We walked back to Sost the next morning, a 35km hike back along the road we had just come up. We left the heavy bikes and luggage behind since it took so long to carry them over each blockage and we were coming back to them anyway, returning to Sost to get the exit stamps was just a formality at this stage anyway, right?
We left at 6 in the morning and made it back to Sost by 1. Right away we went to go collect the stamps. We met with the official and, probably unsurprisingly we had sort of expected this would happen all along, he said no. No stamp. So we tried to reason (argue?) with him and he pulled the irritating move of walking away as were speaking to him, exasperated by his crony attempting to placate us win empty pleasantries such as “Please, you are our guest” which of course made us all burst out laughing.
Eventually he agreed to let us talk to his superior, who when we got through to him was the first person we had dealt with who could listen to reason and could agree that yes, this was a pretty extraordinary circumstance. The main problem was that the China wants all people crossing the land border from Pakistan to be on government run busses – and would have had no problem complying with that rule, only the government run buses weren’t running on account of the terrible landslides that were blocking the roads.
Pakistan maintained that they couldn’t give us the stamp because we weren’t in the bus and we couldn’t get past checkpoint Dihh without the stamp. We were hoping that they would give us the stamp or let us go past the checkpoint, either or, so that we could make it to the border where we would be China’s problem (we had heard from tourers in the past that the Chinese authorities were more pragmatic in terms of following this ride the bus rule and that in certain extraordinary circumstances, which we liked to fancy our current situation was, they would let cyclist cross the border independently).
In the end the immigration official we were talking to came up with an elegant solution: he gave us the number of the Chinese immigration official in charge of the border and told us to call him up, if he said yes we could cycle then we could go.
Richie spoke to the Chinese official on the phone, a man named Liang and was talking to him for a good half an hour. It seemed like he had almost convinced this Mr Liang but ultimately the answer was a no. So now what?
So now what? The two options were wait for the road to be cleared or go back to Islamabad and fly into China. There was currently no work being done to clear he road, not a single man with a shovel, but not wanting to rush the decision we decided to sleep on it.
The next day, flurry of activity – there was bulldozer and it had started to clear the road. Local officials had all turned up in Sost the place was a hive of activity. People were saying the road would be clear in three days, a gross underestimate but a week? Maybe not outside the realm of possibility. So we decided to wait. In the meantime all our stuff was still stuck up the mountain at Dihh.
The following day the dozer was gone. Not great. It had gone further south to clear some other blockages. The road to China remained blocked. In the guesthouse was a Pakistani fellow by the name of Saeed, a friendly guy who worked as a trader and had a small business in Kashgar he was trying to get to. With him we started a small campaign to get the national news to report on the blocked road, the lack of action to clear it and the four poor, trapped foreigners who only wanted some help at the end of the day.
We weren’t allowed to walk back up and collect our stuff, so even if we wanted to leave we couldn’t. We held out hope that Saeeds little media campaign would get something done so we waited another day. Or two, I can’t exactly remember the timeline but you get the gist.
Eventually Saeeds story got picked up by one of the national news organisations and a clip of us he had filmed and sent to them imploring the authorities to do something (lie start clearing the road which still hadn’t resumed) and the next day something seemed to have come of it. For some reason people were saying we were going to be getting a chopper out of here, but we didn’t know why. Eventually we surmised that after the news had aired the piece about us the government had been asked to comment and said that they were sending a chopper to help the four foreigners trapped is Sost. Not outside the realm of possibility, given that all the tourist who had been trapped in Karimabad had been choppered out.
Well instead of sending a chopper to rescue the foreigners the secret police were sent to intimidate and assault the guy who had brought their attention to the foreigners in the first place. This is what made us finally decided to abandon the whole endeavour and get our asses out of Pakistan on the first plane to China. The road wasn’t clear, wasn’t nearly clear and work wasn’t going to begin anytime soon. We had tried everything short of sneaking to the border, calling up immigration in Pakistan and China. Making our own way up the road despite the blockage, starting a small media campaign, enlisting our embassies – anything we could think of to get something done. We had tried everything we could think of and more and still nothing had happened. There was even a long meeting the same say the secret police showed up with Saeed, his friends, the local magistrate and us wherein everyone spoke together for an hour in Urdu, and at the end when we asked what was happening, if anything had been resolved we were told pretty much no, nothing had happened they had just had a meeting for the sake of it.
After this meeting we got talking to a fellow who had arrived with the local government entourage who had good English. This interaction summed up the entire problem perfectly.
“Why are you not doing anything to clear the road?”
“It is not our responsibility.”
“Why is the army not here to help clear the road?”
“It is not their responsibility.”
“Whose responsibility is it?”
“No ones responsibility.” With a big grin on his face.
So now we just wanted out. All that remained was to rescue our gear from Checkpoint Dihh. We implored the local magistrate who had shown up for this pointless meeting to help us on this. Finally he called up his superior (because by god no one can take action themselves) who agreed to organise something for us. In the end what they came up with was to send a single pick up truck. A truck was the solution to this problem of all our gear stuck in road inaccessible to autos. We realised right away this wasn’t going to work, the penny dropped for them about three hours later once they had been up to ‘inspect the road’. By then it was too late to organise an alternative apparently.
