Archive for September, 2010

Hunza Valley and The Eagle’s Nest

Monday, September 20th, 2010

(James) As we all tried to recover at the bottom of the landslide, it was all we could do to just stand there and drink water to try and get some of the dust out of our lungs, but we were still about 30km short of our intended target for the night – Karimabad in the heart of the Hunza valley. We had no idea how good or bad the roads might be (surely they couldn’t get any worse?!) but with it now gone 4pm a combination of bad roads coupled with the high mountains all around us meant that the sun would set soon enough, and we didn’t want to get caught on these roads in the dark. I’d heard about a place we could stay in a village above the town of Karimabad, called the Eagle’s Nest, which supposedly had amazing views of the valley and the surrounding mountains. It might be more expensive than usual but hopefully, if it was open, its rates might be negotiable. I mentioned it to the group who all agreed that after today something a little more ‘special’ might be in order so we headed off.  The road to Karimabad wasn’t too bad (well it was rubbish but after the landslide pretty much anything seemed good) and we covered the next 25kms in little more than 90 minutes, the only notable event being when I got caught out gawping at the surroundings and failed to see (until Em riding behind, yelled out a warning by which time it was too late) a large pile of football size rocks by the side of the road. With no time to take evasive action or to brake, I ploughed straight into them, instinctively putting my weight on to my foot pegs  but fully expecting a very large wipe out. Perhaps it was the dirt road that helped but despite a horrible sounding impact I somehow came out the other side unscathed (Em: how he stayed upright, I do not know!!) and a quick inspection of  the bike miraculously found no warped wheel (although a subsequent inspection later found that my bash plate – a large 5mm thick steel protective plate under the bike – had taken a right beating and has been ‘reshaped’!).  They say that most mountaineering fatalities happen during the descent as climbers relax and stop paying attention, and this incident was most likely the result of something similar with my mind already thinking about luxuries like a shower and clean clothes, it could have been all too serious for bike and rider, something Em was rightly quick to remind me of!

 We eventually arrived in Karimabad which sits above the KKH. The group stopped for some cold drinks in a roadside shop though Em and I, having ridden 50 metres past it, were simply too shattered to walk back down the hill so slumped on the nearest rock. We began the steep climb up towards the hotel on a lovely bit of tarmac. Up and up we kept climbing, reassured by those we spoke to that the hotel was indeed this way, open and that the road was tarmac all the way (we had to ask because we just kept climbing high above everything else and didn’t want it to be for nothing). True enough the road, although incredibly twisty with countless ridiculously tight hairpins and ever increasingly high drops off the edge (Fabian who suffers from vertigo was not enjoying it!), continued  to stay tarmac and we all started to enjoy what was a relatively civilised end to a really tough day. We should have known better, however, and as I led the group up the mountainside, the road suddenly got much, much steeper and the tarmac disappeared, replaced by a mixture of completely rutted mud (some dry, some wet) with steep banks and deep holes (Em: all I heard through the intercom was ‘Oh shit!’) It was not somewhere I wanted to stop and with a another sharp left hand hairpin banking steeply 20 metres or so into, not something I could just power through. My only option was to try to reach a high bank of mud on the outside of the bend where I might be able to stop and evaluate the next section currently out of my line of sight. I made it, just, but having stopped on the bank, the bike started skidding back down the slope even with the brakes fully on. With little choice I told Em, who would be the next to reach it, to stop wherever she could and gave the bike enough beans to continue round the corner and up the hill where, fortunately, the mud ended. Jumping off the bike, I quickly made my way back down to warn the others or advise them on the best line and, turning the corner, was met with a scene of total devastation! In front of me I could see Em’s bike on its side, and a little further down the hill Fabian’s was mirroring it. Stefano’s wasn’t on its side at all but seemed to be completely upside down! In the middle of them all, Donato was trying to do a 20 point turn. He, the bike and most definitely Roberta had had enough and were heading back down to Karimabad to find somewhere else!

Only Carl and Bene were still upright and, having seen that everyone was ok, I pointed out the best line to them and around they very gingerly came. With half the group above the obstacle it was decided that we should continue and not give up (Donato had already headed back down, probably rightly as although a great rider, his poor bike just wasn’t built with this in mind!). Having picked everybody up, I got Em’s bike round the corner to the other side, and Carl and directed Bene and Stefano. Poor old Fabian’s bike however, which had not been well since climbing the Khunjerab pass, was having none of it and despite revving was simply not producing the power necessary to move it forward. Not ideal as once moving it’s having instantaneous power on tap that gets you out of trouble when your balance starts going. We were all mentally and physically shattered but were damned if we going to be defeated now so, having surrounded Fabian’s bike, pushed and shoved to keep him balanced and, inches at a time, got him safely to the other side. I did almost fall down laughing when mid-corner and between cries of “whoa!” each time the bike started losing balance, Fabian looked down at me and said “James? This place had better be worth it!” I must admit that given our day, I did begin to entertain the possibility that the hotel might be either, closed, fully booked or simply too expensive, none of which was appealing as we certainly wouldn’t be able to come back down after dark. All our efforts had drawn a crowd of locals and having finally got the remaining 6 bikes to safety, a couple of them approached to talk and informed us the roads were usually tarmaced, but had been destroyed in the recent heavy rain and flooding that had caused so much devastation throughout the country.  We were also relieved to hear that not only was the hotel open, it would almost certainly have rooms. In fact, one of them added, the manager was a his cousin (everybody here seems to be a cousin!) and were we to mention his name we could be assured of a discount. Having said our goodbyes, we gave Fabian a push start (his bike wasn’t too bad once up to speed, it was just getting up to speed in the first place that was the problem!), and having seen him off got ready to follow him, half expecting a repeat of the farce on the Khunjerab, only to see him on the ledge above us absolutely flying! Clearly he’d decided that the only solution was to not slow down for anything! We started off after him and continued to climb (where the bloody hell was this place?!) and despite a couple more muddy/rocky sections, endless hairpins  and having to cross a stream, the road improved (although Stefano got his wheel stuck in a hole in the road on a bridge – never ideal!).

