2 Wheel Vagabond

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Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Pakistan, Karakoram Highway


I wasn’t too sure what to expect when I entered Pakistan, a glimpse of any news report of the country is sure to make you a little apprehensive about the security situation, my first impression however was very good, I went from a strict and prolonged border crossing where photos were prohibited on the Indian side to the Pakistan side where the security guards were happy to take photos of me and the bike in front of the gate welcoming me to the country, so far so good. As usual I hadn’t booked any accommodation before arriving in Lahore but the lady at immigration insisted I have somewhere to stay before see stamped my passport, a quick check on the internet using the immigration office WiFi came up with the only backpacker hostel in Lahore and that is where I headed. Lahore turned out to be a gem of a place to stay, the staff at Lahore backpackers were super helpful, they provided secure parking for the bike and there were plenty of things to see in the historic city that was once the capital of the Mogul empire. Perhaps it’s because Pakistan sees a lot less tourists than India but the people of Lahore were just so much friendlier than their neighbours to the East, as I visited some of the tourist attractions people would stop to welcome me to Pakistan and offer to buy me a cup of tea. It was also a pleasant feeling to not feel like I was being ripped off because I was a tourist whenever I bought something, if anything I’d usually get a discount or somebody would offer to pay.

The streets of Lahore were an interesting place to explore, Sajjad the hostel manager took me on a tour of some of the less visited places in the city on the back of his 125 cc Honda. Our first stop was a medicine man who specialised in aphrodisiacs made from the oils extracted from the cobras that he kept in a basket on the desk of his makeshift street side shop. The ear cleaner had a booth right next door, as did the dentist, this guy was hilarious, he had no medical training but as I stood watching he replaced an old man’s tooth with the help of his cigarette smoking assistant, it only took a few minutes and cost a few bucks, I’m not too confident about the level of hygiene though. The fish market was around the corner and I had to steady myself so I didn’t slip on the scales that covered the floor of the narrow alley way. The fishmongers were more than happy to pose for photos as they showed off the largest of their wares, they stood with smiles holding huge fish and eels as I snapped away with my camera. As I sat on the back of the bike we rode through narrow streets that were lined with shops that sold everything from electrical goods to fine handmade garments. Lahore’s major tourist attractions were also very impressive, the old walled city, Badshahi Mosque, Shalimar gardens and the tomb of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, lion of the Punjab.

