Five days of rain had been predicted and the night before we discussed waiting it out here in Dassu if it proved to be true, to avoid any potential landslides. As it turned out we woke up to the skies clearing and not a drop of rain to be seen.
The escort had been a bit of a thorn in the side since Mansehra, of course we appreciated it was all for our safety on the face of it, but of course the escort was as much to keep tabs on us as anything else and didn’t enable the perfect KKH experience we all hoped for. At best they could be ignored, but more often they would refuse stops for photos or worse ride alongside whoever had the misfortune to be at the rear of the group, laughing and taking photos as they climbed. Not out of spite or malice I’m sure, the whole thing must be extremely novel to the police, but it’s hard to take in at the time.
The long and the short of this brief tirade is this: first, we decided to make the best of a bad situation today by loading all our bags into the police car so we could all cycle without the added 50kg of luggage and second we were completely fed up with them.
Despite it all though, it was hard to keep in sour spirits with riding and views as breathtaking as we got to experience all along the KKH. Today was much like yesterday, the road definitely in worse condition but the scenery a bit more rugged. Sharp cliffs and rock face jutted out into the valley, waterfalls from above onto the road were common and landslides blocking a lane frequent.
The narrow Indus Valley widened as we progress further onwards, opening up from the steep rocky sides to a wide river basin with mountains riding up higher and higher in either side. Long, empty roads made us long to be on our own to take it all in, and soon we should be once we left the KPK province and entered the Gilgit-Baltistan province.
It was near the end of the day with only an hour of sunlight by the time we did reach the border. The border was situated on a lovely verdant grassy area along the banks of a stream in an otherwise rocky landscape. We asked the police if we could camp besie the stream. ‘Oh no, it is not safe’ said one. But the police station is right there we said, pointing ten meters away to the other side of the stream. ‘Yes yes, the police keep you safe’ he replied with a smile. And when we asked if we could camp inside the police station if they were so concerned for the our safety of course the answer was again no.
As we left the border station they decided we had to be escort to the Gilgit-Baltistan rangers outpost 1km up the road. But we had to wait for another bike to arrive, and it was still getting dark. 20 minutes later the bike arrive, it was a motorcycle tourist who sped right past the escort van calling into question why we had been made wait and waste the fading daylight at all.
At the Rangers station, a small stone hut at the top of a rise surrounded by nothing but rocky mountains, they seemed not to know what to do with us. Evening was coming in fast and we were 50km from the nearest town of Chilas. Afraid they might make us cycle the degraded mountain road at night we had to put our foot down that we wouldn’t cycle any further. We asked again to camp beside or next to the army post and again we were refused. So we sat and waited for something to happen but apart from one friendly ranger they were content to ignore us.
An hour passed and the sun set behind the tall mountains. There was maybe half an hour of gloaming light left. We had spent the hour at first waiting then, when it seemed like nothing was happening, making a nuisance of ourselves to any ranger who would listen trying to get either permission to camp in or next to the outpost or to get in the parked pick up with our gear and taken to the next town Chilas. Our demands, as they were, fell on deaf ears and finally a ranger came up to us after all the rest had gone back inside the outpost and said “we protect the road, not you.” That was as clear an indication as any that we weren’t wanted and that they weren’t, thank god, here to escort us. We cycled off in front of him, around the corner and stopped at the first secluded spot off the road to camp. We were maybe 100 meters from the outpost, though since they didn’t want us camping beside them we had to make sure we were out of their sight.
As we set the tents up a light drizzle of rain started to fall. We entered the tents to shelter and quickly fell asleep.
In the middle of the night we were woken up by shouting, the sound of many footsteps and flashlights on our tents. The rain was still coming down. Outside, around our camp stood between 15 and 20 Rangers. One particularly angry Ranger demanded we move with them. In no position to argue, though we did try, we struck camp and packed up under the persistent rain and marched with the Rangers down to the road. Here on the rain slick Tarmac idled three pick ups and a jeep, the headlights cutting through the darkness, illuminating the raindrops as they fell.
In the jeep sat a Major who had come up from Chilas. He explained what had caused all this ruckus: apparently, the outpost 100 meters up the road where we had waited over an hour had reported us missing. Now, four missing foreigners in the mountains of Pakistan is reason enough to mount a daring night raid such as this, but what we couldn’t understand is why we had been reported missing. We explained how we had been told by the Rangers that they “protected the road, not us”, how they had seen us leave on our bikes and how we had told them we didn’t cycle at night on unlit mountain roads, especially unlit mountain roads slick with rain. They didn’t seem to care about or take any responsibly for us six hours ago, so this sudden interest in our well being came as a bit of a surprise.
The Major was a reasonable and amicable man and seemed to understand where we were coming from. His initial anger with us abated after hearing our explanation, but he still had one question.
“If you had to camp, why didn’t you camp beside the outpost.”
“We asked but the Ranger said no.”
Turning back to face the windscreen the Major muttered under his breath
“I will destroy him.”
We were driven along with our stuff to the town of Chilas, 50km further down the road, the first town in Gilgit-Baltistan. That it took an emergency like our ‘disappearance’ to rouse the Rangers enough such that they would drive us to Chilas, a request we had made earlier before this hullabaloo was not lost on us.
We arrived at a hotel in Chilas at 4am, had our equipment and bikes taken off the truck and placed in the lobby. Outside the hotel was parked the motorcycle of the tourer who had passed us as we waited. The Rangers then left us and we went to the rooms and collapsed asleep.