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Karakorum Highway, a real classic for the bicycle
Attempted between 24-08-92 and 06-10-92

14th April 2002 - 12.25 GMT

Screwed on the KKH

The KKH, connecting Pakistan with China, was constructed between 1966 and 1978 and cost the lives of more than 500 Chinese and Pakistani workers. The highway runs along the river Indus and later continues to Gilgit and Hunza valleys . The KKH is definitely a "must-have" for every serious biker. A mystic road, that gives an insight in a non-European culture and a wild, almost violent landscape. At the end of KKH waits the world's highest border pass, the Khunjerab with 4733 m and is then followed by a downhill towards famous Kashgar, considered the most spectacular market in whole central Asia. Long time the access was restricted due to its importance to the military. Only in the late 80s or early 90 it was opened to common tourists. Biking from Islamabad Airport was rather uneventful. Enormous heat, some heavy rain, mostly nice people and mad truck drivers. So when I reached Balakot at the beginning of the KKH, I thought it a good idea to escape from heat and traffic and switched to a dirt track entering Kaghan Valley. In Naran it was time for some rest and acclimatisation. I left my stuff in the hotel room and rode to Saif-ul-Muluk Lake (+/- 3150 m). The lake is quiet popular and so there was a lot of jeep traffic on the sandy and stony path leading up to the lake. Really scary to see jeeps packed with people slip and slide over snow into blind corners. The next days offered more wild landscape; long valleys, ice-cold streams and lakes, few vegetation and only a handful of armed local men. Two days later I reached Babusar pass (4100 m) with the first view of distant Nanga Parbat.

BabusarPass, 4100 m
Babusar Pass, 4100 m

People had warned me, that I rather be careful with the people from Babausar valley. They called them "bad". Was that just envy or some old rivalry between tribes ? The descent from the pass was long, it became very cold and the track continued to be in terrible conditions. It was already dark, when I reached Babusar village. From everywhere came the barking of the dogs, hopefully chained to something. I entered the local grocery store and to my astonishment I found, in the middle of 10 or 20 local, a canadian biker called Joe, I've already met a few days earlier. Later that night, the local police took hold of our passports, checked us in into a guest house a closed the door behind us. A strange place indeed. The next morning we were eager to leave as soon as possible, had to descent over gravel, pebbles and rocks, sometimes chased by dogs or stone throwing kids, and were impressed by all the weapons the men were wearing.

KKH and Nanga Parbat
KKH with Nanga Parbat and Shangri-La Inn

In the afternoon we arrived in Chilas, overlooking the Indus valley. We had dinner on a rooftop, the usual Dal, with an incredible view to a moonlit Nanga Parbat. The next morning we counted 35 flea bites on my belly. Next time we might choose a classier place. After the pleasant temperature we had in last days around Babusar, we were now roasted in the heat of the narrow valley and to get some clean water was always a problematical issue. We managed to get pass the crossing to Skardu and made camp somewhere between rocks. Another night of terror began. Too hot to sleep in the sleeping back and too many mosquitoes not to sleep outside the sleeping back. We tried to kill some time, and it became a little fresher. In Gilgit we booked into a nice hotel, what a relief to have a clean bed, and a shower. Here we could also get some supplies, pick up some letters form the central post office and send a telegram home.

Hunza Valley
Hunza Valley

The valley became even narrower, colder and more depressive. To both side just sheer walls of stone with very little light to ever touch the bottom. We were wondering what these people were doing through the long winter months, when they were isolated from the outer world. Joe suggested, it would probably be only "smoke" and sex. But soon the scene became more spectacular, from the shadowed valley we could see the first glimpse of mighty Rakaposhi. Then the valley opened and after some twisted turns the beauty of Hunza Valley unfolded before our eyes. Every possible square meter of the valley is used to grow something, mainly apricots and other fruits, which are dried later in the sun. On flat roofs, on the streets, everywhere. In Karimabad we found a nice place to stay. Joe caught up some diarrhoea so I had two days of opportunity to explore with no equipment on the bike the near valleys. After three days of more narrow valleys, the fantastic "Golden Peak Range" and only light uphill, we arrived in Sost (Khuda' abad) the Pakistan Immigration and Customs Check and entry point for Xinjiang, China.

Hunza Valley and Rakaposhi
Hunza Valley and Rakaposhi

 

Hunza Valley and Rakaposhi
Hunza Valley and Rakaposhi

 

An exciting time in an exotic place. We exchanged al lot of stories with people coming from China, reading entries in the guest books of our hotel, changed cash and expectations were building up. Most of the comments were like "glad to be back in Pakistan, Chinese or just terrible". And we know, that we had some serious climbing in front of us. Only 86 km were missing to Khunjerab and we were just around 2.500 m, half the altitude of Khunjerab pass. We filled up our supplies and got the pakistani exit stamp in our passports. It was already cloudy the whole morning, then a light snowfall set in and all of a sudden Joe told me, that he wouldn't continue. He wasn't prepared for winter, he didn't even had closed shoes or a fleece jacket. He would go back to Hunza a buy some stuff and then try it again. There were no arguments against it, so we had to split up. It continued snowing the whole day and in the late afternoon I was extremely lucky to find an abandoned cow stable. It smelled urine and shit and half of the roof had already collapsed, but at least it was wind and snow protected. The night was very uncomfortable with noisy landslides on the other side of the river.

