Dublin to Nepal, On Tour, Pakistan

Day 140: Karimabad to Sost (Checkpoint Belly)

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.


The view right out the door of our room, not a bad place to be trapped

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 bikes all loaded up


Well…no driving over that

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! 


the result of a dam. Many more will be built by the Chinese in the next few years


One of the biggest glaciers in Pakistan, obscured by cloud


the wide valleys of Passu

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.


Riding out of Sost

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.


checkpost Belly, those are the hirns of Ibex and Blue Sheep


Loli the snow leopard

 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.

Dublin to Nepal, On Tour, Pakistan

Day 139: Chalt to Karimabad

My iPad ran out of powers or this day so I don’t have any photos.
Waking up in the towering Hunza valley was something special, only slightly affected by the almost immediate arrival of the police from the night before, who stood on the large rock we had camped behind and observed us throughout the morning.
With breakfast eaten and everything packed away we left our camp. The police wanted to escort us, but after talking to them they agreed it wasn’t necessary and left. With no police on our tail we could enjoy this cycle up the Hunza valley properly, and was it ever enjoyable. 
Though low clouds hung in the sky, obscuring the peaks, the effect of the tall mountains next to the valley floor below, gradually rising as we climbed away from the river was spectacular. We passed through small villages that lined the new road and below the network of farms and scattered houses sat peacefully, the image brought to life by the colourful blooming of the fruit trees.
We stopped in one of these small villages for a snack and felt there was something different about this place. We soon put our finger on it, there were women out and about in the street. These northern areas are populated by followers of the Ismailli sect of Islam, who, unlike the Sunnis that make up most of the country adhere to a different set of rules. It was refreshing, to say the least.
We followed the road up further, along the side of the mountains with the water rushing far below. After a stop at a police checkpoint (no word of an escort, thank god) we pedalled further uphill into the biggest town north of Gilgit, Aliabad. But we weren’t staying in Aliabad, we were staying is s village a couple of kilometres further in and a few hundred meters further up.
Karimabad is set on a cluster of hills nestled against the mountains of the west side of the valley, from the hills the view out across the Hunza valley is spectacular, and the trekking in the surrounding region some of the best there is, which explains why this area is the capital of tourism in northern Pakistan. Only downside is, the road up to Karimabad is incredibly steep. After struggling up it though we were glad we did and settled down out of the rain in the Old Hunza Inn, one of the longest running establishments in Karimabad.


view of Karimabad


Dublin to Nepal, On Tour, Pakistan

Day 138: Gilgit to Chalt

We stayed in Gilgit for four nights. It was an uneventful stay. On the third day we received a visit from the police, who wanted to escort us when we left to head north again. Having received the word of the army Major from Chilas that we wouldn’t require and escort, and entirely fed up with dealing with the police at this stage, we tried to explain that this was not necessary. When they couldn’t or wouldn’t back down on the escort we resolved to get what we wanted by the only means you ever get anything done in Pakistan, by doing it ourselves – so the next morning, before the police arrived, we left.
Taking a smaller road out of the city (and asking at a checkpoint for directions, they didn’t ask us about an escort) brought us to the opposite side of the river than that along which the KKH progressed. Riding on this quiet road, with the view of the mountains spread out in front and most importantly freedom from the ever present police at last we felt rejuvenated and sped off down along the road.


the road out of Gilgit

 The road followed the sand, stoney bank of the Hunza River, the closest to the river we’ve ridden so far as the route tends to stay well above the banks. Being so low down made the tall mountains in either side feel ginormous. At a bridge 10km out of Giglit we crossed the river and climbed uphill through a rural farming village along rutted mud tracks, just about wide enough for the bikes. After climbing for some time through this village and startling all the inhabitants we merged back in the KKH and continued along the valley.


crossing the bridgd back to the KKH


Thanks, GB Scouts

 The road followed the river from a higher vantage point now, dipping and climbing as it navigated tributaries feeding the river which carved out small gorges of their own. We passed by a couple of check posts but they all agreed not to escort us after they saw we were travelling without one already.


The spraypainted sign inspiring confidence in the police


plates colide!

