This one’s been a long time coming, with the lack of internet in the mountains and the chaos of the low lands but most of all because I’ve been pondering how to do Pakistan justice. A country misrepresented and misunderstood by the west, most I expect see it as a land of terrorists, bombings and cricket, those like me who’ve done a bit more research hear stories of armed escorts, overpriced hotels with added security and night curfews, the Pakistan I found couldn’t have been more different.
As much as I didn’t want them to, these stories and the media portrayal began creeping into my mind. At the border lined up with the others from the China group, I was a mix of excitement and apprehension, I think we all were. We crossed together, Eric (who I’d christened Jam Boy in the hope as an American he’d distract any unsavory elements), Frank and Petra, the father and son team Mike and Aad and I over the highest international road border in the world. The snow was falling fast so we didn’t hang around at the passport check post. Amazed to finally be in Pakistan and desperate to be warm again everyone forgot the conversation that morning, here they drive on the left. As a convoy of bikes we descended on the right side of the road, a couple of hairpins later I realised our error and switched over expecting the rest to follow, awestruck by the scenery and not what I was doing they didn’t, I’m not sure who got the biggest shock them or the van driver coming the other way.
The Karakoram highway which we’d thought was spectacular in China just kept on getting better as we descended into Pakistan, perfect tarmac weaving its way through the most remarkable mountains. Who knew you could fall in love with a road. Never have I seen such a vertical environment, shear rock faces stretching up from road to the sky, valleys giving brief glimpses of looming glaciers and stratosphere scraping 7000m plus peaks. Any fears gone and on a high, when we rounded the final corner into Sost late in the afternoon, for the first time in my life I uncontrollably voiced my amazement at the scenery, all my subconscious could come up with was “FUCKING HELL!!!” Not very poetic.
Sost is where all the paperwork required to enter the country is taken care of, passports and carnets were stamped with minimal of hassle, after the uncompromising bureaucracy of China this was easy. Where we might of expected to see stern, suspecting and possibly sinister faces we were greeted with warm smiles and interest and intrigue in the bikes and our trips. The head of customs asking each of us a way to improve the border crossing, all we could suggest, a drive on the left sign. He liked this idea.
Walking through Passu in the upper reaches of the Hunza valley it’s clear there used to be more foreign tourists, shut up shops with fading signs advertising hiking, climbing and other mountain sports. With a lack of tourist, 6 big bikes certainly drew looks, most times a crowd and almost certainly a family photo with one of us plonked bemusingly in the middle. Relaxing at the road side for more than 5 minutes would result in a loaded car stopping and another round of pictures. Like a presidential candidate, in one photo Eric was given a baby to hold. Across the whole of Pakistan I lost count of how many photos I was in, but it was well into the hundreds, maybe more. Everybody was amazingly friendly and welcoming and couldn’t have done more to help with offers food, accommodation, chai, fuel and cigarettes.
Back in 2010 a massive landslide blocked the Hunza river creating the Attabad lake, by the time it flowed over the dam 5 months later the lake was 13km long and 100m deep, had engulfing several villages, displaced 6000 people and submerged 12km of the highway, the valleys artery. Ever ingenious, soon after boats started chugging up and down the lake ferrying people, bikes, cars and even lorries. Rickety wooden planks and a muddy bank meant getting 6 bikes onto one of these old boats wasn’t the easiest of tasks. There was little chance the skippers were going to invest in new planks with their short lived business about to be made redundant by the new Pak-China friendship tunnel. In all it took about a tense hour to load the bikes, the 1200GS taking half the time and with that we set sail across the most stunning blue water. Luckily it was calm as the bikes were hanging over the side and resting on just the side stands. When a passing boat sent us bobbing with its bow wave, it sent us grabbing for our bikes before they sunk to the bottom. Getting off was the easy part, with me first up and a growing group of truck drivers watching I gunned it full throttle across the plank, up the bank and along the rocks. 9 days after we sailed the tunnel was officially opened and the lake crossing is now a thing of the past, anyone can ride a tunnel but only a few lucky bikers got to take the boat, we may well have been the last.
