South from Gilgit and the BIG landslide

(James) With Fabian back on a bike, we woke knowing there was now nothing and nobody giving us any reason to stay in Gilgit. Our challenge for the day was expected to be the landslide some 40km to the south; we knew Donato had managed, with some help, to get his bike across but were interested that it had taken him almost 5 hours to reach it. Could the roads be that bad?! We certainly wouldn’t have been helped by the rain that fell lightly, but continuously, throughout the night, but it was sunny now so hopefully he roads wouldn’t be too bad. Fabian seemed a little reluctant to go and get the keys for his new ‘hog’ from the owner, but eventually he, and the rest of us, were all out of excuses. We loaded up our bikes and Fabian put his overnight bag on his – it looked hilarious, as did he! The bike because it was so small next to ours (and compared to his own), and Fabian because having packed his bike gear onto his bike for transportation when he thought he’d be flying down to Islamabad, he had to borrow clothing from everyone to ‘make’ a riding suit, so his black shorts, with black lycra leggings underneath and a pair of converse shoes and a waterproof mac (a mac in a sac to be precise!) for protection from the elements made for quite the look! As we left we were all laughing – with him, not at him, of course!

Time and fuel consumption were still our prime concerns when we left but that was put on the backburner as Carl wanted to cross the wooden bouncing suspension bridge we’d crossed the night we’d arrived in Gilgit so he could see it in the day. Having got to the steep  track leading down to the bridge, we hit something that hadn’t been there on our night crossing – a traffic jam. The bridge, despite being single track, was apparently open to two-way traffic and there didn’t appear to be much of a system regarding right of way. Having finally made it to the front we could see that the bridge was swinging a lot as it had no physical connection to the bankside meaning it moved from side to side and up and down by about 20cm. The trick was to catch it as it was level with the bank and then be quick. We each successfully crossed the bridge but upon exiting were faced with another problem, the sharp, steep right hand turn into the narrow tunnel. The problem was that this time Em and I had our goggles on, and with our intercom not working I couldn’t pre-warn her.  Years of experience have taught me to trust instinct when caught in a situation like this, and not being able to see a thing in a narrow tunnel, my best bet was to get as close to the car in front as possible and try to follow what little light it was giving off when it braked. Getting close to a vehicle in the dark goes against your natural intuition and Em certainly wasn’t to know this. Having entered the tunnel, and found herself completely blind she had tried to stop (a fine alternative to riding straight into a stone wall) and not knowing what the surface was like – it was wet, slippery, steep, broken and uneven – she lost her balance and down she went blocking the tunnel. I only found this out when having exited nobody followed me out so parking up, I ran back down to see if she was ok which thankfully she was. (Em: my little mishap meant that the traffic built up behind me and Fabian was stuck out on the middle of the bridge – pretty much his worst nightmare! Whoops!) We got the bike upright and got it out of the tunnel. Em was pretty philosophical about it, she’s pretty tough these days, so off we headed, only to find out that this way out of town was closed due to a new landslide caused by the night’s rainfall! We’d have to double back across the bridge again! This time, however, there were no mistakes (we took our goggles off) and we made it across town, all except for Carl, who having ridden off ahead, missed the turning and got lost. Not wanting to have people riding all over town looking for him we opted to wait and 20 minutes or so later he arrived. Finally, a little later than planned we were on our way.

The road south continued to be a mix of sand, gravel and rocks but given Fabian’s limited speed it helped keep us all together. After just under 30km we came to a line of traffic and riding to the front found the cause – a landslide. At first we thought it was ‘our’ landslide and were pleased to see that diggers were in the process of clearing it, certainly it was around the right distance from Gilgit, but we were soon told that this one was a fresh one and the big one was further down the road. Within half an hour there was enough of a gap for us to squeeze through and we were on our way, each corner expecting to come across the big one, but 40km came and went, as did 50. It wasn’t until we reached Jaglot that we suddenly found ourselves riding past the telltale lines of queued trucks. We passed hundreds of them, their drivers having seemingly long since settled in for the long haul and eventually arrived at the front to find a lot of activity. Having parked up, Carl, Stefano, Juan and myself walked up to see if it was passable, leaving the girls and Fabian to look after the bikes. The section  of the original road, some 300m long, had disappeared down into the river far below; the road had been some 50m away from the rock face but all that land was also gone. Now, there was a Chinese construction crew working feverishly to dig a new road out of the remaining sheer rock face. We climbed up past the diggers and sat fixated like children as only 7 or 8 metres away from us the diggers ripped the rocks out of the cliff and before depositing them over the edge. Immediately behind, a dumper truck was pouring fresh soil and stones on to the flattened rocks creating a brand new road at a rate of about 10m per hour – imagine that in England! It was incredible that we were allowed to sit so close to the diggers while they were ripping up the very sections of rock we were sitting on, and behind us no more than 20m away another crew was laying explosive charges ready for the next section. Health and safety be damned!!  We got chatting to some of the other people sitting on the rocks with us who turned out to be truck drivers. They were happy to see us but not happy with the Chinese work crews – there’s a considerable amount of animosity towards the Chinese anyway as the Chinese government funds development of the Pakistani sections of the KKH (good for Chinese business) but insists on using Chinese labour which in an area of high unemployment, quite understandably doesn’t go down too well. Many of them had been stuck at the landslide for 8 days whilst, they claimed, the road crew had sat around drinking beer. They were only working today because a government official was coming to see progress! What had irked them was that they had begged the work crews to build a simple temporary path to let them through so they could get home to their families in time for Eid but their requests had fallen on deaf ears.