 We entered the Hunza Valley Park and as always the views were fantastic. We stopped an hour after entering the park to camp and set up at a bend in the river on a stoney shore, with a sheer cliff of the opposite mountain facing us. We had our tents set up and we were about to crawl into them on account of the rain when some police found us. As always they wanted us to come with them but eventually we persuaded them to let us stay.


Finn pointing out a campsite


Dublin to Nepal, On Tour, Pakistan

Day 137: Chilas to Gilgit

We decided to spend a rest day in Chilas, and rest we did. After setting everything out to dry from the hurried packing in last nights rain and heading into town to get food, I don’t think we left the hotel for the rest of the day.
The following day, well rested, we loaded up the bikes and got ready to start on the two day trip to Gilgit, the regional capital. The route was said to be beautiful, as most of the riding on the KKH so far has been, with the first views of the Himalayas, and even passing by Nanga Parbat, second highest mountain in the Pakistan after K-2 and ninth in the world. So hopefully the weather would be clear for that.
As we were leaving the hotel we found out that once again the police wanted to escort. We had been told an escort in Gilgit Baltistan wasn’t necessary and had been looking forward to enjoying the first free riding in a while. This news left us a bit disappointed but we decided to make the best of it by throwing our panniers in the back of the pick up escort and enjoy the ride unencumbered by our heavy baggage.


swapping the bags over as we change escorts

 Without the bags weighing down the bikes we fairly flew along, climbs especially we could take at almost three times the speed with half the effort. This left us completely at ease to take in the gorgeous surroundings, the valley was widening and the peaks beginning to soar higher and higher. Stone and shale made up most of the landscape, broken free from the towering mountains and carried along by the river. Here and there along the road ancient irrigation channels brought bright blotches of green to the scene in trees and grass, and along some of the mountaintops snow was starting to appear.

 We changed escorts frequently enough, mostly moving the luggage from truck to truck ourselves but sometimes the police would move it themselves and allow us to keep cycling. We were making a great pace without the luggage, and before lunchtime we had crossed the bridge at Raikot. From here on the new road competed in 2013 began and it was in perfect condition. We passed by the spot where Nanga Parbat could be viewed and luckily the clouds parted and we could see its snowy peak glinting in the distance.


Police checkpoint before the bridge


Its the big snowy mountain on the right

 The farther we travelled the more we could glimpse snowy peaks lining hanging valleys that pulled away from the main Indus River valley. Shortly after lunch we arrived at the convergence of the Himalaya, Hindu Kush and Karakorum mountain ranges and stopped to take in this significant moment. At times the distance we’ve covered in the bike doesn’t sink in properly, but at big landmarks like the realisation that we cycled here from our front doors can come as a bit of a surprise.

From here on we followed the Gilgit river which was going to take us to the city of Gilgit, biggest city north of Islamabad along the KKH. The Gilgit river valley was a lot wider and at meanders in the river large platforms of fertile soil stood fuelling the plantlife that brightened up the rocky scenery with patches of green.
The sheer scale of the scenery we were cycling through was immense, all man made things were dwarfed in comparison to the soaring peaks and dipping course cut by the river. The road to Gilgit from Chilas would take two days normally, but with our luggage in the back of the escort can we completed the run in one day, pulling into Gilgit after dark.

Gilgit is a bustling city with the main thoroughfare lined with storefronts but not limited to only that road as it extends a couple of streets either side. Tiny, rocket old stores sit next to huge complexes for all branches of the Military and Police that operate in the Gilgit-Baltistan region. Police checkpoints are frequent in the city and curfews sometimes enforced, thought not while we were there. As with a lot of cities in the north power supple is a real issue, so with no electricity most days the whole place shuts down after dark. 

Dublin to Nepal, On Tour, Pakistan

Day 136: Dassu to Chilas

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.


cycling on unloaded bikes, what a novelty

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.




despite the dqueeze these big trucks seem to get through alright

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.

Dublin to Nepal, On Tour, Pakistan

Day 135: Besham to Dassu

Given the type of cycling we ended up doing today it was good thing we took the rest half day yesterday. We left the hotel around ten, escort in tow as always and began our cycle up the Indus Valley. For most of the day we followed the road the pretty much blasted into the steep rock face which rose and fall as it navigated each spur.  