We thought we’d finally found the hotel when rounding another hairpin I came across Fabian calmly sitting in the road outside some metal gates. “Is this it?” I asked, only to be pointed up to my right, where his bike was once again lying on its side mid-(very steep and sharp)corner. He’d managed with speed until then but, so severe was the turn and gradient that he’d been forced to slow down and not having the power to maintain balance and give drive when exiting, had been facing with either rolling backwards and dropping off the edge of a sheer 100m drop or put the bike down on its side. He’d, rather sensibly, chosen the latter. Again we picked his bike up and got him going and then followed him up to the hotel (that we were all beginning to suspect didn’t actually exist!). With dusk rapidly approaching, we reached the end of the road and with it saw the entrance to the Eagle’s Nest and having parked up and exchanged some expletive laden comments about either the road (“don’t worry, the road’s perfect!” we’d been assured at the bottom!) or the day in general, Carl and I went inside to find out the rates (there were clearly going to be rooms available as, once again, we were the only ones there). I can’t be sure whether our exhausted and dirt covered faces were able to transmit what we thought when the man at reception (this hotel had a reception! Oooh!!!) told us that a room was 3000 rupees a night, but he clearly sensed that we weren’t going to pay that, so without us even saying a word he began to lower the price. Still nowhere near our price range, we eventually joined in with his ‘one-man haggling’ trick and said the price would have to come down significantly more before we’d be able to stay and that if it didn’t, we’d go and camp on the mountainside. We reminded him that there were 6 of us and that we were very hungry and thirsty so they’d get plenty more money out of us. We knew we were in a good position to haggle simply because just like everywhere else we’d stayed, they had been empty so long that we could demand better than off-season rates. Eventually, with the price still at a well reduced but still too high 1600 rupees, the man sensed we weren’t bluffing (we kinda were – I don’t think I had the energy to put a tent up or the nerve to go out and tell everyone it was too expensive!) and asked what price we were able to pay. We looked at each other and decided to start low and replied that 600 was our sort of price (we’d actually been paying way less than that before but this place looked really nice!) so we were surprised when the man said that we had a deal. Result! Before we knew it, several staff (nowhere else we’d been had had staff!) were helping us unload the bikes and taking us to our rooms which, even in the dusk we could see were sat overlooking the entire Hunza valley. We’d only just dropped our bags on the floor when we invited for a complimentary chai and cold water. Ordinarily, we’d all have wanted a shower and a change of clothes, but we were so shattered, thirsty and relieved to have made it, that we used what little energy we had  to climb on to the roof of the restaurant and sat a tad shell shocked, and drank bottle after bottle of water and pot after pot of chai. Only an hour later, with night having fallen, did we trudge back down to our rooms where we pulled off trousers, jackets and boots that had, quite literally, filled with fine dust and stepped under  cold showers (although some in the group showered in their bike gear as an initial wash!) before returning to the dining room to share photos and videos from the day and re-live what had been, without doubt, the toughest day any of us had experienced on the trip. Normally, after hard days we had, for some reason always managed to end up in pretty rubbish places, but on this toughest of all days, fate had finally rewarded us, and the food, when it came (and it kept coming – we ordered way too much!) was absolutely amazing! We all quickly admitted that given the quality of the food, the hotel, the views and the fact that we were never going to be ready/able to leave in the morning, we were all ‘prepared’ to spend a couple of nights at the Eagle’s Nest to recover. With that agreed, we all ate ourselves to the point of obesity and then dragged our bloated bodies to bed where everyone (even the insomniac Fabian) fell into a deep, deep sleep.

The dammed lake.

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

(Emily) The day had finally come for the challenge we had been anticipating since before we’d even left the UK. Back in January, a colossal landslide had dammed the Hunza river, alongside which the KKH runs, causing intense flooding (which destroyed at least 30 villages in the valley) before the waters settled to form a huge lake. As a result, there is now a 23km stretch of the KKH that lies underwater (to give an idea of scale, the ‘lake’ is now 23 km long and 150m deep!) We’d read many reports of the disaster when we were back at home and had been keeping tabs on the situation periodically while we were travelling. At one point, we heard that several people had managed to get bikes across via helicopter which, although rather dramatic, made us think it was at least possible. Then we read that boats had started to run from one end to the other – even better. However, shortly before we all met up in Kyrgyzstan, news was filtering through that the government had prohibited crossing of the lake on safety grounds as the pressure on the dam meant it was at high risk of bursting. This, together with reports of the broken bridge near Sost, very nearly put some of our China group off Pakistan altogether – I think James mentioned that people started looking into freighting their bikes directly from Kyrgyzstan to India, and that they only dismissed the idea due to ridiculous cost (plus incessant badgering from James that it would all be fine!)

So, when it came to the point when we were actually approaching the lake (just 8km from Passu where we’d spent the night after Operation Bridge), people were feeling more than a little nervous. In fact, I think I was the only one not worrying: my mind is constantly preoccupied with the state of the roads and whether I’ll be able to cope with them so the challenge of crossing a lake was quite welcome to me – I wouldn’t be on my bike, hurrah! It was a beautiful morning when we left Passu (the weather has been sooooo kind to us, I dread to think what it could have been like) and once more, we were surrounded by stunning scenery, not least several visible glaciers crawling down from the mountains. Then the lake came into view, looking beautiful and totally natural. We arrived at the ‘jetty’ (literally where the KKH disappeared into the water) and got our first look at the boats. Hmmm. They were bigger than we’d feared but far smaller than we’d hoped. Amazingly, getting the bikes on board was quite a smooth and straightforward affair (this was with the locals in charge, we would have faffed about no end!); they quickly fashioned a ramp from some wooden planks that were hanging about and then, with the combined effort of about twenty men, literally lifted the bikes into the boat. The three biggies (Stefano’s, Fabian’s and Donato’s) were squeezed in one boat, then our remaining four onto another. We waved cheerfully to the Italians and Spaniard as they chugged out into the lake before us – this was going to be a doddle! Our boat, every square inch taken up by passengers and their luggage, had a bit of a malfunction immediately after casting off and we almost ran aground in a clump of trees next to the jetty but before too long we’d taken the right course and were following the others across the water. Apart from the deafening chugging of the twin engines, it was a really pleasant journey; the water was a stunning opaque turquoise and it was a treat to sit back and enjoy the scenery for once. At the same time, it was sobering to think that we were sailing over so many submerged villages (one of the guys who had helped us get the bikes on the boat had lost his home to the water) and at times we saw clusters of tents where people were now forced to reside. It was strange to see treetops emerging from the lake edge, and if you looked closely, you could tell from the dead branches below the green where the lake’s water level had originally reached (a series of slipways had eventually been blasted in the landslide mass to let at least some of the water through so that, for now at least, the amount of water leaving the lake was equal to that entering  – otherwise, it would have kept rising and rising). Hard to imagine that this now tranquil scene had been witness to such destruction.

It took just over an hour to reach the other end of the lake and, after what had turned out to be a rather lovely cruise, my thoughts were now turning to a potential picnic lunch here on the other side. However, we had all been making a dangerous assumption – that unloading the bikes would be a similarly straightforward process to loading them – forgetting, of course, that this was the end of the lake where the landslide had actually occurred. As we approached the looming grey mass of rock and rubble, just able to make out the tiny specks that were construction trucks half way up, it began to dawn on us that the challenge of the lake crossing was about to present itself. Gulp.  We pulled in alongside the first boat and it was immediately obvious that there wasn’t actually anywhere to disembark – just a steep, rocky scree slope that the locals were now hopping deftly onto and scrambling up. How the hell were the bikes meant to get off the boats, across a three metre gap and up there?! James and Carl clambered off rather less deftly (James: er, we were like cats!) to discuss matters with the others, while Bene and I stayed on our boat with our bikes and belongings, trying to cool ourselves down by dipping our headscarves in the water (so refreshing!) It took nearly an hour for an agreement to be reached on how to proceed, mainly because people were trying to get us to pay extra for help getting them off (er, when you pay for a ferry crossing you kind of assume this will include you being able to get off at the other side…!) but in the end, after lots of arguing during which neither side could agree on a price, James disappeared up to top to find an army officer to mediate, and came back with a local official who ordered the bikes off the boat for a fraction of the asking price. And to ensure we didn’t have a riot over who got paid what, James had given the official the money to distribute as he saw fit. Bene and I meanwhile were just pondering on the rather more important issue of HOW the bikes were actually going to be reunited with solid ground when a thunderous crack gave us a heart attack. Landslide?!! Not exactly – army engineers  were carrying out ‘controlled blasts’ on the landslide in an effort to create new slipways before the winter set in (James: it’s the dry season now and in the winter everything freezes so the amount of water currently  entering the lake is as low as it gets. If it’s not drained enough by the spring melt however the disaster could quickly get worse ).  Knowing that the blasts were intentional only slightly allayed our fears – it was still incredibly nerve-wracking every time we heard one, convinced that the impact would trigger off something worse. Not only that, but when you looked up closely at any of the surrounding peaks, there was always a mini-rockfall occurring somewhere. I for one was keen to get the hell out of this dangerous cauldron of rock.

