Archive for September, 2010

Dicing with death on the road to Kashmir

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

(Emily) Getting out of Amritsar was a sweaty affair, particularly as we’d left at the timely hour of midday – the incessant horn usage was already driving us mad and riding in the stop-start traffic is murder on your clutch hand. We were heading north towards Srinagar, a town in Indian Kashmir popular for the slumbering houseboats on Dal Lake and made famous when the Beatles stayed there in their whole Guru/Sgt Peppers phase. The bigger picture was a large horse-shoe from west to east that would take us into the Himalayas through the Ladakh Valley to Leh, which boasted magnificent scenery and the highest passable (though unpaved) road in the world, then down to Manali. Donato and Stefano had already begun this same route but from the Manali end and we were looking forward to crossing paths with them again at some point. However, for the moment we knew we wouldn’t make it to Srinagar in one day so had earmarked Jammu – about half way from Amritsar – as a potential stop for the night. Reading up about the region of ‘Jammu and the Kashmir Valley’ in Lonely Planet beforehand, I was made a little apprehensive by phrases such as ‘scarred by violence’, ‘foolish to visit without checking the political situation’ and ‘ongoing security risks’. James was quick to remind me that I’d just ridden the KKH and through Pakistan which was probably one of the most volatile regions in the world but hey, that’s not to say I now had a taste for danger!

I can’t really say much about the scenery as we rode toward Jammu (in general very flat land made up of fields of crops) as we had to concentrate so hard on the road; not a minute went by when you didn’t have to make an overtake around a rickshaw, donkey cart, cow or bicycle or when you yourself weren’t overtaken by a crazed car or coach driver, tooting away on their horn and ploughing through as if they owned the road. The worst thing to contend with was vehicles overtaking in the oncoming direction – with complete disregard for anything smaller than them, the public buses would hurtle towards you with no intention of pulling in or slower down. ‘Might is right’ here so, as a smaller vehicle, it’s your obligation to get the hell out of the way even if it means pulling onto the dirt. James’ angry gesturing for them to get back in their lane was fruitless and many drivers just laughed as they went past. So infuriating! Although the pace of many of the vehicles on the road was fast (too fast), our progress was incredibly poor not least because the road always took a route straight through the centre of towns rather than offering a diversion – and there were lots of towns. The last stretch before Jammu was ostensibly dual carriage way but all too often the lanes became two-way traffic as the opposite direction was closed off for repairs (usually without a written warning – the bus fast approaching in the oncoming direction was the clue!!) and, of course, despite being a highway there were still the ubiquitous cows wandering all over the place. We made it into Jammu’s busy streets at about 6pm and it was immediately obvious that we wouldn’t easily be able to find a place to stay amid the unyielding rush-hour congestion. After the first hotel we pulled into quoted 3,700 rupees (pretty much ten times our budget!), we decided to get through town and find somewhere on the exit road – it wasn’t like we wanted to explore Jammu in the morning; it was merely a night-stop.

Coming out of the north end of town, we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves riding through lush greenery. Near the last police checkpoint (commonplace in this region) on the edge of town were the gated entrances to two rather plush looking resorts… two plush for us so again we carried on. We were confident we would find somewhere soon as there had been a hotel or guesthouse every couple of miles or so on the route so far. The road started to climb – the beginning of our ascent into the mountains that sat between us and the Kashmir Valley – and we were excited to spot monkeys sitting boldly by the side of the road in large numbers (they did put us off the possibility of camping, mind you!) Dusk fell making it even harder to spot potential accommodation; it was clear from the winding, climbing nature of the road that we were in the hills but surreal not to be able to see any of our surroundings. I was nervous about riding in the dark in India (a definite no-no) but at least we were able to anticipate the trucks coming round corners by their headlights (shame the cows don’t have lights – three times James nearly rode right into one; he’s so often looking in his mirrors to check I’m ok!) It was 50km and an hour and a half later when we finally spotted a hotel, by which time we were hungry and exhausted but at least not too sweaty in the cooler mountain air. It looked ok from the outside but was unfortunately a complete hole, still, we couldn’t afford to be picky with nothing else in the offing. James was looking forward to a beer/curry combo, something which had eluded him so far in India and Pakistan, and was excited to see that the ‘restaurant’ had a ‘bar’ but, somewhat inevitably considering the dive we were at, the food was sub-standard and the beer far too strong. There was nothing else to do but retire to our skanky room where we discovered towels so grotty they should be immediately incinerated and cobwebs and grime lurking in every corner. We got our silk liners out (the sheets were dirty) and tried to get some sleep amid the squalor.