On the other side we stopped on mass in Karimabad and took a few days to enjoy the Hunza landscape and the food, even without the culinary wilderness of Central Asia that went before, Pakistan is food heaven. It’s also a dry country and with our Chinese whiskey supplies running low we managed to track down a couple of litres of the local moonshine, Hunza water, think fruity turps.
At the hotel a Chinese delegation turned up with a few higher ranking Pakistani officials and security. Surrounding the hotel with 30 gun brandishing members of the quick response force (QRF) didn’t make me feel any safer. I wasn’t sure what kind of showdown they were expecting but anyone wanting to breach the hotel and use its terrible WIFI would’ve needed a small army. Speaking to a Pakistan-Chinese interpreter I met later in Lahore he explained that the Taliban aren’t great fans of the Chinese government’s investment in Pakistani development and infrastructure, so target Chinese in an attempt to scare the Yen coming over the border. Fortunately in the north over the last 12-18months there’s been a real push from the Pakistani government to, as they put it, switch them off, the terrorists not the Chinese. It seems to be working with huge areas now declared safe. We were heading towards one of those areas which apparently hadn’t quite reached that point yet.
Past Gilgit where the Karakhoram, Hindukush and Himalayan mountains meet at the confluence of the Indus and Gilgit rivers the military check posts became more frequent and at Raikot Bridge under the shadow of Nanga Parbat we couldn’t go any further, the road ahead was considered dangerous and the northern approach to Babusar pass only open during the day, with light fading it would have to wait till the morning. Conveniently there was a hotel right there. The final check point before the pass we were told to drive fast and don’t stop. At over 4000m I didn’t have much speed left, nursing what little power I could find to get out of the hairpins. In reality the area felt safe and just appeared poor, people working to get what little they could from the high altitude land.
Approaching the top we didn’t know what to expect but it certainly wasn’t the carnival of people that greeted us. A juxtaposition of mucky faced kids in raggedy clothes, men in the traditional dress and city slickers from Islamabad and Lahore with sharp haircuts and knocked off Armani sun glasses.
There’s a 200% import tax on bikes over 125cc, so big bikes are few and far between but that doesn’t stop the local bikers touring. As the colossal mountains of the Hunza slowly but inevitably gave way to ever smaller mountains and foothills, the roads were alive with guys 2 up on tiny Hondas decked out with head rattling helmets and wellington boots going places people in Europe wouldn’t dream of taking their 4x4s. On the road between Islamabad and Lahore we met Shoaib one of few big bike owners, after a quick cup of chai at his home and a tour of the families old bike collection we got an escort into the city. Riding at night into the chaos of Lahore flanked by a Hyabusa and an R6 is something I won’t forget in a hurry, for once the Peril wasn’t the one attracting attention.
With the time in Pakistan quickly coming to an end there was one last must see thing, the Wagha border closing ceremony. I tried to sell it to the rest of the guys as a real life ministry of silly walks. Forgetting this is a totally cultural reference they were none the wiser but keen. With tensions between Pakistan and India higher than the Hunza mountains it’s a passionate, patriotic and ludicrous peacock display of foot stomping, head kicking (their own) and chest puffing insanity. How it originated I don’t know, but the image of an old gate keeper going to shut up shop for the night only to be greeted from the other side by this choreographed contempt pleases me a lot. 2 days later I rode through the same gate and into India, but without the fanfare.
Have I done Pakistan justice, no, I don’t think I can. Astounding scenery, amazing people and the best food. Perhaps part of the magic was the feeling we were somewhere we shouldn’t be, taboo country, but in truth I’d of felt more unsafe going to Scarborough Fair and not the one from the song. With no other tourists, it was like stumbling across a secret. So dust off your passport, book a flight, buy a wobbly helmet, wellington boots and a bike and explore before the secrets out. You won’t regret it.