Hunza Valley and The Eagle’s Nest

(James) As we all tried to recover at the bottom of the landslide, it was all we could do to just stand there and drink water to try and get some of the dust out of our lungs, but we were still about 30km short of our intended target for the night – Karimabad in the heart of the Hunza valley. We had no idea how good or bad the roads might be (surely they couldn’t get any worse?!) but with it now gone 4pm a combination of bad roads coupled with the high mountains all around us meant that the sun would set soon enough, and we didn’t want to get caught on these roads in the dark. I’d heard about a place we could stay in a village above the town of Karimabad, called the Eagle’s Nest, which supposedly had amazing views of the valley and the surrounding mountains. It might be more expensive than usual but hopefully, if it was open, its rates might be negotiable. I mentioned it to the group who all agreed that after today something a little more ‘special’ might be in order so we headed off.  The road to Karimabad wasn’t too bad (well it was rubbish but after the landslide pretty much anything seemed good) and we covered the next 25kms in little more than 90 minutes, the only notable event being when I got caught out gawping at the surroundings and failed to see (until Em riding behind, yelled out a warning by which time it was too late) a large pile of football size rocks by the side of the road. With no time to take evasive action or to brake, I ploughed straight into them, instinctively putting my weight on to my foot pegs  but fully expecting a very large wipe out. Perhaps it was the dirt road that helped but despite a horrible sounding impact I somehow came out the other side unscathed (Em: how he stayed upright, I do not know!!) and a quick inspection of  the bike miraculously found no warped wheel (although a subsequent inspection later found that my bash plate – a large 5mm thick steel protective plate under the bike – had taken a right beating and has been ‘reshaped’!).  They say that most mountaineering fatalities happen during the descent as climbers relax and stop paying attention, and this incident was most likely the result of something similar with my mind already thinking about luxuries like a shower and clean clothes, it could have been all too serious for bike and rider, something Em was rightly quick to remind me of!

 We eventually arrived in Karimabad which sits above the KKH. The group stopped for some cold drinks in a roadside shop though Em and I, having ridden 50 metres past it, were simply too shattered to walk back down the hill so slumped on the nearest rock. We began the steep climb up towards the hotel on a lovely bit of tarmac. Up and up we kept climbing, reassured by those we spoke to that the hotel was indeed this way, open and that the road was tarmac all the way (we had to ask because we just kept climbing high above everything else and didn’t want it to be for nothing). True enough the road, although incredibly twisty with countless ridiculously tight hairpins and ever increasingly high drops off the edge (Fabian who suffers from vertigo was not enjoying it!), continued  to stay tarmac and we all started to enjoy what was a relatively civilised end to a really tough day. We should have known better, however, and as I led the group up the mountainside, the road suddenly got much, much steeper and the tarmac disappeared, replaced by a mixture of completely rutted mud (some dry, some wet) with steep banks and deep holes (Em: all I heard through the intercom was ‘Oh shit!’) It was not somewhere I wanted to stop and with a another sharp left hand hairpin banking steeply 20 metres or so into, not something I could just power through. My only option was to try to reach a high bank of mud on the outside of the bend where I might be able to stop and evaluate the next section currently out of my line of sight. I made it, just, but having stopped on the bank, the bike started skidding back down the slope even with the brakes fully on. With little choice I told Em, who would be the next to reach it, to stop wherever she could and gave the bike enough beans to continue round the corner and up the hill where, fortunately, the mud ended. Jumping off the bike, I quickly made my way back down to warn the others or advise them on the best line and, turning the corner, was met with a scene of total devastation! In front of me I could see Em’s bike on its side, and a little further down the hill Fabian’s was mirroring it. Stefano’s wasn’t on its side at all but seemed to be completely upside down! In the middle of them all, Donato was trying to do a 20 point turn. He, the bike and most definitely Roberta had had enough and were heading back down to Karimabad to find somewhere else!

Only Carl and Bene were still upright and, having seen that everyone was ok, I pointed out the best line to them and around they very gingerly came. With half the group above the obstacle it was decided that we should continue and not give up (Donato had already headed back down, probably rightly as although a great rider, his poor bike just wasn’t built with this in mind!). Having picked everybody up, I got Em’s bike round the corner to the other side, and Carl and directed Bene and Stefano. Poor old Fabian’s bike however, which had not been well since climbing the Khunjerab pass, was having none of it and despite revving was simply not producing the power necessary to move it forward. Not ideal as once moving it’s having instantaneous power on tap that gets you out of trouble when your balance starts going. We were all mentally and physically shattered but were damned if we going to be defeated now so, having surrounded Fabian’s bike, pushed and shoved to keep him balanced and, inches at a time, got him safely to the other side. I did almost fall down laughing when mid-corner and between cries of “whoa!” each time the bike started losing balance, Fabian looked down at me and said “James? This place had better be worth it!” I must admit that given our day, I did begin to entertain the possibility that the hotel might be either, closed, fully booked or simply too expensive, none of which was appealing as we certainly wouldn’t be able to come back down after dark. All our efforts had drawn a crowd of locals and having finally got the remaining 6 bikes to safety, a couple of them approached to talk and informed us the roads were usually tarmaced, but had been destroyed in the recent heavy rain and flooding that had caused so much devastation throughout the country.  We were also relieved to hear that not only was the hotel open, it would almost certainly have rooms. In fact, one of them added, the manager was a his cousin (everybody here seems to be a cousin!) and were we to mention his name we could be assured of a discount. Having said our goodbyes, we gave Fabian a push start (his bike wasn’t too bad once up to speed, it was just getting up to speed in the first place that was the problem!), and having seen him off got ready to follow him, half expecting a repeat of the farce on the Khunjerab, only to see him on the ledge above us absolutely flying! Clearly he’d decided that the only solution was to not slow down for anything! We started off after him and continued to climb (where the bloody hell was this place?!) and despite a couple more muddy/rocky sections, endless hairpins  and having to cross a stream, the road improved (although Stefano got his wheel stuck in a hole in the road on a bridge – never ideal!).

