“HEY STOP! Where are you going?” - A policeman waves me down at a random check point while I am nicely cruising through fields of Marijuana.
“Islamabad!” I answer and confidently head for the barrier but another man jumps in front of me and makes it clear that I must stop.
Most of the checkpoints in Pakistan were a smile and wave kind of thing. Or in other words, I just had to be polite and fast enough for the authorities to realize too late or not at all what this white man was doing. Sadly, in here this is different. So I slowed down and smiled while greeting all the official looking guys and, to be sure, some of the others as well.
Once I had stopped I felt how hot it was - somewhere in the upper thirties (°C if you wonder) with a relative humidity close to 100%. My bicycle computer showed already a little over one hundred kilometers for the day. I was in no mood for an extended conversation with the police. But at least I would afterwards have to cover only five more kilometers to reach my next destination.
“Your passport and letter, please.” - said one of the man who wore no uniform. I handed him my passport and told him that I wanted to go to Muzaffarabad and the day after directly to Islamabad.
“Your letter, please!” he insisted while flicking through my passport to find the visa.
On the trip I had heard that I could take a short cut from the mountains to Islamabad. The letter he was referring to should have stated that I am no dangerous person and could be allowed to take the short cut beyond the check point. But I did not have such a letter and thus had to turn around and... But more of that later on.
That was my failed attempt to enter the Pakistani Kashmir region. But let's again start at the beginning.
After a last tea in a one hundred year old tea house in Kashgar I headed south for the Karakorum Highway (KKH) also known as the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway (China comes first as they paid and built it).
The first day was in no way spectacular. Some Chinese checkpoints and perfect roads. I slept next to the road since the place I wanted to sleep did not exist anymore. The guidebook I had purchased for this part of the trip seemed to be quite outdated. The road is newly built (2008-2013) and many other things have changed - for the good and the bad. Too bad, as I had carried a hardcopy of that book since Turkey.
The next day the wind pushed me up the road and I arrived early at the Karakul Lake in China. Funny enough, I had been sleeping next to another Karakul Lake in Tajikistan about 100km away. This one here looked like a beautiful place to camp but a bit crowded for free camping. I asked a local if it was ok to place my tent next to his yurt. “Sure” he said but you need to register at the police checkpoint seven kilometers ahead. I had heard of this. It's not just a registration. I would need to buy a permit to stay longer than two hours at this place.
I did not care to pay the Chinese authorities just to be allowed to look at a lake - even though it is a nice lake and in its background there is a beautiful mountain called Muztagh Ata (7’546m). So I went on, slightly pissed, but without registering at the police checkpoint.
In the end I slipped under a bridge with a perfect view on Muztagh Ata and running water next to the tent. If sleeping under bridges would always be that idyllic I might save a significant amount of money on rent back home. ;-)
The next morning started with a 4’100m pass. Meanwhile I was used to the height and had no problem getting up the mountains. However, some of Chinese tourists on the pass seemed to be quite out of breath from just stumbling out of their tour bus.
From here on it was a pure down hill slope towards Tashkurgan, the Chinese boarder town. I stayed in the Hotel next to the bus station and could even buy a ticket with just a little extra charge for my bike.
I maybe have to explain that, here again, I was not allowed to ride my bike near the Chinese border. The only feasible solution was to take the bus connecting Tashkurgan in China with Sost in Pakistan.
In the morning I arrived at the bus station a good quarter hour before the bus station opened. But how naive can one be. Of course nothing is that easy. The bus station is only there to sell tickets. Since this border is considered a high security area buses don’t stop at the station. I had to go to the customs control and there the bus would wait for the passengers once they emerged from the border check.
So I did as I was told and went for the customs building. I immediately saw the Pakistani guys (yes no women) waiting in line to get through the border. I patiently waited for my turn but my fellow bus travelers seemed unable to do so. When my turn finally came the Chinese officers were already ill tempered. They went through all my bags before I was even allowed into the compound and then they wanted me to throw away all my knifes and lighters.
I had no problem with the lighters - but my knifes!! One of them was my Swiss Army knife I had received eight years ago and with which I have gone through many adventures. The other one was a Letherman that my partner had given me as a present for this trip.