With a price finally agreed, a narrow wooden ramp was balanced precariously between our boat and the ‘shore’. Not wanting to bear witness to what looked likely to only end in one thing (disaster), I volunteered to walk up the slope and stand with our belongings while the bikes were unloaded and once on ‘dry land’, I could fully appreciate what we were up against. We were essentially standing on a huge hill of loose rock and dirt that, before the landslide, had made up half of the face of the mountain to our right: you could literally see where the front side of the peak had sliced off, leaving different coloured, virgin rock visible underneath. The force with which these thousands of tons of rock had fallen was unimaginable but the resulting layer of 20cm thick chalk-like dust gave some idea; dense rock had been literally pulverised. I can only describe it as being what I imagine the surface of the moon to be like, or if someone had emptied bags of cement powder over a rocky hill. Within minutes, we were coughing and squinting as the wind whipped up swirls of the dust into our faces. This was not going to be an easy surface to ride on (for me, impossible!) – so thickly laden was the fine dust that the underside of the bikes carved through it instead of riding on top, creating an additional dust cloud. This in turn made it even harder to see the large rocks and boulders buried in the deep powder, and all this was compounded by the fact that the ‘path’ up over the top of the landslide mass was the steepest I’d ever seen. No vehicles were coming down beyond a certain point as the angle, rocks and sharp turns defied access. However, somehow we would have to get the bikes up and over – what had we gotten ourselves into?!!

After much effort, and several close calls, the bikes were all off the boats and lined up at the bottom of the landslide. Poor James and Carl were knackered, having helped the locals lift each bike off and push them up the first slope; not an easy task at the best of times but as we were still at high altitude, breathing was laboured even when standing still. It took a while to repack our bags onto the bikes and then it was time to contemplate the next challenge. Now on our own (the local helpers were absolved of their duties as soon as the bikes were on land) we agreed that the bikes would have to be ridden up in order to get enough power to tackle the steep slope but would need all of us to help by pushing/providing support as the way was so rocky and unpredictable that coming off was a distinct possibility. It was decided to start with the Harley to get it over and done with: Donato fired her up and we all managed to get purchase on something in order to help push and keep him upright. This worked for about twenty metres but, unbelievably knackered in the thin air, everyone shouted that they needed a rest and let go. I freaked out, realising I was the only one still pushing, and shouted at Donato to stop – this was precisely the wrong thing to do as by this point he actually had momentum and was about to make it to the next level part. He turned to me in bewilderment ‘But Emily, why?’ and how he managed to move off again, I don’t know. I felt really bad – I could have easily caused him to drop the bike – but luckily he’s such an experienced rider that he managed to make it up to the top of the steep slope (though this was by no means the top of the landslide). One down, six to go.

Just as Carl was about to take Bene’s bike up, a couple of army guys said that we could go up the right hand fork of the path which looked slightly less steep, so Carl powered off that way (giving it beans is the only way to go!) However, he too had his momentum thwarted when he met head-on a huge caterpillar digger bringing down some military pontoon rafts to serve as a jetty (a bit late now!) The digger’s claw swung so close to the bike, he had to push it back with his hands. Meanwhile, we (still with the rest of the bikes at bottom) saw the digger coming towards us and hastily tried to squeeze the bikes to the side out of the way (not easy with an unstable surface which dropped straight down to the lake). As the digger passed by us, very nearly knocking Fabian and his bike off the edge, I was appalled to see the ground beneath its treads bend and buckle like the surface of a trampoline: the thought ‘we’re all going to die!’ flickered through my mind and not for the last time. I took a photo and, accentuated by the clouds of grey dust, the whole scene looks somewhat apocalyptic. It felt it too! The next problem was that Fabian’s bike, which had been running poorly since the Khunjerab Pass, conked out (dead battery) as he tried to make it up the hill: cue much exertion as the boys and a few curious on-looking soldiers struggled to give his beast a push start. In the end, it required a jump start from a army Landrover to get it going again. We crossed our fingers that it would make it down to the next town and this was really not a good place to be breaking down.

Slowly but surely the bikes were taken up to the top of the landslide. Poor James had his work cut out as he was doing both of our bikes which of course meant coming back on foot for the second one each time. Bad enough at the beginning, but once we were over the crest of the landslide it got a lot harder for him as he kept having to walk back uphill to get my bike (yes, I did feel bad but this was always part of the deal of me riding my own bike!! Also, I had my own share of wheezing as I was obviously walking too!) Once at the crest, we could see down below where the KKH emerged from the bottom of the landslide pile but there was a still a lot of powder to get through. Donato went ahead (Roberta was walking as you really don’t want a pillion to add to your woes on this sort of surface) and it was a relief to see him make it down to the relative safety of the road. There was another delay when James, Bene and Fabian took the wrong fork in the path and it led them to a 45 degree slope that looked simply too dangerous to ride down. James went back on foot to tell Carl and Stefano to go the other way (and get my bike for the umpteenth time), whilst Bene, Fabs and I did a joint effort to turn Bene’s bike round. We were about to turn James’ too when Carl, having gone down the other way and parked, hiked up and said, ‘C’mon, it’s not that steep!’ Bene wasn’t convinced but I said maybe he’d be willing to ride James’ to save him the effort while he was getting mine; he didn’t take asking twice! He decided to coast down in neutral, the idea being that I would hold onto the back for support, but it soon gathered too much momentum and left me for dust. It was slightly alarming seeing him career down the hill getting jolted about by rocks but he pulled the bike in safely to the side and James was indeed grateful! (Bene sensibly took the less steep option!)

The drama wasn’t over yet; Stefano came round a sharp corner and lost grip in the dust, losing control of the bike. It went down and, due to the steep gradient, pretty much ‘turtled’ (Carl’s word – meaning to land on its back – I love it!) It took him, Carl and Fabian quite some time just to get the bike upright again, and then a pannier repair job was required. James, meanwhile, had got his bike down to join Donato and was making the long walk back up for mine whilst Bene, a very competent rider and having made it pretty much the whole way, came off just a few metres short of the road when her bike lost traction in the thick dust. Damn the Dust Mountain!!! James finally got back up to the remaining bikes (looking like a dead man walking he was so exhausted) and set to helping the guys with Stefano’s pannier (plus they needed the strength of all four of them to turn Fabian’s bike which was still stranded at the top of the steep slope!) while I trudged down to Donato, Roberta and Bene. I’d just reached the bottom when we saw the four remaining bikes making their way down to us, Fabian’s moving particularly gingerly in its poorly state. They arrived to much jubilation without any more spills, hurrah! It was now 4pm and it had taken us five hours to traverse the two or three kilometres from the edge of the lake to where the road began once more. Crazy! But we were ecstatic: many people had warned us that it would be impossible and here we were, victorious. Covered in dust and dead on our feet but most definitely victorious!!!

A quick reminder.

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

Just so you know, we’re adding photos to go with each post as we put them up so keeping checking the Pakistan gallery. We even have a short bit of video of the bridge crossing (albeit narrated in Spanish – it’s Fabian’s!) which at least will give a flavour of our day (sorry, no footage of the riot!) It’s amongst our Pakistan photos but you can go straight to it by clicking here

A bridge too far?

