The Eagle’s Nest and on to Gilgit

(Em) After a fantastic night’s sleep at the Eagle’s Nest, it was absolute bliss not to have anything to get up for and we lounged in bed sorting photos and writing diary until after ten. When we did eventually venture outside, we were greeted by bright sunshine and an absolutely stunning view. We were at one of the highest inhabited points in the region, overlooking the whole length of the Hunza valley and directly across from Mount Rakaposhi (at 7788 metres) and several other monster peaks. The others were taking advantage of the sun to do some laundry so we followed suit. Having not washed my bike trousers since leaving in April (ew!), and prompted by the fact they were covered in fine dust from the landslide escapade, I thought the time had come. I did it ‘Carl and Bene’ style by wearing them into the shower and soaping them down – and very effective it was too! James’ t-shirts from the last few days needed at least three washes before the water ran clean (his tops get particularly dusty and grimy as he rides with his jacket half undone in the heat) and our boots, when banged together outside, let off voluminous clouds of dust. I even wiped down our yellow Ortleib bags which had their own covering of grey talc. All in all, very satisfying to have clean clothes and kit.

Following a delicious breakfast, we arranged for the hotel jeep (which was very cool) to take us down to Karimabad and Baltit Fort. The route took us back down the way we’d come the previous evening and, without having to concentrate so hard on the road, poor Fabian’s vertigo was in full swing coping with the narrow, twisty road and sheer drops. In fact, I think we all had a few heart-in-mouth moments! Stefano was after an aluminium welder to fix his pannier rack (it had taken rather a beating in the last few days and had cracked on one side) so we stopped by the local metal worker on the way to the fort. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to do anything as they were currently experiencing a power cut (so frequent in these parts) but it gave us the opportunity to chat to a real old character who’d fought in the British Indian Army, both against the Japanese and then in Italy against the Germans. Then years later, after the partition, he was captured by the Indian army and imprisoned for two years. Fascinating stuff, he was a real pleasure to talk to and he seemed to warm to us once he learned we were English and not German! (Well, he particularly warmed to James who understood all the historical references and was able to ask relevant questions – gotta love the Fountain!) A few days later we even saw photos of the old guy on the wall in our hostel in Gilgit; clearly a well-known and celebrated figure.

Baltit Fort, perched high on a ledge above Karimabad (but still several hundred metres lower than our hotel!), had been home to all the Hunza kings until very recently when the position was relegated to that of a figure-head and the building was adopted by UNESCO who are funding renovations. It was a fascinating building to look around, particularly with the information provided by our excellent guide, and amazingly 98 percent of the wooden structure was original (nearly 700 years old!) Some of the rooms were set up as they would have been in the ‘olden times’ so it had an ethnographic museum vibe going on that I appreciated! It was interesting to hear that when it was first built, there had been a glacier which ran down from the mountains to just behind the fort, now long gone, and this had been both a water source but also a guarantee that no-one would attack from that direction. Once we’d descended the steep cobbled streets back down to where our jeep was waiting, we could sense a buzz in the atmosphere and followed the sound of activity to where teenage kids and adults were playing some sort of volley ball game but with a really small hard ball. It seemed to be a local competition and had drawn quite a crowd. It was tempting to stay and watch but we planned to back up at the Eagle’s Nest for sunset so hopped in the jeep for the precarious ride back.

When we got back to the hotel, we were surprised to see quite a few vehicles parked up, including a BMW 1200 GS. A group of Dutch and German hikers who’d walked from Skardu (hardcore!) had come for dinner and it turned out that the bike belonged to Juan, the Spaniard we’d met on the Khunjerab Pass shortly after entering Pakistan. He was amazed to hear that we’d conquered the broken bridge and the landslide, having seen the challenge with his own eyes. Fabian was pleased to be able to jabber away in Spanish – his English is excellent but I guess it must getting tiring never speaking in your mother-tongue! We’d tried to persuade Donato and Roberta to come up in a taxi and join us for dinner but they were now comfortable where they were in Karimabad and planned to hit the road early the next morning. We also intended to leave the next day but none of us seemed willing to dwell on it – we were far too happy staying at this lovely hotel with the beautiful views and, for Bene and I at least, the prospect of riding back down ‘the hill of doom’ was not a welcome one!! Much better to stuff our faces and deny all knowledge!!!