The next day we went out to find the magistrate to try and organise an alternative means of recovering our gear. We were happy to walk back up and carry it down ourselves but now we were on the governments radar we weren’t allowed to walk on that road as it was ‘too dangerous’ (even though officials had made us walk down it five days before). We eventually found him in town, he seemed surprised to see us. I’m sure nothing would have happened if we hadn’t gone to find him.
The solution they came up with was to have the KSF guards stationed up at checkpoint Dihh to bring our bikes down. We couldn’t trust the guards to pack and load the bikes properly and carry them without at least one of us there. We managed to convince them to let one of us go up with them (they were sending a relief group up to the checkpost so some of the other guards could come to town for a bit).
This is getting a bit long so ill wind it up. We got the bikes back eventually, with all the gear. Two days of bussed got us back to Islamabad where once again we stayed with Frank for a couple of days while we booked flights to China. Richie flew home, his time with us had come to an end. Having him around had been great, it was too bad we didn’t get into China with hime after all but thems the breaks. It was too bad we couldn’t cycle across the Kunjerab pass into China but at least we tried, flying was always a last resort after everything we had to resort to it at last.
We awoke with a fresh and eager vigour to tackle the big avalanche and proceed on to China. We started hauling the luggage and bikes across the snowfield, and partway through this endeavour (it took a good five minutes to walk over the snow without carrying any luggage, so it was taking some time to carry everything over but by bit) we saw some Pakistani guys coming down from the other direction.
They had come from another police checkpost at a place called Dihh, where the police yesterday had expected us to arrive the night before. When we didn’t arrive yesterday they came out and started looking for us. After giving out to us initially about being on the road when it was blocked they then seemed to take a shine to us and didn’t really mention it again. Two of them even stayed behind to help us get our gear over the next couple of blockages in the road.
After the huge avalanche that blocked us yesterday there were three more that we had to cross before we arrived at the checkpoint at Dihh. It took about three hours to get over all the blockages but with each one we were getting to closer to the border. Finally we arrived at Dihh, not a town or village but a pair of checkposts. One for the national park run by civilians where you pay to enter the Kunjerab Park, and one checkpoint run by the KSF, or Karakorum security forces. We pulled into the wildlife checkpost and had lunch.
We were now 40km from the China border. We still had to climb the Kunjerab pass but we were so close now. The KSF wanted to see us about the exit stamps in our passports (which we didn’t have) and we were a little bit apprehensive about what they might say. Surely, we reasoned with ourselves, they would understand about the flight Richie had to catch and the rush that put us in. surely they could take into account that the region had gone through the worst landslides in 20 years and if we wanted to get to China climbing over all these landslides was our only option.
Well in the end they didn’t understand, consider or take into account any if the extraordinary factors that had led us to this position. We had a meeting with the KSF chief and without the stamps in our passports we wouldn’t be given permission to continue. We argued for about an hour over this, and in the end agreed to walk back down to Sost the following day and get the stamp if he radioed ahead and told them we were coming and if they would give us the stamp when we arrived. He said that he would, and that the people is Sost had agreed.
We were all frustrated and angry by the end of it all. To have come so far, to be so close to leaving, only to be blocked by such an obtuse man enforcing some minute piece of bureaucracy despite everything that had happened was infuriating. We spent the rest of the afternoon bitching and moaning and complaining about the KSF and then went to sleep back at the wildlife checkpost.
In the morning we waited at checkpost belly for the police to make their decision. I went back into town to try and get some fuel for the stoves which we forgot to pick up yesterday. When I got back (no fuel, there were fuel restriction in place a result of the shortage caused by the blocked roads) Finn had been taken by the police with our passports back to Sost to get exit stamps on the passport. He came back about half an hour later without the stamps, the official in town had refused to grant them.
Without the stamps they expected us to give up and go back to Sost, but we were determined to make a decent try at crossing this border anyway so once the police left we cycled up to the blockage in the road north and started carrying our gear over. The guy in the checkpost was surprised at our choice of direction to travel, North further up the road rather than South back to Sost. He ran off to get the police again who arrived as we were halfway finished carrying our gear over the landslide. They just sort of watched us go over, said something about the stamp then left.
Once on the other side it was wonderful, completely quiet and traffic free road. Not a cloud in the sky, the river running swiftly to our right and the mountains getting ever taller and closer together. Of course we could never actually ride the bikes for more than a kilometre before shale or mud or a big slide blocked the path and we had to push or carry the bikes over.
The hardest part was getting the bikes through the sticky mud which clogged the wheels, stuck to the frame and bags and blocked up the drivetrain. It was like trying to pull the bikes through glue. After twenty minutes we got to the other side of the mud and brought the bikes down to the river to wash them off so they could actually function again.
At last we crossed the bridge that indicated we had entered the Karakorum National Park. It took us most of the day to make it this far, even though this point is only 35km from Sost. But we were 35km closer to the Chinese border now, and we held out hope, having come this far, that we could cross it in the next few days.
Our progress came to an abrupt halt when we ran into the remnants of an avalanche of a week or so ago out on the road. It was huge, at least 100m in length and 30m or 40m in height at its tallest. Atop it stood a herd of benevolent yaks, enjoying cool air of the snow. It had brought with it rocks, shale and boulders as it came down but we decided to cross it fresh tomorrow morning, rested and with the snow harder after the cold night. We camped close to the river in a wide meander and, a surprisingly rare occasion on this trip, lit a fire. We were the only ones out in the Karakorum that night and the sky was clear and full of stars.
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.
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.