03. Pakistan

The KKH Part VII: Sost to Khunjerab to Tashkurgan: The Road to Frustration

Ever had one of those days where things go from bad to absolutely f..ing diabolical?

Well, today was one of those days that all overland travellers hope they never have to endure.

With all money and petrol issues resolved, all I had to do was clear Pakistani Customs and Immigration, ride about 85 km (on jeep track) to the border, clear Chinese Customs and Immigration and ride about 120km (on good bitumen) to Tashkurgan. Thinking that I now had some experience at this game, I believed that it would be a relatively straightforward day. 6-8 hours max. Continue reading

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The KKH VI: Passu to Sost – the end of the line

After another leisurely breakfast cooked by Khan, I packed the bike and said farewell to the two hospitable brothers who had taken me into their restaurant, their village, their school and their lives for just two short days.Sost was a mere 45km from Passu – only about 1-2 hours depending on roadworks and landslides. I was on the road by 9am and wondered what the KKH had in store for me today. As it turned out, not much. Compared to previous days the road was relatively easy going. Just the usual mix of pot-holes that could swallow a Mini in one mouthful, culverts disguised as speed-bumps, washed-out bridges and landslide rubble. Continue reading

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Passu: the Glacier Breeze Restaurant

The Glacier Breeze Restaurant sat like an eyrie on the top of one of the many rocky outcrops that litter the local landscape.Unable to see an obvious path to the top, a figure appeared from inside and pointed to what I had thought was a drainage canal. Apparently, it was the “road” to the parking area just behind the restaurant. After negotiating the narrow, water-filled gravel track I was met by Tanweer, the manager.

A little bit of home high in the Karakoram Range – Tanweer in his XXXX T-shirt!

A little bit of home high in the Karakoram Range – Tanweer in his XXXX T-shirt!

I could not believe my eyes when I saw the T-shirt he was wearing. In large letters across the front it read: “XXXX: Proudly Queensland”. Passu is considered remote even by Pakistani standards let alone by Australian standards. I immediately felt at home! Continue reading

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The KKH Part V: A slow boat to Passu.

The next stop on my way to the Chinese border crossing at Khunjerab Pass was the small village of Passu – once a major starting point for glacier trekking. In theory, Karimabad to Passu was only about 50km. But this was somewhat complicated by the fact that part of the trip would have to be made by boat.

Ever since the massive landslide of 2010 formed the new lake near Attabad, a 20 km stretch of the KKH has been under water. To overcome this minor logistical problem a thriving trading boat industry has flourished some 3000m up in the mountains.

The spillway of the lake is only about 20 km from Karimabad and the road was what the locals “jeep track” – in other words, more of the same. But the last 2km to the water’s edge was like nothing that I had ever encountered before. Continue reading

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Karimabad – a little taste of Hunza

Sweeping views down the Hunza valley from the Old Hunza Inn

Sweeping views down the Hunza valley from the Old Hunza Inn

Karimabad is the administrative centre of the Hunza district and clings to the steep cliffs on the north face of the Hunza Valley, giving it stunning views of the mountains opposite: Rakaposhi (7790m), and Diran (7270m). Directly behind Karimabad is the Ultar glacier leading to Ultar (7390m). Continue reading

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The KKH Part IV: Gilgit to Karimabad

The first surprise came before I had even left Gilgit.

An overnight arrival at the Madina informed me that the road to Karimabad was closed due to a strike by locals about 50km up the road. They were involved in a sit-in protest and were completely blocking the KKH. No traffic was able to get through.

Packed and ready to go at 11am, I was advised to wait a couple of hours to see if the situation would be resolved. I sat in the Madina twiddling my thumbs for two hours awaiting news of any developments. Come 1pm I was not prepared to wait any longer as the daylight hours for travelling were slowly slipping away and I had been advised that it would take “about 2-3 hours”. I had that estimate too many times in the past to believe it. Continue reading

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Six days in Gilgit

The Madina Hotel and Guesthouse in Gilgit was to become my temporary home for almost a week.

Gilgit is the only major town on the KKH north of Abbottabad and the last one before the Chinese border. While in Gilgit I had a few tasks to complete. The first was to find an ATM that would accept MasterCard/Maestro/Cirrus type cards. The second was to await the arrival by email of the all-important visa code for my Iranian visa. The third was to stock up on any grocery items before I ventured further north into the more remote parts of the Hunza valley where I would be staying for a few days while I organised how to get myself and the bike on to a boat that would take me across Lake Attabad. Continue reading

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The KKH III: Chilas to Gilgit

The Shangri-La. Not quite paradise on Earth but a close-enough approximation for me.

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. Continue reading

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The KKH Part II: Besham to Shatial…no, Dasu… no, Shatial…no, Chilas

Vous êtes ici! The PTDC in Besham.

While the PTDC in Besham may not have won any prizes for its ambience or its canteen-like restaurant it had definitely served its purpose for me. It provided a bed, somewhere safe to park the bike and luke-warm water out of both hot and cold taps.

It did however have uninterrupted views of the mighty Indus River. The tide must have been out, though.

Discretion being the better part of valour, I had already scrapped any plans of riding the 125km to Shatial if it was going to be like the last 20km of yesterday. So the new plan was to ride to the next PTDC in Dasu about 85km away. I estimated this would take 3-4 hours depending on the road, the traffic and the weather.

Before moving a millimetre today I was wanted to find out exactly what lay in store for me. So, before leaving the PTDC in Besham, I asked the man behind the desk if I would be able to stay at the PTDC in Dasu. I should have known better when he said “Of course. No problem”.

