The Pakistan side couldn’t be more different in more ways than one. The KKH suddenly turns from wide perfect tarmac into a single track dirt road. There’s also a change in the people, lots of waves, smiles and shouts of hello as we sped past.
The road on the Pakistan side is simple stunning. Huge rock walls through stunning canyons past snow capped peaks. The KKH on the Pakistan is under construction to Islamabad and on to Karachi in the South. The upgrade is being down by the Chinese as they want to increase their export volume through the sea port of Karachi.
We quickly made it through the Pakistan border and headed to Passu for a couple of days of down time.
I woke in the morning to my first puncture on the trip. It was a perfect opportunity to stick on the new front knobbly tyre, previously bought in Kazakhstan. With new tyre and inner tube it was now time to head South…..
The area now know as Pakistan was originally ruled by the Indus civilisation of which little is know. After several changing civilisations, it was then ruled by Alexander the Great. The Mauryas, then the Kushans ruled entering from Afghanistan fusing Greek culture left by Alexander with Indian culture. The Mughals dominated the 16th and 17th century celebrated for their artistic and administrative prowess.
In the 17th century the area came under British rule after the British East India Company came to trade. They set up factories and eventually started to apply British law.
Two men are credited for securing the existence of Pakistan, Allama Mohammed Iqbal, a poet and philosopher from Lahore and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. The British were initially reluctant to divide the continent but with increased pressure for an independent India a concession was made to put more Indians into positions in the government. The demand for an independent Pakistan was so great that the government finally agreed and an Independent Pakistan was born on 14th August 1947. Even after Partition Pakistan was split into two with what is now Bangladesh (formerly Bengali East Pakistan) coming under Pakistan rule. Bangladesh finally secured itself as a separate country in December 1971 with the help of India after much loss of life.
During the soviet invasion the US backed the training of Mujaheddin in the tribal areas of Pakistan hoping that once the conflict was over they would form a new government. When this failed the Pakistan government backed the Taliban to form a new government and create stability in the region. Since that has failed the Pakistan government have attempted to oust the Taliban with pressure from the US post 9/11. This leaves the government in Pakistan in a difficult position, on one hand wanting to encourage Islamic militancy so it has support for the struggles against India in the disputed region of Kashmir while on the other appeasing the US in attempt to drive the Taliban out of Pakistan….
The road to Karimabad
An hours drive from Passu took us to Karimabad, a lovely little town nestled in a valley surrounded by towering snow capped peaks and overlooked by the Altit Fort.
The Altit Fort
Karimabad is a nice place to spent some time catching up on the Internet and eating great food. With a little side trip up the Hoper valley and a 1 hour walk down to the stunning Hoper glacier it was a fantastic few days.
Hoper Valley and Hoper Glacier
While walking around Karimabad i happened upon a school. They were teaching an English class in the playground so I sat down to watch. The inevitable happen and I got asked to introduce myself to the class and then go through some exercises with the students.
The whole Northern region was once autonomous. During the British rule even after separation the North was left to govern itself. It was only at a latter date when the region was governed by Indian Kashmir that the people were given the option of joining Indian Kashmir or Pakistan. With the vast majority of the population being Muslim, Pakistan was chosen.
The people of Passu and Karimabad are predominantly Ismaili’s, in the 8th century they split from the Shiite arm of Islam. The Ismalis practice a more relaxed version of Islam, where the style of prayer is more of a personnel matter and the community hall has replaced the mosque as the place of worship. They do not fast during Ramadan and have a more relaxed view on drinking, through history they have been known for their wine making and produce an excellent apple brandy. In fact I found the Ismalis an educated, friendly, gentle, warm and open people, very tolerant to others viewpoints and religions.
Next stop Skardu via a nights stopover in Gilgit.
At Gilgit we met up with Babak who we’d crossed through China with and as threesome we headed off East to Skardu.
The road is a lovely narrow tarmac road running along a canyon which opens up 20k’s before Skardu into a wide valley that acts as flood basin for the river below.
Road to Skardu
Skardu is a dusty one street town with not much to see but it’s a perfect jumping off point to trekking in the East. We spent a couple of days getting my panniers welded and organising a guide to do my first proper trek of the trip.
We’d planned a 4 day trek to Machula La, a 5000 metre pass on the shoulder of Machula in the Hushe valley, hoping to get a sighting of K2, the second highest mountain in the world.
We took the road up to the village of Machula where we met our guide for the start of the trek. It wasn’t the easiest introduction, 3 days of very steep climbing up to the pass.
Above the First Nights Camp
At the Pass
Herbie, Babak, myself, the Porters and Guide
During the trek we where fed like kings having a 3 course meal cooked for us every night. At the start of the 4 day it was time to head down. It had been a hard 3 days especially at such high altitudes.
We descended 3000 metres in one day, by the time we got to the bottom all our legs were like jelly. After a break and some lunch we hopped back on the bikes and headed back to Skardu for a days rest before heading off on a 200k dirt road across the Deosai Plains.
The Deosai Plain is a 4000 metre high plateau that cuts across land very reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. The road was pretty tricky with babak finding the road particularly difficult with his heavy bike, a BMW 1200cc bike with road tyres.
