We spent a little under a week in Karimabad, a bit longer than we planned but heavy rain the first couple of days and a few of us getting sick the next delayed our departure for a time.
The aforementioned heavy rain was so persistent that it caused landslides on the road around Karimabad such that anybody wishing to go south to Gilgit or north to Sost was trapped. In time we found out that the landslides weren’t just around Karimabad but all along the Karakorum Highway, from Islamabd to the China border. While in Karkmabad though, all we heard was that the landslides had blocked the road back to Islamabad.
Karimabad is big tourist hub, in fact we saw more other travellers here than the rest of Pakistan put together. Now that all these tourists were trapped the local government were organising a helicopter to get people out of Karimabad back to Islamabad. One evening all the the tourists were invited to the biggest hotel in town where this was explained to us. There was also some light entertainment provided of ‘music’ and dancing.
Before leaving I spoke to the magistrate about us continuing further north to Sost on bike, and he said that it would be possible but we might have to carry our stuff over one landslide. Looking back now after what happened up there around Sost and the China border it probably would have been better to get the chopper back to Islamabad there and then but we didn’t know how bad it was up there at the time.
All in all it was kind of an exciting experience, and we counted ourselves pretty lucky to have made it as far as Karimabad before these landslides, the worst in twenty years as it turned out, cut off the whole Karakorum. We made plans to leave the next day and just hoped the rain would stay away until we got to China.
We hired a minivan to get us from Karimabad to Sost, a journey of over 200km. Richie had a flight to catch out of China and after all the delays in Karimabad we were now under some serious time pressure to cross the border. The road to Sost was blocked by one large landslide so to continue we carried our bikes over it and loaded them into another van on the other side.
The scenery as always was really beautiful and since we had hired the van the driver let us stop and get out at any moment to take it all in. Actually the driver was a really friendly guy who swung by his small village on the way to Sost to pick up more fuel and we got to meet some of his family. His wife and sister gave us some home dried apricots which were delicious!
Arriving in Sost in the late evening we had about two hours of light left. A low cloud hung in the sky and a dreary drizzle had started, making the already dreary border town seem entirely unwelcoming.
Sost is the last town before the China border, it’s about 80km from the actually border crossing but it’s here that customs and immigration are based, since the town is situated in a wide valley that only gets narrower, steeper and higher as you approach the Kunjerab Pass at 4700m where the border is drawn. The whole of Sost sits on a one km stretch of road and doesn’t extend further to the left or right much at all.
We were dropped in the wide parking area in front of the Badakshan hotel, a serviceable place and one of the few that has survived the collapsed of the tourism industry in Pakistan since 9/11. The manager came out to greet us but we weren’t staying tonight, we wanted to get started cycling right away. He warned us of a rockslide about 10km out of town but we were prepared for it by now and were ready to carry our stuff over the rocks of needs be.
Cycling out of Sost was great, to be back on the bikes again after so long had us all in high spirits. There was of course no traffic in the road to and so we cycled an atmospheric silence, enhanced by the low cloud, light rain and tall mountains disappearing into the mist on either side.
About 9km out of Sost (it was starting to get dark now) we passed a checkpoint run by the national park. We were trying to avoid the officials if possible, we knew they’d say we couldn’t go up the road but also wouldn’t give us any other alternative. In Pakistan if you want something done you its have to go ahead and do it. We would have just kept cycling past the checkpoint, no one was outside to notice us, but they had something that made us stop: a snow leopard.
Some locals had found the snow leopard as a baby struggling to cross the river and rescued it then given the creature over to the wildlife authorities. They kept it now next to the checkpoint and had named her Loli.
While we were looking and taking photos of the snow leopard the two guys in the checkpost came out and started talking to us. They wanted to know what our story was and after we told them they invited us to stay the night in the hut. One of the two guys then left, he said to go back to his home but we were pretty sure he had gone to tell the police about us and sure enough an hour later they showed up. They wanted us to wait tomorrow for them to decide if we could go up the road or not. We didn’t have a choice but to agree but we also knew that whatever ‘decision’ (they were obviously just going to say no) we had to try anyway.