Getting back on the road the next morning, we were pleased to find that we were surrounded by the same sort of lush vegetation that we’d had lower down on the KKH, except this time with tarmac so all the better. However, the driving was a whole lots worse and the muttered expletives were soon flying as we were constantly nearly wiped out by trucks coming two abreast around sharp corners – when they want to overtake, they overtake no matter what. Coming through one of the inhabited areas (not a town or a village but a few shack-type shops lining the road), James was actually nudged in the panniers by one car – they’re just so desperate to get ahead of you, even if it’s quite clear that a massive truck in front is blocking further progress. The BRO (Border Roads Organisation) who are responsible for maintaining the roads in this region seem to have decided that placing warning signs every km is the way to tackle the problem (there are some absolute classics: ‘After whiskey, driving risky’, ‘Don’t gossip, let him drive’ and my personal favourite, ‘Don’t be silly in the hilly’) but what they really need are traffic police enforcing the road laws. Anyway, the result of all the craziness was that the riding was far from enjoyable despite the fantastic scenery and wildlife (in addition to the monkeys, we had magnificent kites and vultures flying parallel with us at times) and we were both thinking that if the driving continued to be like this all over India, we wouldn’t be sticking around for long.

We entered Kashmir (‘high security zone, your co-operation is solicited’) and the road wound higher and higher to culminate in a pass through a tunnel before descending down into the Kashmir Valley. Again, beautiful scenery, but the combination of traffic and sheer drops meant we were still too wary to look around much. There had been a noticeable military presence as we’d ridden through the Jammu area but now… oh my god. I have honestly never seen so many army troops. Every bus and truck that went by was full of soldiers, all kitted up and ready for action, and there were checkpoints and bases every couple of miles. I think we must have passed several hundred army trucks as we rode to Srinagar, most of which were heading the other way – that gave us some small comfort but I did think that that something major must be kicking off somewhere to require this many soldiers. We had hoped that the road down into the valley would be quieter as we were now in a more remote area of the country but the mayhem continued. At least with the road now straighter, we were not caught up and overtaken by trucks and buses but the 4x4s started to really piss us off, especially when coming at you in your lane in the opposite direction and flashing their lights as if you’re the one in the wrong! (Police vehicles were among the worst culprits!) So many times we were forced to leave the tarmac and ride on the dirt. For the first time on the whole trip, we were feeling really angry with other drivers – normally you just go with the flow but this was so reckless and irresponsible it made our blood boil.

The final stretch into Srinagar was actually very lovely (traffic aside) – autumn was setting in and the golden leaves and harvest activity made us think of home (James: nice to experience autumn safe in the knowledge that winter won’t be following shortly after!) Rather incongruous to these scenes of nature were the soldiers that almost constantly lined the road – every fifty metres was another vehicle with a manned heavy machine gun on top or a group of soldiers standing in the trees or a platoon on patrol walking along the road. It was a great relief when we reached the outskirts of Srinagar though this in itself soon turned into a bit of a nightmare as, rather than the sleepy lake town we had been expecting, it turned out to be busy, noisy and hard to navigate (didn’t help that as usual we didn’t actually have a specific place to aim for). I had a serious case of ‘clutch claw’ and my left hand had all but given up on me. Not only that, but the huge number of armed soldiers, many in full riot gear, who lined the streets were making me feel increasingly uneasy. What the hell had we gotten ourselves in the middle of? We eventually found a quieter road leading down to the lake which had lots of guesthouses on and, third time lucky (one place turned us away even though the tout had said it was empty – apparently the owner didn’t want to be held responsible if anything happened to a tourist… rather ominous, methinks!), we booked into the Goodwill Guesthouse. The place was run by a lovely Muslim family and was also a nursery so the house was surrounded by plants and flowers. It was very basic but clean and welcoming and they were certainly pleased to be getting some business – we were pretty much the only tourists in town. We settled in for the evening (we were advised not to go out after dark), enjoying a tray of simple, home-cooked food in our room whilst the uplifting chanting of the Sufi Muslims worshipping resonated from the surrounding mosques.