Although we were having fun watching all the diggers at work and seeing the explosive charges being placed (in a way that boys of all ages can surely appreciate!), it was clear to us that the route that Donato must have used was now all but gone and given that work was now being done we, like everybody else, would have to sit and wait so we headed back down to the others to relay the news. We said that given it was already late afternoon it was unlikely to be finished today so we set about finding somewhere to pitch our tents – out of the way but with a line of sight to the landslide so we could keep an eye on progress. Having picked our spot we set up camp watched, of course, by 20 locals and a few police and soldiers (the latter loved our tents!) and settled in for the afternoon in what was actually a nice mountain location (the sound of diggers and the occasional ring of explosive charges being detonated aside). Our camp also gave us all a chance to finally get out our donated US military self heating ration packs which went down a storm (Em: seriously exciting, Carl even had Skittles in his pack!!) Most of the next day was spent just idling around camp whilst being watched by a constant string of curious locals, but towards late afternoon we began to sense that it might not be long until the road was passable. We’d given ourselves a deadline of 5pm; any later and we might as well stay another night instead of getting involved in the inevitable bun fight that would break out the minute they opened the road. Even so we were ready and sure enough at a quarter to five we rolled back down to the front of the line where the police on duty ensured we were the first from our side to get through (it was a single lane ‘road’ so only one direction at a time). The rocky surface had been slightly packed down by the first vehicles coming through the other way so by sticking in their tracks we all got across ok but then got caught in the jam on the other side as the track was too narrow. However a bit of weaving and some friendly waves got us through to the end of the jam and finally, after a 30 hour delay, we were back on the road again but, with limited space for camping, no chance of making it to a village and only an hour of daylight left, we were going to have to keep an eye out for any place we could to spend the night.

With darkness quickly falling we arrived at a small but heavily guarded bridge and, having been vetted by those on duty, noticed a motel – the Shangri la – on the other side. This would do nicely! Sadly it had long since closed but a quick inspection showed that it did still have a garden that we could camp in. However, the police were not happy with the idea and  wanted us to move on to Chilas (still some 50km away) saying it was too dangerous (armed bandits) to camp here. We replied that it was far too dangerous for us to ride in the dark and deal with local hijackers and that we wanted to stay here. A good half an hour passed and with it the last of the daylight but in the end our persistence paid off and they finally agreed we could camp in the garden (surely that was safer than riding in the dark to another dangerous area?!) There was one fly in the ointment, however, in the form of the hotel ‘caretaker’, who clearly didn’t like us one bit and was determined to extract payment. A payment that we were happy to pay, but his opening bid of 6000 rupees (about $60) was met with the derision it deserved. We quickly decided that he was a dangerous combination of malicious and thick and so having refused his demands, we went about putting our tents  up whilst using a policeman as a mediator. In the end we agreed  (the policeman and ourselves that is – the caretaker was refusing to budge from his initial offer and wouldn’t speak to us!) on a more suitable figure and sat in the garden and chatted (mostly about what a snide little tosspot our ‘host’ was) and were duly rewarded when out he came in to the garden scowling at us and, not wanting to break his stare, tripped straight over Stefano’s tent. There’s no other way to describe how he went down than bloody hilarious and we couldn’t contain ourselves! Needless to say it was the last we saw of him, and we all had a pretty good night’s sleep despite the constant sound of trucks, freshly liberated from the landslide, heading south.

3 Responses to “South from Gilgit and the BIG landslide”

  1. Jess says:

    i want a ration pack! xxx

  2. Mama/Kate says:

    So do I! Mind you, rib-eye steak with caramelised red onion, rocket and water cress doesn’t sound too bad!
    Just sent the latest stuff off to Nana. Watch this space!

  3. Martha says:

    Casually opening the ration packs hey? Surely after 5 months of travel this warranted more of a debate – how did you know you wouldn’t find a more desperate need for them? And then… discovery of Skittles meant you knew you had made the right decision!

    Funny about the guy falling over your tent :-)

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