Around the world by bike
1 312km - 70days
1 July – 9 September 2008
1 July - Zahedan - Pakistan border
Insisting on leaving for Pakistan that day, my hosts advised against cycling due to “dangerous activities”. By the time the panniers were packed, a taxi had already been arranged and paid. Tired of arguing about everything, I gave up, got in the cab, and headed for the border through moon-scape scenery, and no regrets were felt leaving Iran. Though the people were accommodating and friendly, it had a very restrictive vibe. Maybe my dislike of the country was due to my anti-authoritarian attitude! On reaching the Iran-Pakistan border, I’d an immense desire to throw them a boob flash! Not only was Iran far too conservative for me, but their treatment of women didn’t appeal to me. “I want to be covered from head to toe in black” no woman has ever said unless brainwashed from a young age.
After crossing the border at Taftan, one immediately got the feeling Pakistan was a friendlier country (maybe it reminded me of Africa). Helpful border officials lent a hand with the bike, and there was great curiosity about where I came from and what on earth a woman was doing by bicycle in such an inhospitable and, sometimes, dangerous part of the world. First taken aback by the barrage of questions, I soon warmed to the Pakistanis’ friendly nature.
Once across the border, the news that cycling wasn’t allowed between the border and Quetta (the next town), came as an unwelcome surprise as I was keen to get back on the bike. The area was deemed unsafe, and the strong military presence, together with mumblings of “Taliban, Taliban”, put the fear of God into me. Even so, I’d no choice as, on looking around, the bicycle was already on the roof of the bus.
The road to Quetta stretched 620 kilometres through the mountains of Baluchistan, a trip which took 20/24 hours by bus. The area was indeed a desert with barren mountains and temperatures reaching into the fifties. Our very elaborately decorated bus was overcrowded with more people sitting on the roof than inside. It couldn’t have been a comfortable ride as the route was horrible and bumpy and the mercury most likely hovering in the forties.
Being a woman in that part of the world meant you got the best seat in the front of the bus, and could go straight to the front of lengthy queues; still, I felt extremely out of place, and the blatant stares didn’t help.
2 July - Quetta
We arrived in Quetta, the capital of the province of Baluchistan in the early hours of the following morning. Weather-wise, a good time to be outside and about the only time one could be out in such a hot and arid region. A short cycle ride from the bus stop led into the city to find accommodation, refresh and do the usual things one needs in a new country, including drawing local currency, and obtaining a local SIM card.
In Quetta, these two simple tasks weren’t particularly easy. Not only was Pakistan a seldom-visited country, but Quetta and Baluchistan well off most people’s travel list. Pakistan wasn’t an easy country to visit, and with no other tourists around, it felt like the real deal and what a unique place Pakistan turned out.
Camel-drawn carts, congested alleys, milk tea, chapattis and rickshaws surrounded by a mountain desert landscape, all helped both in giving it an authentic feel and made me stick out like a sore thumb. When the ever-friendly Pakistanis heard I was South African, they immediately launched into a passionate discussion about cricket. One couldn’t blame them indulging in this sport as political instability plagued the country and sport their only means of escape.
People were genuinely hospitable and always eager to help. It might have been hot, dusty, windy and even dangerous at times, but a friendly vibe cloaked the whole area. Add to that excellent street food and dramatic scenery, it was no wonder I fell in love with Pakistan right from the word go. I invested in a proper shalwar kameez which consisted of big baggy pants and a long, long-sleeve shirt. Both men and women wore the shalwar kameez, but the styles differed by gender.
As the day progressed, it was revealed there was a problem with cycling to Islamabad. Rumour had it that one needed a police escort for the nearly 1,000-kilometre distance. If they wanted to do that, I couldn’t care and thought it far more difficult sitting in a vehicle at 15km/h in 50°C than cycling. A much larger problem was the sleeping arrangements. Camping or sleeping at roadside accommodation would prove difficult as a woman wasn’t allowed at many of these places. After chatting to the police, it became clear cycling to Islamabad wasn’t going to happen, and I’d no intentions of making my life a misery or trying to change people’s way of thinking or being chased on by people bored in a car.
Taking the train to Islamabad was the next best option; a trip said to be a scenic one. In hindsight, I should have cycled, and to this day, I’m sorry I didn’t stand my ground.