I tried to make a compromise and give the Swiss Army knife but keep the Letterman which was a very important tool for repairs. I explained this to the guys but they did not buy the idea. Then they got a higher ranking guy in camouflage who was not even able open the knife. After some more discussion he decided it was ok. Then I realized that a lower ranking id*t had pocketed my other knife and I asked if I could hold it a last time. Eventually it appeared in the tray where I had put it. I showed him how the Letterman is capable to destroy a Swiss Army knife by breaking off all its knife blades. I explained to the higher ranking officer that the knife would have been destroyed anyway and left for the border before anyone could object.
In the customs building my bags were checked a second time while I was standing in line. Two Pakistani in front of me started to chat but a Chinese officer jelled at them and used his stick to force them back in line. So this is how I will remember my last hours in China. Pumped solders with beating sticks who use them to order Pakistani man in line. They used the stick as well on me. But as I knew the game I just did what they wanted me to.
After I had gotten the all-important stamp I finally loaded my stuff into the bus under Chinese supervision. Then we had to stand in a straight line some more until the tickets were checked again. Finally, one by one, we were allowed to enter the bus. This procedure repeated itself at every checkpoint until the physical border. I had to get off the bus two more times.
The bus is actually a highlight in itself. Stinky, sticky and built in China. Constructed as a sleeper these busses ran as an overnight service from Kashgar directly to Pakistan. Now, since the pumped up border security this is not necessary any more - but why replacing the bus?
Once the Chinese guard had finally left the bus, a release went through the whole bus and I started to chat with some guys who did this journey not for the first time. They said this particular day had actually been a good one since two Chinese travelers were on board. Really, what memories about the Chinese authorities does this leave me with?!
In Pakistan there were two checkpoints - one for registering foreigners and one to buy a permit to go through the national park. At both stops the officers where very happy to see me and invited me for chai. Had not a whole bus waited, I would have accepted. The actual immigration in a place called Sost took also less than ten minutes.
So there we are: I was standing in Pakistan, a country many people had warned me I would die in and was welcomed like a special guest. And I had been treated like a criminal in a country nobody had had any objections about.
I found a good hotel, changed money and chatted with random people on the road. Almost everybody spoke some degree of English and were interested in my story. Once again I’m amazed by how much borders can separate people and mentalities!
From Sost the road went mainly downwards and the perfect tarmac made me eat up kilometres like crazy. The road is not flat though and so I climbed over one thousand meters of altitude every single day although descending overall.
Here are some impressions from the area.
From the first meters on the road is so stunning that I forgot more than once to ride on the left side of the road. Yes, Pakistan has some British heritage. I came past the 57km long Batura glacier (the 5th longest outside the polar zones I think), many crazy mountain peaks and the beautiful Attabad Lake.
However, the story of the lake is a sad one. In 2011 a land slide created it while destroying a village instantaneously. The landslide blocked the Hunza river and formed this rather beautiful lake. Whole villages are now flooded and 6'000 people had to be resettled.
Parts of the KKH wer under water as well. To guarantee the traffic flow and also to bring aid to the people in the region wooden boats were build to ship the cars and trucks across the lake. China immediately started to build an array of tunnels and bridges that connect the road again. In the end 7km of tunnels were built.
I must admit that I would have loved the experience of the boat connections! Now, the boats are either rotting away on the shore or used for tourist cruises. I had to take the tunnels, no problem if my light had not been broken during the transport in the bus the day before. Luckily the Chinese build tunnels to modern safety standards including lights inside and emergency stop zones. There is one problem though: Pakistan is not famous for the stability of its power supply. According to Murphy's law, the tunnel lighting went out when I was in-midst the longest tunnel of all. I was left with the weak light of my head lamp. Since the Pakistani are driving like maniacs this was probably one of the worst moments on the road so far.
But hey! I survived and that is good so. Otherwise I would not have found this amazing place called Karimabad. If I had to pick one place on this trip so far to spend the rest of my life it would be there. I don't be the only one who thinks so. This place is packed with local tourists and some not so local ones as well. The owner of the Inn where I stayed overnight told me that he sometimes has guests that stay for an extended time.
The son of the owner put it slightly different: “Life is easy here. Hike some hours with the guests to an amazing spot and then smoke hash for the rest of the day.”