Richie leaving the PTDC hotel

In summer this section can reach sweltering heat as the narrow valley and exposed rock act as big radiators, but today it was overcast threatening rain and the conditions were cool, if not perfect. The road would rise and fall in soon predictable rhythm that made the cycling very relaxing, despite the precariousness of the road. 


changing escorts, Andre already a bit fed up with it


The KKH as ir travels up the Indus, right in the cliff face

 Nothing lined the roads here, just the bare rock on one side and a drop down to the Indus on the other. Every now and then the route would sweep way out to the left and down, sometimes for kilometres, as it navigated a gorge cut by a tributary.
One flat tyre change and a noodle break later it was lunchtime. We pulled into a small shack tucked into a bend in the road as the rain started to fall. Our escort changed and was replaced by a rather impatient one who wasn’t much pleased when we ordered more food or when we stopped outside to talk to some cyclists from Islamabad driving up to Gilgit.


One of our more friendly escorts for the day. They asked for the photo to be taken

 The rain continued after lunch but it added to the scenery in a way, making the rock face slick and shiny and the Indus an uncertain haze below. It kept us nice and cool on the climbs refreshed on the descents. So we continued on much the same as after lunch, stopping once to buy some biscuits for after the cycle (accompanied by an impatient ‘go, go!’ from the escort who fortunately changed after that town). As darkness started to creep in we decided to stop to camp, we passed by a police checkpoint with a nice big garden.


The valley floor seen from the road

  To camp here was an impossible request however, no matter how much we tried to explain that it would be dark before we reached town and riding in the rain on these roads was more dangerous than letting us camp here. The police were determined to get us to the next town and said it was only 10 km away. This was not true. 


the rain brought these waterfalls which obstructed the road. lifting your feet up was the best way to keep them dry

It was dark and the rain continued to pour down as we entered Dassu nearly an hour later. No streetlights meant navigating the potholed, busy, rain slick road through town was quite difficult. As our requests to camp before town had been denied we left it to the police to find somewhere to stay (the police station in Dassu also being out of the question). This was harder than we thought it would be as the rain was predicted to last five days and many people had come into Dassu town from higher up in the mountain to wait it out an hopefully avoid any landslides or worse.
Eventually we found somewhere with a basic room for four people and after a bit of haggling got what we felt was a decent price. In the end we were happy to be inside as the rain continued and the last push to Dassu kept us on schedule. We drifted off warmed by the thick blankets as the rain pattered on the tin roof.

The accommodation at Dassu

Dublin to Nepal, On Tour, Pakistan

Day 133: Abottabad to Battagram

We had hoped that losing our escort yesterday would mean there wouldn’t be one onus today, and it was true for the morning as we road the busy, hilly road between Abottabad and Mansehra. Once we got to the police checkpoint before Mansehra though we were made to stop and wait for a truck follow us.
At this stage we were happy enough to take the escort as we thought we wouldn’t get to ride this section of the KKH at all. The last tourists of last season that had gone up in November had been made to ride a bus all the way through the KPK province, from Abottabad to Chilas. It having to put up with a sometimes actively annoying escort allowed us to cycle then so be it.
Mansehra sat at the bottom of a wide valley with green fields either side. The town was busy as always. The road on the other side of town followed a river as trees dappled shade and the ride after Manshera was surprisingly serene. We stopped for lunch at a small fish shack beside the river. Our escort made us move on and eat at the’VIP’ restaurant down the road that didn’t serve any fish.


Riding out the other side of Manhsera

The landscape became even more picturesque. As the foothills of the Karakorum moved in over the flat land more and more terraced farms appeared on the sides of the hills growing rice and tea. This progressed gradually until the hills were all steep and covered with terraces or left with trees where to steep to cultivate. The road into the hills was lush and green with streams running along side it. It felt almost Alpine.


The lush greenery of Manhsera, note the terraced fields


Taking a break at the top of a climb

 The ride continued much like this for the rest of the day. We would pass through the occasional village but for the most part settlements were dispersed farm houses scattered over the terraced hills. We filled up our water at a pump and then went to find somewhere to camp.


