Crossing the border into Pakistan (at Taftan) one immediately had a feeling that it is a friendly country (maybe it just reminds me of Africa). People all wanted to help with the bike and want to know where you’re from and what on earth a women is doing on a bike in such an inhospitable and, sometimes, forbidden area.
Even here I was not allowed to cycle and advised to take a bus (as according to them it’s not safe). There is a very strong military presence everywhere. I gave the heavily armed men one look and decided to take their advice. I’m also at this stage more interested in trekking somewhere in the Karakoram Mountains than cycling. So the sooner I get to Islamabad the better.
The road leading to Quetta is a 620km stretch, which takes between 20 and 24 hours by bus!!! This is truly a desert with barren mountains and temperatures reaching into the fifties. The bus was overcrowded with people sitting on the roof. The road was really bad and bumpy but at least the bus was nicely decorated!!! The advantage of being a women traveling alone us that you get to sit in the best seat in the front of buses and going straight to the front of lengthy queues.
2 July - Quetta
We arrived in the early hours of the morning in Quetta, so it was a nice time of the morning to be outside (about the only time one can be outside). I cycled into the city to find a hotel, refresh, get money, and a sim card. At last I am in business again.
What an interesting place Pakistan is, camel drawn carts, congested alleys, milk tea, chapatti and rickshaws. When locals hear I’m from South Africa a big smile crosses their faces and all they want to do is talk cricket!!
I have only just arrived in Pakistan but I love it already. It maybe hot, dusty and windy but there is a great vibe about the place.
3 July - Quetta – Islamabad (by train)
The local train station is quite and experience, with loads of locals with luggage of all shapes and sizes. I bought a ticket for Islamabad, but there was only sitting place available. The sleeping compartments were all taken. The train only left after 16h00, but was supposed to leave at 14h30.
The train itself was quite a pleasant surprise as it was air-conditioned. The seat was, however, a bit hard and very upright so quite impossible to sleep in. Even on the train there was a very visible military presence, I had a feeling that they were guarding me, as one solder came to sit opposite me and never left. At one stage I heard that the train in front of us was robbed!!
The train traveled from Quetta over the well known Bolan Pass, a desolated mountain area frequently used by invaders. The pass is very steep and the train is pulled by two engines, one in the front and one at the rear. The going was real slow as the train stopped at every station. On the platform one could buy all sorts of food. Eventually I asked the conductor for an upgrade to a sleeping compartment, which I got and could then at least lie down.
4 July - Islamabad
The entire day was spent on the train. As the train reached the province of Punjab the land was a lot greener and one could see wheat, rice and cotton fields, even water buffalo. We only arrived at around 22h00 and the train stopped in Rawalpindi, as there is no train station in Islamabad. In Rawalpindi I found that the hotels are only for locals and do not take foreigners!! What a drama to find accommodation at night. In the end I took a taxi into Islamabad to a hotel. What a dump it was, but a bed is a bed and by that time it was already 24h00.
5 July - Islamabad
Wow I slept and slept and only woke up at 10h30. The room is terribly hot and only has a fan and no outside windows. (no wonder there are some creepy crawlies running around). By the time I got outside I found that it was raining. Now it was not only hot, but very humid as well. I found a travel agent who could arrange a trek and I did the deed. Booked a trek to K2 base camp!! The cost was phenomenal but I was determined to do a trekking trip in Pakistan!!! Now I was truly penniless.
6 July - Islamabad
I woke early but had my dates all wrong and thought it was already the 7th!! So I had to spend another day in Islamabad, as we were only to leave on Monday 7th June. Not that I minded as I enjoy walking through markets and trying out all the street food, from samosas, chilly bites, potato fritters, nuts and fruit. I spent the rest of the day packing my bits and pieces for the trek. Basic stuff like warm clothes, sleeping bag and sleeping mat, the rest will be provided by the trekking company. I have no hiking boots and am seriously considering buying a pair but today is Sunday (weekend in Pakistan) and most shops are closed.
A suicide bomber walked into a crowed at the Melody Market and killed about 15 people, to think I was there just a short while before. In the rest of the city life goes on as normal and it hard to find a child without a cricket bat in his hand, one can’t believe that hockey and squash are also national sports.
7 July - Islamabad – Besham
I was eager to get going so I was up early and rearing to go, but it was after midday before we left Islamabad, first visiting the Minister of Tourism for a Trekking Permit, the Alpine Club for a briefing, and Rawalpindi to pick up some supplies.