‘Sikhing’ out the Golden Temple

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

(Emily) So, India. Still feeling regretful to have left Pakistan, we crossed to the Indian side of the Wagah border and began the inevitable paperwork merry-go-round that we’d become so used to. The officials were notably more abrupt, it has to be said. Having entered our details into several log books (yet another border post that hasn’t clocked on to the idea of computer data storage…), they weren’t at all fussed about having a look through our baggage but were pretty thorough on the carnet front (the carnet is essentially a temporary import/export licence for the bike and most countries from now on are signed up to the scheme… read more in our planning section if you’re really that interested!) They proceeded to check our documents against the bikes; first looking to see if the number-plate tallied (easy-peasy) but then moving on to the more difficult task of marrying up the chassis and engine numbers, both in fairly hard to access places on the bikes. In Pakistan (our first carnet country) they’d taken our word for it but here they were not going to be defeated. By the time it had taken three of them to peer in at the under-carriage at various angles and finally locate the inscription, we were itching to go – it was soooo hot and James had a killer headache. Not to be; they declared there was a mismatch. What? The fifteen-digit number on the bike was missing one of its zeros when compared with the number on the carnet. Cue lots of umming, ahhing and tutting. (‘For heaven’s sake,’ I felt like saying, ‘what exactly are you going to do – not let us in?!) After eking it out for a bit (power trip, much?) they did, inevitably, let us through and we whizzed off into country number 19 as hoards of colourful spectators began to arrive for the evening border closing ceremony. It was tempting to stay and witness the spectacle from ‘the other side’ but Amritsar and a cold shower was decidedly more appealing!

It was strange to now be riding in what was essentially the same landscape as we’d had for the last few days in Pakistan (it was only a hop over the border, after all) but seeing clues all around us of a different country and culture. The turbans of Sikhs and women wrapped in colourful saris replaced the shawled heads and shalwar-kamiz of the Muslim Pakistanis; miniature Hindu shrines were dotted along the road as opposed to the minarets of mosques piercing the sky; and, although the driving in Pakistan had left a lot to be desired, we now had to cope with the ubiquitous roaming ‘sacred’ cows that frequently chose the middle of the highway as a great spot for a doze. This, coupled with the fact that the Indian approach to over-taking is a whole new level of kamikaze, made for two very fatigued and sweaty bikers that rolled into Amritsar that evening. The traffic in town was even crazier but, at the low speed dictated by the sheer volume of vehicles on the road (and those damn cows again), it was a craziness you could grin at and simply shrug to each other at the madness of it all. Map-less and hotel-less, we followed signs to the Golden Temple, Amritsar’s main tourist attraction, as a default option. The ring-road around the temple complex was mayhem and we pulled in to the side between an auto-rickshaw and a horse-drawn cart to take stock. The idea was to do a recce of surrounding hotels but after asking at the one directly opposite from where we’d stopped and finding it a bit over budget (£25 as opposed to the fiver we’d had in our minds for India!), the idea of going back into the mele was, well, no longer an option really! (Sometimes we look at each other and just know the score!) It was a really nice place actually, tucked away off the road and within a minute’s walk of the Golden Temple, so at least we weren’t paying over the odds for a rat hole!

Freshly showered (ah, can’t beat it), I was excited to realise that my days of covering up were over and, although I would obviously still dress respectfully, I could put on a t-shirt and have my hair out – freedom! We walked over to the Golden Temple and, leaving our shoes free of charge at the depot and donning an orange bandana each (ah, so the hair emancipation was short-lived!), went through the marble arch of the main entrance to be greeted by what really is a majestic sight. The Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, rises out of the middle of a huge rectangular pool, its reflection shimmering majestically in the gently rippling water. Around the pool, visitors and pilgrims can view the temple from a white marble walkway, or enter the temple itself via a causeway, known as Guru’s Bridge. It was early evening with the dusky light particularly flattering to the whole scene and the atmosphere enhanced by the rhythmic murmur of priests chanting from the Guru Granth sahib (Sikh holy book) over the loudspeakers. The complex was thronging with people who, rather than shuffling along piously, were talking and laughing whilst others sat quietly at the water’s edge, immersed in private prayer. There were even people bathing in the water! We liked the lively, harmonious atmosphere which suggested that people were taking joy in their faith and welcoming others to join them, irrespective of religion. As we wandered round, we got the familiar ‘hello, how are you?’ from children and had people come up to shake our hands and take photos of us – turns out India isn’t so immune to foreigners after all.

