Dublin to Nepal, Pakistan


André and I spent almost three weeks in Islamabad trying to get our visas in order. Our long stay was made all the easier by one of the most hospitable and amicable Couchsurfing hosts I’ve ever stayed with, a Dutch fellow named Frank. Frank let us crash at his place the whole time, along with a German couple who were also waiting on visas so at times he was pretty much running a small hostel. I can’t thank him enough for his warm welcome in Islamabad, it would have made dealing with all the bureaucracy of Pakistan and China a big hassle. 
I know that we spent ages online trying to find out info about applying for a Chinese visa in Islamabad so I’ll pay it forward now. So, boring visa information below, you can skip this if you just want to read about the trip.
Getting a Chinese visa in Islamabad

Getting a Chinese visa on the road can be frustrating as every embassy seems to follow different rules. We tried in Tehran and they wouldn’t give us enough time to enter. In Islamabad we got 90 days to enter and 60 days in China, extendable. I don’t think at this time the Pakistan embassy can or want to issue visas longer than 60 days to foreigners.


That huge white building on the right is the Chinese Embassy

To get the visa, these are the documents they will ask you to bring

The application form, of course.
A letter of invitation. For Pakistanis applying the embassy is pretty strict about original copy and stamps and seals. They were really lax with us though, our letter was a photocopy with only a little bit of information. They only want you to show them that you have some contact in China, so a letter from someone on Couchsurfing or Warmshowers say thing they are you’re friend would be enough.
A list of hotel address. This one is really a token gesture. You CAN use booking.com, they accept it so we just booked a bunch of places along our general itinerary for free and with free cancellation. Even if you book for 90 days, which we did, they will still only give you 60.
A bank statement. You have to show them that you have $2000. You can bring cash too, apparently.


Copies of your passport
That’s all. Then you have to get there. In Islamabad all embassies are in a diplomatic enclave. Most vehicles aren’t allowed in. There is a shuttle bus service from one end of the enclave that goes to all the embassies. It’s actually quite far out of the city by the time you get to the shuttle depo, a taxi is the best option.

You must get on the shuttle bus, even though the Chinese embassy is only 100m away from the depo. The embassy security won’t let you in unless you have a shuttle ticket. Ticket price 200RS
The visa costs 4000RS, pay in cash at the embassy when you pick it up. We applied on Tuesday and got the visa on Friday. Show up early, queues can take up to an hour to get into the embassy.
Extending your Pakistan visa in Islamabad.

This is actually a relatively painless process, it just takes a long time as you have to go to two different offices.

We extended our one month visa by two months and two other travellers staying with our host extended their three month visa by a further two months and got an additional entry so the government seems generous enough with extensions.
First, visit the Ministry of the Interior with a copy of your passport and Pakistan visa page with the extension form. To the left of the main entrance of the ministry there is a carpark and some shops at the other end. There is s man there who has all the extension forms and can fill them out for you and photocopy for 100RS. 

The visa extension office is only open from 11 – 12 and while we were there the official didn’t arrive until 11:40. The official looks at the application then writes a letter saying you can apply for the extension for the time requested.
Then you need to go to the passport office in G8. They are open from 8 – 12. Bring photos, copy of passport and visa page and some proof of address of where you are staying in Islamabad. Here you fill out another visa application form, then show it to the boss in the office who approves it. Then bring it to a clerk who stamps it and give you a pick up form. 
The first date they will give you is three weeks from the day, so make a fuss and you’ll be directed back to the office and you can shorten the wait time. We only had a one week wait in the end, the other travellers only had to wait three days.
End of visa information!
In the words of Frank, Islamabad is not Pakistan. The city is way more organised than anywhere else in the country, first from its layout: a block system, where each block contains all the residents need in a central market. Second, the big new traffic free expressways that define the block, and finally all the restrictions put on the traffic that can even enter the city so that the nice new capital isn’t ruined. Auto rickshaws aren’t aloud, neither are big trucks or overloaded cars – pretty much the majority of traffic in Pakistan.


