The Shangri-La Hotel in Chilas may not have been quite the paradise as its namesake described in James Hilton’s famous novel “Lost Horizon”, but after covering almost 200km the day before I didn’t really care. The room even had a real bath and I felt like soaking away the frustration of the innumerable police checkpoints and a road that seemed to disintegrate before my very eyes. Too bad the bath was more suited to 4ft. people. Oh, and there was no hot water.
Disappointments like these, however, are part and parcel of overland travel. In the grand scheme of things they were but petty annoyances. I had a bed, a roof over my head, and food. So I decided to stay an extra day to get some laundry done and rest some weary bones while I planned how I was going to tackle the remaining stage to Gilgit.
Gilgit was the next, and last, major town of any size on the KKH before the Chinese border. Despite my best efforts at wasting time I still had many days to fill in before I could enter China on July 3. I had always intended to have a 3-4 day stopover in Gilgit so extending it by a few days seemed like the obvious thing to do.
From Chilas to Gilgit was about 110km. As had now become the norm, before I left, I asked several people at the hotel what the road to Gilgit was like and how long it would take to get there. Answers varied wildly but the consensus of opinion was that the road was slightly better than what I had encountered two days before and that it would take about 2-3 hours. It sounded encouragingly optimistic but I took the advice with a huge dose of scepticism.
After the mandatory rounds of photo opportunities, incessant questioning about what did I think about Pakistan and the exchange of business cards (I didn’t have any to exchange) it was time to escape from my Shangri-La.
From Chilas the KKH ran in sympathy with the Indus River, following its every twist and turn. The road itself continued to be nothing more than a ledge clinging precariously to the cliff-face high above the turbulent steel-grey water as it gouged its way through the mountains – evidence of massive rockfalls at every bend. The further I climbed up into the Indus Valley, the harsher the terrain became. Vegetation was virtually non-existent due to the lack of any appreciable topsoil and the short half-life of the physical landscape. It was only down in the alluvial fans of the river that any sort of plant-life survived.
The lunar landscape seems to defy every effort at human intervention. No sooner is one section of the KKH repaired than the immense forces of nature reclaimed another section through the inevitable landslides and rockfalls.
And this should come as no surprise. These mountains ranges are the youngest on Earth. They are still being formed as the Indian sub-continental plate slowly drifts northwards and crashes into the main Asiatic plate. This is the meeting place of four of the world’s most spectacular mountain ranges: the Karakoram in Pakistan, the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan, the Kunlun Shan in China and the Himalayas in India/Nepal. Some of these ranges are growing by several centimetres each year.
In particular, the Karakoram Range is home to more peaks over 7000m than anywhere else on Earth.
And today I got my first real look at one – Nanga Parbat (8125m). Strictly speaking Nanga Parbat is not in the Karakoram Range but is the western-most peak of the Great Himalaya Range. However, it is more easily accessible from the KKH.
Not that I had much time to appreciate the view. My attention was focussed 100% on what potential death threat lay in wait for me in front of the front wheel. In one section about 20m of the road had decided it wanted to be at the bottom of the valley and had simply slid down the mountain. The road crew was working frantically to replace the recalcitrant road. Fortunately I arrived just as they were finishing and only had to wait about 20min. What followed then was a mad scramble as both the accumulated north-bound and south-bound backlog of traffic fought for every centimetre of room on the soft earth of the just-completed repairs.
As expected, the supposedly 2-3 hour journey took just over 5 hours. The road had in fact been worse than the previous section from Besham to Gilgit, not better. On arriving in Gilgit in the late afternoon I started the search for my chosen accommodation – the Madina Hotel and Guesthouse. After a few wrong turns I finally found the correct alleyway and near the end was the Madina – an inconspicuous weather-beaten sign on a wall the only indication that I had arrived at my destination.
What lay behind that wall was to become my home for the next six days.