Not such an easy sleep that night. Our sunset had never materialised due to cloud moving in and then we had the worrying sound of rain pretty much all through the night. Not good. We decided to wait it out until checkout time, hoping that the road would dry out a bit by then, and make an informed decision at that point. Luckily, after a bit more drizzle, the sun did break out which was promising (though part of me wanted it to pee down so we were forced to stay another night at our tranquil haven in the mountains…) While we waited for the weather gods to act in our favour, the boys busied themselves with trying to work out what the hell was wrong with Fabian’s bike. They took the whole tank off in order to investigate more thoroughly but, although they found that one of his spark plugs was somewhat discoloured, there wasn’t a lot to go on. ‘Don’t worry’, James, Carl and Stefano assured him, ’It’s all downhill from here so you’ll be fine….’ Hmmmn. Soon enough, the time came to find out: it was deemed dry enough to ride so we set off around half past one – still plenty of time to do the 100km to Gilgit before dark (hadn’t we learned not to make assumptions by now?!) It wasn’t a great start for me – I dropped my bike in the carpark immediately after getting on it – and for the first hour or so, I was a bag of nerves. Needless to say, James took my bike down the ‘hill of doom’ but apart from that, the obstacles we’d built up in our heads weren’t actually as bad as we’d remembered them and we were soon back on the main road. However, the KKH, which we had anticipated getting better now that we were heading further south and towards larger, more well-known towns, was actually still pretty shocking. There was every surface imaginable to contend with and lots of small water crossings too, following the rain in the night, which I had no choice but to hold my breath and traverse (I could hardly stop James every five minutes to do them!)

Incidentally, not only was the road bad but it was also weighing on our minds that Gilgit hadn’t come across too favourably when we’d mentioned it to people in passing. Normally a key town for foreigners on the KKH (it’s a place from which many expeditions to the surrounding mountains are based), this year it seemed to have become a focal point for sectarian violence between Sunni, Shia and Ismaili Muslims which had resulted in countless injuries and half a dozen dead in the previous weeks. With our arrival coinciding with the end of Ramadan and subsequently the festival of Eid, it was possibly not the best time to be visiting; tensions were expected to peak. However, as one of the KKH’s bigger towns, it would at least potentially offer a half decent selection of places to stay and also perhaps the opportunity for some much needed bikes repairs within the group. Plus, we’d noted by now that the KKH didn’t offer much in the way of camping spots!

We ploughed on through rock, gravel, water and mud. Fabian’s Honda was just about coping but became dangerously unresponsive at the first sign of any sort of incline. In general, the six of us rode together but it’s all too easy to get separated (someone stops for a toilet break, or to take a photo, or simply gets stuck behind a lorry) so for the last 40km or so, James and I were leading on our own. Every time the road smoothed out a bit, we thought that the gruelling surface had come to an end but it was always short lived. Going through one small town, we were met with an entirely new, and deeply unpleasant, surface of extremely fine, thick gravel which had pretty much the same properties as sand. As usual, we didn’t clock the change until we were actually on it and then you don’t have much choice but to go for it. We tried to follow the tyre tracks made my other vehicles but it didn’t help much and  you could feel your tyres wobbling about all over the place. I managed to stop the bike without falling over and called to James ‘I’m going to come off, I need you to do this bit!’ but he was powerless to help me as there was no way he could get his side stand down without a stable surface. Crap! I gritted my teeth and somehow managed to make it to where the ground compacted again, made all the more difficult by the fact that my engine was still cutting out all the time. James admitted that he was waiting for the moment when, not if, I would come off so I was very proud of myself to have got through it : )