Filling water at the pump

We found a perfect spot out of view of the road amongst a small clearing of trees on small flat top of a hill. We pulled over to set up and of course the escort didn’t want this. We weren’t trying to be difficult or to make their work hard, but we didn’t want to go pay for a hotel when this perfect spot was available. They didn’t have a good reason either, just the old ‘security issues’ and this time they claimed ‘wild dogs would come’. Thus we felt in the right to set up our camp. 
Since we were at an impasse the situation was escalated up the chain of command until a station officer arrived and told us to get going by spinning a yarn about local families not liking the police. We managed to negotiate out of staying in a hotel (expensive) to camping in the yard at the next police checkpoint over. A police checkpoint they claimed was only 10 minutes of cycling away, but with it getting dark we got them to carry us and the bikes in the van. We had learnt by now that any claims the police make to get you moving aren’t entirely true and a good thing too as the checkpoint that was a ’10 minute cycle’ away turned out to be a thirty minute drive over two steep hills.
Finally we were set up in the yard of the police checkpoint. You would think this would keep them happy but in the middle of the night another policeman came by and tried to get us to move to the hotel. At this point we were behind sandbags and razor wire next to a police checkpoint at the top of a pass so we were pretty sure he was full of it and went back to sleep.

Safe as houses next to the station

Dublin to Nepal, On Tour, Pakistan

Day 132: Bharian to Abottabad

We woke up safe and sound the next morning, wolf attack free. We packed up and set off to climb to the top of the mountain, turning the first corner we saw we were back in snow again as banks left over from the winter lined the side of the road. 30 minutes later the road came out of the pine trees and into the town of Changla Gali, the top of the mountain at 2500 meters. Here we ran into the policeman from last night who was all smiles and didn’t seem in the least worried or concerned.  

Winter snow yet to melt


Andre working his way up the first climb of the morning

 We took photos and then started the descent down the other side. Immediately we came across a viewpoint and took more photos, and then had photos taken with us as all the Pakistanis there wanted a shot with us.
The road wasn’t a descent the whole time, as it followed the side of the valley to road would descend down to a small stream or tributary and then climb back up the other side. The scenery was beautiful, and vestiges of the tourist industry the flourished here before 2001 were still evident as we passed through villages filled with hotels and guesthouse, most of them closed. 


view from the top, the peaks in the distance are in Kashmir


One of the many descents


Stopping for a break

 After lunchtime the proper descent started out of the mountains and back down to Abottabad which sits at lowly 1200 meters. Riding downhill and taking the whole view in is hard to describe, you could see the road snaking away kilometres ahead and hundreds of meters below as the river wound below us further still and the peaks closed in as we got deeper into the valley. An exhilarating reward for all the climbing Hard to describe, here are some photos:


Finn enjoying the downhill


Thats either Andre or Richie out in front


you can see the road snaking way off into the distance


down at river level after an exhilirating hour long descent

 A police van had started following us as we started the to descend. Back on the flat land around Abottabad though the serenity of the mountains disappeared replaced by the usual chaotic melee of Pakistan. We managed to shake the escort in. The bumper to bumper traffic of Abottabad. Out the other side we stopped for supplies and as always in Pakistan got talking to someone, a teacher of geography in the local university. Turned out he had a brother in Dublin, though I didn’t catch his name.
As the sun set we looked for somewhere to camp. The land around was a sort of sandy soil that had turned to steep, rocky hills or flat land that was always taken up by farming. We found a small strip of land hidden from the road and flat enough to camp on. The ride from Islamabad to Abottoabd via Muree has apparently some of the steeper roads of the KKH so having that behind us gave us great cause to relax as the sun went down of the foothills of the Karakorum.


Dublin to Nepal, On Tour, Pakistan

Day 131: Thet to Bharian

If we thought yesterday’s climbs were steep today would blow that out of the water. In the morning clouds stared to close in as we were breaking camp. A light drizzle accompanied the first hour and a half as we negotiated switchback after switchback. Below us patchwork farms lined the valley floor and a few terraces clung to the sides of the valley, but for the most part trees took up the mountain faces.   
The road was very frequently lined with small shops and stalls and houses and passing through them you would always get a friendly ‘Salam Alaikum’. The rain gradually got heavier throughout the morning until we decided to take shelter under the roof of a petrol station and wait for the rain to pass. We stood there for almost an hour as the rain became a deluge and then moved on as it eased off.