It didn’t take long for word to get out to some of the local motorcycle groups of Lahore that I had arrived in Pakistan and I was soon befriended by a number of local riders who were more than happy to take me around the city in the evenings sampling some of Lahore’s most famous foods. I enjoyed a week exploring Lahore however I had my sights set on riding the Karakoram highway, a road that has long been famous with overland travellers. The Karakoram stretches North from Islamabad to the Chinese border and onward to Kashgar. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to ride all the way to the China border as heavy winter snowfall meant that the highway was closed 80 km from the border, however this this still left me with 750km of the famous road to explore. Before I headed north I had to make a decision, as I was doing some maintenance on the Beemer in Lahore I noticed a leaking suspension seal, I decided that getting the bike to Europe in one piece was my number one priority and I didn’t want to risk the bumpy 2000km return trip from Lahore so I put the big girl in storage and jumped on a bus to Islamabad where I hired a 150 cc Suzuki for my Karakoram adventure. Riding the little Suzuki was a different world from the comfort of the 1200cc BMW but perhaps the small local bike was the most genuine way to experience this iconic road. The Suzuki did a great job for its size, it got me over the steep mountain passes without a problem, even if I did have it at full throttle for the majority of the time, from what I was used to it lacked some serious power and also storage space which meant on this trip I was just taking the basics, which was a nice change from the over packed pannier boxes of the GS. The trip to Abbottabad lake took me through some spectacular scenery and for the most part the highway ran parallel to the old silk road, motorbikes and cars still used this precarious stretch of dirt road that is cut into the side of the steep, rockslide prone valley wall, it was the main trade road until the KKH was finished in 1979. The Hunza valley is the major tourist attraction in Northern Pakistan and as I marvelled at the natural beauty of the area it was easy to see why, having said this, peak tourist season is between April and September when the valleys are filled with green, it was only myself and a very small number of other tourists who were foolish enough to visit in the middle of winter. There was no denying it was cold and loosing feeling in my aching finger tips was a sign that it was time to get off the bike for a while and warm my hands up, the discomfort of riding in the cold weather was well worth it when you realise that you are surrounded by the 3 highest mountain ranges in the world, Himalaya, Karakoram and the Hindu Kush, not to mention K2, the world’s second highest mountain. After exploring the forts of Karimabad and taking in the views of the snow covered valleys of Hunza I pushed a little further on to Abbottabad Lake. The lake was formed when landslides in 2010 cut off both the Karakorum highway and Indus River, this meant that all vehicles had to be loaded onto barges and ferried across the reservoir, resulting in a famous photo opportunity for many overland travellers. It was only recently that a trade pact between Pakistan and China resulted in a tunnel being built and therefore bringing an end to the famous boat trip, seeing the famous lake is still a must for an over Lander, even though I did miss the photo opportunity of the big girl and myself on the barge. To bypass the lake 5 tunnels had to be built, the longest of which is 3360 meters and with no internal lighting the curving tunnel was pitch black other than the light from your headlights. As I headed into the longest of the tunnels I barely noticed the roadworks that were underway until I saw a worker pop is head out of a neatly cut square that was a meter each side, just big enough for a small bike to fall into if you weren’t paying attention .I was well into the tunnel when the headlight on my bike started flickering, “surely not here?”, yep you guessed it, the light died as I was doing 50 km/h in a pitch black tunnel with large holes cut into one of the two lanes. I came to a stop as quickly and safely as possible steering in what I hoped was a straight line, the bike came to a stand still and I hadn’t fallen into any holes, that was a positive. The tunnel was that dark I literarily couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, I couldn’t move for fear of dropping down one of the holes but I was more than a little worried about a car coming along what was now a single lane tunnel and running straight into me. I put the indicator on which gave me enough light to get off the busy side of the road and fumble through my bag for my head torch, with my Led Lensor an full beam I slowly made my way out the tunnel, thankful that no cars had run into me while I was stranded. At the tunnel entrance I mentioned my predicament to the security guards who invited me into their small office to sit by the fire and have a cup of tea, we flagged down a car, who’s driver was happy to let me ride in front of him with his high beams on for the rest of the tunnels, so I could make my way back to Karimabad and my warm hotel room. Most of the roads were closed around Hunza province so the only way back to Islamabad was to go the way I came along the KKH, although I’d already seen much of the scenery it was still a nice ride. Police escorts are required for much of the highway but luckily for me they would let me ride ahead and wouldn’t mind if I pulled away until I met the next escort along the roadside, I’d explain that the other guys were bringing up the rear and they would smile and let me go ahead too, this saved me a lot of time sitting behind slow cars. The cold weather meant there was some ice on the roads at a few points along the way, luckily it hadn’t rained for quite a while so it wasn’t too bad, I wasn’t used to riding on ice however so as soon as I suspected any on the road I would ride super cautiously. This approach got me through the trip until the last day when on the last high pass some ice on a corner sent me skidding off the road, I was going quite slowly so I was fine and so was the bike albeit for a broken front brake lever. It could have been worse, if it was the clutch lever I would have been screwed but it meant that I would be riding the last few hundred km with just a rear brake. I had one or two close calls but I made it back to the bike rental shop without any other incidents and the guys were surprisingly understanding of the broken parts, what a great adventure, riding the Suzuki for the 1600 km return trip was a ball but it made me appreciate my GS all the more, I was glad to get back to the big girl and continue my journey west. 

The road west wasn’t all that I’d hoped for, I rode from Lahore to Multan, where I planned to spend the night only to find that foreign tourists were only allowed to stay at a hand full of hotels in the city and they charged a premium for the privilege. It seemed budget accommodation was no longer an option for the remainder of my trip through Pakistan, the cheapest place I found for my 1 night stay would have paid for a week at the backpackers at Lahore.  The road to Multan lead me past the ruins of the ancient city of Harappa, dating back 5000 years it is one of the world’s oldest urban settlements. Unfortunately much of what remained of Harappa was damaged when under British rule the bricks were looted and used for ballast in the construction of the Lahore-Multan railway. The museum at the site had some very interesting artefacts and you were actually able to walk through the ruins of the city, it is amazing to think that up to 25,000 residents went about their daily lives here 5000 years ago.  I was also hoping to visit Harappa’s sister city of Mohenjo-daro the next day, Mohenjo-daro was older and apparently in better condition, I’d read that damage from soil salinity was threating the ruins and this made me want to visit the historical sight all the more while it was still possible. Harappa was just a few km from the highway and it was already hard to find, I was hopeful of finding the city of Mohenjo-daro a little easier but it was apparent that the further I travelled South West the less importance tourism played. In the end I didn’t make it to the ancient city, poor signage meant that I had wasted too much time to reach it by dark and my priority had to be getting a hotel, I had hoped to visit the city the next day before heading to Questa but the staff at the hotel told me I required an escort and I couldn’t travel to that location alone, at that point I was still tempted to give it a shot but with my visa expiry date rapidly approaching and with government escorts to deal with for the next few days across Baluchistan province the decision was pretty much made for me, skip the historical city and head to the border.  


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