The view of the Franks blocks market place

There isn’t a whole lot to see in the city, Frank took us to a lot of the main sights on his days off and even on a weekend back down to Lahore. With all the time we spent waiting for the visas to be processed it was great to have a few distractions while we waited. The western luxuries of his apartment compound were also a nice break, especially in the first few days while I was still sick.
It’s hard to find a decent bike mechanic in Islamabad but one of Franks friends is a huge bike nut and through many trips abroad created a a pretty high quality workshop in his garage complete with Park Tool tools and Shimano components. I was looking to replace my drivetrain after Finn brought back new chainrings and cassette from Dublin, and with the help of Franks friend and his tools we replaced the whole thing the day before starting cycling again. If you’re on tour and in desperate need of a decent mechanic or workshop look up Frank on Warmshowers or Couchsurfing and let him know.


The secret best bike mechanich in Islamabad in his garage/bike shop

We had our last two nights in Islamabd with six of us, the four people of our cycling group and the two German travellers, Andy and Lisa hanging out, talking about our trips and where we were heading in the future in Franks place. Actually including Frank it was seven. We spent a long time in the city but it left us well rested for the next big leg of our journey, cycling up over the Karakorum Highway and into Kashgar.

Dublin to Nepal, On Tour, Pakistan

Day 128: Gujar Khan to Islamabad 

The last day to Islamabad hopefully, we were about 100km away from they city. We left our campsite and unluckily André had received a flat tyre for some of the big thorns. At these stage we’re all pretty effective at repairing flats so it wasn’t long before we were going again.

For me this day was by far the hardest. Not kept any solid food down for the last three days was really catching up. Knowing that we could make it to Islamabad to day helped me along though and I didn’t want to have to cycle again tomorrow.
It was too bad then that the hills had gotten steeper and longer and the wind was blowing fiercely in our faces. There was a really great view from the ride, out over the rolling hills and valleys and gorges carved into the soft soil but with almost no energy each climb was a challenge.
It was like yesterday, riding for a while and then pulling over to the side of the road for a break or to get sugary drink. Tried to eat something at the start of the day but it came right back up after a big climb.
We might have been able to make it all the way had the sun not come out, but it did and it was hot. The hills, wind and heat was too much and at the bottom of another climb I had pull over and lay down.
A guy on a motorcycle came over to see if I was ok. He had perfect English, lived there in fact and was back on holiday. He said we were only five minutes from the next town and could get a ride on a bus there to Islamabad. He then pulled me to the top of the hill with his motorcycle and was off into.
He was right, we were able to get a bus these last 50km to Islamabad from this town. I don’t know if we would have been able to had we not press-ganged two students who came up to say hello into helping us find the bus station and then catch the bus. They were able to find out which bus we should take and then explain to the driver we wanted to put our bikes on, made our day a lot easier.

So we had to take a bus the last 50km to Islamabad but it was ok, we had made it most of the way there by bike and in my state I didn’t feel too bad about having to ride the bus.
We got into Islamabad nearly. The bus dropped us off between that city and Rawalpindi its sister city. We got in contact with Frank, our host here and then cycled the final 15km to meet him at last. Frank was a well travelled Dutch fellow now living and working in Islamabad, he was also hosting two German hitchhikers at the time also in the city to get visas, it was great to finally meet some other western travellers out here and compare experiences of Pakistan.

Andre and I with Frank to my right and the Germans Lisa and Andy behind

Dublin to Nepal, Finnian's Galleries, Pakistan

Most of Pakistan

Dublin to Nepal, Finnian's Galleries, Pakistan


Hey everyone, Finnian here. This post is a little different. We’re still cycling away, heading up the KKH and having a great time. But I won’t be talking about that, I’ll be asking a favour.

I’ve been accepted into a teaching programme in Nepal with the Umbrella Foundation. Umbrella focuses on protecting the children of Nepal from war, poverty and trafficking. A job all the more difficult since the earthquake. I will be teaching children in rural Nepal for nine weeks after I arrive. Here is their website if you want to learn more about the charity  (Umbrella Charity).

