Mud and bandits, or bandits and the Taliban… decisions, decisions…

(James) As agreed, we were all up and packing the tents before 6am as we had a big day ahead of us. The plan was to ride the last 50km to the small town of Chilas, which supposedly marked the start of ‘hostile’ territory, and then appraise the situation to see whether we should ride over the Babusa Pass or continue down on the KKH. Either way, our options weren’t exactly ideal. Both routes would take us into an area called Indus Kohistan which was famed, if that’s the right word, for being unfriendly at the best of times and where banditry (only recently a hired 4×4 of Pakistani tourists were held up and relieved of all their possessions as well as their hire car) and stone throwing kids were apparently the norm. Our decision, given that both sides came with risks, was to either continue on the KKH through the heart of Indus Kohistan, a route that would take us into the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the eastern Swat valley, which some of you may have heard of in the news as it’s been under Taliban control for a large part of the last 18 months. Or, we could take the detour up and over the 4100m Babusa pass, passing villages of people who simply don’t like the outside world and do their best to ensure people don’t use the road. Unfortunately we couldn’t hope to just speed on by as we’d been consistently hearing  reports of knee deep mud on the pass which didn’t sound great. Some of the group  wanted to do the pass whilst Em in particular wanted nothing to do with it and was prepared to take her chances on the low road. I for one was leaning towards the pass; stone throwing I can handle, bandits – I’ll take my chance, and heavy mud – well we’d get through it together. My main thought though was that on the pass I’d be in more control of what went on, whereas if something happened on the lower road, there was no way I could control it, and I felt Em wasn’t fully appreciating how very real the seriousness of the threat was (Em: I think it’s more the fact that I’d do pretty much anything to avoid mud!!)

But first we had to reach Chilas, and judging by the reaction of the police that morning, that road came with its own problems. They weren’t going to let us leave without an escort to the next checkpoint and despite our pleas that it wasn’t necessary,  we headed off following a 4×4 with four heavy armed policemen. Riding along that morning it soon became clear that the threat was very real even here and that there was some sort of offensive going on to maintain control of the valley (it happens every autumn here and in Afghanistan – control a valley in the autumn and it’s yours for the winter). Every bus or truck we passed had a couple of soldiers sitting on board, and when passing broken down vehicles (something we frequently do – the roads are demanding!) there was always a few military vehicles in attendance whilst repairs were carried out and soldiers were fanned out to either side of the road looking for potential ambushes. By 9am, having been passed onto new police escorts, we were in Chilas where we were very relieved to find our first chance to fill up with petrol in a long time (something we all desperately needed) and then went off to find somewhere for breakfast. Once sat down, we got chatting with some locals who informed us that the Babusa Pass was closed due to the first heavy snowfall. So with that the decision was made – we’d be heading down the remaining KKH into Indus Kohistan and the eastern Swat valley (Em: I was so relieved, albeit perhaps misguidedly!) Before we could leave, however, we had one minor problem – we’d lost Fabian and Stefano. They’d been at breakfast where they mentioned wanting to buy some bread for the road. Stefano – as skinny as a rake – had already displayed an ability to put away several helpings at a sitting at our Serena hotel buffets, whilst Fabian, with not quite the same initial capacity seemed to have a constitution that meant he was ready for a another meal within a couple of hours of stuffing himself stupid.  In short, they’re a pair of gannets! And whilst we were stocking up with water, they’d disappeared. A quick check of the bakery next door revealed nothing as did a cursory look up the road. After half an hour had passed, people were getting slightly more concerned (2 kidnapped from the group is no way to start the day!) and a few minutes later our escorts were suitably concerned to finish their chai and drive off in search of them. 10 minutes later they returned with a slightly sheepish looking pair who proudly showed us an enormous pile (how were we going to carry it?!) of freshly baked bread as justification for their prolonged absence… until we pointed out the bakery next door.