Gradually the km cited on signs for Gilgit reduced and we were nearly there. We had another bit of the gravel/sand combo to contend with and this time, keeping it steady on the throttle, I made it through less haltingly. We sensed a bit of a change in atmosphere in the last few villages we passed through; there were still many friendly people waving hellos but we were also given rather more hostile stares at times and this, combined with slogans such as ‘Down with America’ painted on the walls, made us slightly uneasy. We got to the outskirts of Gilgit at about half past six and pulled in to wait for the others – much better to enter the town together and avoid people getting lost. Donato had texted Stefano earlier to say that he and Roberta were already there and had booked us some rooms at the Medina guesthouse which was good to know – we didn’t really fancy traipsing round from place to place trying to find a good deal. While we waited, several people came over to say hello and offer help and we were relieved to find that we were getting a warm welcome. And we waited. And waited. After an hour and a half, we were getting a little concerned – perhaps Fabian had broken down for good this time – and we berated ourselves for not getting each other’s numbers (hadn’t thought there was any need as we were all riding together…) The sun had long since set and we were beginning to think maybe we should go on to the hostel (where at least Donato would be able to contact Stefano), when we saw solitary lights approaching in the distance – thank goodness for that. It turns out that in addition to a few push starts needed for Fabian on the hills, both Stefano and Fabian had come off on the second stretch of gravelly sandy stuff (and Bene’s bike had fallen when she tried to put in on the side stand) so there was some emergency repair work required. Also, one of Carl’s pannier hinges had come off so it took some time for him to secure his luggage with what strapping he had. Nightmare!

They looked even more knackered than we felt so we quickly got going again having got some vague directions from a friendly local. Unfortunately, Gilgit was shrouded in darkness due to a black out and it was very strange riding along with no sense of our surroundings. We probably would have got hopelessly lost were it not for a helpful chap who indicated for us to follow him on his 125. The road stretched on and on into the blackness and then, seemingly out of nowhere, we suddenly found ourselves crossing a rickety suspension bridge, then a second! (I think it was probably just as well we couldn’t see what was over the edge, especially for Fabian!!) Finally, we arrived in a busy, bustling street (still for the most part poorly illuminated) and spotted Donato waiting at the turning to the guesthouse. Phew! We managed to squeeze all the bikes into the gated courtyard and convened for some much needed sweet tea, shocked to find that it was gone 9pm. It was the end of our first week in Pakistan and so far we’d travelled the grand distance of 260km!!

P.S. Thanks to family and friends for recent messages and photo comments. Have uploaded a couple of videos of us on the lake and Donato coming up part of the landslide. Only very short clipettes (we have more of Fabian’s works of genius in the bag but needed better connection to upload them) but thought it would help paint the picture… Love to all xxx

8 Responses to “The Eagle’s Nest and on to Gilgit”

  1. Mary says:

    Amazing adventures and photos! I need a stiff drink beside me before I start to read the latest installment. Well done on the new biking skills Emily, sure James will be very pleased.
    Take care
    love Mary

  2. Jackson says:

    brilliant! I’m back from the excesses of Oktoberfest, so been great to lie on the sofa and hear the latest dramas

  3. Suzanne says:

    Wow, you guys rock!!!!
    Loving the pics and espcially the video clips. The water was flowing fast. You both look so so well.
    Wish I could come and join you.
    Lots of love
    Suzanne xxx

  4. Mama/Kate says:

    All this is way outside my comfort zone.Totally amazing!
    The English language is going to have to come up with some new superlatives for you guys. Keep safe. x

  5. Jackie (aka Mum) says:

    Hi People, Still managing to keep up with blog and print off for Pop on a regular basis – keeps him out of mischief for quite some time !! The photos really are stunning and the weather looks brilliant too – pretty miserable here, weatherwise that is !!

    Lots of love as always, Jackie xx

  6. Nana via Mama/Kate says:

    I am completely overwhelmed by the amazing voyage over ‘the lake’ – (good thing WE could not SEE it when it happened!!)

    Mama: I think Nana belongs to the same school of timerity as I do!

  7. Emma (book club Emma) says:

    Wow, I have been on the edge of my seat all evening catching up with your adventures, I am so impressed by your biking skills Em, the Eagles Nest did look and sound amazing though. I can’t wait for the next installment xxx

  8. Martha says:

    Hey Emma (book club Emma), maybe one day your book club will be reading about the adventures of the legendary emily and james in a new best seller!!

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