Then we came across a massive river crossing , maybe 30-40 metres wide, we crossed one by one. Herbie going first almost came off, then it was my turn. After getting half way across a huge rock appeared under the water, trying to avoid it I lost momentum and dropped the bike. Picking it up with the help of Herbie, I started the bike and fishtailed out on to the other bank. It was then Babaks turn and the inevitable happened after only 10 feet. Myself and herbie both rushing back into the river to help push him out. We were all wet through, it would be a couple of days before our boots finally dried out. All part of the fun of back roads.
The Scottish Highlands?
We made it to Astor and then headed on to Chilas for the night.
Chilas is due to be flooded because of a hydroelectric dam being completed over the next couple of years. Each household is being paid 300,000 rupees to relocate to another region with families heading for other towns depending on there religion, whether Sunni, Shir or Ismali. Pakistan has a massive problem with electricity, with power cuts of up to 5 or 6 times a day. Due to this the government have started a big programme of building dams and power stations with a promise to have no power cuts by the middle of next year.
Chilas Street Food
We’d heard that Chilas could be an unfriendly town, with close proximity to the Swatt valley giving it a more edgy feel. We found the place completely the opposite and during an evening walking along the one street town we met some locals who invited us to a Chai shop for some super sweet Pakistani tea.
5 of the guys in the group had left the Swatt valley because of the operations currently going on there with the Pakistan Army. They were saying that all the normal people had left the valley because the army are now indiscriminatingly killing everyone in an effort to ride the North West Frontier Province of Taliban. It’s difficult to really know what is actually happening as there is a total media blackout in the region.
Saying all this, Pakistan is an extremely safe country to travel in and the way the media in the West portrays the country is not an accurate reflection of what is actually happening here. The tourist industry is certainly suffering because of this, with the group sometimes being the only residents in some of the hotels where at this time of year they would usually be fully booked.
The problems are confined to a small part of the country, mainly the areas bordering Afghanistan.
Herbie and myself headed off the KKH on the direct road South towards Islamabad as Babak headed on to Islamabad down the KKH.
The road consists of 2 beautiful valleys where time has literally stood still. Connected by the stunning Barrbosa Pass it was a fantastic days riding. The road is being slowly upgraded to become part of the KKH to replace the old longer section that cuts near the problem areas of the Swatt. As a result it’s perfect tarmac with 15 miles of bad dirt either side of the pass.
At the Top of the Pass
We made it to Naran where we planned to stay for a couple of days. With Ollie and Jenny turning up we were now 4 so we all went for a days fishing on a lake above the town. In true bad angler style we caught nothing bar a few rocks and some weeds.
Blinged Up Tractor
Hitching a Ride
Naran Fishing Guru Testing the Conditions
One Man and his Rod
Pakistani Cattle Truck
We then headed out of the mountains to a flatter hotter Pakistan and along a 60k road of wonderful endless bends on a perfect wide road up to the old British hill station of Murree which is now an elite holiday destination for locals wanting to escape the heat of summertime in Islamabad.
Ramadam was now coming to an end culminating with Eid, a 3 day celebration, that symbolises the end of a month long of fasting.
After another 50k’s we were in Islamabad and the start of the process of aquiring our India visas.
We then found out we would have to wait 13 days for our visa so we headed off to Lahore to spend our time there rather than Islamabad. Due to the fact it’s been existence for a mere 50 years, Islamabad has very little to see as far tourists are concerned.
Lahore is a fantastic city with great sites such as the Lahore fort, the amazing Badshahi Mosque and the wonderful old city with it’s narrow winding streets and food stalls on every corner.
The Old Town
First we had to get some repairs done. Herbie had been nursing an Oil leak for 3 months and I needed a new bulb for the headlight and see if I could get a new screen for the bike. I managed to find a guy that made me a new screen from scratch from a piece of clear sheet plastic fully molded to the original shape for the princely some of a tenner.
Lahore Street Life
While killing some time waiting for the visa we went out to the Wagah border (passage to India) to see the famous flag ceremony from the Pakistan side. The over the top closing of the border ceremony has been performed daily since 1948, shortly after Partition, and is like no other border on earth. It’s a wonderful fusion of colonial style pomp, comical Monty Pythonesque goose stepping, snorting, stomping, killer glares and deadly serious national riverly. In fact thousands of people show up daily to cheer on their side it true football terrace style. It so popular that grandstands have been constructed to house all the spectators. The spectical ends with the simultaneous lowering and folding of the national flags and the slamming shut of the gates dividing the two countries.
The Crazy Boarder Closing Ceromony
While in Lahore Jean Yves and myself met a guide who suggested taking us to a 3 day festival on the outskirts of town followed by Sufi night, held every Thursday. It ended up being a crazy experience with the 2 of us being the only tourist there. As well as traditional Sufi singing and drumming they had Khabadi (a sport which is a combination of a game of tag with slapping and wrestling) and the amazing horse dancing where horses are trained for up to a year to dance to the pounding of drums.
We were treated like royalty, always ushered to seats at the front and mobbed by hundreds of people while walking around.
Khabadi, a Serious Game of Tag
Pakistan had been amazing. The people are friendly, educated and very interested to find out what you are doing in their country. The more I travel in Muslim countries the more I want to visit others. The people have an honesty about them that you don’t tend to find elsewhere. In fact we never bargained because people do not try to rip you off. They are also very respectful of your personal space, it’s real hastle free travel.
After nipping back to Islamabad to pick up our visas it was no time to head off to India and the Golden Temple of Amristar……..