We thought we’d finally found the hotel when rounding another hairpin I came across Fabian calmly sitting in the road outside some metal gates. “Is this it?” I asked, only to be pointed up to my right, where his bike was once again lying on its side mid-(very steep and sharp)corner. He’d managed with speed until then but, so severe was the turn and gradient that he’d been forced to slow down and not having the power to maintain balance and give drive when exiting, had been facing with either rolling backwards and dropping off the edge of a sheer 100m drop or put the bike down on its side. He’d, rather sensibly, chosen the latter. Again we picked his bike up and got him going and then followed him up to the hotel (that we were all beginning to suspect didn’t actually exist!). With dusk rapidly approaching, we reached the end of the road and with it saw the entrance to the Eagle’s Nest and having parked up and exchanged some expletive laden comments about either the road (“don’t worry, the road’s perfect!” we’d been assured at the bottom!) or the day in general, Carl and I went inside to find out the rates (there were clearly going to be rooms available as, once again, we were the only ones there). I can’t be sure whether our exhausted and dirt covered faces were able to transmit what we thought when the man at reception (this hotel had a reception! Oooh!!!) told us that a room was 3000 rupees a night, but he clearly sensed that we weren’t going to pay that, so without us even saying a word he began to lower the price. Still nowhere near our price range, we eventually joined in with his ‘one-man haggling’ trick and said the price would have to come down significantly more before we’d be able to stay and that if it didn’t, we’d go and camp on the mountainside. We reminded him that there were 6 of us and that we were very hungry and thirsty so they’d get plenty more money out of us. We knew we were in a good position to haggle simply because just like everywhere else we’d stayed, they had been empty so long that we could demand better than off-season rates. Eventually, with the price still at a well reduced but still too high 1600 rupees, the man sensed we weren’t bluffing (we kinda were – I don’t think I had the energy to put a tent up or the nerve to go out and tell everyone it was too expensive!) and asked what price we were able to pay. We looked at each other and decided to start low and replied that 600 was our sort of price (we’d actually been paying way less than that before but this place looked really nice!) so we were surprised when the man said that we had a deal. Result! Before we knew it, several staff (nowhere else we’d been had had staff!) were helping us unload the bikes and taking us to our rooms which, even in the dusk we could see were sat overlooking the entire Hunza valley. We’d only just dropped our bags on the floor when we invited for a complimentary chai and cold water. Ordinarily, we’d all have wanted a shower and a change of clothes, but we were so shattered, thirsty and relieved to have made it, that we used what little energy we had  to climb on to the roof of the restaurant and sat a tad shell shocked, and drank bottle after bottle of water and pot after pot of chai. Only an hour later, with night having fallen, did we trudge back down to our rooms where we pulled off trousers, jackets and boots that had, quite literally, filled with fine dust and stepped under  cold showers (although some in the group showered in their bike gear as an initial wash!) before returning to the dining room to share photos and videos from the day and re-live what had been, without doubt, the toughest day any of us had experienced on the trip. Normally, after hard days we had, for some reason always managed to end up in pretty rubbish places, but on this toughest of all days, fate had finally rewarded us, and the food, when it came (and it kept coming – we ordered way too much!) was absolutely amazing! We all quickly admitted that given the quality of the food, the hotel, the views and the fact that we were never going to be ready/able to leave in the morning, we were all ‘prepared’ to spend a couple of nights at the Eagle’s Nest to recover. With that agreed, we all ate ourselves to the point of obesity and then dragged our bloated bodies to bed where everyone (even the insomniac Fabian) fell into a deep, deep sleep.

5 Responses to “Hunza Valley and The Eagle’s Nest”

  1. Mandy & Ru says:

    landslides, football size rocks, mud, bikes strewn across roads… you guys sound like you are lucky to be alive… makes for nerve wracking reading… you SO deserved to that supper!

  2. Jo and Ben says:

    Hi guys,

    Just caught up on your blog which has taken me/us a while, haven’t been on here for a few days and suddenly there’s an epic to read. Seems like you two are negotiating some truly horrendous roads…if thats what you would call them. Good to catch up on your adventures through the ‘unknown’. I’m knackered just reading about what you have gone through, especially in this part of the world! The snapshot of the sights you’ve seen are just incredible. Ben and I were just commenting on the fact that they are pictures we would only dream of being able to take, or that you’d see in the National Geographic. Keep the photos coming, we love looking at all the cultures you have encountered. Sounds like you are well, albeit exhausted with negotiating the bad roads and water crossings etc. Take care of yourselves and continue enjoying your journey.

    Lots of love
    Jo & Ben xxx

  3. Mama/Kate says:

    Yet again, I must reiterate how glad I am to have ‘seen’ you safe and sound in Islamabad. At least, that’s where you said you were!
    Otherwise, I just wouldn’t be able to read this stuff. No doubt there’ll be more hairy adventures to follow. All my love x

  4. Jess says:

    Can’t tell you how pleased I am that the hotel was nice and affordable after all that! xxx

  5. Martha says:

    Sounds like an awesome place, so glad that fate rewarded you with some luxury after your day from hell!! (sorry about the lateness of my comment, just wanted you to know that I got there in the end!)

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