We were still climbing, after lunch we arrived at the town of Murree, the first biggest town since Islambad and the end of the first part of the climb. Murree is at 2170m. 1500m higher than Islamabad and only 50km away, so the change in environment was drastic. After Murree we thought that the rest of the cycle would be downhill but only a brief decline before the climbing began again, steeper than before.

The rain came back, only drizzling now which kept us nice and cool on some of the steeper climbs. By evening we passed into a new district of Pakistan, the KPK. This area used to be known as the Northwest Frontier and can be difficult for foreigners to travel through with police sometimes forcing them to get busses. As we passed through the first checkpoint the guard, with a completely unconvincing grin on his face, old us we needed to pay 100 rupees to enter the KPK. What with his grin and his friend snickering behind him it was clear this was blatantly untrue and we moved in after putting up a token fight.
Right after this checkpoint was a series of steep switchbacks and at the end of the day these took the last of our energy. Looking around for somewhere to camp we saw how little flat ground thee was. We had to cycle along a little bit further until we got to a small shack that served food with a flat area beside it for cars and seating. We asked the owner to camp and he said ok.

A nice white car pulled up and the occupants started talking to us. In fact the first thing they did was hand over a wallet with an ID card in it. This was to prove that one of them was indeed who he claimed to be – the mayor of Mansehra, the next town north of Abottabad. He talked with us for a while and then presented us with his card, and invitation to lunch and half a bottle of whiskey before speeding off.
We had camp set up and darkness had fallen when a truck pulled up into the campsite, blasting us with its high beams. A policeman got out and came over to talk. He wanted us to move to a hotel for no particular reason. As usual he pulled out the ‘security issues’ line, a phrase they use pretty much everywhere here to scare you into doing what they want without having to come up with any concrete reason. This time when we pressed him for why we had to abandon our camp in the night he said something about wolves which confirmed there was nor real reason and all he wanted was for us to stay in a hotel, as most police desire.


The contract penned by us absolving the police of responsibility

A bit of a stand off occurred, we weren’t going to leave our camp or take it down in the dark so in the end we wrote out a little contract taking responsibility for our safety and relieving it from him, which seemed to do the trick. He left and we settled down to our omelet dinner and contraband whiskey under the a starry mountain sky.


sunset over the foothills


Dublin to Nepal, On Tour, Pakistan

Day 130: Islamabad to Thet

We left Franks early, at least early for us when trying to leave a city. We were all very eager to start cycling again after the long downtime. On the way out of the city we pulled into the big mall to indulge one last time in some western comfort food before riding out to the remote KPK and Gilgit-Balitistan regions of Pakistan and the Taklamakan desert of Western China thereafter.
For riders if the Karakorum Highwaym, the road we were starting out on now, there are two routes out of Islamabad that both meet in the next big town of Abottabad. A flat route and a decidedly more hilly route. We figured the practice would do us good and so set off along the hilly route.
The Karakorum Highway used to be one of the biggest magnet for cycle tourists in the world. Nowadays, given how difficult it can be to get a Pakistan visa and to travel within the country itself many cyclist crossing Asia into China instead opt for the Pamir highway. Not for us though, the second option, the also-ran. We knew before leaving Dublin that riding the Karakorum was going to be one of the high points of the trip and seven months later we were here.
Out of Islamabad the road climbed gently, easing us back into the ride. Only thirty minutes of riding took us away from Islamabad and back to real Pakistan, where the roads were pitted, the traffic was twisted and the people and buildings spilled out onto the streets, it was great to be back.
We were climbing through thick deciduous forest with running streams that sandy cliff faces would jut out of frequently. Cars waved and people on motorcycles said hello as always. Before too long the gentle climb became steep and the rolling hills grew higher and higher. We were winding our way up a river valley now, the road following one side of it as we pulled away from the valley floor. This was just the beginning of the climbing we would get to do, but after so much flat cycling through Iran and Punjab it was a joy, a breath of fresh air to look back and have a view, a reward for lugging these piles of steel halfway around the world.


The road starting to rise out of Islamabad


Taking a quick rest

 We got higher and higher as the evening drew in. The landscape was very steep, finding somewhere with flat ground to camp would be hard so we stopped a big earlier than usual to find a spot. We eventually settled on a small patch of flat ground under some low hanging trees on a small hummock next to the the road.