Gilgit

(Em) The guesthouse in Gilgit had looked a bit shabby when we arrived in the dark the night before, but in the light of day it was actually quite cute with lovely little sheltered seating areas and beautiful rose bushes and sunflowers everywhere. The rooms were very basic, and the shared bathrooms were of the cold shower/drop toilet variety, but it was a quiet little haven away from the hustle and bustle of Gilgit’s main street and was suitably cheap (about $3.50 for a double room). There were half a dozen other travellers staying at the hostel – the first we’d seen really since entering Pakistan- including Juan, the Spanish biker last seen at the Eagle’s Nest a few days before. As luck would have it, Juan’s a qualified mechanic so he and Fabian set about pulling his bike to pieces early doors and found that the main problem was a completely burnt out clutch (and a suspected myriad of other issues to go with it…) The upshot of it was that it was the end of the road for Fabian’s bike in its current state and he would have to get his bike trucked to Islamabad where a new clutch could also be sent from Spain. This was gutting news – we’d started this journey together and were sad that Fabs would miss the final instalment of the KKH. Fabian himself was pragmatic, and immediately started looking into cargo companies that could transport his bike, plus flights for him from Gilgit to Islamabad, but it must have been hard for him having got the bike through so many of the challenges so far.

Donato and Roberta left that morning; they were keen to get to India as soon as possible and are not the types to hang around. We wished them well and requested regular updates of the road ahead – the latest news was that a landslide had blocked the road about 40km away and that it was currently impassable… Good luck with that!! Stefano and Carl set about finding a welder to fix the cracked pannier and make Carl a new hinge and, rather fortuitously, there was one next door to the guesthouse so that was sorted quickly enough. That afternoon, the six of us went out for a walk down the main street; Bene and I felt a lot more conspicuous as it was our first time in a populated place without our bikes and people weren’t exactly hiding their stares. It didn’t help that there were pretty much no women out on the street, let alone western ones. No one around us was eating during the day as it was still Ramadan but there were a few street vendors selling food – we stopped at one which had some tasty looking samosas and pakoras and they kindly let us in (bolting the door behind us!!) so that we could eat the food out of sight while it was still hot. Then that evening, we got a ‘taxi’ (a little Suzuki van– hilarious! The guards actually asked us if we were ok as we all piled out!) to the Serena Hotel, a five-star establishment no less. James had read that it did a good evening bbq buffet and it didn’t disappoint. We sat at a beautifully set table-clothed table out on the lawn and pigged out on the various curries, salads and dahls in a mosquito free environment (they had some sort of sonar device that kept the bugs at bay!) They even had a selection of puddings which was quite the novelty as we hadn’t had dessert for months (naturally we had to have a bit of each of the six dishes on offer…) It was very strange being somewhere so clean and upmarket; it seemed like we’d been transported to another world. We liked it for the treat that it was but by this stage, we wouldn’t swap the dust and grit we’d become accustomed to for anyone’s money!!

In terms of getting a friendly welcome and feeling safe in Gilgit, so far so good. There was certainly a  heavily armed police and military presence, and it wasn’t really the sort of place you’d go out walking after dark, but the guys running the guesthouse were extremely helpful and everyone we met when out and about in town were keen to shake hands and make acquaintances, even if Bene and I were largely ignored (can you be ignored and stared at at the same time?!)  When we walked (or rather rolled, we’d eaten that much) down to find a taxi after the buffet, a local doctor and his family invited us to chat and have a cup of cola with them – they were really interesting to talk to and all too aware of the poor light in which Pakistan was viewed by the rest of the world. Admittedly, we were slightly alarmed by something the guy who drove us home said – he was telling us that it wasn’t too safe in town at night and when we asked if he meant for tourists, he said no, for him as an Ismaili; there were apparently gangs of Sunnis about. ‘What are they doing to you?’ James asked. ‘ They are killing us,’ came the rather bleak response. Ah. And so it seemed that the problems were not with us foreigners, but between different religious factions who, for some reason or another, deemed the other insufficiently pious.

We planned to leave Gilgit the following day, having spent two nights at the guesthouse, and just needed to wait for Carl and Bene to sort out their visa extensions that morning (they only had a two week visa but with all the problems on the KKH, it wasn’t looking likely that they’d make it to the border in time). However, a combination of hearing from travellers coming from the south that there was no way we could get through the landslide at the moment and the fact that the visa extension took until after 2pm, led us to decide that it would be sensible to hold off and leave early the following day. Donato eventually got in touch to say that the road continued to be crappy but that he had managed to get his bike over the landslide by paying locals to literally carry it – good to know. The other problem ahead of us was that the road between Chilas and Islamadad (the capital of Pakistan and the end of the KKH) was apparently closed; whether due to road damage or hostility was unclear. There was a solution: to bypass this last section by taking a diversion up over the 4100m Barbusa Pass. Juan had already done the pass but I for one wasn’t encouraged by his reports that the mud was knee deep and it took him six hours (oh, not forgetting the armed bandits!) Needless to say, I was starting to rather envy Fabian and his flight to Islamabad!!

That evening, James and Carl struck upon the genius idea that Fabian could somehow get hold of a little 125cc bike (ubiquitous in Pakistan, everyone seems to have one) and thus complete the final leg of the journey with us. Fabian dismissed the idea as ridiculous as first but all too soon was railroaded into at least looking into the idea. It really buoyed us all up to think that he might be able to leave with us after all – it shows how much we’d gelled and saw ourselves as a team – and one of the guys working at the guesthouse told us where to go ‘bike shopping’ the following morning. In reality, getting hold of a bike was a little trickier than anticipated: many of the shops were closed as it was the eve of Eid, and it seemed that to buy a bike with a view to sell it again in Islamabad was a bit of a risk as the market there was saturated and it would be worth so much less. Still, they persevered and by mid-afternoon had sealed the deal with a local guy… except then it turned out that it wasn’t actually his bike to sell so he didn’t have the correct papers (an important factor given all of the military checkpoints we’d be riding through). Very frustrating! By the time it got dark, Fabian felt he’d explored all possible avenues and was resigned once more to the fact he’d have to get to Islamabad by other means. THEN, James said, ‘hang on, didn’t the owner here mention something about his bike…?’ Half an hour later, Fabian returned from  reception with a big grin: not only did the owner have a bike but he was willing to lend it to Fabian for pretty much nothing providing he stuck it on a truck back to Gilgit once he reached Islamabad. Result! We all relaxed knowing that things were working out and that we could leave in the morning. Juan had also decided to join us – he needed to go back over the Babusa Pass to get some of his equipment that he’d left in Naryn. That evening we celebrated with a ‘movie night’ out in the garden: Carl set up his laptop and we all sat under one of the shelters, with a power cut providing the perfect dark backdrop and only the rain (where did that come from?!) to compromise our enjoyment.

One Response to “Gilgit”

  1. Jess says:

    Cool! We had a movie night at the Royal Albert Hall last night – Lord of the Rings. Awesome. xxxxx

Leave a Reply