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28/07/2011 – 05/08/2011 – Gilgit to Rawalpindi – Popping round to our old pal Bin Laden’s pl ace

November 10, 2011

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Before we left Gilgit I had to make a trip to the spice shop, after months of meat and bones floating in noodle soup the sensory overload of Pakistan left us resoundingly satisfied, in fact we’d sampled almost everything from the local restaurants menu, which even for 2 hungry cyclists was quite a feat.

The spice shop was full of re-used sunflower oil tins filled with tall sculpted pyramids of multicoloured powders.  I asked for garam massala and was offered 3 varieties each with their own distinctive shade of red, “which is best?” I asked, pointing to a sack on the floor, I reached down and grabbed a handful, the smell was immense, all the different ingredients fresh and strong, it was still possible to see some of the ginger rind.  I grabbed a small sack for a about 10 pence and left, wish I’d picked up more.

With the razor sharp teeth of the Karakoram mountains all around we continued following the Hunza river towards Chilas where the turn off for the Kaghan valley begins.  Having heard a few scare stories about the KKH (Karakorum Highway) beyond Gilgit, “people no good” we’d heard a lot alongside stories of foreign cyclists getting hassle and worse, we made the decision to take an alternative route.  The new route, however, would involve a 3000m climb from Chilas to Barbusar top, the map on Google showing a relentless stream of switchbacks creating quite a pattern on the screen.

On the route, a dusty rock strewn track occasionally enveloped in thick dust by elaborately decorated lorries passing, the Hunza river was met by the mighty Indus River.  This water source and associated valley, stretching from the Indian/Tibet border into central Pakistan has been the bedrock of several civilizations.  The same spot was also the meeting point of 3 of the highest mountain ranges in the world – The Karakoram’s, The Hindu Kush and the Himalayas.

Villages were full of kids, mostly boys, running alongside us in their different coloured shalwar kamiz each one different yet sharing the common thread of being caked in dust.  Each one would shout “one pen” “One pen” with their hands out stretched, we didn’t give out any pens.  One thing that was instantly noticeable in Pakistan was the complete lack of women in public environments, in this entirely male-dominated environment it was rare to see girls let alone women, all of them remaining in the house or fields making only completely necessary trips to shops.

The weather soured bringing small rock falls down the mountain and creating some sketchy do or die moments akin to ‘Raiders of the lost arc,’ where we’d have to speed past sections to avoid getting hit.  We arrived in a small roadside village just before a deluge and took shelter crammed under a veg stall with some bemused teenagers.  After 10 minutes an exuberant man had invited us to sit in his shed and have milk tea, slightly soaked we explained our story as the crowd towering above us as we sat on a bench grew.  After some harmless conversation he dropped a bit of a bomb, “you know Taliban?”  Shit I thought to myself, is this it?  All the months of blasé attitude and now we were in deep shit in the middle of nowhere in fucking Pakistan.  “Yes” we replied quickly glancing round, all the guys looked like they could easily have been on BBC News.  “Good people” he replied glancing over to a quiet looking man in the 2nd row and with a completely straight face said “He’s a Taliban.”  The guy did little other than offer a small indistinct smile,  I felt incredibly uncomfortable, the situation didn’t feel threatening but it was obvious we both were thinking about getting out of there pretty sharpish.  Getting up and stretching we made it clear it was time for us to pedal off, thanking them for the tea we got on our way feeling pretty unnerved.

Whether it was a joke or not we’ll never know but entering Chilas the usual interested stares became more sinister, it felt like people we’re eyeing us up.  Kids started to throw things and give us hassle, adults doing little to stop it, it became difficult to tell who was friend and who was foe.  Luckily some young guys on a scooter saw that we needed some help and shooed the kids away.  Camping didn’t feel safe, I wanted to get to a police station as quickly as possible.  We weaved through the pedestrian traffic, trying to keep a low profile with little success, after some wrong turns we got to the police station and breathed a sigh of relief when they greeted us happily and said we could stay there for the night without asking too many questions.  We locked out belongings in an empty cell and set up camp on the patch of grass in the police station, talking sporadically with the more senior officers one of which had studied molecular biology at masters level.