3 July - Quetta – Islamabad (by train)
Hordes of passengers and luggage in all shapes and sizes crowded the station's platform and the bicycle, therefore, no problem. With the ticket purchase being a last-minute decision, all sleeping compartments were full, and only seats remained. Nothing one could do but settle in on a rock-hard seat.
Although scheduled to leave at 14h30, we only got underway at around 16h00. The train came as a pleasant surprise as it was air-conditioned (thank goodness), but the seat hard and very upright, making it quite impossible to have a snooze. The noticeable military presence didn’t instil much confidence, and I’d a distinct feeling I was being guarded, as a soldier came to sit opposite me and never left. I later learned the train in front had been robbed, which could’ve been the reason.
The route to Islamabad ran over the well-known Bolan Pass, a desolated mountain area frequently used by lawless invaders. The pass was steep, and the train was pulled by two engines and one at the rear. The going was slow as the train stopped at all stations where interesting snacks were peddled from window to window. Eventually, I asked the conductor for an upgrade to a sleeping compartment when one became available and no sooner was led to a vacant spot and could at least lie down.
4 July - Islamabad
The entire day was spent on the train, and with little else to do but stare out the window while being stared at, I thought a burka not such a bad idea, after all. On reaching the province of Punjab, the countryside became much greener, and one could see not only wheat but also rice and cotton fields, with even the odd water buffalo thrown in.
Arrival at our destination came at around 22h00 which turned out to be Rawalpindi, 20 kilometres to the south of Islamabad. After collecting the bicycle and panniers, the accommodation search was unsuccessful as hotels only took in locals and not foreigners. Hotel after hotel all had the same excuse. It was later discovered the reason might not have been being a foreigner, but a woman.
It was late, and being tired I gave up and settled for a taxi ride to an international hotel in Islamabad. The place was a dump, but already midnight, a bed was a bed.
5 July – Islamabad
My windowless room made for sleeping much later than usual, and it was 10h30 before I surfaced. The lack of windows made the room hot and stuffy and, with only a fan, I wasn’t the only occupant but shared the room with many creepy crawlies. By the time I got outside, it was raining, with the result it wasn’t only hot but also humid.
Being a planned city, built in 1960 as the new capital, Islamabad was spacious with lots of greenery and an easy place to find your way around. While exploring, a trekking agent arranging treks to K2 base camp got me all excited. I’ve always been fascinated with K2 (more so than with Everest), and have read about every book ever written about climbing K2. More than over the moon, I signed up for this iconic trek. Although expensive, I was determined to go. The reason for the high price tag was due to K2’s location in a National Park. Access to the park, as well as K2, was strictly monitored and could only be accessed with a guide. The price included transport to the start, a guide, a cook and porters to carry everything, including personal belongings.
6 July - Islamabad
In my excitement, I arrived at their office a day early, thinking it departure day. It wasn’t a disaster as it was a pleasure exploring the markets and the street food, which consisted of all my favourites being samosas, chilly bites, potato fritters, nuts and fruit. The rest of the day was spent packing bits and pieces for the trek. Basic stuff like warm clothes, sleeping bag and sleeping mat; the rest was provided by the trekking company. I considered buying a pair of hiking boots, but being Sunday (weekend in Pakistan), most shops were closed.
At midday, a suicide bomber walked into a crowd at the Melody Market and in the process killed 15 people and injured many. Scary to think I was there not thirty minutes before. In the rest of the city life went on as usual - vendors sold their wares, the muezzin called people to prayer, and kids played cricket in the alleyways. In fact, one seldom found a child without a cricket bat in hand and watching TV, you never would’ve guessed hockey and squash were national sports as well.
7 July - Islamabad – Besham
I woke keen and eager, and was up at the crack of dawn, raring to go. Still, it was after midday before finally leaving Islamabad. As tradition had it, all trekkers and climbers first paid a visit to the Minister of Tourism for a trekking permit, the Alpine Club for a briefing, and Rawalpindi to pick up more supplies; a ritual unchanged for decades and I felt honoured and excited to be part of it, even if only for the short trek to base camp.