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

(Emily) It was a restless night for some – poor Bene, who suffers physically when anxious, had been throwing up until the early hours and was now just keen to get the bridge over with so she could relax again. However, as we ate our breakfast of parathi (fried chapatti) and omelettes, Roberta came in to tell us that Stefano was not at all well and would not be able to leave today. He had a high temperature and a fever – basically in no state to be tackling ‘operation bridge’. We all took it in our stride, concerned for Stefano and very much resigned to the fact that delays, whether human or geographical, were bound to plague us for the duration of the KKH. James, Carl and Fabian went down to the bridge to let the guys know that we wouldn’t be able to cross until the next day at the earliest and of course, it also gave them to chance to check the progress of the ‘improvements’. Fabian’s ‘We’re all going to die!’ was slightly tongue-in-cheek but I don’t think he was overly encouraged by the reinforcements!! (That said, he hadn’t seen it the previous day!) The boys had taken a few photos and, although the men were still working on it, it looked like they had managed to widen the passage slightly and construct a more consistent surface over which to take our precious cargo. There was talk that the zip-wire, running parallel up above the footbridge, might be incorporated to help secure the bikes via a rope while they were transported across but we needed to get the bikes down there to see it all in situ.

There’s not a whole lot to do in Sost but we made the most of our unexpected extra day to write diary, do some bike maintenance (especially Carl and Bene – they’re very dedicated and put us to shame!) and I even cut James’ hair. Several of us got local sim cards for our phones via one of the guys working at the guesthouse. He subsequently became known as ‘the weasel’ as he was always trying to get money out of us for one thing or another. For example, he charged me 650 rupees for my sim card, which I thought was reasonable as it included some credit, but I later found out that Stefano (who had gone down to town with him the previous day) had only paid 350 rupees for exactly the same card. Several times I asked him why mine had been more expensive and he tried to fob me off saying that it was a special number, or a different shop that charged more. In the end, I made sure I spoke to him about it in front of Roomi, the owner, and told him I didn’t like getting messed around. He was still evasive but after dinner came over and gave me the 300 rupees I was owed (no apology though…) The outrageous thing was that he then told the group there was a mistake on the bill (we’d already paid as we’d thought we were leaving that day) and how much was the discrepancy? You guessed it; 300 rupees!! A shame that he was blotting what was so far a fantastic impression of the Pakistani people we had met.

(James) Crossing a raging river with a collapsed bridge wasn’t the only dilemma facing us that evening as we sat in the dark (the floods and near continuous landslides mean that electricity is a rare thing). A knock-on effect of the various disasters in Pakistan means that supply lines for almost all products have long since been compromised, and although we had all ensured that we were carrying food for 2-3 days and that we could filter water from wherever we might find it, it was our fuel range that was a concern. Our last fill up had been back in Tash Kurgan where we had filled our tanks, jerry cans and anything else we could find to the brim and, despite being as economical as possible, the fact was that we’d already covered 225km on poor roads, over a very high mountain pass. Our problem now was that we were at least 500km from the next town where petrol might be available.  Our total range, including additional capacity, was about 500km on reasonable roads (which we wouldn’t have), assuming we’d have reasonable quality fuel (which we didn’t have – 76 Ron at best, and judging by the dirt collecting in the filter we were using it was dirty as well as low grade!). The predicted poor road surface would mean we’d hardly be riding efficiently (plenty of first gear only roads) meaning we’d run out at least 300km short of salvation despite our bike’s ability to run on absolute rubbish – in fuel starved Uzbekistan we’d used black market petrol supposedly mixed with vegetable oil and soft drinks (Coke seems to be the preferred option; something to think about next time you want a drink – should you really be drinking something that cleans coins and keeps an engine running?!) To say Sost was low on petrol would be an understatement; they hadn’t had petrol since the disaster struck back in January. Not good!

We had one hope: we had seen 4 petrol tankers parked up at the customs post back in Tash Kurgan with ‘China Aid’ written across the front, and we were hearing rumblings about a possible relief convoy approaching which had 4 petrol tankers in it. The question then was; how do we, a group of ‘la-di-da’ tourists, get hold of said petrol when local competition for it would be so fierce? Not without help was the answer, so Carl and I went for a quiet word with the owner, Roomi, who we’d noticed seemed to be part of a fairly influential family in the town. Perhaps he could help? Our ‘chancing’ it paid off when he said that not only did he know the Assistant District Commissioner for the region, but he was currently in the area to co-ordinate the relief effort. We spied an opening and immediately pressed for a chance to meet him – if he was co-ordinating the relief effort, then surely it was only fair to surmise that he’d be the decision maker when it came to managing distribution of supplies?!.. Sure enough, later that evening, we were called across the road where we joined a dozen other people hoping to gain an audience, some in the hope winning distribution contracts, but most, we guessed, like us simply hoping to gain priority access. Just as the rain began to fall (never a good sign as rain guarantees landslides), we were ushered into a small room to be greeted by a slight, surprisingly anonymous-looking man who seemed to have several more influential men and elders hanging on his every word. Appearances, as they say, can be deceptive. Whilst physically he may have been unassuming, he certainly had presence, something we quickly discovered during 10 minutes of small talk over a customary round of chai. He was considered in everything he said ,  and spoke succinctly, quickly and honestly, identifying  the real world problems facing both the community and himself, problems I recognised from my own time here during a previous disaster (usefully this fact gave us plenty of material for small talk).  It’s fair to say we all liked him immediately and felt sure that, in this district at least, the people had the right man looking after them.

When finally we brought the conversation round to our fuel situation he was quick to assure us that the fuel was ready for distribution, and that yes we could have some. We asked if our getting priority for fuel would potentially cause resentment for those locals who’d been waiting so long but were reminded that in a year when natural disasters had combined with existing political/security problems, tourism had all but disappeared taking with it a vital source of income for the local economy (we were the first guests at our guest house in over 2 months), so our presence here in the first place more than compensated. He added that if we were to get stuck here without fuel, we would simply become 7 more people requiring aid! We would be allowed whatever fuel we needed as soon as a decision had been made on how to price the fuel (it had been donated but giving it out free would cause all sorts of new problems with people taking it to sell on the black market). Before leaving he gave me his business card and asked us to get in touch if we had any other problems. Finally it looked like we were on our way!

We awoke the following morning to a bright clear morning and the welcome news that Stefano was much better – an excellent start, and after breakfast Carl, Fabian and myself went down to the local petrol station (still closed but very heavily guarded) armed with two 30 litre jerry cans and the business card of our new all important ally. Within 30 minutes we were done and on our way back to divide the contents between  the group, and an hour later we were fully loaded up, riding the short but rocky 15km down to the bridge where we hoped to find a bridge capable of getting us safely across the river. We arrived to find a much more chaotic scene than on our initial recces of the bridge as the first aid truck had arrived and several different groups of men were there arguing over which crew of labourers were to be engaged to carry the sacks across, and who ‘owned’ the bridge. Our small crew were caught up in this too, and having seen this kind of thing before I stepped in and tried to remind them that the broken bridge was government owned (waving the District Commissioners business card around seemed to have the desired effect) and that the new and improved foot bridge, since we’d paid for the materials and the labour was, in fact ours. That being the case we were allowing whoever wanted to use it to use it without charge. That at least seemed (eventually) to solve the problem of bridge access, the question of who’s labour crew got the work was not our concern and frankly was not something any of us wanted to get involved in.

Our new bridge was a definitely improvement and although we had no doubts that Carl, Bene’s and our bikes, once stripped of their luggage, would be light enough to  get across (the bikes simply falling in to the raging river less than a metre below was far more worrying as anything going in was never coming out), real question marks remained over the larger heavier bikes, and in particular Stefano’s big BMW (over 250kg) and  Donato’s Harley Davidson (over 350kg!) We started by stripping all of the luggage and panniers off the bikes and carried them across along with the large sacks of aid being effortlessly carried by those wiry locals who’d managed to get work and once done prepped the smallest bikes for the first crossing. If the bridge was going to give way, we decided, it would be due a heavier bike, so it made sense to get as many across as possible first.