After only one day in paradise I continued towards Gilgit, the biggest city in the area. That day I crossed from Eurasia onto the Indian subcontinent. The Indian (or Asian like the Pakistani say) subcontinent is actually responsible for the amazing landscape here. Every year, the subcontinent is pushed about five centimetre north and therefore the whole mountain range grows annually about seven millimeters.
Unfortunately, the weather was nasty that very day. Traveling during the monsoon season brings heavy rain showers into this northern area. Of course it is quite stupid to travel during the monsoon. The water and the winds lead to frequent landslides which can block the roads for days. I was lucky that a big landslide went down a few kilometres behind me and not in front. I also got only hit by some smaller stones. It was a play with the fire I have to admit. At one time, when it was really nasty, I waited under one of these “half tunnels” that are designed to pipe a landslide over the road.
I made it to Gilgit where I stayed in a pleasant hotel with a rose garden. Its manager used to be a bicycle mechanic before motorcycles became the norm. He was a bit over enthusiastic about helping me - a thing that happens here a lot.
In the evening some young Sunni and Shia followers were fighting in the streets over the argument who was the last true prophet. Seems to be a common thing here where religious conflicts regularly erupt. The guys in the hotel told me that this is just business as usual and I should not even notice it. But the next morning the manager proudly told me that he had organized a police escort to accompany me to Chilas, the next town I was planing to stay.
I got furious. You may know by now that I don’t like police, military or any person in a uniform and the prospect of having a police car near me the whole time really put me off.
I told him that I would refuse to pay him for the night unless he made the police leave again. He was taken aback and did not understand why I did not want to have this extra security. In the end he did as I wished and told the officers that I had already left. They raced off with flashing lights and siren wailing to catch me down the road.
Maybe I was a bit harsh on him but come on - ask me first!
So without police escort I headed off only to realize that I would by any means get enough attention. A few kilometers into the day a youtube creator stopped me and made an interview with me. I promise I will send you the video as soon as it is online!
A few kilometres later I came across the place where the Karakoram, Hindukusch and Himalaya range meet. At this point also the Gilgit and Indus merge. It was at this point that a local TV crew was waiting for me. I had to give another interview. Sadly I don’t know where it was broadcasted, but later I met people who had seen it.
I did not enjoy these interviews. The motivation behind them was by no means clear. And I did not feel comfortable at all in front of a camera stinky and sweaty as I was. Moreover, I found the questions suggestive. As a sampel: "Why does the media in your country think Pakistani people are terrorists?"
Somehow I could go through this ordeal with the good feeling that nobody would see it. Or in other words, if you want to see the videos you have to give me a heck of a lot of money!
Leaving the TV crew behind, I found myself at another police checkpoint. I knew this was coming up since they expected an single, male cyclist somewhere along the road. A long discussion started. “Why do I need an escort?” - “Because of security.” - “Is it not secure here?” - “Yes it is. We are here to secure you.” - “If it is secure, why do I need an escort?” - “Because there were kidnappings along this way.” - “That was five years ago! And you were not capable of securing the area?” - “YES we DID secure the area!” - “So good then, there is obviously no need for an escort since you secured the area.” I was grinning from cheek to cheek at this point.
The policeman let me wait for fifteen minutes until his radio chattered and he told me to go. The escort was waiting on the next checkpoint a few kilometres down the road.
So I rode on and enjoyed my freedom. This was also the part of the road where I should have seen Nanga Parbat the 9th highest peak in the world. If only there had not been those clouds. The road was stunning anyway, so who cares.
At the next checkpoint I implied my newly formed plan. I drove through it at high speed smiled and waved. I guess since I went through it with so much confidence nobody came after me.
I was grinning again to have defeated the police but then instant karma struck. The road turned bad. This stretch of the road was really in bad shape. I barely made more than ten kilometres per hour. I guess the real reason of the escort is to hide this broken part of the road since an escort here actually means sitting in an pickup. Speaking of pickups. While is was swearing about the road a pickup with blue lights flashing came towards me with high speed. Now, I thought, they got me. But no! They were driving another cyclist the other direction. I had to laugh out loud. Probably this poor person saved my day but the guy in the back of the pickup looked slightly bewildered at me.