Our journey down the KKH continued fairly uneventfully as we rode through spectacular scenery, thinking about how peaceful it was, yet all the while I was all too aware that like anywhere dangerous or unstable, it’s always peaceful – right up to the moment when it all kicks off. We were passed on several times to new escorts until after lunch when our next escorts failed to follow us; we saw them get in their car as we pulled away but never saw them again. Bizarrely, arriving at the next checkpoint without an escort simply meant that having registered ourselves we were allowed to continue alone despite heading into ever higher risk areas. It’s a peculiarity I’ve read of before – once you have an escort, it’s almost impossible to lose them, but if in the same area you arrive without one, you tend to allowed to continue alone. Very odd!

Whilst not great, the roads were better than we been used to and our speed regularly hit the dizzy heights of 40kph (ooh!!) but with Fabian’s bike not quite having the performance we’d hoped for we could only go as fast as he was able and everybody unofficially took turns keeping up the rear which was hilarious as we got to watch him riding this miniature bike as fast as it would go and get thrown about every time the bike hit a dip, bump or rock which, of course, it did constantly. In the end Carl and Bene took pity on him and donated their inflatable pillow for him to sit on which would, at least, absorb some of the impacts his poor body was having to endure. By the afternoon, the scenery began to change as the river that the KKH runs alongside dropped steeply away and our road began to climb whilst the mountains around us became much more green and fertile. Soon we were riding along narrow ledges with huge sheer drops (no barriers) right next to us, drops we had to ride ever closer to every time we met an oncoming vehicle. For Fabian and his vertigo it was not going well, and as he started to tighten up, his speed dropped significantly. He had clearly decided he was going to focus everything on the road and refused to stop when we took a break and didn’t want anybody riding anywhere near him. He was clearly struggling and we all felt bad for him as these roads were high and narrow. Eventually though, at a stop we decided to force him to stop to take on liquids (the altitude here means dehydration has been a real problem) and a shaking Fabian slowly got off his bikes, stepped away from the edge and reported that his brakes were failing! Not ideal!

We had known for a long time that we were not going to make it to the town on Manshera, not a particularly friendly town but one with secure (armed guards) hotels, and quick look at the map indicated that our best bet (i.e. our only choice) was the definitely unfriendly town of Besham, the very one we’d warned to avoid at all costs! It was now late afternoon and we didn’t have time to waste so as soon as everyone was ready we hit the road again, but dusk began to settle when we were still a good half an hour away. We really didn’t want to get stuck out on these roads after dark, and the sheer drops weren’t the main reason, but it was going to happen. With Juan keeping up the rear, Emily, Stefano and I pushed on and eventually arrived, an hour after dark on the edge of Besham, where, finding a open and well lit petrol station that actually looked like a petrol station (we’d got used to a basic pump or barrel  in a forecourt) we parked up to wait for the others. We were soon joined by  crowd of curious locals, and with us now being in NWFP, were treated to friendly Pashtun hospitality as the eldest man there, who happened to speak perfect English, instructed someone to bring us much appreciated cold soft drinks and refused to accept our money. The whole town was in black out and we sat chatting with him and answering questions as a lightning storm lit up the mountains in the distance, all the while waiting and wondering where the others could have got to. Our answer didn’t come until over an hour later when Carl and Bene arrived to report that Fabian had got a puncture on his rear wheel about 10km out of town – they’d stopped to donate their repair kit but left the jabbering Spaniards to get on with it and come and tell us what was going on. We sat and waited, expecting them along any minute thinking that with Juan being a motorcycle mechanic, he surely wouldn’t be long, but after half an hour still nothing.