Carl volunteered his to go first and, having tied ropes to back of it, and having given each other a look that said ‘if this goes wrong, we lose the bike and the trip is over!’,  eight of us slowly lowered his bike down the dusty 60 degree slope towards the start of the bridge. The steepness of the slope and the dirt meant we all, at one point or another, slipped and fell as we descended but we got it down and then re-arranged for the bridge crossing, leaving this to the locals who not only were unburdened by  the fear of dropping their pride and joy but also seemed to cross the bridge so effortlessly carrying heavy loads despite it bouncing and swinging around. Slowly but surely, Carl’s bike edged across until finally its wheels landed on the collapsed but solid section of the main bridge. We’d kept a close eye on how much the bridge had flexed during the first crossing and although alarming, we felt that for the four 180kg bikes the bridge was up to the task. Bene’s bike was next followed by Em’s and then mine. So far so good. Fabian’s was next (weighing in at 220kg) and despite greater flexing made it across. Now it was crunch time and the two lardiest bikes were lined up. First was Stefano’s BMW which, at 250kg, was not only heavy but tall (it’s much harder to control a tall bike when it loses its balance). Extra people were added on to the rope as we began to lower it, and again we watched as it agonisingly slowly was edged across the narrow flexing bridge -  just three were involved at this point as we couldn’t risk anymore weight on the bridge,  with one person at the front holding the handlebars whilst walking backwards, one pushing from behind and one managing somehow to stand alongside (how I don’t know as there simply didn’t appear to be enough room to even  put your foot down on such a narrow walkway). Stefano was left to stand and watch, looking slightly grey, just as the rest of us had done. Finally it was the turn of the Harley, heaviest by 100kg. Again, numbers was the key when lowering the bike but once at the bridge, all were pulled away. The Harley was so wide that nobody was going to able to stand to the side to control balance – somebody would have to sit on the saddle for balance whilst two controlled at the front and rear. In true ‘Hog’ owner style, Donato muttered something along the lines of ‘nobody touches my hog’ (but with a heavy Italian accent) and plonked himself on board. Fearing loss of balance or loss of structural integrity I reminded him that if he felt it was going, to make sure he knew where the grab rail was to save himself, and although he grunted in nervous acknowledgement I got the distinct feeling that he fully intended to go down with his ‘ship’!

Over the din of the raging river, you couldn’t hear anything but I’m sure that had we been able to, the creaking and groaning of our little bridge would have been all too audible, as the bridge flexed to a point where I was sure it would buckle. The newly installed ‘planks’ bents skywards at the edges, but somehow the bridge held and we pulled a very relieved and slightly shell shocked looking Donato up the steep but comparatively secure  collapsed section. Our big challenge for the day had been overcome in little more than three hours, surely there could be no more drama, could there?

With all bikes present and accounted for on the other side we joined Emily, Bene and Fabian who  between them had been in charge of capturing the drama and kit security and, having very subtly paid our crew, began to reload the bikes.  By now, additional truckloads of labourers had arrived at the bridge and a furious row had broken out less than 5 metres from our bikes as rival crews squabbled over who would work and who would not.  There was lots of shouting and plenty of pushing and shoving as the crowd which now numbered in excess of 100 people, became more wound up, and despite its proximity  to us (my bike had somehow managed to get parked nearest to the melee!) we smiled warily to each other. As is so often the case though, things continued to escalate and as insults began to get traded, so tempers flared, and before long punches were being thrown at 2 or 3 points in the crowd. Even then, we were in no real danger as the argument was not with us and several people from different groups came to reassure us that we were safe, even so with our kit still strewn across this potential battlefield we were speeding up our packing. As the closest, I had the best view of mayhem so kept everyone informed and smiled calmly but already I knew that this was only going to end one way and before too long the vast majority of the crowd were fighting and as worker’s tents collapsed and tables broke, so the mob moved closer to the bikes, forcing us to push people away who’s fights collided with my bike. Everyone was now packing furiously, only stopping when I started seeing people, already bloodied, rejoining the action armed with rocks and metal bars, which quickly began being thrown and swung at close quarters. W donned our helmets for protection and took cover along with a few locals as more tents started collapsing, until it became clear that one side had won this round. We looked up to see 30 or so people running up the road with a rock throwing mob in hot pursuit and thing calmed down as quickly as they’d started. A few hot heads wanted to head off after the losers but most were straight back trying to get work.

 All packed up we prepared to head off, all too aware that we were riding towards the losing group, who for all we knew were around the bend readying a counterattack. It was agreed that one of us should ride 100m ahead of the group, just in case, to ensure safe passage, and as the only one with any experience in this part of the world I was the obvious choice. Riding around the corner, however, I was greeted by a far sadder sight. The losing group were in fact our bridge crew, locals from the next village who, despite having bravely held their own had been heavily outnumbered and were on the receiving end of some pretty harsh treatment from the other group, all it seemed, who had been bussed in from larger towns further to the south. Stopping to see if they were ok, I was told that a couple of them were in bad shape and sitting in a car further up the road. We pulled in by the car and Fabian, Stefano and I got out our first aid kits and began to try and treat their injuries, all head injuries caused by rocks and metal bars to the head. We cleaned the wounds and applied sutures as best we could, but one of them in particular would be needing more medical attention than we could provide so having patched them up we despatched them to the hospital. I should have known that they wouldn’t go straight away and, true enough a few km later we came upon them at the side of the road in what turned out to be their village. We tried to gently chastise them, but when you’re being plied with chai and apples and apricots fresh from the tree it’s hard to order them to a hospital.

 Eventually we were on our way once again. Em was a little concerned as the roads were really bad, she wasn’t helped by the fact that our intercom battery had died (no power in Sost) so I couldn’t talk her through what was coming as I normally do.  As for the roads in question:  think of an ever changing mixed of gravel, dust, thick sand (the worst!), roads strewn with stones and rocks, some of which are loose, some fixed, and almost all of which is continually corrugated and rises and dips constantly, then add sections of road have simply collapsed into the river far below, been covered by countless small landslides (and a few big ones) and add water crossings – the result of streams and rivers redirected by said land falls, and you have an idea of what riding here is like – oh, and the KKH means 900km of this! Fortunately it was only (a slow)30km more to our destination in Passu where we hoped to spend the night and consider the next day’s challenge – crossing the dammed ‘lake’. Despite all that had happened that day, and with the obvious distraction of the increasingly spectacular surroundings, Em made it to Passu like a pro (I can’t say without any problems as for anyone riding on the KKH, every km is a series of near misses and close shaves) and climbed off the bike with the rest of us, dusty, shattered and relieved, and yet utterly beaming, high on the days experiences. We booked into the only guesthouse available (most have closed), run by a local farmer who cooked us a delicious meal which we devoured whilst we reflected on the days slightly surreal events. Already Pakistan was more than living up to our expectations!

We’re going to need a bigger bridge!

