzstan to India, and that they only dismissed the idea due to ridiculous cost (plus incessant badgering from James that it would all be fine!)

So, when it came to the point when we were actually approaching the lake (just 8km from Passu where we’d spent the night after Operation Bridge), people were feeling more than a little nervous. In fact, I think I was the only one not worrying: my mind is constantly preoccupied with the state of the roads and whether I’ll be able to cope with them so the challenge of crossing a lake was quite welcome to me – I wouldn’t be on my bike, hurrah! It was a beautiful morning when we left Passu (the weather has been sooooo kind to us, I dread to think what it could have been like) and once more, we were surrounded by stunning scenery, not least several visible glaciers crawling down from the mountains. Then the lake came into view, looking beautiful and totally natural. We arrived at the ‘jetty’ (literally where the KKH disappeared into the water) and got our first look at the boats. Hmmm. They were bigger than we’d feared but far smaller than we’d hoped. Amazingly, getting the bikes on board was quite a smooth and straightforward affair (this was with the locals in charge, we would have faffed about no end!); they quickly fashioned a ramp from some wooden planks that were hanging about and then, with the combined effort of about twenty men, literally lifted the bikes into the boat. The three biggies (Stefano’s, Fabian’s and Donato’s) were squeezed in one boat, then our remaining four onto another. We waved cheerfully to the Italians and Spaniard as they chugged out into the lake before us – this was going to be a doddle! Our boat, every square inch taken up by passengers and their luggage, had a bit of a malfunction immediately after casting off and we almost ran aground in a clump of trees next to the jetty but before too long we’d taken the right course and were following the others across the water. Apart from the deafening chugging of the twin engines, it was a really pleasant journey; the water was a stunning opaque turquoise and it was a treat to sit back and enjoy the scenery for once. At the same time, it was sobering to think that we were sailing over so many submerged villages (one of the guys who had helped us get the bikes on the boat had lost his home to the water) and at times we saw clusters of tents where people were now forced to reside. It was strange to see treetops emerging from the lake edge, and if you looked closely, you could tell from the dead branches below the green where the lake’s water level had originally reached (a series of slipways had eventually been blasted in the landslide mass to let at least some of the water through so that, for now at least, the amount of water leaving the lake was equal to that entering  – otherwise, it would have kept rising and rising). Hard to imagine that this now tranquil scene had been witness to such destruction.

It took just over an hour to reach the other end of the lake and, after what had turned out to be a rather lovely cruise, my thoughts were now turning to a potential picnic lunch here on the other side. However, we had all been making a dangerous assumption – that unloading the bikes would be a similarly straightforward process to loading them – forgetting, of course, that this was the end of the lake where the landslide had actually occurred. As we approached the looming grey mass of rock and rubble, just able to make out the tiny specks that were construction trucks half way up, it began to dawn on us that the challenge of the lake crossing was about to present itself. Gulp.  We pulled in alongside the first boat and it was immediately obvious that there wasn’t actually anywhere to disembark – just a steep, rocky scree slope that the locals were now hopping deftly onto and scrambling up. How the hell were the bikes meant to get off the boats, across a three metre gap and up there?! James and Carl clambered off rather less deftly (James: er, we were like cats!) to discuss matters with the others, while Bene and I stayed on our boat with our bikes and belongings, trying to cool ourselves down by dipping our headscarves in the water (so refreshing!) It took nearly an hour for an agreement to be reached on how to proceed, mainly because people were trying to get us to pay extra for help getting them off (er, when you pay for a ferry crossing you kind of assume this will include you being able to get off at the other side…!) but in the end, after lots of arguing during which neither side could agree on a price, James disappeared up to top to find an army officer to mediate, and came back with a local official who ordered the bikes off the boat for a fraction of the asking price. And to ensure we didn’t have a riot over who got paid what, James had given the official the money to distribute as he saw fit. Bene and I meanwhile were just pondering on the rather more important issue of HOW the bikes were actually going to be reunited with solid ground when a thunderous crack gave us a heart attack. Landslide?!! Not exactly – army engineers  were carrying out ‘controlled blasts’ on the landslide in an effort to create new slipways before the winter set in (James: it’s the dry season now and in the winter everything freezes so the amount of water currently  entering the lake is as low as it gets. If it’s not drained enough by the spring melt however the disaster could quickly get worse ).  Knowing that the blasts were intentional only slightly allayed our fears – it was still incredibly nerve-wracking every time we heard one, convinced that the impact would trigger off something worse. Not only that, but when you looked up closely at any of the surrounding peaks, there was always a mini-rockfall occurring somewhere. I for one was keen to get the hell out of this dangerous cauldron of rock.