The way north was extremely busy, jam-packed with colourful trucks and busses, the landscape lush with green hills. What a difference from the province of Baluchistan. We passed numerous small communities with villagers in traditional dress, and shops displaying wares on the pavement, including tyres, plastic chairs, apricots and clothing. The Jeep soon reached the Karakoram Highway (KKH), which hugged the banks of the Indus River. The road was narrow, winding and washed away in places, and the going therefore slow, with the result it was after dark on reaching our overnight spot at Besham.
8 July - Besham – Skardu
The following day we were on our way by 05h00 as the drive to Skardu was a long and slow one. Soon, the scenery changed from the lush green hills of the previous day to a stark and barren landscape.
The driver made a quick photo stop at the viewpoint where the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindukush mountains meet. After Jaglot, the road turned off the KKH onto an even narrower one. With high cliffs on the one side and exposed drops down to the river on the other, it was quite a performance when a vehicle came from the opposite direction. Again, it was after dark before reaching Skardu, a busy, dusty town.
I could hardly contain my excitement being in Skardu, a place I have read about in numerous books and which by then had a ring of adventure to it. Skardu was a lively place with a host of trekking/mountaineering shops from grocery stores to second-hand trekking equipment, just what a person would expect of the last town before such a major climb. The night was spent at the well-known K2 Motel, famous amongst trekkers and mountaineers. The motel must have been one of the original ones as the rooms were huge and shower rooms large. A lush garden outside overlooked the Indus River. It was humbling staying in the same place as many of the world’s most successful mountaineers. If the books read were to be believed, this was where most rested and prepared to summit infamous K2.
9 July - Skardu – Askole 3000m asl
I further discovered I was the sole guest on the trek. It felt strange and somewhat uncomfortable to have a crew consisting of Ali, the guide, Munwar, the cook, and ten porters. Imagine that! Before leaving, more supplies were picked up, and I wandered off to one of the second-hand stores to find a pair of hiking boots which was easily located and at a fraction of the original price. Once again, it was midday before leaving, and another six hours by Jeep took us to Askole.
Askole was the last village along the way, and from there everything had to be carried, explaining the need for ten porters. Shortly before reaching Askole, a landslide made us abandon the Jeep and carry our luggage across the rubble to where another vehicle was waiting. The final stretch to Askole was a slow and bone-jarring drive, up steep mountains with hairpin bends and cliffs down to the river (not a ride for the faint of heart). In Askole camp was set up (my tent and a large cooking tent) while Ali, the guide, organised porters for the trip.
10 July - Askole – Jhola Camp 3200m asl
It was a beautiful, warm day and quite hot at times as I set off, grinning from ear to ear, with my entourage. I couldn’t stop laughing at how bizarre this must have looked. I could easily have been mistaken for the Queen of Sheba! The first day’s walk was a short but rocky one along the Braldu River and the trail narrow and quite precarious at times. Crossing one of the side rivers, together with donkeys hauling supplies up the mountain via a swaying suspension bridge, I thought it an indication of what was to come. Not far from there, our overnight campsite came into view and equipped with toilets and washing facilities; it was a luxury one. The water was, however, from the river that came straight from the glacier and, therefore, freezing. Needless to say, it was a very quick wash.
Munwar (the cook) cooked up a storm of chapattis, rice and chickpeas. The air was dry, and although my skin dry and shrivelled up, I was more than happy to walk in those mountains. By evening, I crawled into my sleeping bag, giggling uncontrollably about both the sight of me and my entourage and the pleasure of being there.
11 July - Jhola Camp – Paiya 3600m asl
The day started with a relatively easy walk next to the river with our first views of high peaks ahead. Close to camp, one could see Baltoro glacier as well as the peaks of Cathedral Towers in the distance. The trail was extremely stony, and by the end of the day, it felt good to take one’s boots off. Surprisingly enough, the new boots were comfortable, and there was no sign of any chafing or blisters.
The porters were very superstitious, and even on a short trek to base camp, they performed their usual rituals and prayers. We’d hardly started our trek, but already this was a place where they traditionally took a rest day and where a goat was slaughtered, and dancing continued until late in the evening.