I am raising money for the programme before I arrive. As I’m still on the road online fundraising is the only method available to me. So if you been enjoying the blog I’d really appreciate anything you have to give. I’ve put a donate button on the menu bar beside Finnian’s Galleries, it will bring you to a page where you can donate directly to the charity.

Thanks a bunch.

Oh and here’s a photo of where we are at the minute hugo-1-2

Dublin to Nepal, On Tour, Pakistan

Day 127: Dina to Gujar Khan

Getting to sleep in a bed indoors last night was beneficial no doubt, but I still felt pretty wretched. We had breakfast with Nadeem and went on our way.
Turns out I was worse that before. Constantly feeling like you’re about to thrown up while cycling isn’t all that pleasant. The terrain changed from the complete flat we had been riding through before to hilly riding as we slowly but surely progress northwards towards Karakorum and the Himalaya. It would have been a very nice ride that I would have really enjoyed if I felt a bit better than I did, but as it stood I had pull over every 30 minutes to rest.

We made really slow progress as a result, Andre was understanding of course. He had contracted a parasite in his gut at the start of his trip in Romania, so he knew what it was like. Still, having to stop every hour or half hour really limited how far we could cycle. 

We only made it 60km today, which isn’t a lot at all but we were ready to make it to Islamabad tomorrow. Riding in the hills had the benefit of campsites being easier to find. When we couldn’t go on any longer there was a nice spot right off the road in which to set up.


Dublin to Nepal, On Tour, Pakistan

Day 126: Kharian to Dina

In the morning I didn’t feel any better and André was starting to get something too. The owner of a roadside eatery next to where we had camped saw us taking down our tents and came over. He invited us back to have some breakfast and we were more than happy to accept the invitation. 
He brought us over and gave us eggs, roti (a fried bread in Pakistan) and of course, chicken curry. I was afraid to touch the curry, André gladly ate it. I stuck to the eggs and bread. Afterwards I felt ill, the owner took us around the back where there was a small garden to drink tea and rest. I lay down on one of the benches and slept while André mercifully fielded all the questions from the people as they came by.
We got going again a bit after ten. It wasn’t s hard tide at all but I really couldn’t keep up the pace. I had not energy and felt like I would throw up at any minute. I can’t remember much about the cycle as a result, I was focused more on just pedalling.
After an hour or two we passed through a checkpoint and on the other side, a McDonalds. An air conditioned building where we could sit as long as we wanted, it was too good to pass up. And we were both in need of a rest anyway. We sat in that McDonald’s for two hours, not eating thing just waiting to feel up to cycling again.


crossing the Jhelum river, a tributary of the Indus

When we finally did get going we both didn’t still didn’t feel so great. It finally happened that it wasn’t able to keep breakfast down, and from then on the cycle was a slog. On the bright side we had found a host for Islamabad, a Dutch guy who seemed really friendly from our messages with him so if we could make it there we’d have somewhere to rest and recover at ease.
So we kept cycling, but it was tough. Not being able to keep down solid food I got energy from sugary drinks, but that isn’t a sustainable way to cycle. By late afternoon I was really struggling, André was a bit better but his stomach was at him occasionally. We really must have eaten something bad. 
A change in fortune is just around the corner though, we met two very nice Pakistan guys, young guys who wanted to buy us a cold drink and of course get a photo. While drinking this cold drink at yet another petrol station (apple juice) one of them invited us to stay with their family. This was Nadeem, he lived close by in the village and we took up the offer, the prospect of getting s good nights sleep in a bed seemed like just what we needed.
Nadeem led us to his village (he requested we put in trousers over our shorts as we passed through it) and to his house, a large building with comfortable couches a welcoming family. We left our bikes in his big garage and collapsed onto the couches where we drank tea and spoke to his family.
They gave us a dinner, which I politely tried to eat as much as I could while André, like a champ, made up for what I couldn’t finish. Nadeems friends came around in the evening to talk with us some more, all of them so curious as always about us, our lives back home and what we thought of Pakistan. 


with Nadeem (left) and his friend

We went to bed early, they had hoped to stay up late with us but in this front we had to disappoint. We hit the hay and slept for 10 hours.