Friday, September 17th, 2010

(Emily) We all slept incredibly well on our first night in Sost, though due to exhaustion rather than comfort! The combination of rodent roommates and dank, concrete bathrooms led to general consensus that perhaps something better could be found (James and I weren’t too fussed but then we didn’t have mice…) so Roberta, Fabian and Carl & Bene strolled in to ‘town’ to check out other options. They returned an hour later with the news that we actually had the best place – ah! Although there are a disproportionate amount of hotels and guesthouses for the small size of Sost (capitalising on the fact it’s the border post), the majority were actually closed since virtually no tourists are venturing into northern Pakistan this year. Plus, the one half-decent place down by customs had been commandeered by Chinese contactors who were either here to repair roads or part of the relief effort. In fact, as we’d left China and crossed via the Khunjerab Pass, we’d been aware of a steady stream of aid relief trucks travelling in the same direction; apparently 140 lorries had been consigned from China as not enough supplies were able to come up from the south due to the landslide lake. However, because the KKH in Pakistan is so narrow, steep and prone to destruction, the trucks had been backed up in Tash Korgan rather than risk having to park up in and around Sost. We took it as a positive sign that the consignments were now making their way through, especially as the convoy included four petrol tankers; it was a serious worry that no fuel would be available until Gilgit which was beyond our mileage potential, even with the jerry cans we’d filled up in China.

It was a beautiful morning and, now able to see it in the light of day, we found that our guesthouse had quite the location: perched on an escarpment at the southern edge of town, overlooking the narrow river valley and with spectacular views of the surrounding craggy snow topped mountains. This more than made up for the crappy rooms and we were glad not to be in the dirty, dusty high street. Late morning, we all piled into a mini-van taxi, eager but anxious to see the damaged bridge for ourselves and set about orchestrating our first logistical challenge. Fabian decided to stay back at the hotel – a ‘what I don’t know (see) won’t hurt me’ attitude which I very much sympathised with (a few weeks back we’d met a group of Germans who had made it across by being transported in a cage on a zip-wire and I had declined a look at their video footage knowing it would give me nightmares of what was to come!) The collapsed bridge was a bumpy fifteen kilometres further on from Sost. I nervously inspected every inch of the road, knowing this would have to been done on the bikes soon enough whereas Carl and Stefano had no such qualms, choosing to travel on the roof of the van, local style! When we arrived, we rushed over to see what was what: the recent flooding had caused the concrete bridge which spanned the river, about forty metres wide at this point, to collapse at the near side forming what was now a sturdy concrete ramp up to the other side. We were heartened to see that the gap between the bank on our side and where the collapsed bridge emerged from the water was only about five metres and, even better, there was now in place a hastily constructed footbridge (the trunks of a couple of small trees with some flimsy wood from crates nailed on) over which locals were happily scampering carrying heavy loads. Carl, who is from the James Littlewood school of positive thinking, reckoned we could get the bikes across ‘no probs’ but it was clear to the less-delusional in the group that it would be bye-bye bike if we were to try such folly, not least because the track down to the footbridge was steeper than forty-five degrees and uneven dirt. By now several curious locals had approached and were quick to tell us ‘of course we can get the bikes across the bridge’ or conversely ‘use the zip wire, it’s much safer’; in both instances, they assured us that they had already got many bikes across. However, they were talking about 125cc bikes and smaller, and when we explained that the group included a 350kg+ Harley, we detected the flicker of doubt in their eyes!

In the end, the boys negotiated with a group of local workers (Bene and I hung back in our headscarves, respectful of the ‘menfolk’) who agreed to strengthen and widen the bridge to our requirements and arranged for them to be there in the morning to help manoeuvre the bikes across (we would have legs like jelly so it made sense to leave it to the experts!) The price of the whole operation took quite some haggling – at first they wanted 30,000 rupees (€300) and eventually it was worn down to 10,000 which, although probably still a complete rip-off, wasn’t too bad shared between the eight of us and let’s face it, we didn’t have much choice if we wanted to continue our trip! Deal done, we chatted a bit more with the locals (still not quite used to the fact that many people speak good English after struggling linguistically in the ‘stans and China) and discovered that the Chinese had already set about building a new bridge but this, and all their equipment including two huge cement mixers, had been swept away by a second bout of flooding: if we looked carefully, we could see one of the construction trucks beached further down the river. It was hard for us to get our heads round living with such impermanence and fragility; they are plagued with one disaster after another but just get on with it, incredible.

We went back to relay the news to Fabian (well, first we had a bit of fun and pretended that it would take a month before the river was crossable…) then spent the afternoon swapping photos and writing our diaries, all the while a quiet knot of anticipation growing in our stomachs. Half the time, we laughed at ourselves and our western concerns; the Pakistanis deal with this sort of stuff all the time and besides, didn’t you see how they practically skipped across the bridge, perfectly at home? It would be a doddle for them to get our bikes across. But at the same time, it was hard to ignore the potential of at least one of the bikes crashing down into the river never to be seen again…

Pakistan: the real adventure begins…

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

(Emily) The road down from the Khunjerab Pass into Pakistan looked a bit hairy from the top; not only had the tarmac stopped abruptly at the border but the incline was fairly steep and had its fair share of hairpins…. gulp! We tentatively began the descent (Carl, on the other hand, coasted down in neutral to save petrol – he managed 8 miles in the end!!), negotiating trucks and Chinese work crews along the way. The great thing was that for the first time in many months, our intercom was working both ways; it couldn’t have happened at a more opportune time and I was so relieved. The Pakistanis that we passed gave big, warm smiles and it was lovely to feel welcome after the somewhat po-faced Chinese. We’d only gone a couple of kilometres when we came upon our first (of soooo many) obstacle: a fresh landslide blocking the road. We set about inspecting the rock pile for a potential way through but there were some pretty large boulders that could not be moved by human hand. We were just starting to clear a path around the edge (and far too close to the sheer drop for my liking) when a massive digger came to the rescue; landslides were clearly a regular occurrence round these parts and they were well set up for it! In no time at all, the rubble was cleared and we were on our way again… round a few more corners and this time into a stretch where another digger was clearing rocks from above us. A man was there to wave us through when the coast was clear but I swear Carl was missed by inches when a load came down. All of a sudden we felt a little vulnerable here in this wild landscape where nature was warring against man and seemingly winning – after five days in relatively ordered China with our guide never too far away, this felt like we were now venturing into the unknown!

Our target was the town of Sost which, despite being the location of the customs post, was actually 80km from the border. This peculiarity meant that although we were technically in Pakistan, we hadn’t yet been officially stamped in; a fact that was gnawing at the stomachs of Donato and Stefano who, having found it impossible to get a Pakistan visa in Bishkek, were banking on being issued one on arrival (the possibility of being denied entry and having to return to China was not an appealing one…) The road continued to be a tarmac free zone but was do-able, though I hated the bits with loose rocks and shingle (especially when it was combined with a steep incline with a stream running down it at one point!!) Once again, the goggles were a god-send as the dust was constant – I kept my visor up for better visibility so had a very grubby face by the end of the day, much to James’ amusement! Just as I was getting into my stride, we turned a corner to find Donato across the other side of a stretch of water motioning for us to slow down; he’d made it across but it was pretty deep. With water crossings, it’s not just the depth or speed of the water flow that makes it difficult, but the river bed itself which tends to be either soft mud or strewn with large rocks. This one seems to have the latter. Stefano, who has a tendency to just go for it, just went for it… unfortunately Roberta (riding pillion with Stefano on his GS1150 rather than the Harley for the moment) chose to wrong moment to shift position and, easily put off balance on the loose rocks, the bike went down in the water. Once again, we were glad to have the combined strength of several people to manage the pick up! James took a more considered approach and made it through, by which time Carl had picked out another part of the river that, although wider, seemed more shallow and ploughed through no problem, followed by Fabian and Bene. My confidence wasn’t up to river crossing by this stage so James came back for my bike – what would I do without him?!