The road north was extremely busy, jam-packed with colorful trucks, but the landscape was lush with green hills, what a difference from the province of Balochistan. We passed numerous small villages with locals in traditional dress, and shops displaying their wares on the pavement including tyres, plastic chairs, apricots, and clothing. We soon reached the Karakoram Highway (KKH), which hugs the banks of the Indus River. The road is rather narrow, windy and washed away in places, so the going is very slow and it was after dark when we reached the overnight spot at Besham village.
8 July - Besham – Skardu
We were on the road by 05h00 as the drive to Skardu is long and slow. Soon the scenery changed again from the lush green hills of the previous day to stark and barren mountains.
A quick stop to view the place where the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindukush mountains meet, then we were on our way again. After Jaglot we turned off the KKH on an even narrower road. With high cliffs on the one side and exposed drops down to the river on the other, it is quite a performance when a vehicle comes from the opposite direction. It was after dark again that we reached Skardu, a busy, dusty town. The town is lively with a host of trekking/mountaineering shops from grocery stores to second hand trekking equipment stores. I spent the night at the well known K2 Motel famous amongst trekkers and mountaineers. The Motel must still be one of the original ones as the rooms are huge with large shower rooms and a large lush garden outside overlooking the Indus River.
9 July - Skardu – Askole 3000m asl
By now I had discovered that I was the only guest on the trek!! So with me was Ali the guide, Munwar the cook, and 10 porters!!! Just imagine that!!! Askole is the last village along the way and from here everything must be carried up the mountain, so that’s the need for all the porters. Before we left we still had to pick up more supplies and then it was off to the shop to find a pair of hiking boots for myself. I found a pair of good secondhand boots for a fraction of the original price. So once again it was midday by the time we left and it was another 6 hours by Jeep to Askole. Just before Askole there was a landslide and we had to abandon the Jeep and carry our luggage across the rubble but we found another Jeep on the other side. A slow and bone-jarring drive to Askole up steep mountainsides with hairpin bends and cliffs down to the river (not a drive for the faint of heart). At Askole we set up camp (that’s now my tent and a large cooking tent) and sorted out the porters for the trip. This is hugely different from Nepal where there are villages all along the path and therefore no need to carry food and sleeping gear. I kind of missed the rituals and prayer flags of Nepal.
10 July - Askole – Jhola Camp 3200m asl
We set off fairly early for a short and easy walk all along the Braldu River on very rocky terrain. It was a nice warm day and quite hot at times as I set off with my entourage. The path is narrow and at times quite precarious. We crossed a side river along a suspension bridge and soon we were at the campsite with fixed toilets and washing facilities. The water is from the river which comes straight from the glacier and is freezing cold so it was a very quick wash!! Munwar (the cook) cooked up a storm of chapattis rice and chickpeas. The air is very dry and ones skin is dry and shriveled up, but it was good to be walking in the mountains again.
11 July - Jhola Camp – Paiya 3600m asl
Again a relatively easy walk along the river with our first views of high peaks ahead. Close to the campsite one could see the Baltoro glacier and the peaks of Cathedral Towers in the distance. The path is extremely stony and it felt good to take off your boots at the end of the day. Paiya is a busy campsite with various groups resting there. We decided to have a rest day as well as Paiya is a traditional rest place for the porters, where they slaughter a goat and sing and dance until late in the evening.
12 July - Paiya
At Paiya I met Mark and Alex, from the UK, also trekking to K2. A really nice and easy going couple. I was glad to have their company as it can get rather lonely trekking on your own. We lazed around all day, good thing as well, as we all seemed to have upset stomachs.
13 July - Paiyu – Khuburtze 4000m asl
We got up real early to prepare for the 6 hour climb up the Baltoro Glacier. The glacier is 62km long and stretches all the way up the valley. One can hardly believe you’re walking on a glacier as it is covered with rocks and stones. Nevertheless, you can see definite signs of crevices and every now and again one can see the ice through the boulders, which is a bit slippery if you walk on it. It was a steady climb up the valley and to our camp which now looked like a real mountain camp with a few tents scattered among the rocks. Among the tents were chickens and goats which were brought up by the porters and which were steadily becoming less!! We sat in the sun drinking many cups of green tea, looking out over Paiyu peak 6600m and the Tango towers 6239m.
14 July - Khuburtze – Urdukas 4200m asl
A short walk to Urdukas camp all along the lateral moraine. The views were spectacular but soon after we arrived it started raining and we spent the rest of the day sleeping and nibbling on nuts and dried fruit swallowed down with numerous cups of tea. At the camp were also 2 climbers from Greenland who attempted K2 but returned due to rock falls and avalanches. Soon it became too cold to be outside and we all retired to our tents. Close to the camp were reminders of climbers who had died on K2, as well as the graves of porters.
