KKH – The final stretch

We slept like logs in Besham and the next morning we were keen to get going; Islamabad and the end of the KKH were so close now. Some people thought we might be able to get to the capital in one final day but at nearly 300 km away, it wasn’t exactly a realistic target (our average over the last few weeks, not including rest days, had only been about 50km per day!!) Stefano (taking his turn to be Mr Optimistic) thought that we could at least get to Taxila, a site of ancient ruins about 40km shy of Islamabad. I guess it was something to aim for! However, Fabian didn’t return with his bike from the garage until 11am so a good couple of hours riding had already been lost. We made it back up the steep, rocky drive and, with a cheerful wave from the armed guards, got on our way. The road had quite a few dodgy patches to contend with early on including quite a hefty water crossing but I didn’t wuss out for once and went for it. The surface under the water was made up of large, smooth stones so it wasn’t easy; I had a bit of a wobble and nearly came off but ‘gave it some beans’ (quickly becoming a group catchphrase) to get myself out of trouble. Stefano ploughed straight through the middle in the deepest bit – will he never learn?! (We’ve had to pick his bike up out of a river before…) James took a great photo of him surrounded by a wall of water, whereas the video of me riding gingerly through shows how differently one can approach these things! I just wish we’d been able to see Fabian tackle the water on his little 125 but he’d left the hotel before us to try and make some progress with his limited power.

Despite the few rough stretches, we generally enjoyed more of the beautiful mountain-hugging road we’d had the day before. Then gradually we started to lose altitude and for the first time we were surrounded by lush greenery – quite the visual treat after weeks of grey and brown rock! After a while we crossed a heavily guarded bridge (manned machine-gun posts at both ends) which took us into a dusty, busy town where we spotted the Fabster outside a mechanics shack. Another puncture. He was already surrounded by locals (a crowd which quickly multiplied once the rest of the bikes pulled in) but, being mostly Pashtu as we were now in NWFP, people were a lot more reserved and help wasn’t exactly forthcoming. Carl and James managed to strike up a conversation with one friendly passer-by but there wasn’t a lot he could do about the bike so we rode round the corner to see if there was a more likely looking place. A shop with tyres hanging outside looked like a good start and happily they were a lot more proactive in offering a hand. However, Bene and I were starting to feel increasingly uncomfortable – this was the most male-dominated environment we had experienced yet and there was only so much staring we could take – so we rode ahead with Carl and Stefano to find a shady place to stop out of town while James and Juan stayed with Fabian to get his tyre sorted. Amazingly enough, we turned the corner to find ourselves on perfect tarmac complete with painted lines – it was like being in Europe again! (Admittedly, one part had completely fallen away in a recent landslide but other than that it was pristine!) We found a nice spot under a tree by the side of the road and fed bread to some goats while we waited for the others.

Meanwhile, the boys got talking with some locals in the town and learned that the territory in the next valley to the west was Taliban held and that, in all likelihood, many of the people currently watching them would be Taliban. Interesting. While pondering this, they heard the sound of bikes and saw what looked to be two overlanders approaching on a Yamaha Tenere and a Honda 125. Turns out they were ex-pats living in Islamabad and out for a weekend’s riding; Peter, a Polish guy working for the Polish embassy, and Frenchman Sylvain who works for an engineering company. Stopping for a chat, they explained that they had been on the Babusa Pass when it closed due to snow and that it had been a pretty horrendous ride; knee-deep mud meant that it took them three and half hours to cover a single kilometre at one point. (I can’t begin to say how relieved I was that we had escaped the same fate…) Once Fabian’s bike was ready, the boys made their way to join us by which time Peter and Sylvain had stopped to say hi. The state of their mud covered bikes was further vindication that we’d been right not to attempt the pass (though I still suspect Carl and Stefano somewhat regret the missed opportunity – Carl was actually keen to have a go on the snow!) They confirmed that the current state of the road was not a teaser and that it was now good all the way to Islamabad; such good news! We also swapped numbers so that we could get in touch with them once we arrived in town.

Once I’d posed for photos with some local teenagers (I don’t think they get to interact with women much; they were quite excitable), we hit the road again. The lush countryside continued, as did the great road surface, but the downside was much heavier traffic and a complete deterioration in driving standards! We rode through some beautiful alpine hills, like being in the French Alps again, and stopped to enjoy the shade for a while (and took photos of the cannabis plants which grew like nettles all along the side of the road). At this point, Juan went on ahead as he had his own agenda to pursue (namely working out how the hell he could get his stuff back from Naryn now that the pass had closed!) We couldn’t get over the vivid shades of green that surrounded us – we hadn’t seen vegetation like that since Tuscany. When we came upon towns, it wasn’t quite such a pleasure as they were invariably dirty and congested, complete with unpredictable moving obstacles in the form of cows, donkeys and camels. I found it a bit challenging manoeuvring through the heavy traffic without my right wing mirror (never the same since the accident in Istanbul so in Gilgit we ditched it) but need’s must! Manshera was a potential nightstop (we’d written off getting to Taxila long ago) but driving through, we didn’t get the best vibe so we continued on while there was still light. Abbottabad, though equally busy, had a better feel to it – just as well as it was now getting dark. We pulled over to agree a plan, drawing a huge crowd as usual, and James and Carl found a great little guesthouse after doing a recce of a few places on the main street. It even had wi-fi! We stuffed our faces (yet again) in a local restaurant and went to bed shattered, and happy in the knowledge that tomorrow would see us finally complete the KKH…

With less than 150km to go to Islamabad, we agreed an early start wasn’t necessary so set breakfast for the rather civilised hour of 9am. It was gone 11am by the time we were ready to leave though, and then as we made our way out of the drive way, Carl noticed that Fabian had yet another flat tyre… I think it was only the fact that it belonged to someone else that stopped him kicking the bike in frustration! James went with Fabian to a local garage and decided to just get it pumped up and hope for the best rather than a full repair job – we were on the home stretch after all. It was a beautiful day without a cloud in the sky (it was our incredibly good fortune that the monsoon rains had tailed off literally the day before we came out of the mountains) and although pretty muggy, the decent road meant our speed got up sufficiently to enjoy a bit of a cooling wind. We lost Stefano when he took the wrong fork in the road (it wasn’t well signed so James had stood at the junction to warn everyone but Stefano flew past!) but luckily we were able to contact him by text and tell him the guesthouse address (Fabian had booked somewhere in advance as he needed an address to get his new clutch sent to). James and I rode the last 50km or so with Fabian (comedy in itself!) while Carl and Bene went on ahead and it was about 4pm when we reached the outskirts of Islamabad. Cue much punching of the air from Fabian – his relationship with the 125 was at breaking point by now! James quickly started to recognise places (he used to come there on R&R when working for Merlin after the earthquake) and led us to sector F6 and our guesthouse without difficulty where Carl and Bene were waiting. We were all a bit giddy and excited: this was a big moment for us, marking the end of our journey down the KKH which had been tough, unpredictable and challenging but pretty much one of the best experiences of our lives. Gramps (aka Stefano) arrived about half an hour later and we all went out for one last dinner together at a fantastic, and cheap, Afghan restaurant that James remembered from his time in Islamabad. It was a lovely evening with great banter between the group but it was also tinged with sadness as, one month after all meeting in Tash Rabat in Kyrgyzstan, we were now going to be going our separate ways.

2 Responses to “KKH – The final stretch”

  1. Jess says:

    Awwww, that’s sad! You paint such a picture. I can practically see the giddyness and banter. And I haven’t looked at the pics yet xxxxx

  2. Mama/Kate says:

    I actually have tears in my eyes. What an emotional roller-coaster! x

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