Our lie-in the next morning made the decision for us about whether we should stay another day (so easily done!) and we used the opportunity to get a few jobs done. The post office came up trumps and we were able to send our faulty intercom equipment back to the UK with minimal fuss and cost; there were even packaging stalls set up outside that got your parcel all ready for you. Comedy moment when the guy behind the counter asked James what and where the package was going: ‘To England, I’m returning it to its maker,’ he answered, turning round for an aside to me, ‘Obviously not THE maker!’ and finding himself talking to a Hindu and a couple of Sikh guys as I had opted to sit down while waiting! We then got a bicycle taxi (not for the faint-hearted) to the ‘main shopping street’ where we were hoping to get hold of a road map for India but were thwarted at every turn – the best they could come up with were school atlases from the 1980s! (Don’t think we’re being presumptuous rich westerners here – it was a reasonable request when we were amongst shops selling flash mobile phones, ray-bans (real and fake) and flat screen TVs). The noise, dirt and smell of the main thoroughfare got the better of us after a while and we took a rickshaw to see the ‘Mata Temple’ which commemorates Lal Devi, a Hindu woman born in the 1920’s who has become a modern day saint. The shrine was, we have to be honest, hilarious and we were fairly bewildered as a labyrinth of paths took us around the temple through tunnels, low ceilinged caves and water features, and past plastic models of various deities in an assortment of shapes and sizes. Back in the main room, a model of the bespectacled Lal Devi herself takes pride of place, alongside many photos and illuminated images of her on the walls. Apparently, she revealed herself to be something ‘special’ when was just an infant. Throughout her life, she only ate dried fruit and nuts and never ate voluntarily, only when food was offered to her (James: sounds more like a fussy eater to me!)

That afternoon we went back to the Golden Temple to see it in the daylight – no less spectacular, though I preferred the chilled out ambience in the evening. We got caught up in a mass floor cleaning operation and were impressed to see how everyone worked together to wash the marble walkway that surrounded the temple pool: a row of people would line the water’s edge, dipping buckets into the pool which were then passed in a chain along the width of the walkway and emptied whilst yet more people followed behind with reed brushes, sweeping the waste water into outlet grills. There were even boys with ‘squeegee’ type things bringing up the rear to make sure the surface wasn’t left slippery. The group moved along seamlessly so that in no time, the whole walkway had been cleaned to perfection. Another show of the Sikh sense of community was manifested in the huge communal ‘dining room’ where all are welcome to a small plate of free food; the kitchens can apparently cater for up to 40,000 pilgrims and visitors each day! We didn’t partake – our stomachs were in need of a whole lot more – and went to have a vegetarian (most food here is) curry at a local restaurant. The food wasn’t bad but certainly nothing on Pakistan so far!

Last stop, Lahore

Monday, September 27th, 2010

(James) When we left Islamabad, our target for the day was Lahore, a whopping 400km away (we’d become used to significantly shorter distances in recent months!) Getting out of the city was a fairly straightforward matter and we chose to head for the toll motorway as opposed to continuing along the Grand Trunk Road, the ancient strategic road that connects Kabul in the west with Kolkata (Calcutta) in the west, which we had joined at the bottom of the KKH for the last 60km into Islamabad. The motorway meant a four hour journey on a quiet, almost westernised dual carriage way instead of eight hectic hours dodging trucks on the GT Road. The only problem was that technically motorcycles are not allowed on the toll road unless you have obtained an official permit; however, we had heard that you could argue your case (i.e. that your motorcycle was bigger/more powerful than most cars!) and they might let you on. We (naturally) chose to ‘risk it for a biscuit’ and as luck would have it, having arrived at the toll, we were only asked what cc our engines were and once they were happy they were over 500, were waved on without even having to pay the toll! Once on the road, we enjoyed the novelty of a perfect surface and calm, almost completely empty lanes. The novelty, however, soon wore off and we were reminded how the grass always looks greener on the other side – motorway, as any biker will tell you, is utterly tedious (although I won’t lie, we’d prayed for this kind of progress on more than one occasion on the KKH!) Our boredom was only broken on a couple of occasions when we were flagged down by police, although their first attempt was thwarted by our tried and tested strategy, implemented to deal with corrupt police in central Asia, of feigning ignorance and just grinning and waving as we power through (they normally can’t be arsed to chase you, Azerbaijan aside!) We didn’t think for a second that they were corrupt in Pakistan so pulled over the next time where they simply introduced themselves, asked where we were from, the usual questions about the bikes and whether we had any problems or if there was any way they could be of service (a question we’d often been asked in Pakistan – such nice people!) before sending us on our way.