15 July - Urdukas – Goro 2 4500m asl
Dawn was bright and clear and it was a most spectacular day as we walked along the Baltoro glacier. The terrain was still very rocky and slippery in places as we negotiated our way over the glacier and past some nasty looking crevasses. Ahead one could see Gaserbrum 4. We were now starting to feel the altitude and were quite out of breath walking uphill. We slipped and slid along the glacier until we reached our campsite on rough stones and ice in the centre of the glacier. Goro 2 is a spectacular site surrounded by all the high peaks and what a glorious view. Supper was early as it gets freezing cold as soon the sun sets. The food is absolutely delicious with soup, rice and at least 2 other dishes not to mention dessert!!!
16 July - Goro 2 – Concordia 4700m asl
An easy walk along the glacier with spectacular views of Mustagh Tower, Gasherbrum 4 and finally K2!! It was a bright sunny day and K2 (the 2nd highest peak on earth after Everest) was cloudless, rising 3600m straight up from the Godwin Austin Glacier. We camped on the glacier again and one could hear constant cracking of the ice while lying in your tent. Once again it was freezing cold, and for the past few days we’d been sleeping and walking in all our warm clothes.
17 July - Concordia
After breakfast I took a walk with Ali the guide to Gasherbrum base camp and towards Gondogoro La over difficult slippery ice. On returning to Concordia I felt rather nauseous, probably due to the altitude. Once again it was freezing cold as soon as the sun set, and one could do little else but curl up in your sleeping bag.
18 July - Concordia
This was a rest day at Concordia so we spent most of the day lying in our tents and just enjoying the views. Concordia is the spot where 5 glaciers converge, and is a popular camping place for trekking expeditions. Most of us were suffering from upset stomachs (which seems to be very common at Concordia) so the rest day was a good thing.
19 July - Concordia – Urdukas
A long days’ trekking lay ahead as we left Concordia on the return leg of the trek. We were not too sorry to get out of the “shit zone” (proper sewage disposal is a problem in this frozen, rocky landscape). It was a cloudy day and one could hardly see any of the surrounding peaks we’d enjoyed on the way up. We only arrived back at Urdukas camp at around 17h00. Urdukas is a real nice campsite on the side of the mountain overlooking the high peaks. We just sat spying on the newcomers on their way up the path.
20 July - Urdukas – Paiyu
It had become the norm for me to be woken up with a cup of coffee, and soon afterwards breakfast was ready which always consisted of chapattis, cereal and tea. During breakfast the porters quickly packed the tens up and started on their way. It was a fairly long day, but mostly downhill. Finally we reached the snout of the glacier but then it started raining and by the time we reached the campsite we were soaked to the bone. My bag is not waterproof as it was a quick and cheap purchase in Islamabad before I left, so everything was damp including my sleeping bag.
21 July - Paiyu – Jhola Camp
Day dawned cloudy but it did not look like rain, so we set off on our way to Jhola camp. The path was narrow and stony so it’s single file walking but still we chatted away and soon reached the campsite. Quite a number of people were camping at Jhola, most of them other trekkers on their way up the mountain. Among them where also porters trekking up the mountain with a dzos (half cow half yak). The dzos was to be slaughtered at K2 base camp to provide meat for both climbers and porters on their return from the summit. At least it was a dry evening and we could hang out our wet cloths to dry.
22 July - Jhola – Askole
Coffee was brought to my tent again at around 07h00, by which time it was light for a while already. After breakfast we set off quite sad that it was our last trekking day. An easy 6 hour walk all along the river again and across the snout of the Biafro Glacier, until at last we saw the green oasis of Askole. The day was partly cloudy and by the time we reached the campsite it started raining. We dived for our tents and waited for supper to be prepared. That night an interesting group of Russians arrived on their way to climb the Ogre.
23 July - Askole – Shigar
It was again a bone-jarring Jeep drive on an extremely narrow mountain road, with hairpin bends and steep cliffs. Shortly after we left we found the bridge washed away so we had to abandon our Jeep again and walk across the broken bridge. A 20 minute walk brought us to a landslide and this time it was a nerve-racking walk up the mountain and down the other side to where we found another Jeep. Then off to Shigar were Mark and Alex were to overnight at the Shigar Fort hotel. One look at the hotel and I booked in as well. It has now been 14 days since we had a shower and after walking and sleeping in the same clothes all we could think about was a hot shower and clean clothes. And what a place it was!! A 400 year old fort now restored and converted into a hotel. We showered and showered, oh what a luxury it was!!! That night we had a nice supper in the hotel restaurant before retiring to our fancy rooms.