Chilas seemed a lot more friendly after a good nights sleep, but the sun was roasting hot and the prospect of climbing all day up to the pass dripping in sweat not so great.  We stopped for lunch outside a shop and were quickly offered the best seats, seeing our measly lunch of chapatti, tomato and cucumber, bowls of dhal and veg curry were whisked over free of charge.  We devoured as much as we could with an amphitheatre of different age groups encircling us watching every mouthful.  Climbing was tough, in some places kids would help push the bike up steep sections, sometimes with great success other times pushing the bike off balance and making it harder.  Groups of men walked around proudly with shotguns and rifles, were they off to shoot animals?

As the sun was setting, we were no where near the top, nowhere near a hotel or police station and out of luck with camping as the area had few flat spaces left free.  We tried to motion to stay in a mosque but no one spoke English an we had 2 or three words in Urdu.  A few minutes later a huge white Toyota land cruiser pulled up with Islamabad number plates and out jumped 4 young Pakistanis in shorts and t shirts, a very uncommon sight here.  Speaking perfect English we told them we needed somewhere to stay and they relayed the news that the  next police station was 10kms up the road.  They saw we probably would struggle to make that so fielded our problem to the surrounding audience, from which one man stepped forward and said we could stay at his house.

A room was cleared and sporadically serviced with food by the women of the house who would deliver trays or curries to the door without entering.  Over dinner we were told that Ramadan was beginning in the next few days so no shops would be open and were also introduced to “No tension’ a hugely popular phrase in Pakistan designed to make people feel at ease.  “No tension’ – Do what you like, my house is your house.

The road continued to climb the following day.  We got some hassle from kids asking us what we were doing here and telling us we weren’t good people and we shouldn’t be here as we’re not Muslim but soon got rid of them.  Begs the question of who is teaching them this stuff.  The landscape was dotted with dirty canvas tents and kids, including girls without headscarves running amok.  This area is where the nomadic ’Gujurs’ migrate to during the summer to graze their animals on the higher altitude pastures.  Sash made the mistake of getting out a huge bag of sweets, the children toppling over each other to snatch their gift, his attempts to create order completely ignored and even the adults couldn’t resist diving in for their share.

We procrastinated numerous times on the ascent, tea stops, rainfall, police checkpoints all gave the perfect excuse not to exert ourselves, but when we did the climbing was tough.  On one switch back, trying desperately to grab some air back into my lungs a 4×4 load of pristine shalwar kamiz’s came over to greet me, the English accent was immediately noticeable.  “I’m from England” one man replied “Oh ye, where abouts?” “London” came the reply.  “Whereabouts in London?” “East London?”  “Where in East London?”  we were quickly drawing in on the location, “Ilford” he replied.  This man came from 10kms down the road from my house and we had met on the top of a remote mountainside pass in Pakistan.  So when I told him we’d cycled from there his face was priceless.

We finally summited the pass in the afternoon, 2 full days of climbing and almost 3000m in altitude gain, the mountains which loomed over us 2 days before were now sitting beneath us.  We celebrated the achievement and were invited to a house down in the valley.  The slightly odd man with a heavily German English accent told us we could stay at his house 3kms down the road.  10kms later, pushing our bikes across a field past the small remaining holdings I started to wonder where the hell we could be heading.  The houses he’d pointed to at the top of the pass were far behind us now and the light was starting to fade.  “It’s just up here… I think” he said without much conviction, he didn’t really seem to know where he was going, raising alarm bells.  So when we arrived at a fast flowing river with no sign of a bridge and he began taking off his shoes and rolling up his trouser legs, we asked with a bit more force “Where is this place?”  “It’s just up here” came the lacklustre response.  We waded through the river thigh high in the dark, Sasha decided the cavalier attitude was best wading in with his entire bike to the middle before falling over, soaking his clothes and testing his iPod’s underwater ability.