As we rode south, we could sensed changes all around us; the temperature increased, as did the humidity, the air seemed to change to a warmer reddish-yellow hue, we saw our first palm trees as we passed villages, and even people’s clothing seemed more vibrant and colourful. We also saw our first signs of the flooding that had had such a catastrophic affect on the south of the country in the water-logged fields on either side of the highway. With late afternoon rapidly approaching (the sun seemed to set half an hour earlier here than in Islamabad), we finally reached the toll that marked the end of the motorway and the outskirts of Lahore. As we slowed for the multiple toll lanes, we could see two policeman already standing in the middle of the road beckoning us towards a closed booth and once we’d pulled up they introduced themselves and helped with process of paying the paltry fee of 80 rupees for our time on the road. They explained that our presence on the road had been radioed through from Islamabad (hence being pulled over) to ensure our well-being. They asked where we were heading to and for once we actually knew as we’d had to book a hotel as proof our intention to visit Pakistan as tourists when applying for our visa many months before (we had such a vague itinerary, we’d chosen Lahore as it was a definite stop just before the India border). They gave us directions to our hotel which we took with a pinch of salt – they might have been the best directions in the world but such is the lack of signage or lighting that, combined with the sheer chaos on the roads, even the clearest directions become utterly useless by the time you arrive at the first junction.

By the time we actually arrived in the city proper, it was not only dark but rush hour, and with at least fifty percent of the vehicles running with no lights (including those coming towards you the wrong way down the road), it was utter mayhem combined with a healthy dose of terror! (Em: our intercom had well and truly died by now so our strategy was basically to stick as close together as possible – still didn’t stop people from squeezing themselves between us though!) As is always our problem in cities, we have no real idea where we going as we have no city maps of any sort so we tend to head towards the centre or an area known to have an attraction. In this case it was ‘Food Street’ in the Anarkali district, so we rode on, asking directions when we stopped at traffic lights (invariably getting contradictory information…) and eventually found our hotel on a very noisy street. The staff were nice enough though and the Kalashnikov-wielding old boy took his job of guarding our bikes – wedged up an alley way next to the hotel – very seriously (the older generation here seem to light up when you mention that you’re English, many seemingly remembering their time as part of the empire with warmth and pride). Having showered, we ventured downstairs and shocked the young guy on reception with our now clean and semi-respectable appearance (the ‘semi’ part being Emily – I, you won’t be surprised to hear, still continued to let the side down!) We went straight out to food street and, as is the norm, drew way more attention than was warranted but by now we were quite used to the tumble-weed affect as we walk into places as they simply don’t get tourists here anymore (Em: It was 11pm and I was literally the only woman on the street. Cue Starey-McStareysons all around!) Like everyone else we sat at seats in the street as the electrical power came and went and enjoyed some absolutely staggering food – a real chicken jalfrezi like it’s supposed to be – before dragging our overstuffed bodies back to try and sleep.

The next day we went to visit Lahore’s Fort, built in over a millennium ago by people unknown. The fort in its present form, however, was built by the Moghul Emperor, Akbar the Great in 1566 when he made Lahore his capital. We decided to pay one of the guides touting outside, which turned out to be a great decision. Peter, not only spoke great English (he used to work as a guide/translator for the British High Commission) but was incredibly knowledgeable, and helped bring the amazing fort to life. The fort was absolutely beautiful, and we were constantly wowed by the level of skill as well as the scientific and artistic vision that was required to create it. Akhbar may have been a fierce (and sometimes brutal) leader but he was clearly no fool. As well as being completely tolerant of other faiths, he was something a scholar when it came to designing many of the great forts, palaces and religious sites that he oversaw. The red stone of the Fort is covered in intricate carvings (and special wide stairs so he could ride elephants up to the royal residence on the top floor some 40 metres above). Master craftsmen had also carved intricate screens made of single slabs of marble measuring some 4 square metres, that weren’t just beautiful but clever, the each of the hundreds of handcrafted holes (all which modern studies have discovered are identical) in any screen was precisely angled to create increased air flow to cool the rooms. Some two centuries later this would become known as Bernoulli’s Principle and today is relevant in aircraft design and in engine carburettors. The summer palace on the roof contained even more intricate artwork, all marble pillars being inlaid with lotus flowers carved from jade and other precious stones, and the hall of mirrors, a room filled with precious stones and ‘mirrors’  which were glass that the Mughals somehow coated with lime and mercury (something that scientists are still unable to understand or recreate). By the time our ‘tour’ had finished it was dusk and, we got to experience that same new reddish/yellow hue that we had seen on the motorway, but this time in the relative peace of the top of forts ramparts overlooking the Gurdwara of Arjan Dev, a temple that is one of the Sikh religion’s most important pilgrimage sites, and the Badshahi mosque. We agreed to meet Peter the next day to look round the Mosque and headed back through the chaos of the Lahori traffic in a auto-rickshaw (tuk-tuk) always guaranteed to scare the crap out of you, then having arrived back in Anarkarli, and with a new sense of appreciation for life, we went to stuff ourselves stupid again.