12 July - Paiya
Paiya was where we met Mark and Alex, both from the UK, also trekking to base camp. A charming and easy-going couple. I was glad for the company as trekking on one’s own could become monotonous. The day was spent lazing around, a good thing as well, as all seemed to suffer from upset stomachs. From that point onwards, we walked together, and only one cooking tent was pitched in the evenings.
13 July - Paiyu – Khuburtze 4000m asl
The following morning was an early start to prepare for the six-hour climb up the Baltoro Glacier, a glacier stretching 62 kilometres up the valley. It didn’t feel much like walking on a glacier as it was covered with rocks and stones. Now and again, one could see deep crevices, making the danger real. The ice made slippery walking, and I was happy for my walking sticks. Most of the way was a steady climb up the valley and onto our camp which, by then, started to resemble a real mountain camp with a few tents scattered amongst the rocks. Chickens and goats brought up by porters were running about but were steadily becoming less.
Sitting in the sun, drinking many cups of green tea, looking out over Paiyu Peak (6,600m) and the Tango Towers (6,239m) filled me with gratitude and awe, and I couldn’t believe I was there.
14 July - Khuburtze – Urdukas 4200m asl
Our next stop was Urdukas camp which was reached by walking along the lateral moraine. Our walking pace had by then slowed considerably, and the daily distances became much shorter. The views remained spectacular and close to camp were reminders of climbers and porters who had died on K2.
Soon after arriving at camp, it started raining and the rest of the day was spent sleeping and nibbling on nuts and dried fruit swallowed down with numerous cups of tea. At the camp were two climbers from Greenland who attempted to summit K2 but returned due to rockfalls and avalanches. Soon, it became too cold outside, and everyone retreated to their tents.
15 July - Urdukas – Goro 2 4500m asl
We woke to a beautiful clear morning, and it became a wonderful walk along the Baltoro glacier. The terrain was still rocky and slippery in places and Mark, Alex and I negotiated our way over the glacier with great care. While slowly making our way around some scary looking crevasses, one could see Gasherbrum 4 in the distance. By then, all were starting to feel the altitude, and we became entirely out of breath walking uphill. It was slipping and sliding on the glacier until finishing the day’s walk at Coro 2 camp, slap bang in the middle of the glacier.
Coro 2 was a spectacular campsite surrounded by all the high peaks and what a marvellous view. Supper was early as it became freezing as soon as the sun set. The food was delicious with soup, rice and at least two other dishes, not to mention dessert.
16 July - Goro 2 – Concordia 4700m asl
The next day was a comfortable (albeit slow) walk with spectacular views of Muztagh Tower, Gasherbrum 4 and, finally, K2. Although exhausted, there was a permanent smile on my face and couldn’t believe I was actually there.
It was a bright, sunny day and K2 (the second highest peak on Earth after Everest) was cloudless and rose 3,600m straight up from the Godwin Austin Glacier. Seeing it gave me goosebumps which wasn’t due to the cold weather. Again, camp was set up on the glacier, and lying in your tent one could hear the constant cracking of the ice. Being cold that high up in the mountains, I’d been sleeping and walking in the same clothes for days by then. Fortunately, everyone else did the same.
17 July – Concordia – 5300 asl
After breakfast, a walk with Ali, the guide, led to Gasherbrum base camp and towards Gondogoro La over steep, slippery ice. It was a slow and exhausting process, and on returning to Concordia, I felt nauseous, most likely due to the altitude. Once again, it was cold as soon as the sun set, and one could do little else but curl up in your sleeping bag.
18 July - Concordia
A day of rest was spent at Concordia. No one had energy for walking around, and the day was mostly spent resting and indulging in the views, not a view I thought I would ever see again. Concordia was the spot where five glaciers converge and a popular camping place for trekking expeditions. Most of us were suffering from upset stomachs (which seemed a common problem at Concordia), and the rest day, therefore, a welcomed one.
19 July - Concordia – Urdukas
It was time to retrace our steps, and a long day’s trekking lay ahead as our group left Concordia on the return leg of our trip. None were sorry to get out of, what was known as, the “shit zone". The disposal of sewage was a considerable problem due to the frozen, rocky terrain. The day was overcast, and one could hardly see any of the surrounding peaks enjoyed on the way up. Arrival at Urdukas camp was around 17h00. Urdukas had a superb location on the side of the mountain overlooking high peaks, and we sat watching trekkers and climbers on their way up the mountain.