With a price finally agreed, a narrow wooden ramp was balanced precariously between our boat and the ‘shore’. Not wanting to bear witness to what looked likely to only end in one thing (disaster), I volunteered to walk up the slope and stand with our belongings while the bikes were unloaded and once on ‘dry land’, I could fully appreciate what we were up against. We were essentially standing on a huge hill of loose rock and dirt that, before the landslide, had made up half of the face of the mountain to our right: you could literally see where the front side of the peak had sliced off, leaving different coloured, virgin rock visible underneath. The force with which these thousands of tons of rock had fallen was unimaginable but the resulting layer of 20cm thick chalk-like dust gave some idea; dense rock had been literally pulverised. I can only describe it as being what I imagine the surface of the moon to be like, or if someone had emptied bags of cement powder over a rocky hill. Within minutes, we were coughing and squinting as the wind whipped up swirls of the dust into our faces. This was not going to be an easy surface to ride on (for me, impossible!) – so thickly laden was the fine dust that the underside of the bikes carved through it instead of riding on top, creating an additional dust cloud. This in turn made it even harder to see the large rocks and boulders buried in the deep powder, and all this was compounded by the fact that the ‘path’ up over the top of the landslide mass was the steepest I’d ever seen. No vehicles were coming down beyond a certain point as the angle, rocks and sharp turns defied access. However, somehow we would have to get the bikes up and over – what had we gotten ourselves into?!!

After much effort, and several close calls, the bikes were all off the boats and lined up at the bottom of the landslide. Poor James and Carl were knackered, having helped the locals lift each bike off and push them up the first slope; not an easy task at the best of times but as we were still at high altitude, breathing was laboured even when standing still. It took a while to repack our bags onto the bikes and then it was time to contemplate the next challenge. Now on our own (the local helpers were absolved of their duties as soon as the bikes were on land) we agreed that the bikes would have to be ridden up in order to get enough power to tackle the steep slope but would need all of us to help by pushing/providing support as the way was so rocky and unpredictable that coming off was a distinct possibility. It was decided to start with the Harley to get it over and done with: Donato fired her up and we all managed to get purchase on something in order to help push and keep him upright. This worked for about twenty metres but, unbelievably knackered in the thin air, everyone shouted that they needed a rest and let go. I freaked out, realising I was the only one still pushing, and shouted at Donato to stop – this was precisely the wrong thing to do as by this point he actually had momentum and was about to make it to the next level part. He turned to me in bewilderment ‘But Emily, why?’ and how he managed to move off again, I don’t know. I felt really bad – I could have easily caused him to drop the bike – but luckily he’s such an experienced rider that he managed to make it up to the top of the steep slope (though this was by no means the top of the landslide). One down, six to go.

Just as Carl was about to take Bene’s bike up, a couple of army guys said that we could go up the right hand fork of the path which looked slightly less steep, so Carl powered off that way (giving it beans is the only way to go!) However, he too had his momentum thwarted when he met head-on a huge caterpillar digger bringing down some military pontoon rafts to serve as a jetty (a bit late now!) The digger’s claw swung so close to the bike, he had to push it back with his hands. Meanwhile, we (still with the rest of the bikes at bottom) saw the digger coming towards us and hastily tried to squeeze the bikes to the side out of the way (not easy with an unstable surface which dropped straight down to the lake). As the digger passed by us, very nearly knocking Fabian and his bike off the edge, I was appalled to see the ground beneath its treads bend and buckle like the surface of a trampoline: the thought ‘we’re all going to die!’ flickered through my mind and not for the last time. I took a photo and, accentuated by the clouds of grey dust, the whole scene looks somewhat apocalyptic. It felt it too! The next problem was that Fabian’s bike, which had been running poorly since the Khunjerab Pass, conked out (dead battery) as he tried to make it up the hill: cue much exertion as the boys and a few curious on-looking soldiers struggled to give his beast a push start. In the end, it required a jump start from a army Landrover to get it going again. We crossed our fingers that it would make it down to the next town and this was really not a good place to be breaking down.