The following morning we lazed about (the din in the road outside our hotel made sleep very difficult until the small hours) before heading over to the 17th century Badshahi mosque where we found Peter, our guide from the previous day. The mosque again was a welcome relief from the noise of the streets and, despite its size (it can hold over 100,000 worshippers at a time), it didn’t have the ‘intimidating’ air of some large religious buildings. Around the edge of the mosque’s courtyard was a covered corridor where open arches divided the corridor, creating around 80 little ‘areas’ that could serve as places to sit and discuss any issues or business. It’s still a popular place for university students to some to study or discuss their studies. Once again, in these arched areas there was science behind the beauty. The arches were designed in just such a way that one could speak quietly in one corner and the sound would follow the line of the arches coming to those in the other corners as if through a tannoy system. It really was incredible to hear for ourselves and far more effective than the whispering galleries found in the domes of some cathedrals. An additional benefit was that despite the enhanced ‘audio’ in each area, the design of the corridors meant that you could hear anything in the next area so two people could sit on the floor at a point where two different areas meet and listen to their own speaker without hearing the next to each other listening to the speaker in the adjacent area!

By early afternoon we had to say our goodbyes as we had to head for Waggah, the only ‘open’ border crossing between Pakistan and India, some 30km east of the city. Despite high tensions between the two countries, both nuclear powers, which has seen them engage in large scale fighting on a regular basis (as recently as 1999), they have always managed to have maintained the unique daily closing ceremony at the border. This sees the finest soldiers from each side try to outdo each other’s increasingly over the top peacock-like strutting and marching, in front of baying chanting crowds that are whipped into a greater frenzy by flag waving men who orchestrate the fervour. So popular is this daily event that people come from across the country to witness what is only a 30 minute ceremony, in fact there are now stands on each side to accommodate the crowds, and a couple of thousand cram in the stands each evening. On the Pakistani side, it’s women on one side and men on the other, although there is also a foreigner and VIP section (where bizarrely it’s ok for Pakistani men and women to sit together!)

As we walked towards the crossing we could already here the crowds being warmed up by the boosters and walked past the very tall Pakistani soldiers, dressed in elegant black uniforms with fanned hats and capes getting themselves ready. We were taken down to the front and given a seat facing the incredibly colourful women’s section and were instantly immersed in the charged yet friendly patriotic fervour (why can’t they always solve their disputes like this?). The whole thing (whilst a little bit silly) was absolutely brilliant fun as one after another, soldiers from each side would march at ridiculously high speed towards each other before going through a new bit of completely over the top drill and then staring triumphantly down their noses at their opposite number as they faced them looking something like a killer peacock! Each time the crowd would go wild and then the next soldier would step up. The ceremony would end with a more gentile synchronised lowering of the flag, where upon an officer from each side would march to the border line, shake hands, salute each other and both gates would be violently slammed shut. The whole thing is great fun and a real must if ever you’re in this part of the world!

With that we headed back to Lahore, and the next morning made the repeat journey to a now much quieter border –  in fact, filling out one of the registration books we could see the names of Carl, Bene and Stefano just one line above ours despite having passed through over a week earlier. We were the only ones there and, with a real sense of sadness, we did our ‘exit’ paperwork. Pakistan had provided some amazing experiences for us. We’d certainly faced adversity but for all the hard work we’d been rewarded with rich experiences that had brought our group closer together, beautiful scenery, fantastic food, immense culture and, of course, the incredibly warm, hospitable and genuine Pakistani people who despite all the problems and challenges they and their country are confronted with, both man-made and natural, simply get on with their lives, remain utterly courteous, dignified and a pleasure to get to know. Don’t believe us? Forget the public image on the news, come and see for yourself!

Movie Premiere: In the tail of the monster

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

(James) As promised we’ve managed to find somewhere with a decent internet connection and so have been able to upload a short video of the highlights of our group’s time together from our rendez-vous in Kyrgyzstan at Tash Rabat, through to Kashgar, and then onto the KKH in China and Pakistan.

It’s been made by the creative guru that is Fabian and so the introduction is in Spanish (you can’t have everything!) so you’ll need to either learn Spanish or find someone who can translate! But even a quick listen might give the gist (the words man with a Kalashnikov at the door, emotion and camaraderie are the only things we understand!)

Anyway, turn your volume up, get it big on the screen (should do it automatically, but let us know if it’s not working properly) and enjoy! Click here or go to our gallery.