Dublin to Nepal, On Tour, Pakistan

Day 125: Kamoki to Kharian

Today the suffering started, not right away but by the afternoon I was finding it hard to cycle. I’m not sure what caused it but from here to Islamabad I was very sick in my stomach. 
This morning though, everything was ok. The owner of the orchard returned early with breakfast for the both of us, more curry and more fresh naan. It had rained last night and this morning the air was clear, welcome after the oppressive smog of Lahore.
We continued riding along the Grand Trunk Road, a busy highway alive with activity at all times. Orange salesmen (amongst other produce but orange was the most common) lined the road. Roadside eateries, concrete windowless building with tables, chairs, and bed like platforms of taut rope outside were placed regularly between towns and cities.
This being one of the oldest routes in Asia it’s not surprising that many towns and cities have grown up along it. On this first day there wasn’t an hour that passed that we weren’t cycling through some settlement or another, and it was always exciting. Each one seemed more busy and anarchic than the last. The ever present auto rickshaw weaving between big school busses with some of the pupils riding up top, these towns were where they all gathered to stop and pick up their passengers. And of course, amongst it all, the colourful but noisy trucks, blasting their horns as they pushed through the traffic.


overturned trucks are a pretty common sight on the Grand Trunk Road

After an hour of cycling we stopped, a guy on a motorcycle had been talking to André and wanted to buy him a cold drink. At the rest station everyone wanted to take photos with us. We left and I was starting to feel not so great, like I was going to throw up, though I didn’t. It was not pleasant. 
We stopped for lunch at petrol station, where one of the guards (they all have guards with Kalashnikovs) brought out chairs for us to sit in a shady patch of grass at the back. 
During the riding after lunch I at last vomited and by now was feeling feverish too and cycling was getting hard. At one point a man on a motorcycle rode up and after talking a while began extolling the virtues of Islam and how I was going to hell if I didn’t accept the word of Mohammad. A nice guy otherwise, but it wasn’t helpful in my current situation.
After 75km of riding I had to stop. André agreed and we found somewhere, an old petrol station where we could wait unseen around the back for night to fall. Which we did, and as it got dark put up the tents. I was in and asleep immediately.


waiting for the sun to set


camping behind the old petrol station


Dublin to Nepal, On Tour, Pakistan

Day 124: Lahore to Kamoki

We left Lahrore in the the afternoon after getting ready in the morning. Richie and Finn had left so André and I will ride to Islamabad and meet them there. The ride out of the city took a quite a long time, not entirely because it was big (which it was) but also because there were a lot of traffic jams delaying progress out. The jams seemed to be caused by either a) police checkpoints, which funnelled all traffic into one lane or b) the numerous auto rickshaws that would pull in and out if the road specifically at places where a lot of commerce went on, like near the markets, this was the cause of all sorts of chaos. 

On the way out of Lahore passing by the Badshahi Mosque

But it was fun, on the trip there had never been riding like this before. It took a lot of concentration to weave through the traffic properly on a fully loaded bike. We got out of the city centre in a bit under an hour and joined up with the route that would take us to Islamabad, the Grand Trunk Road.
Of course these days the the GTR, one of Asians oldest routes running from Bangladesh to Afghanistan is just like any other highway. But the historical significance wasn’t lost on us. As we left the city the farms returned gradually and intermittently. There were loads of satellite towns and villages around Lahore though, so we were still riding through busy Punjab settlements as the sun began to set.
We were getting a bit worried that we wouldn’t be able to find somewhere to camp when suddenly we passed through a town and found flat empty fields to our left and some trees to boot. We pulled off and had a look around. There was an orchard that would be perfect to camp in, if we could find the guy to ask. There were some kids playing cricket in a nearby field but they didn’t know who to ask.


waiting to see if we can camp here

André went off to find someone to ask permission and returned ten minutes later with the owner of the orchard who let us in and opened up an empty shed for us to store our bikes in. He watched us set up our tents and then left, indicating he was going to bring us something to eat. He came back an hour later with two bowls of chicken curry and fresh Naan. He also brought his neighbour to say hi. Before he left he gave us his phone number in case anything happened. Everyone in Pakistan is at pains to make us feel at ease and their hospitality and concern is an endearing highlight of the country.