24 July - Shigar – Skardu
We got picked up after breakfast and it was a short drive to Skardu where we were trying to get a flight back to Islamabad. This flight is never certain as it is very weather dependent. To our delight the flight was on (although late) and we were off to Islamabad. That night I phoned Ernest from my hotel, and was surprised to find that he was only 16km away in Rawalpindi. We planned to meet up again the following morning, which was when I would have arrived back in Islamabad if I’d returned by road instead of flying back from Skardu.
After trying in vain to obtain a visa for China we finally settled for India. We applied at the Indian Embassy, and left the campsite in Islamabad to cycle the Karakoram Highway.
14 August - Islamabad – Aliabad (by bus)
Instead of cycling all the way up the Karakoram and back again, it made a lot of scene to take a bus up the pass and cycle back to pick up the visas on our return to Islamabad. So after a slow start we finally left and cycled the short distance to Rawalpindi to get a bus to Aliabad in the Hunza Valley, which is as far as the bus goes. The bus left at 14h30 and we settled in for the trip. The ride was painfully slow and as can be expected, fairly uncomfortable. How all these back-packers travel overland by bus I don’t know.
15 August - Aliabad - Karimabad
No doubt, we got little sleep on the bus as it rattled, bumped and shaked along the KKH. We only arrived in Aliabad at midday, making it a 22 hour bus ride!!! We cycled the short 7km to Karrimabad with a steep 2km climb up to the small village. We found a room at the Haider Inn at 300 rp (R30.00) with excellent views and good food. The set dinner consisting of soup, veggies, pasta, dhal rice, tea and desert costed 120 rp (R12.00)
16 August - Karimabad – Passu - 51km
At last we were on the bikes again, cycling along the narrow road of the KKH. The road was washed away in many places and clear evidence of rock falls could be seen everywhere. Fortunately the road was fairly quiet with only a few trucks and jeeps. We arrived in Passu after a few hours of cycling and camped behind the Glacier Breeze Restaurant, right at the foot of the Passu Glassier. The restaurant is well known for its good cuisine, so we splashed out on supper and enjoyed the local Hunza food. We were also awarded with a full moon, and what a sight as the moon rose and shone on the snow covered mountains and nearby glacier!!!
17 August - Passu – Sost - 41km
The road continued up the valley and although there were no major climbs, it was fairly up and down, past many small villages. We arrived fairly early and stayed at the Park Hotel, a real local joint with very basic accommodation. Sost is a real border town with trucks running to and from China.
18 August - Sost
This morning was cloudy and rainy, so we decided to wait for the weather to clear before heading up the pass.
19 August - Sost to the pass and back - 87km
We took a lift up the pass as I had a cold which had been hanging in for days (at the top the pass is 4733m high). We could also leave our heavy luggage in the hotel. It was a brilliant, cloudless, sunny day and the views were spectacular. From pass (the Chinese-Pakistan border) it was 87km downhill all the way back to Sost. Halfway we stopped and lit the stove for coffee and enjoyed the view.
20 August - Sost – Karrimabad - 94km
The road back to Karrimabad was not as downhill as I expected, but once again fairly up and down with some steep climbs. I felt quite tired when we arrived in Karrimabad and again we had the steep 2km climb up to the village. Maybe it’s the cold or maybe the altitude, or perhaps just a case of being unfit (I’d hardly done any cycling in the previous 6 weeks). A great supper at our Inn awaited us again.
21 August - Karrimabad
The Inn had a great view and atmosphere, so we stayed another day. Also to see if my cold will not improve before setting off again. The power is very unreliable and went off 3 times while trying to send one email!!! Most of the smaller villages have one day power and one day off.
22 August - Karimabad
We woke to find the day overcast and raining so we stayed in bed until late. Breakfast was the usual milk tea and local pancake (a thick pancake with jam). Lunch was more local food consisting of a local pizza (onion, tomato and cheese sandwiched between 2 chapatti) Supper was the usual communal supper!! What a life!! Most people seem to come here for a day but end up staying for a week. We took a walk around the small village and up to the old fort, which is now renovated.
23 August - Karimabad – Gilgit - 106km
Well fed and rested we left Karimabad for Gilgit. Not long after we set off the road was blocked due to a landslide. Nothing one can do but sit and wait for it to be cleared. I could feel I’m fairly unfit as we cycled what is supposed to be down (but lots of ups and downs again). Fortunately there were many villages/shops along the way where one can stop and get some food and drinks. We reached Gilgit via a small narrow tunnel and suspension bridge.