 It was now almost 9pm and despite the few locals still about, we knew it wasn’t a great place to be waiting. Carl and I decided that we should venture across the river into the town and try to arrange some accommodation. Crossing the river meant using a new metal bridge (the old one had recently been washed away in the floods and replaced with a new one, ordered, sent from the UK, built and put to work just 20 days after their bridge had been destroyed! Can you imagine that in the UK?!) but getting  to the bridge meant crossing Em’s nemesis, a 100m section of wet clay. Needless to say, she wasn’t going to do it more than once if she didn’t have to, particularly in the dark so Stefano elected to stay with Em and Bene. Having made it across the mud and over the bridge, Carl and I rode up the other side to the main street and found the reason people had advised against going near the town. In our headlights we could see a completely run down street full of enormous potholes, unfriendly faces, feral packs of dogs and military armoured vehicles. Besham had been occupied by the Taliban for the last 18 months, and only very recently had the army managed to retake it and establish a very tenuous control over the town, but with the surrounding hills still under Taliban control and the Taliban able to come and go at will, it wasn’t exactly the most ideal place to be spending the night. Ironically, arriving in the dark was probably our saving grace as although the local could hear us as we slowly made our way through town, they couldn’t see us. Eventually, some 2km to the south of town we came across our intended accommodation, a government run, and very heavily guarded hotel. Having negotiated the rocky and steep entrance (Em was going to love this!) we went in to enquire as to the rates and were horrified with the price, particularly as it was on an option list of one, the other hotel having been burnt down (we didn’t ask why!). We employed our usual blend gentle persuasion, promises of big appetites  and semi-desperate ploys normally involving us claiming we’d take our business elsewhere (a tough act in Besham) and eventually managed to get the fee reduced by about 60%. Having agreed the price, we ordered dinner for 7 people and promised to return as soon as possible. We arrived back at the petrol station to find Stefano, Bene and Em enjoying a pot of chai and that Fabian and Juan still hadn’t arrived so Carl and Stefano rode off to find them while I took the girls back to the safety of the hotel (having assured a slightly apprehensive Em that the road wasn’t that bad and that it was safe).  It wasn’t until 10:45 that Carl and Stefano came back with Juan and a fed up Fabian, whose damaged wheel was beyond roadside repair so he’d had to ride the last 12km on a flat tyre then left his bike at the friendly petrol station before jumping on the back of Juan’s bike. We were tired and hungry, and with Fabian having had a shocker of a day (he was still shaking with nervous energy and adrenalin) we enjoyed a very late dinner, as a thunderstorm rolled in and the lights all went out, and didn’t give a lot of thought about tomorrow. We’d deal with things in the morning…

3 Responses to “Mud and bandits, or bandits and the Taliban… decisions, decisions…”

  1. Jo and Ben says:

    Hey guys,
    Another chance to catch up on your adventures and only imagine what you have been through. Feeling rather sorry for your team mate Fabian though! I assume he has been reunited with his ‘dying’ bike by now, as I see you’re now in India. Glad you guys are out of Taliban controlled areas now, but what a decision to have to make…bandits or mud, bandits or Taliban! And here we are trying to make decisions about what to have for dinner! Again your photos are amazing and probably don’t do too much justice to what you have actually seen. As for the rain…we think we’ve got it bad here with a little drizzle! Never mind the landslides you’ve come across. Anyway will stop rambling now. Glad to hear you’re safe and well. Take care.
    Lots of love
    Jo and Ben xxx

  2. Jackie (aka Mum) says:

    Have just printed off the last report ‘Mud and bandits’ etc (currently 267 pages long) although I haven’t read it yet – like Pop I find it easier to read in larger print !! – not that I’m getting old or anything, so can’t comment as yet but have looked at the lastest pictures which continue to be stunning. However I can concur with Jo and Ben’s comments and am also delighted you are now in ‘safer’ territory.

    Lots of love as ever, Jackie xx

  3. Mama/Kate says:

    I,too, have my own printed copies – they make quite a volume. bound to be a best-seller!

    One would hardly believe it without the photographic evidence. Awesome photos.

    Stay safe, roll on April 23rd. We’re having that party – with or without you and Nana (though she’s now determined not to pop her clogs before that!)

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