Downtime in Islamabad

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

(James) They say that Islamabad is a city twenty kilometres from Pakistan, so unrepresentative is it of the rest of the country. Only sixty years old, it was purpose built to be the capital after partition from India (the newly formed country couldn’t possibly have a capital that India hadn’t felt worthy of being one!) The city itself is gridded with a series of ‘sectors’ ranging from A-I and 1-9, and streets within each sector are simply numbered; for example, our guesthouse was in sector F6/1, street 28. Admittedly, none of this is very personal but the city, which is almost entirely inhabited by an ex-pat community from international NGOs, various UN bodies and embassies, is calm with few cars, no beeping, little litter and lots of lush greenery and flowers. Ordinarily, it is seen as being bland and characterless but after fifteen tough and chaotic days, it provided the perfect tonic allowing everyone to unwind, carry out minor repairs and admin and even indulge in some much needed home comforts; all the shops in central Islamabad stock mostly western produce such as Cadbury’s chocolate, bakery goods and English language books – there’s even an Italian restaurant and a Pizza Hut, should that take your fancy! With Islamabad comprising of just ex-pats and government offices, it makes an incredibly attractive target for terrorism and is frequently attacked , so security is always incredibly tight with checkpoints throughout the town and a Kalashnikov-wielding guard outside every home, guesthouse, shop and restaurant (Em: amazing how quickly you get used to all the guns on display!)

Not much had changed in the city since my last time here and, with a week to kill while we waited for our India visa, I was keen to show Em the sights and places that I’d talked about. But before that, we were going to have to say goodbye to some of the group as people began to go their separate ways. Carl, Bene and Stefano were heading straight for Lahore and the border as they had rendez-vous to make in India, whilst Fabian would be staying in Islamabad with Em and me while he awaited the arrival of his bike from Gilgit and new clutch being shipped from Spain. Our first morning in Islamabad was spent swapping photos with everyone before they headed off and, for Em and myself,  filling out our application forms for the Indian visa which we wanted to lodge before the weekend (it was a Thursday and the embassy was closed on Fridays). Before we said our goodbyes, Fabian showed us a video montage of our time together over the last month that he had produced overnight (he is an insomniac!) It was brilliant and made all of us feel quite emotional; it brought back strong memories of experiences we would never forget and it was amazing to look back over what we had achieved together. (Em: it gives me goosebumps every time I watch it!) Rest assured it will be appearing on the website soon, we just need to find somewhere with decent bandwidth. With the Indian consul closing early, Em and I had to say our goodbyes and head off, something we were very sad to do. Given that our group met online – our only common goal being wanting to cross China at roughly the same time – it was a bit of a lottery as to the kind of people we would end up with. Not only that, but the challenges and hardships associated with this section of our journey could easily have brought any tensions or character clashes to the surface. However, Em and I have remarked so many times that we could not have had a nicer group of people; all laid back and easy to get on with, each character seemed to combine and fit perfectly within the group dynamic. We feel lucky to have met such fantastic people, who are now friends that we are sure we’ll see again in the future.

Having said our goodbyes, we took a cab to the diplomatic enclave, an entirely closed off section of town which houses all of the embassies, and having ‘checked in’ at the airport-like departure lounge, took the express shuttle (the only way non-diplomats can move around the enclave is by special bus) to the Indian High Commission where we lodged our applications before the deadline. With that done, we headed back to F6 where I took Em to the sector market so as promised, she could indulge in some creature comforts that she had been missing (Em: I had been trying to find mozzie spray, shower gel and wetwipes, which admittedly I’m obsessed with, since Krygyzstan!) That evening we went with Fabian to the Italian restaurant to get a much-needed fix of Euro-type food.

Demand for accommodation in Islamabad is high and this is reflected in the prices, or rather the lack of flexibility in reducing the rates. A week in the city was going to be expensive so we decided that we could only manage a couple of nights in the guesthouse (which was admittedly a bit too plush for our standards/budget) and then look for something more suitable elsewhere. However, on hearing this, the owner of the guesthouse very kindly said that we’d be more than welcome to put our tent up in the garden and camp for the week, with full use of the facilities (shower, wi-fi etc), free of charge. Bonus! (Em: he had taken a bit of a shine to James as he was so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about Pakistan. In fact, this was the reaction of most people we met and led to ‘Mr James’ being guest of honour at several social events in the coming week!!) So after two nights of luxury, we ‘checked out’ of our room and ‘checked in’ to the garden! Within two hours of setting up the tent, however, an almighty storm came in from nowhere, perhaps a sting in the tail of the now receding monsoon, and completely flooded the backyard, leaving our tent sitting in 10 centimetres of water. Fortunately, the garden drained well and our brilliant little tent was more than up to it and didn’t let in a drop. We saw on the news later that the rain had re-flooded and cut off Manshera and Besham, neither places that we would have wanted to be stuck, so once again we felt we had been very lucky in terms of weather.