Golden Peak Range
Golden Peak Range near Passu

The next morning I found the whole landscape under 5 cm of snow and it took some additional effort to reach the last checkpoint only some km up the road. Perhaps ten tents, some just for two people, others were much bigger tents with beds and a stove. At an altitude of 4000 m, everything was covered with a new layer of snow, close by was the construction site of the new customs building. I entered the warm tent of the officer, which was stuffed with men. They were all very well humoured and I was a bit worried, if the guys were drunken and had smoked too much. I felt uncomfortable and preferred to get back on the road and make the last 17 km and 800 m of altitude to the Khunjerab, before there would be too much snow. So I got back in the freezing cold and started biking. There was no traffic, so I had to make my own tracks in 10 or 15 cm of new, soft snow. The road, by now rather steep, became so slippery, that I lost traction and had wheelspin. Snowing increased even more and I felt terrible cold. No wonder, I had only basketball shoes and plastic motorcycle gloves. Snow glued wheels, chain and chainwheel and it made no sense to continue in these conditions. After only two km I knew I had to go back to the check point. The situation had turned into a "white out", there was no more "up" or "down" or "left" or "right". Several times I missed the road and almost slipped down into the valley. I felt very relieved, when I got back to the officer's tent and could warm up my aching hands and feet. I think, the guys were also happy to see me still alive. They gave me a place in their best tent, two people moved there stuff out and fired up the stove. I should stay here for two very uncomfortable days. I was occupying the officer's tent, burning their last fuel and eating their last food (Dal, mixed with sand). The days were sunny, but there was too much snow to be melted away in a short period of time. Every few hours I walked up the road, but it improved only slightly. And the border was closed, so no truck or other car could carve for me a track in the heavy, virgin snow. With so much free time on my hand and nothing to do I passed hours and hours over my maps and diary. I felt bad because I lived on the expense of hosts, time was passing, I was running on low supplies and soon would not have enough to reach the next village in China. I decided to roll back the 170 km to Gilgit and re-supply, try to visit Skardu, and then come back to Khunjerab in 1 week again.

Waiting at the checkpoint
Waiting

Soon after departure I realised the destructive force of the bad weather days earlier. What I experienced as a snowstorm, must have been a terrible down pour in lower altitudes. First just some minor mudslides on the road, more amusing then a serious threat. But mud turned into piles of rocks and I really started to worry, what might lie ahead in the narrow valleys. Obviously there was no traffic at all, just once in a while people on foot. Information was spare and not very conclusive. There seemed to be a real big landslide short before Sost. And stones were still falling down, as one older man confirmed. He gave me an important advice: I should cross the landslide very early in the morning, before the sun could warm up the rocks. With the last daylight I reached a group of abandoned mini buses and jeeps, they were stuck between two landslides and parked in a rather safe place. I entered one of the busses through a window and went to sleep. To get up early the next day would be crucial. The following morning I was very nervous, ate nothing and just prepared my protection gear. Bike helmet, put on most of my clothes, filled my backpack with all valuable belongings and documents and put on top of the backpack my sleeping mattress as a shock absorber. I passed the last turn and then I saw this huge roadblock. Perhaps 100 m of road were completely covered with a 45, 50-degree slope and loose rocks and pebbles. The slope ended abruptly and dropped into the river, another 10 or 15 m below. My knees started to soften and I felt the need to go to the bathroom and never come out again. I was frightened. But there were no options. I had very little food and no water.

Khunjerab Pass
Khunjerab Pass - I should never reach it

I watched the walls above the slope to discover the fall line of rocks, the sun was already kissing and warming up the top of the mountain. Utmost time to go. But should I go only once, carrying all my stuff and moving slowly ? Or would a lighter, more flexible approach be safer ? "Lighter and safer" sounded good to me. I knew, that I could be surprised from one second to another by some rock fall, so I tried to identify some places which could provide some shelter in the middle of the landslide. Then I split my gear into 3 bundles: Essential equipment, bike, and other stuff. Each bundle could be carried with just one hand, leaving the other hand free for balancing myself on the rocks. I carried the two bundles and the bike up the slope and got ready to move. Eyes on the ground to watch the next step and eyes above to see any rocks coming. I carried the first bundle around 15 m, left it there behind a big bolder and went back to get the bike. When I reached the bolder for the second time, it was time to panic. A shit load of boulders were on its way ! Some were big. Coming into my direction. To my surprise, I stayed relatively calm. I put the bike down and took cover behind the boulder. I took a last look to what was coming and hoped that I wouldn't be victim. First some small rocks, the size of an orange or a football, but fast enough to smash a leg. One touched my helmet, two others hit the bike and I thought it would slide into the river. Then two or three bigger ones. I heard them bounce near me and then saw them flying over my head. Then it was calm again. How long did it take ? No idea. With trembling legs I grabbed my stuff and sprinted to my starting point. There in safety I had a look at the bike. Spokes broken, the frame received also a hit and was damaged. But nothing beyond repair. I was glad to be alive and unhurt and to be surrounded with all my stuff. But I lost courage to cross the landslide again. Shortly after two groups arrived: One from Sost and one from the chinese side. The landslide became rather crowded, and while still confused, it encouraged me. After some short words with some of the guys, I grabbed bundle #1 and headed to the other side without problem. There was a jeep, already waiting to get back to Sost. In the whole chaos I thought it was the best to drive with them and to come back the next day, when there would be less rock falls. But back in Sost, I got fever and diarrhoea and couldn't leave bed or bathroom for 3 or 4 days. When I finally recovered, I headed back to the landslide, but bicycle and bundle #3 were gone. Stolen, covered by more rocks or swept into the river ? I will never know.

After the landslide
After the landslide

The next 3 weeks were less eventful. I hiked back to Hunza, where I met Joe again. He had still all his stuff in Sost. I then continued to Rawalpindi, got me a visa for India and spent there the rest of my trip.


Landscape pictures from http://www.heritage.gov.pk

http://www.tourism.gov.pk