The slow speed forced on us by the road condition gave us the chance to gawp at the scenery; steep and craggy with sheer rock faces either side of us as we traversed deep valley gorges. Running alongside us was the river, chalky and ferocious, that was unrepentantly sweeping up anything in its path – a constant reminder to look where you were going and stick to the road!  When we stopped to enter a section of national park at about half past five, we were told that Sost was now only 35km away. However, our slow progress (less than 20mph average Carl has worked out) meant that very soon dusk was setting in – oh joy, how I love riding on unpredictable dirt roads next to a steep rocky bank and a fierce river in the near dark!!! We slowed down even further to compensate for the poor visibility but unfortunately a patch of deep, loose gravel came out of nowhere and Donato, leading at this point, went over. No harm done (and again, many people needed to get the 350kg of bike back up!) but I felt a bit skittish after that. Thank goodness when, a few minutes later, we began to see signs of civilisation in the distance, though only a few lights were in evidence which seemed odd for a town. As we approached, all was explained: 1) the ‘town’ of Sost was nothing more than a dusty street bazaar and 2) they was currently a power shortage so only a couple of generators were providing the lucky few with light. We turned into the ‘car park’ of the customs post and all dug around in various bags for our headtorches – the border wasn’t closed as we’d predicted (being 7pm in the evening), it was just shrouded in darkness! The officials were absolutely lovely and ushered us in to sit round a table while they checked visas and carnets. For Stefano and Donato, their long period of anxiety was over and they were issued a visa in a matter for minutes for only $24 – a quarter of the price and a fraction of the hassle we’d had in London. A big relief!

It was pitch black by the time the paperwork had been concluded. While waiting a local guy, Roomi, had approached us with an offer of accommodation which we snapped up – in the dark with no lights it would be difficult to find somewhere ourselves. By now, the battery had gone on our intercom system (not ideal when riding in the dark on dusty, rock strewn roads) but I was fortified by the fact Roomi said it was only five minutes away. And I almost made it… as we turned into the steep lane that led to the hotel, I saw that there was a deep trench to negotiate. ‘What would James tell me?’ I thought to myself, knowing the answer: ‘Give it some beans!’ Unfortunately, I opened the throttle a bit too soon, as I entered the dip, and what I didn’t see what was the sharp dirt step before the slope resumed – having hit that with the power engaged, the front wheel went over but the back wheel gained traction and then bucked on the step, picking the bike of the ground and me out of my seat by the accounts of those behind!! So close, and yet so far… I dusted myself off and, having plenty of people around to get the bike up, finished the last twenty metres. ‘The Khunjerab Guesthouse’ turned out to be somewhat basic but I think that was the case everywhere, and we were too tired to care. They fixed us up some rice, sag aloo and lentils which we ate by candlelight and we probed Roomi for information on the state of the road ahead. There was a collapsed bridge 15km away which was to be our first major challenge – plans were made to go by taxi the next morning and suss out possible ways to cross. Then there was the huge lake further on, just past Passu, which had been caused back in January when a landslide damned the river. This did not appear to pose such a big problem as by now they had an established boat service from one end to the other; it just remained to be seen whether bikes as large as ours could be transported and how much it would cost. Everyone was optimistic, despite having met a Spanish biker on the way down the pass who was a bit of a naysayer: he was travelling from the south but had felt forced by the landslide lake to leave his bike and come to the China border on foot before returning. He’d taken one look at Stefano’s and Donato’s bikes and said ‘That won’t make it; that won’t make it’. There’s a lot to be said for our group mentality though and we all provided each other with strength of mind. We went to bed with high hopes and, after a few minutes of high jinx with some rodent visitors in Carl and Bene’s room, fell into an exhausted yet satisfied sleep: I’d survived, nay even enjoyed, my first day in Pakistan…

KKH done and dusted!!!

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Hi everyone. Just a very quick note to say we have arrived safely, if a little battered and dusty, in Islamabad having had a incredibly challenging, but enormously enjoyable, 15 days battling the Karakoram Highway! We’ve checked in to a nice guesthouse in a very calm part of the city and are about to go out for a ‘last supper’ with the team before we all start going our separate ways… sad times. We’ll probably be here for a week as we need to sort out our Indian visas so will be contactable and we’ll be sure to update you on the last two weeks – it’s been eventful!

Thanks for all the lovely messages and comments re the China posts/photos. There are some crackers to come in the Pakistan section! Lots of love to all xxx

The Khunjerab Pass

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

(James) We awoke the following morning and were all loaded and ready by the comparatively early time of 8:20, fully expecting to hit the road for the 120km climb up to the Khunjerab Pass – the border between China and Pakistan, which at 4755 metres (15,600 feet) is the highest border crossing and paved road in the world. Pulling back out on to the KKH, our guide told us to go ahead so off we went only to be over taken a kilometre down the road to be told to turn round which we promptly did, just to be taken to a Chinese customs post just 500m from our hotel! We couldn’t quite work out why we couldn’t have just been told to go there in the first place but by now we were getting used to running round in circles! Just as when we had entered China, we were faced with dozens of self important officials whose jobs seemed to involve simply holding us in specific areas just so they could keep themselves occupied until it was time to go home – at least in Turkmenistan they spent their (and our) time filling in forms! We spent an hour at the customs shed having the engine and chassis numbers of our bikes checked against their paperwork (as if we’d have swapped our bikes for one of the 100cc Chinese bikes!?) and, bizarrely, having to get our bikes lined up abreast (perfectly abreast, we had to move several of them forwards or back a few inches to appease officials!) for photographs! Roberta, Donato’s pillion, then had to pose for propaganda photos next to a bike with some officials whilst holding some sort of document. (Alternatively, it could be for some sort of ‘2011 People’s Republic Customs Service Calendar’ and Roberta could find fame as Miss August 2011. Who knows?!)

Having satisfied the customs officials, it was over to immigration but our hopes of a quick getaway were dashed as the internet was down and without it the office closed! (who knew the Chinese system was so fragile?). Cue another hour of sitting around. Finally word spread that everything was back up and running and there was an almighty rush for the door. Order was restored inside though by some important (in their own mind) looking officers, one of whose job seemed to be to simply stand in the middle of the corridor at attention, moving only to tell us off for turning to talk to each other in the queue and making us stand in a straight line, facing the same way, and like him, at attention! (yes, really!). Just as on entry there was a little electronic box at the passport control asking us to comment on whether the service was: ‘friendly and efficient’, ‘satisfactory’, ‘checking took too much time’ and ‘poor service’. As before, the ‘e-survey’ wasn’t located at the end of the process but halfway through, next to a board with a list of customer service targets that officials hope to meet, one of which, we were amused to read assured us that customs processing should, for 95% of people, taken no more than 45 seconds per person. It didn’t mention what the other 5% should expect but after 90 minutes we had an idea why. Next, it was the army’s turn and we spent our time sweltering in the car park next to our bikes whilst a dozen soldiers, all of whom looked no more 11 years old and who seemed to be drowning in what I can only assume was the smallest sized uniform the Chinese army could muster, tried to look officious and asked us bizarre questions, clearly completely misunderstanding what it was exactly they were supposed to be doing. One, for example, had been nominated (or had nominated himself?!) to be in charge of the car park toilet so whilst we had been, to a degree,  free to roam around the more ‘sensitive’ areas of the facility, we couldn’t go to what was a brick shed with a drop hole  in the middle of the car park without him escorting us. For the boys he even came in to watch us, either for pleasure or to ensure that we didn’t plant some sort of high-tech eavesdropping device somewhere, after all who knows what kind of highly classified secrets that could possibly undermine the regime might be revealed by those officials deemed so irrelevant that they’re posted to the backwater that is Tash Kurgan!…..