20 July - Urdukas – Paiyu
It had become the norm to be woken with a cup of coffee and, soon afterwards, breakfast was ready, which always consisted of chapattis, cereal and tea. During breakfast, the porters quickly packed the tents and started on their way. It was a relatively long day and, fortunately, mostly downhill.
On reaching the end of the glacier it started raining, and by the time we reached camp, all were soaked to the bone. My bag wasn’t waterproof as it was a quick and inexpensive purchase in Islamabad before leaving, and everything, therefore, damp including the sleeping bag.
21 July - Paiyu – Jhola Camp
It dawned overcast but dry, and our group set off on our way to Jhola camp. Our path was narrow and stony, resulting in single-file walking, but still, we chatted away and soon reached Jhola camp. Quite a few people were camping at Jhola, mostly climbers with high hopes of summiting K2. Among them were porters trekking up the mountain with a dzos (half-cow, half-yak). The dzos was to be slaughtered at base camp to provide meat for both climbers and porters on their return from the summit. At least it was a dry evening, and we could hang out our wet clothes.
22 July - Jhola – Askole
Coffee was again brought to my tent at around 07h00, by which time it was light for a while already. After breakfast, we set off feeling sad as it was our last day of trekking. Our walk was an effortless six-hour walk next to the river, and across the snout of the Biafro Glacier until, at last, we saw the green fields surrounding Askole. The day was partly cloudy, and by the time we reached the campsite, it started raining. All dived into their tents and stayed there until supper was ready. By evening, a fun group of Russians arrived on their way to climb the Ogre, and it became a social evening.
23 July - Askole – Shigar
It was another bone-jarring Jeep drive on an extremely narrow mountain road, with hairpin bends and cliffs. Shortly after leaving, a washed-away bridge made us once again abandon the Jeep to make our way over the fragile-looking bridge on foot. A further 20-minute walk brought us to a landslide area, a nerve-racking and slippery walk up the mountain and down the other side to where a Jeep was waiting. Then, off to Shigar were Mark and Alex were to overnight at the Shigar Fort hotel.
On seeing the hotel, I followed suit as it was, by then, 14 days since our last shower, and after walking and sleeping in the same clothes, all we could think of were hot showers and clean clothes. This 400-year-old fort, restored and converted into a hotel, was the perfect place to do it. We showered and showered; I must have stood there at least half an hour, what luxury. Afterwards, we met for supper at the hotel restaurant before retiring to our very fancy rooms.
24 July - Shigar – Skardu - Islamabad
After breakfast, we were picked up for the short drive to Skardu from where small aircrafts flew to Islamabad (for your own account). These flights were never sure as they were weather dependent. To our delight, the flight was on (although late), and we took off to Islamabad, avoiding a two-day drive back by Jeep. By evening, I learned Ernest was only 16 kilometres from Rawalpindi.
25 July - 13 August - Islamabad
I, subsequently, discovered Islamabad had a campsite, located right in the middle of town. It was an intriguing place where one met various other travellers, some by bicycle and others travelling overland, all remarkably interesting with many fascinating stories.
In the meantime, Ernest arrived, and our plans of cycling to China fell apart as after trying for nearly two weeks to obtain a Chinese visa, we eventually realised it was an impossible task in Islamabad and opted for India instead. After handing in our Indian visa application, we left Islamabad to cycle the Karakoram Highway, one of the most iconic cycling routes.
14 August - Islamabad – Aliabad (by bus)
Instead of cycling up the Karakoram to the Chinese border and back, it made more sense to take a bus to Aliabad and cycle back to pick up the visas before heading to India before running out of visa time.
After a slow start, it was a short cycle to Rawalpindi from where busses departed for Aliabad in the Hunza Valley, which was its final destination. The bus left at 14h30 and we settled in for the long overnight trip. The ride was painfully slow and, as can be expected, somewhat uncomfortable. I, once again, admired backpackers who travel overland by bus.