24 August - Gilgit
We stayed at the popular Madina Hotel, slightly more expensive at 390 rp (R39.00) for a double room, but with clean bedding and hot water it was worth it. We spent the day wondering around the town and markets. What colorful markets they have here, Ernest bought himself a Hunza hat with lots of advice and encouragement from the locals.
25 August - Gilgit – Talechi - 67km
Once again we only left the Madina Hotel quite late. (One day we’ll get an early start like most other people). Not too many steep hills but the general up and down of the Karakoram. A whitewashed monument signaled the junction of the Karakoram, Hindukush, and Himalaya mountains. Here we found an unfortunate Dutch traveller who pulled too far off the road and overturned his Land Cruiser. A bit further we found the Nanga Parbat Hotel, a half built structure where we could camp. The views across to Nanga Parbat (8125m second highest in Pakistan) were great. The mountain is also known as Killer Mountain due to the large number of deaths among mountaineers.
26 August - Talechi – Chilas - 71km
A hot and dry day on the road but a fairly short ride to Chilas. Ernest had 3 punctures so we arrived later than expected. A head wind also seems to pick up between 14h00 – 16h00 so it’s best to do most of the cycling in the morning. People have warned us about stone throwing in the region and it had already started. We passed the notorious land sliding area just past Raikot Bridge without any incident. In Chilas we stayed at the Karakoram Inn, typical of Pakistani Budget Hotels with dirty bedding and filthy bathrooms!!.
27 August - Chilas – Dasu - 117km
We entered the Indus Kohistan district, a very conservative area where no women at all are seen outside. This area reminds me a lot of Ethiopia, both in scenery and stone-throwing children. The area is also considered rather lawless and camping in the wild is not recommended. Here the gorge is deep and narrow with steep cliffs on the one side and sheer drop offs down to the river on the other side. About 15km before Dasu we found a rest house with such an idyllic setting that we could not refuse when the manager offered us a room at 50% discount.
28 August - Dasu – Pattan - 53km
The plan was to cycle to Besham, but after 50km and another flat tyre (& damaged rim) by Ernest we decided to stay in Pattan. We have now used the last of our spare tubes so will have to stock up again in Islamabad. The area is also so scenic that one does not want to rush it. The road climbs high on the canyon wall and the scenery is truly spectacular with a lot more greenery than further north. The Indus River flowed way below us as we cycled up the mountainside. In many places the road is washed away or damaged by rock falls from the crumbling mountainside.
29 August - Pattan – Batagram - 96km
For me this is the most scenic part of the KKH, with lots of greenery and forested mountainsides. The road is still in poor condition, to such an extent that I broke my front luggage rack. Now it’s held together with duct tape and cable ties. Not as bad as a Polish cyclist we met on the way, who broke his gears and now only has one gear (and that going up the KKH!!!). At Thakot we crossed the Indus River (the official start and end of the KKH) and climbed out of the Indus valley, what a sweaty affair!! At Batagram we stayed in a hotel which has definitely seen better days - the lack of tourists is painfully visible in many of these places.
30 August - Batagram – Abbottobad - 98km
From Bategram it was yet another climb up to Chatter Plain and then a good downhill run. The villages are all close together with busy bazaars and it’s a slow process getting through. The road is jam packed with colorful trucks, cars, Jeeps and Donkey carts. From Mansera to Abottobad was again up and down, but now the children seemed to be scared of us and ran like crazy as we came along. People appeared to be stunned and just stared open mouthed at us. I don’t know how many women they see on a bike, but then it is not surprising as not even I have met another women cyclist along the KKH. In fact I have not even met another multi-year women cyclist along the way. No wonder they stare!!
31 August- Abottobad – Islamabad - 125km
A fairly unpleasant ride after such fantastic scenery, how spoilt we are!!! There were also some road works along the way which makes it a dusty business. Eventually we arrived back in Islamabad and back to the campsite. We’d been gone for more than 2 weeks, but we had some acquaintances there who were still waiting for visa’s.
1 – 3rd September - Islamabad
We collected our Indian visas and Ernest spent 2 entire days cleaning and servicing the bikes. I bought 2 more books to read as books are incredibly cheap (all copies). So now I carried not only a VERY thick Indian Lonely Planet but also 2 novels (they better be worth it). In was Ramzaan (Ramadan) and the market was very quiet, but the mosques start calling at 4 AM, and there is a loud clatter of pots and pans as the local workers and guards in the camp prepare to eat before sunrise.