Given that we were still 125km from the border which was at the top of the Khunjerab Pass we had been keen to get some miles under our belts as early as possible, so when, after an 8:20 departure were still sitting just 500 metres from our hotel as midday arrived it’s fair to say we were getting a little fed up with Chinese officialdom, so we were relieved when Musa told us we were now free to go and said good-bye (his role ended at this point). Of course, there was still one more pointless instruction – we were to wait and then follow a parked people-carrier to the border. As we waited, 50 metres down the road from the customs post the same soldiers and officials who’d been so zealously checking everybody’s luggage came out and started loading the car with contraband before heading off, and as predicted within 10km we’d completely lost sight of the vehicle!

As before, the Chinese section of the KKH was smooth tarmac with road steadily increasing in altitude throughout the day and although we had increasingly large mountains around us, it was clear that we were climbing onto a plateau. Despite having made adjustments to the bikes to compensate for the thinner air at higher altitude, some of the bikes were starting to feel a little sluggish. Ours on the whole were absolutely fine but were tending to stall at idle, nothing that some additional tweaking couldn’t solve. Fabian on the other hand was really starting to struggle and riding behind him I could see that even on relatively gentle inclines he was having to drop one and even two gears to keep going, and even then he was still losing speed. Clearly his bike wasn’t happy and our thoughts and conversation at break stops turned to likely causes and, of course the possibility of his bike dying before we got to our highest point – the Khunjerab Pass. True enough as the road turned towards the highest mountains and the incline of the road increased Fabian’s bike, like the temperature, began to drop. By the time we reached 4000 metres, our highest point thus far, Fabian was reduced, throttle fully open, to just 18 kph (about 12 mph) and we could run, laughing, alongside taking photos and video of him (which we did a lot!).  By 4200m (13,079 feet) he was down to a mere 10 kph (6mph) and we were having to get off the bikes (never easy when you’re crying with laughter) every hundred metres or so to give him a running push up the hill, and by 4500m (14,763 feet) we were simply laughing too hard to be of any use to him or anyone else, and as Fabian would ride past (screaming) at full throttle at a glacial 5kph (2mph) it was all we could do to drop to our knees in hysterics and concentrate all our energy on breathing! Almost inevitably we reached an altitude where Fabian’s poor heavily laden bike simply refused to go another metre and we were at 4550m and were still another 200m short of the pass! We’d already tried a few running/pushing starts which at such altitude had absolutely knackered us so we opted to tow Fabian the rest of way up, and given that Stefano’s bike, at 1150cc, was the biggest it was decided that he should do the towing. Within a few minutes we had lashed together a few lengths of rope and some straps and, having agreed some ground rules for towing motorcycles up steep inclines, we gave Fabian what we hoped was his last uphill push start, and as hoped off he went. Even the Chinese soldiers at the final checkpoint couldn’t help but smile as we rode towards them, even lifting the barriers so they wouldn’t have to lose momentum. Less than 10 minutes later we approached the crest of the pass and rode underneath an unnecessarily large archway. Before us lay Pakistan but before descending we stopped and spent 20 minutes having lunch on the world’s highest border crossing and reminded the continentals in our group that in Pakistan we would be riding  on the ‘right’ (as in correct) side of the road!

Steadily climbing towards Pakistan…

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

(Em) To my enormous relief the Karakorum Highway began with smooth tarmac, albeit being a rather narrow, single lane road unlike the grand title suggests. Once away from Kashgar, we were soon riding through bleak yet staggering scenery as the road started to climb into the Pamir mountains. Giant rock faces loomed over us and we could see huge boulders poised to crash down in the next heavy storm. I was pleased to find that my bike was running a lot better after an adjustment to the fuel intake in Kashgar – crossing the Torugart Pass into China and ever since then, my engine had cut out every time I came down to first gear or had it idling in neutral. Not particularly reassuring. Fabian’s Honda was also struggling in the high altitude, responding poorly and moving sluggishly; it also didn’t help that our honorary Spaniard himself was getting dizzy from vertigo… We all stuck fairly close together, should anyone have any problems, and as a result the group now has a collection of fantastic photos of each other from whenever we stopped at a particular scenic moment – it’s a real bonus to have photos of yourself riding as it’s obviously not easy to achieve, especially for those who are riding solo.

We arrived at our destination, Lake Kara Kul, in the late afternoon and were stunned by the beauty of the lake in its setting between two Pamir giants, Muztagh Ata at 7546m and Mt Kongur at 7719m. At 3700m, the lake itself was at high altitude and we could see clearly the glaciers making their way down from the snowy mountain peaks. Accommodation for the night was a yurt (yay!), although this time all eight of us were together in one dwelling – rather cosy! After a short walk by the lake, we enjoyed a delicious supper made by a local Kyrgyz family in their mud house and snuggled down on piles of soft mattresses for the night. It was a great stop off point, only spoilt by an ugly Chinese restaurant and the distgusting drop toilets outside (they were re-christened ‘The Pyramids’ – will leave that to your imagination but suffice to say, we all found rocks to go behind as a preferable alternative…!) By the time James and I got up in the morning, cloud was swirling around the peaks but those keenos who got up for sunrise had been rewarded by a clear view. We braved the ‘restaurant’ for breakfast but shouldn’t have bothered – I don’t think the girl could have been any ruder if she’d tried, and our omelettes, when they eventually arrived, were nothing more than deep fried eggs. Unbelievably, Carl and Bene actually went for a dip in the lake (bear in mind we were all wrapped up in fleeces and woolly hats!) – they’re real water babies and don’t need much encouragement to submerge in the nearest water source. Ker-azy!

Tuesday was an easy day (about time!) with only 100km to cover to Tash Kurgan, the destination for our final night in China, and the smooth road  showing no signs of abating. More stunning scenery had us stopping every five minutes to take photographs; each corner we rounded revealed and even more amazing mountain vista or yet another herd of long-haired yak. I got a little concerned at one point when James stopped to help Stefano with something and ushered me to continue, yet 20 minutes later they still hadn’t caught back up. Your mind wanders to all sorts of nasty possibilities when riding in such a desolate environment and I was very relieved when I finally saw a pair of headlights approaching. Turns out Stefano’s mounted video camera had taken a tumble and they’d stopped to fix it, phew.

We went straight to the petrol station upon entering Tash Kurgan (we were all running pretty low and fuel stops seem to be few and far between in this area of China) and thus ensued a rather surreal experience. First we were directed to stop two metres away from the pump, apparently to guard against risk of fire caused by our comms systems of all things (never mind the hot bike engine…) Then, when everyone wanted to fill the jerry cans they’d purchased at the market in Kashgar, they had to take them far away from the forecourt and have the fuel brought over In large metal teapots – WTF?!! I don’t even know what the explanation for that one was, but it seemed highly unnecessary, especially seeing as they had filled up our jerry cans from the pump no problem. China has some odd s**t going on.  At least our hotel was just around the corner, and it revealed itself to be clean and comfortable (apart from the duvet cover which smelt of smoke, ew). We all walked into town (just one main street) and got a massive plate of noodles for lunch, being ravenous after the pathetic egg breakfast. Muza then took us to see ‘the ruins’ – basically a pile of rubble that we felt more than a little ripped off for being charged entrance for! Ten minutes was ample for ‘sightseeing’ then we headed back to the market to buy provisions: the next day would see us enter Pakistan and rumour was that food and petrol were very scarce following the landslides and other natural disasters that had blocked access for supplies (and access for us potentially, but hey, that was another problem for another day…)