15 August - Aliabad - Karimabad
Although a night bus, little sleep was had as the bus rattled, bumped and shook along the narrow and bumpy KKH. Arrival in Aliabad was at midday, making it a 22-hour bus ride. From the bus stop, a short seven-kilometre cycle led to Karrimabad via a steep two-kilometre climb. Haider Inn, with excellent views and good food, was a popular hangout for overlanders and backpackers alike. In the evenings a communal set dinner was served which consisted of soup, veggies, pasta, dhal, rice, tea and dessert. The long table made a social get together, and many hours were spent chatting to other travellers.
16 August - Karimabad – Passu – 51 km
Phew, at last, I was back on the bike. The road was washed away with evidence of rockfalls and the going slow. Fortunately, it was relatively quiet, with only a few trucks and Jeeps. After a few hours of cycling, the way spat us out in Passu where camping was behind the Glacier Breeze Restaurant, right at the foot of the Passu Glassier. The restaurant was well known for its excellent cuisine, and we splashed out on supper and enjoyed the famed Hunza food. A full moon awarded our efforts, and what a sight as the moon rose and shone on the snow-covered mountains and nearby glacier.
17 August - Passu – Sost - 41km
The KKH continued up the valley, and although no significant climbs, it was undulating, past many small mountain settlements. The short distance made early arrival where we opted for a room at a shabby hotel, which turned out a real local joint offering the most basic of accommodation. Sost was a typical border town, dusty and dingy with trucks running to and from China.
18-19 August – Khunjerab Pass - Sost - 87km
Unpleasant weather made us stay put before heading up the pass. On a brilliant, cloudless, sunny day, a Jeep ride took us to the border situated at the top of the Khunjerab Pass (4,733m) from where it was an 87-kilometre downhill ride back to Sost. The views were spectacular and halfway to Sost the scenery called for a coffee stop, and the stove was lit. One could only be in awe of those majestic mountains and in silence, we sat staring at that remarkable view, feeling blessed and privileged to be there.
20 August - Sost – Karrimabad – 94 km
The route back to Karrimabad wasn’t as downhill as expected, but instead undulating with a few steep climbs. I felt tired on arriving in Karrimabad but still there was the steep, two-kilometre climb up to the village. Maybe it was due to the cold I’d been suffering from or perhaps the altitude. Fortunately, an excellent supper awaited us at the inn.
21 August - Karrimabad
The great view and atmosphere of Heider Inn made for spending another day, mainly to see if my cold wouldn’t improve before setting off. Electricity in these remote areas was unreliable and was lost three times while trying to send an email, how frustrating. Still, I couldn’t complain as most of the smaller villages only had power every other day.
22 August – Karimabad
An overcast and rainy day made for lying in. Breakfast was the usual milk tea and pancake (a thick pancake with jam). Lunch was more local food consisting of pizza (onion, tomato and cheese sandwiched between two chapattis). Supper was the usual communal one followed by a few beers and much jabbering with other travellers.
It is said Karimabad is one of those places where most people come for a day but ended up staying a week, and I could see why. A walk around the small village revealed a fascinating old, renovated fort, built in the 8th century BC. Although a steep hike, the path led through a small settlement before arriving at the fort which offered unobstructed views of Karimabad and the valleys beyond.
23 August - Karimabad – Gilgit – 106 km
Well-fed and rested, we left Karimabad for Gilgit but not long after setting off, the path was blocked due to a landslide. There wasn’t much one could do but wait until it was cleared. While waiting, boulders came rolling down the mountain, making all scurry in different directions. Never did I imagine I would need to run for my life from rocks rolling down a mountain.
Assuming it would be a downhill ride to Gilgit, the hills came as a surprise, reminding one we were indeed on the KKH and at a high altitude. Fortunately, there were many settlements and shops for snacks and drinks. Gilgit, situated in a wide valley, was reached via a small, narrow tunnel and suspension bridge, making riding even more fun.
24 August - Gilgit
We bunked down at the popular Madina Hotel, slightly more expensive, but with clean bedding and hot water, and worth every cent. Gilgit was considered Pakistan’s tourist capital and served as a hub for trekking and mountaineering expeditions in the Karakoram region as it was surrounded by some of the highest peaks on the planet.