That evening, we were invited by Sylvain (the French motorcyclist we’d met a few days earlier) over to his house for an impromptu meal for Juan’s birthday; Juan had been unable to make it to Naryn to collect his stuff so had retreated to Islamabad and was staying with Sylvain while he waited for the road to re-open. With the planned bbq struck off due to the rain, Juan and Fabian whipped up some delicious tortillas and, despite not drinking himself, Slyvain provided some cold beers; something we’d been really missing recently. Slyvain also contributed to the food with some home-made muffins which we can only assume were cooked in a way unique the area in France that he comes from (they were burnt to a crisp – who says Frenchmen can cook!!) It was a really relaxed and enjoyable evening, during which Em and Fabian got to experience their first earthquake, albeit a minor one (their reactions were hilarious; they both watched things swinging and moving around but just didn’t make the connection!) Slyvain, it turns out, is some sort of computer-brained genius and entertained us all evening with a seemingly endless stream of incredibly frustrating logic puzzles. He is also a poker fanatic and invited to us his weekly poker night a few days later, which we really enjoyed (Em: I am so going to run poker nights when we get home!) and again we got to see Slyvain’s brain in action as he was constantly able to tell us the percentage chance of anyone having a winning hand at anytime.

The rest of the week was spent doing minor jobs, updating our diary and generally killing time, with one of the highlights being when Slyvain and Juan turned up unexpectedly one evening to ask whether we wanted to go for dinner at a restaurant in the Margalla Hills which overlook the city. Em rode two-up with me and Fabian (currently sans bike – he send the 125 back to Gilgit as soon as humanly possible!) went on the back of Juan’s GS in his shorts and t-shirt. The road up took in some really tight and steep hairpins (Em: way steeper that anything we saw in the alps) and we came across our first monkeys by the side of the road, a sign that we were entering southern Asia. The ride to the top also told me beyond any doubt that Em is now a true biker (as if she wasn’t already) as like all bikers she is now an awful pillion, never happy on the back and more critical of my riding! (Em: It’s true, although at the same time I wouldn’t have fancied the tight corners by myself!) The views at the top were great, and the food was absolutely delicious, despite the frustration of Sylvain giving me the next time to a logic puzzle he’d challenged me with days before and I was still no closer to solving! (Throughout the week, I would get random text messages from him with the next line. Bastard!) Another highlight was meeting up with Ziad, Ahreema and Ester, three of my team from my time here before, all of whom are still working for Merlin. Ziad and Ahreema are now married and expecting their first child (who could have known that romance would blossom given the tough environment we were working in?!) It was great to catch up and reminisce and of course, great for Em and all of them to finally put faces to names and meet each other.

On our last two nights in town, we were booked up for dinner parties: one hosted by Sajjad, the owner of the guesthouse, which we were welcome to invite friends to (Fabian, Juan, Slyvan, Ziad and Ahreema all came along) and another by one of his friends, Shaukat, who we had met a few days earlier and insisted that we came to his house (Em: Mr James was in high demand!!) Shaukat took us to meet his extended family in various large houses on estates around Rawalpindi (Islamabad’s twin city) who were all lovely and incredibly generous hosts, plying us with more food than we could possibly manage. Both his teenage niece and daughter took a real shine to Em (she seems so glamorous, just like something from magazines or billboards, to people here) and each presented her with jewellery from their own personal collection as a gift, something that she was very touched by.

With a week now passed in Islamabad, the day for us to collect our visa arrived and having made a second trip to the diplomatic enclave to pick up our passports, we returned to the guesthouse to pack the bikes up and, of course, to say a very sad goodbye to the Fabster who was still waiting for parts. In the end, it was tempting to stay longer as the week had flown by and we still had things we wanted to do and see, but with our visa expiration fast approaching and Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan still to come, we knew the time was right to go. Even though the rest of the group was now spread out from the Indian Himalayas to Delhi, leaving Islamabad and Fabian had an ‘end of an era’ feel to it, knowing that what may well have been the most challenging part of our adventure (God help us if there’s worse to come!) was now over.

By the way, in case you’re interested, here’s one of Sylvain’s puzzles. What’s the next line?…..

 0                                                                                                                                                10                                                                                                                                                   1110

KKH – The final stretch

Saturday, September 25th, 2010

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.

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

Friday, September 24th, 2010

(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…

South from Gilgit and the BIG landslide

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

(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.


Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

(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.

The Eagle’s Nest and on to Gilgit

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

(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