Some of the local constabulary having a chat at a handover.

With only 85km to cover, I rode optimistically out of the deserted carpark and back onto the KKH. Within a kilometre I was stopped at a police checkpoint. No dog-eared book this time, just a police escort. So off we rode. I found following another vehicle distracted me from the much more pressing task of where I was going to put the front wheel for the next 5m. Scrabbling along amongst the gravel in 1st gear, and sometimes 2nd if I was lucky, we stopped after about 10km at another police checkpoint. Here I was handed over like a relay baton to the next escort. This process was repeated every 10-15km. Each time the escorts would stop for a bit of a chinwag and another 5-10min would be wasted. Eventually, I made it to Dasu by early afternoon. Pretty good going I thought to myself. My escort took me to the PTDC and even introduced me to the desk clerk.

Just as well there was some interesting scenery to look at!

I knew it wasn’t going to end well when the desk clerk starting shaking his head and giving me apologetic looks. Apparently the local shire council was having its monthly meeting and the PTDC for completely booked out.  I asked if there were any other hotels nearby knowing full well what the answer would be. There weren’t.

There was no option but to revert to my original plan of riding to Shatial for the night. It was only another 40km (1-2 hours) up the road and there was still plenty of daylight left.

So the baton-passing started again.

On arriving in Shatial, I was handed over to a full police checkpoint and out came the passport again. With formalities out of the way, I asked the senior officer where I could stay in Shatial. He informed me that the hotel had closed some time ago. And anyway, foreign tourists were not allowed to stay overnight in Shatial. He suggested that I could rest for a couple of hours on one of the charpoys at the roadside serai before continuing my journey, but I failed to see any benefit in this.

It was now getting on for 4pm and there was no hope of any sort of accommodation until Chilas – a good 65km away. That would mean at least another 3 hours of riding and that didn’t include any baton-passing. The only thing that I had in my favour was that the sun did not set until between 7-8pm.

So I set off again with yet another escort leading to yet more handovers every 10-15km. Each time precious minutes of sunlight were slowly disappearing behind the 5000m mountain ranges while Iqbal and Abdul caught up on the latest gossip.

Finally, about 20km west of Chilas, I crossed out of Kohistan and into the Northern Areas and the end of the escorts. It was now after 7pm and dusk was setting in. So, in the last of the fading light, I rode in to Chilas and stayed at the first hotel on the left-hand side of the road.

And the name of the hotel?

I kid you not – it was “Shangri-La”.

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The KKH Part I: Abbottabad to Besham

Picture postcard perfect – near Shinkiari. The scenery and the roads were about to change very dramatically

Having spent a lazy three days in Abbottabad, feeling relaxed and refreshed, I bade farewell to Ahmed and his family’s hospitality and pointed the bike north. The goal for today was the little town of Besham – a short trip of only about 150km.

As the goal was modest I got away mid-morning… ish!

At one stage I had considered taking the road up the scenic Kaghan Valley to Naran – a popular place to escape the heat of the Punjabi plains. This road also leads on to the Babusar Pass (4200m) and Chilas, further along the KKH. The route was not only much cooler and more picturesque but also had the potential to save a couple of hundred kilometres. There was only one small hurdle. Even though it was now early/mid June and well into the summer, the Babusar Pass was reportedly still covered by 2-3m of snow and would not be open for at least another 1-2 weeks – too late to be of any benefit to me.  So when I couldn’t find the turn-off to Naran in the midst of the mayhem of Mansehra I continued straight ahead up the KKH and on towards Besham.

In Besham, I was planning to stay at the local PTDC. The Pakistan Tourist Development Corporation operates a series of hotels and guesthouses of varying standards across the country. They are mostly used by government officials who have to travel around Pakistan. However, they are open to the public if there are rooms available.

The road north through Mansehra, Shinkiari and Batagram was in good condition with relatively little traffic and made for pleasant and hassle-free riding.

That was all about to come to a sudden halt.

NOT a picture of the “high security” Thakot Bridge!

About 20km short of Besham, the KKH crosses the Indus River at the Thakot Bridge. The bridge also marks the boundary between the relatively modern district of Mansehra and the “not-so-modern” district of Kohistan. Before the bridge, I was stopped at a police checkpoint and was required to register my passport details in a tired, old, dog-eared book. When I asked the friendly police officer if I could take a photo of the bridge he told that it was not allowed because it was “high security”. So I asked him if I could take a photo of him – to which he promptly agreed! Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a better shot of the original suspension bridge.

As soon as I crossed the bridge into Kohistan district, it was was like stepping back 100 years in time. Where the KKH had been a passable two-lane road, comparable to the Bruce Highway of the ’60s, it gradually deteriorated to a gravelly, rubbly track.  As well as that, Kohistan has additional travel restrictions where all foreign tourists have to have a police escort between villages.  I was relieved that I only had about 20km to go to Besham and my bed at the PTDC.

The PTDC at Besham was a clean but rather characterless place. A moderately large facility, it was virtually deserted apart from a team of Chinese road engineers and their local workers. It was obviously a long time since any western tourist had stayed there. The staff initially seemed to have forgotten what a tourist was but eventually became open and friendly – like everybody else I had met in Pakistan.

The next day’s ride was originally going to be to Shatial – about 125km away. Based on today’s experience I scaled that back to the next PTDC at Dasu which was only about 85km away. Much less demanding.

Those plans were about to go out the window as well!

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