Further down the road I had to take a break. The road took a toll on me and I enjoyed a good cup of chai with a local restaurant owner. While we were talking about god (or rather the lack thereof) and the world the same police pickup raced past me. Once again I was lucky.
Eventually I encountered another police checkpoint where they knew I was coming and were not happy at all that I was alone. I did not know what I had possibly done wrong and smiled through the whole process of taking my passport details and photos.
I was also informed that I needed an escort from Chilas to the next town and this time for good. But I knew an alternative route. Directly south and over a 4’100 meters pass. Since I was on 1’000 meter above the sea level this would be a hard but doable day. I asked the guys if it is ok to use this road instead and they said yes.
So I went to Chilas for the night and returned the next morning prepared to climb this 3’100 meters of altitude. But of coures not. The police officer who was in charge that morning refused outright to let me cycle this road. He said it was not a cycling route.
AAARRRGGGHHH what can you do? The policeman stopped a truck and told me I could go on with the truck until the top and from there on it would be ok for me to “roll down the hill”. He was oh so concerned about me. Fortuantely the guys in the truck where funny and I did not really care that neither of them wanted to let me off the truck. It took us over two hours in an empty truck to climb up this pass. I only imagine how long it would have taken me. A day maybe?
As we arrived on the top and I was on free foot again selfie mania started. This was a very busy local tourist spot and everybody wanted to make a picture with me. Literally an hour after I had arrived here I managed to head off down the road. It was possible to freewheel for only the first few kilometers since this side of the pass is much, much flatter. Also the prevailing southerly winds hindered my effortless downhill cruising.
I arrived in Naran, a very popular destination for the locals in late afternoon and was immediately surrounded by a bunch of people. A local radio station interviewed me but this time it had the positive side effect that I could leave with them for a hotel to stay overnight..
From Naran onwards the road got flatter and the temperatures started to rise. My plan was to go to Muzaffarabad for that night and head to Islamabad the next day. It is the shortest and most logical route. And the roads are smaller and less travelled. Most of the cars take the newer but longer way over Abbottabad. I enjoyed the ride. It was hot but the atmosphere was good. I cycled on quiet roads through green vegetation and marijuana fields - yes indeed it grows wild here and in huge quantities.
That was the point where I ran into the impassable police checkpoint I mentioned at the beginning. So I was forced to turn around and cycle an additional 45km to the next bigger place with a possibility to sleep. Free camping is almost impossible here. Way to many people live scattered around.
Having already cycled close to 100km that day I was not pleased on the prospect and the heat started to take its toll on me. I arrived in Mansehra tired and exhausted as much as I had not been in a long time. The first hotel was way to expensive. So I went for the one next to it. Rates were extremely low and the rooms kind of shabby and shady. I took a while to understand why. It was a hotel letting rooms by the hour which explained the low rate (per hour) and the stains on the linens.
Having paid almost the same as in the “normal” hotel next door and with not much power left in my legs I continued towards Islamabad. I did not get far. On the way out of town another vehicle brushed along - nothing special but the correcting move made me crash into the sidewalk. I was not hurt but my pedal was broken.
I had another pedal but decided to call it a day and repair it in Islamabad. I somehow managed to cycle one-legged to the bus station where I took a van to the capital.
The ride was quite ok and I had a good talk with a journalism student called Abdulla who sat next to me. When we rode across Abbottabad the city where Osama Bin Laden was found and killed. Abdulla told me a lot about the death of Osama Bin Laden and how it was perceived in Pakistan and the rest of the world. It is still a hot topic and splits the nation as there remain a lot of supporters for Al-Qaeda within the government and the public. But the conversation got really interesting when he started on the various conspiracy theories surrounding his death. Thus, in no time we arrived in Islamabad where I stayed in a hotel again because the camping spot I wanted to go to was not open or - more precisely - unattended.
Would I cycle the KKH again? Yes, but focus on the northern parts taking much more time. I heard of a cyclist who spent 9 months there. I guess there must be more to see.
Stay tuned for the next part of my journey which takes me across the famous Wagah Border to India - seventy years after this part of the world was divided in Pakistan and India.