Dublin to Nepal, On Tour, Pakistan


Lahore was our first experience of a Pakistan city as free men, at liberty to stroll around as we pleased. It was everything I wanted from a city in Punjab. Crazy traffic, big old colonial buildings beside Mhugal mosques, terrible smog and delicious street food. Finn and Richie had to go back to Ireland and had a flight the day after we arrived, so the first day they got ready for all that and I tried to find an atm that accepted my card.
We got to see sights the next day, and for me the big draw to come to Lahore was the Wagah Border, 30km out of town. I’ve wanted to see this place for years now, ever since it was shown on Michael Palin’s Himalaya travel show. 
The Wagah border is the border between India and Pakistan and the flag lowering ceremony has become a spectacle of military showmanship over the years. Now when you visit bleachers line the road on either side over the border and every evening they are filled with Pakistanis on one side and India the other cheering on their nation’s manoeuvres. The guards march up and down for an hour or so, blustering about with high kicks and shouts and striking impressive posses. The gates are open, the guard on each side shake hands and as the sun sets the flags are lowered, perfectly synchronised.


approaching the border


The Pakistan Army, right, in green fatigues. the Rangers, center in ceremonial garg and the cheerleader left


start of the ceremony as the rangers march to the gate


only a few meters from India, note the ranger in mid high-kick. these feature pretty heavily throughout the manouvers


the flags being lowered together


last march of the evening

 The Wagah border was definitely the highlight of Lahore as the next day, probably thanks to some interesting street food André and I were sick. We didn’t get s chance to see anything else, had to spend the day in bed. A day of rest though and we were good to go and ready to start cycling again. We were going to cycle to Islamabad and meet Finn and Richie there when they returned.

Dublin to Nepal, On Tour, Pakistan

Day 123: Bama Bala to Lahore

The extra day in Bam Abala had been a great slice of Punjab life, the hospitality shown to us by the Lasharis unparalleled but now it was time to get back on the road. With only 80km of riding left according to Shahid from Bam Abala to Lahore we should be able to make it there today.
First we had to visit the village school, a large walled off field with a small concrete schoolhouse at one end. Most of the classes were outside in the field with the youngest in the schoolhouse. We went around saying hi to each class and taking a photo with them. In an inspired attempt to entertain the kids Richie had them wave their hands and shout as we took the photo which, of course, they all loved.
At last it was time to go. We got back on the old road to Lahore, which somehow got worse as we got closer to Lahore but it didn’t really make the riding unenjoyable. Really it made the time pass faster, concentrating on navigating the rocks and holes. At some points the road was barely wide enough to for a car but tractors piled high with hay still managed the drive. Other tractors loaded with sugarcane attracted groups of kids who would take advantage of the slow pace on the rutted road to liberate the a few sticks of sugar cane for themselves.


sure thats all the tarmac you really need


It might be getting a bit too hot for Finn


A river! havent seen that much water at once in a long while

The old road eventually merged back with the main road to Lahore for the final 50km. Back in the chaos of the highway after the slow pace of the side road, the contrast was immediate. Trucks, buses, busy towns with auto-rickshaws driving in all directions. As always the motorcycles were unable to contain their curiosity and we had many questions to answer, or rather few questions to answer many times.
There was a huge traffic jam just before we entered the city as the four lane highway was squeezed between one at a police checkpoint. Jockeying for position amongst trucks, cars, donkey carts and auto rickshaws was an experience not to be forgotten soon.


entering Lahore

It was dark as we rode into the city centre along the straight canal road. We had only a general idea of where the hostel we hoped to stay at was located but such masters of navigation are we now that we the first time we stopped to get our bearings we were right outside it.
The hostel was the only one in the city and had just about enough beds formal four us. Not that it was packed with tourists. In what I assume was an attempt to stay in business the owner had rented out the dorms to a group of Chinese merchants. Still, it had hot showers and fast internet, all you really need from a hostel.