The next day was spent wandering around town and exploring the markets. Traditionally part of the silk route, Gilgit was still known for its markets and what colourful markets they were. Ernest bought himself a Hunza hat with lots of advice and encouragement from the locals.
25 August - Gilgit – Talechi – 67 km
Once again, it was late before leaving the Madina Hotel. There were times I wished Ernest could get an earlier start, but to get him going in the morning was no easy task and very annoying. I’d no problem waiting for someone but claiming it took four hours to load a bicycle was excessive by anyone's standards.
No major hills were encountered, only the general ups and downs of the Karakoram. A whitewashed monument signalled the familiar junction of the Karakoram, Hindukush and Himalaya mountains where I wasn’t too long ago. An unfortunate Dutch traveller pulled too far off the road and overturned his Land Cruiser. A bit further, was the Nanga Parbat Hotel, a half-built structure which made for good camping. The views across to Nanga Parbat (8,125m and second highest in Pakistan) were excellent. Known as Killer Mountain due to many deaths among mountaineers, I was happily watching it from afar.
26 August - Talechi – Chilas – 71 km
A hot and dry day’s cycling led to historic Chilas. Once again delayed by Ernest, who had three punctures, our arrival was much later than expected. A headwind seemed to pick up between two and four o’clock, and it was best to get most of the cycling done in the morning, if Ernest could get going at a reasonable time.
People warned about stone throwing in the region, the start of which was experienced that day. Fortunately, the notorious landslide area close to Raikot Bridge was open and didn’t require any running from boulders like a few days before. The Karakoram Inn at Chilas was a typical Pakistani budget hotel which came with dirty bedding and filthy bathrooms.
27 August - Chilas – Dasu – 117 km
Between Chilas and Dasu, our route entered the Indus Kohistan district, a very conservative area where no women at all were seen outside. Here the gorge was deep and narrow with cliffs on the one side and sheer drop-offs down to the river on the other. The area reminded of Ethiopia, both in the scenery and stone-throwing children. Considered a slightly lawless region, camping in the wild wasn’t recommended and best to opt for accommodation. About 15 kilometres before Dasu, a resthouse with an idyllic setting lured us in, and when the manager offered us a room at 50% discount, it was a no brainer.
28 August - Dasu – Pattan – 53 km
The plan was on cycling to Besham, but after 50 kilometres and more delays by Ernest having another flat tyre, we overnighted in Pattan. Ernest had, by then, used all his spare tubes as well as mine, leaving us in desperate need of both patches and tubes.
The day's ride was a scenic one with the route climbing high up on the canyon wall and the landscape truly spectacular with more greenery than further north. The Indus River flowed far below as the path led up the mountain on a road washed away or damaged by rock falls.
29 August - Pattan – Batagram - 96 km
The stretch between Pattan and Batagram was, at least to me, the most scenic part of the KKH, with lots of greenery and forested mountainsides. The road was in such poor condition, my front luggage rack broke and, for months afterwards, it was held together with duct tape and cable ties. Still, it wasn’t half as bad as the Polish cyclist who nursed his bicycle along with only one gear. At Thakot, the road crossed the Indus River (the official start and end of the KKH) and climbed out of the Indus valley; a hot, sweaty affair. Our hotel in Batagram had seen better days and the lack of tourism was painfully visible in many of these places.
30 August - Batagram – Abbottabad - 98 km
From Batagram, it was yet another climb up to Chatter Plain, and then a good downhill run to Mansehra. Villages were, by then, close together with busy bazaars, and the road congested making it a slow and frustrating process getting through, even on a bicycle. The route was jam-packed with colourful trucks, cars, Jeeps and donkey carts. From Mansehra to Abottobad was again undulating. At least, by then, the children seemed scared of us and ran for their lives on spotting us. People appeared genuinely surprised and stared open-mouthed. Even though the KKH was considered a popular cycling route, it seemed not enough came past to make it a daily occurrence.
31 August - Abottobad – Islamabad – 125 km
The route into Islamabad was an unpleasant ride after such a long time in the mountains with fantastic scenery - how spoilt we’d become. Our journey was marred by roadworks, something which never made pleasant riding; instead, it was a dusty and frustrating one. Although away for more than two weeks, we found the same people still at the campsite in Islamabad, waiting for their respective visas.