Slowly but surely the bikes were taken up to the top of the landslide. Poor James had his work cut out as he was doing both of our bikes which of course meant coming back on foot for the second one each time. Bad enough at the beginning, but once we were over the crest of the landslide it got a lot harder for him as he kept having to walk back uphill to get my bike (yes, I did feel bad but this was always part of the deal of me riding my own bike!! Also, I had my own share of wheezing as I was obviously walking too!) Once at the crest, we could see down below where the KKH emerged from the bottom of the landslide pile but there was a still a lot of powder to get through. Donato went ahead (Roberta was walking as you really don’t want a pillion to add to your woes on this sort of surface) and it was a relief to see him make it down to the relative safety of the road. There was another delay when James, Bene and Fabian took the wrong fork in the path and it led them to a 45 degree slope that looked simply too dangerous to ride down. James went back on foot to tell Carl and Stefano to go the other way (and get my bike for the umpteenth time), whilst Bene, Fabs and I did a joint effort to turn Bene’s bike round. We were about to turn James’ too when Carl, having gone down the other way and parked, hiked up and said, ‘C’mon, it’s not that steep!’ Bene wasn’t convinced but I said maybe he’d be willing to ride James’ to save him the effort while he was getting mine; he didn’t take asking twice! He decided to coast down in neutral, the idea being that I would hold onto the back for support, but it soon gathered too much momentum and left me for dust. It was slightly alarming seeing him career down the hill getting jolted about by rocks but he pulled the bike in safely to the side and James was indeed grateful! (Bene sensibly took the less steep option!)

The drama wasn’t over yet; Stefano came round a sharp corner and lost grip in the dust, losing control of the bike. It went down and, due to the steep gradient, pretty much ‘turtled’ (Carl’s word – meaning to land on its back – I love it!) It took him, Carl and Fabian quite some time just to get the bike upright again, and then a pannier repair job was required. James, meanwhile, had got his bike down to join Donato and was making the long walk back up for mine whilst Bene, a very competent rider and having made it pretty much the whole way, came off just a few metres short of the road when her bike lost traction in the thick dust. Damn the Dust Mountain!!! James finally got back up to the remaining bikes (looking like a dead man walking he was so exhausted) and set to helping the guys with Stefano’s pannier (plus they needed the strength of all four of them to turn Fabian’s bike which was still stranded at the top of the steep slope!) while I trudged down to Donato, Roberta and Bene. I’d just reached the bottom when we saw the four remaining bikes making their way down to us, Fabian’s moving particularly gingerly in its poorly state. They arrived to much jubilation without any more spills, hurrah! It was now 4pm and it had taken us five hours to traverse the two or three kilometres from the edge of the lake to where the road began once more. Crazy! But we were ecstatic: many people had warned us that it would be impossible and here we were, victorious. Covered in dust and dead on our feet but most definitely victorious!!!

12 Responses to “The dammed lake.”

  1. Mama/Kate says:

    Blooming heck! Or do I actually mean Bloody Hell?!!!!

  2. Mama/Kate says:

    PS. May I reassure everyone at this point? Have actually seen and talked to Em and James on Skype, safe and sound in Islamabad.
    They look very well and happy.

  3. Jackson says:

    what a day! great photos

  4. Joanna says:

    My God – you’re all mad! Fantastic, but mad!!

    Courage, mes braves (she says in her best french accent).

    It all defies belief. Copious supplies of beer required I think!

    Keep going
    xxxx

  5. Joanna says:

    PS Have just looked at the photos-amazing!

    xx

    PPS James is, indeed, a star *

    x

  6. Jess says:

    Are you guys for real??! Come on home and watch a movie or summat xxxxxxxxx so awesome to speak to you on Skype!

  7. John & Bex says:

    A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!! Wow, now you’re talking!! We are so very impressed!! Fantastic effort! I’m sure it wasn’t easy but your huge smiles in the ‘victory’ photo says it all! Loving the ‘can do’ attitude – go team Littlewood!!

  8. Julian says:

    INSPIRATIONAL!
    You are a TOP TEAM.
    Superb writing and photos.
    Love from dad X

  9. Nirmal negi says:

    woderful pictures,,,,,,,,,,big big adventures. wonderful designing. …

    cheers

  10. Nirmal negi says:

    Inspirational as dad said.

    Really greatest adventureous

  11. Mama/Kate says:

    I think the above may be our postman. When i mentioned you were in Pakistan, he wanted to hear all about it. I directed him to your blog. Your fame spreads!

  12. Jackson says:

    no the above is my friend Nirmal the chap the took Dad and I on the Enfield motorbike tour in India.

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