1–3 September - Islamabad
Fortunately, our Indian visas were ready, and Ernest spent two entire days cleaning and servicing the bikes. I bought two more books as they were incredibly cheap (all copies). Added to my luggage were, therefore, not only a VERY thick Indian Lonely Planet but also two novels. As it was Ramzaan (Ramadan), the markets were quiet, but mosques started up at 4 a.m., and in the campsite, the call was followed by a sudden and loud clatter of pots and pans as local workers and camp guards prepared to eat before sunrise.
4 September - Islamabad – Jhelum – 124 km
Eventually, it was time to say goodbye to our friends in the campsite and get on the road to Lahore. With the road surface much smoother than the KKH, cycling was easy, and although hot and humid the weather always appeared better on the bike as one created your own air movement.
Good time was made to Jhelum as the traffic was light. Fortunately, roadside truck stops and petrol stations were open, providing ample water opportunities. Once in Jhelum, our abode was a typical Pakistani joint, offering breakfast at 4h00 (which was politely declined), directions to Mecca and prayer mats instead of towels.
5 September - Jhelum – Gujranwala – 100 km
After our own, much later, breakfast of peanut butter sandwiches, it was back on the bikes, heading south in the direction of Lahore. Early afternoon, a massive storm hit complete with a howling wind and dust, followed by thunder, lightning and hail. Together with motorbikes, we sheltered, and after about an hour, the worst was over, and all could be on their way. At least the dust had settled, and one could see where to go. Not much further, it started raining again, and we ended the day’s ride at an overpriced roadside hotel.
Our ride into Lahore was relatively quick on a flat but bumpy road. As the route passed through numerous busy markets with chaotic traffic, and with cakes of buffalo/cow dung drying on the no-man’s-land next to the highway, the area was not unlike Africa. There were kids aplenty, all eager to give chase, a chase that usually didn’t last long as it wasn’t long before a chain or peddle came off.
Cycling into Lahore, the country's second largest city after Karachi, was another event which could be considered for “Fear Factor”. Streets were jam-packed with vehicles, animals and people of all shapes and sizes, and as far as I could figure, there were no rules at all. It, however, seemed important to make as much noise as possible, and every 10 metres of safe progress became a major accomplishment.
7-8 September - Lahore
A reasonably priced place in Anarkali market with its narrow, winding and crowded neighbourhood made a unique place to stay. Not only did it take dodging rickshaws and other traffic but also cricket balls, as it was a game played on every pavement, street or open area.
Being the country’s cultural capital, Lahore had plenty to offer and the day was spent wandering the old city, with its ancient fort and mosque where a walk up one of the minarets gave stunning views of the remnants of old Lahore.
While eating from the ever-present street stalls at Gawalmandi food street (even though it was Ramzaan), I’d the best salty lassi ever. The air pollution was tangible, and Ernest picked up the dreaded “Lahore throat”.
9 September – Lahore, Pakistan to Amritsar, Punjab, India – 67 km
At following the canal (with kids jumping into the muddy waters), it was a mere 35 kilometres ride to the border. The border was modern, efficient and unexpectedly quiet. From the immigration office, it was another 30-kilometre ride to Amritsar.
The difference between Pakistan and India was clearly visible, and the sight of ladies in colourful saris billowing in the wind made me forever fall in love with India. Add to that, cycling slap-bang into a parade, elephant and all, made me realise this was indeed India.
The province of Punjab was the land of Sikhs, and abound with turban-clad men. Amritsar was home to the Sikh's holiest shrine, The Golden Temple. The temple wasn't only one of the most sacred but also a symbol of brotherhood and equality and anyone was welcome, irrespective of colour, race or creed.
We headed straight to this well-known temple, where there were free accommodation and food for everyone. The atmosphere inside was genuinely spiritual, and on entering shoes were removed and heads covered. The main temple was covered in gold and stood in the middle of a sacred pool. The continuous and melodious singing of hymns with devotees dipping in the sacred pool said to have healing power, added to the very tangible spiritual vibe of the temple.
While I soaked up the tranquil atmosphere, Ernest went in search of the local beer (something we haven’t had for more than three months), and on returning drunk, he was reprimanded by the monks and nearly got kicked out of the dormitory.