We arrived at a spot where four palettes sat on the grass covered by a piece of weathered polythene, “this is my house” he announced.  I couldn’t help seeing the funny side of this situation, the guy had completely lied to us and now cold and wet there was no house.  His brother appeared out of the darkness and I hoped he might shine some light on the situation, behind him I could just make out the outline of a stone structure but with no lights on it was difficult to see.  After a few minutes the situation began to unfold, his 2 brothers, sisters and mother all lived in the house, he considerably older had to sleep outside in his make shift shelter.

We were invited in to the bare stone room just tall enough so that you had to hunch and sat huddled around the yak dung stove/ heater and watched the family make dinner.  There was a good vibe and it was really great to sit in a room with a full Pakistani family, women included watching the interactions and nifty handwork to create chapattis.  They obviously had very little so we offered up our veg which they reluctantly took in exchange for a hot plate of curry and bread.  The place felt like a squat, in a good way, and it was enjoyable to see a family that had stuck together all their lives, no one had married out and it felt like they were all good friends.

One brother sat outside cloaked in a thick sheeps shall and an enormous automatic weapon “guarding” our tents and bikes.  Whether its true or just imagined people fear ‘thieves’ all over Pakistan.  The men I’d seen carrying guns the day before, for hunting I’d assumed, we’re hunting of sorts but not animals it would seem, rather their neighbours.

In the light of day the green valley stretched beneath us, water buffalo lumbered alongside the river we’d crossed the night before.  Shorts were not suitable for breakfast we were told so we donned the shalwar kamiz in time to sit outside for tea and sweet chapatti’s, slowly two figures made their way towards us one a younger  man carrying something on his back the other a stocky elderly man.  Everyone jumped up to their feet when the two arrived and sincere welcomes offered to the elderly man, an important elder in the area and a descendant of the ’King of Chilas.’  We then walked through villages further in the valley, still dressed in shalwar kamiz pushing our heavy touring bikes much to the amusement of the hordes of kids encircling us.  Again our hosts sense of direction wasn’t too great and we had to back track to the only river crossing, a rickety bridge perched above a raging river, with everyone eager to help push the bikes across the thin passage, I could see the whole lot being washed away, luckily we got across and continued on.

Now the real treat began, having climbed 3000m it was now time to shed it.  The Kaghan valley was lush and green, full of tall pine trees producing a heady aroma, a super smooth asphalt road carried us round some of the sweetest bends known to man, it made you feel like Valentino Rossi.  Bee boxes lined the road accompanied by thoroughly worn UNHCR tents left over from previous flooding that had destroyed the area only a few years ago.

Ramadan had begun but shops still seemed to be open, allowing us to buy food for the evenings, lunch however was more problematic as all restaurants were closed.  We had to fill up on samosas and other deep fried pastries used in the ceremony of breaking fast at 7.15pm and then find a secret place to devour our illicit purchases out of the watchful (and longing) eye of everyone not allowed to eat or drink during the day.  We came a cropper a few times, someone would inevitably find us eating and whilst most people understood that we probably weren’t muslims, some people didn’t understand why everyone wasn’t fasting.  On a couple of occasions we slipped up and forgot, buying drinks and gulping them down, and were angrily confronted by wide-eyed men telling us we were bad, whoops.  At 7.15pm each day the klaxon from the mosque sounds out and people can begin eating the samosas and fruit.  Breaking fast wasn’t the giant gorge fest I had expected, people weren’t stuffing their faces faster than they could swallow but would take small bites obviously thinking about the importance of the period.

In a hectic Balakot the Kaghan valley with its cool fresh air and beautiful alpine scenery came to an abrupt end, we were back on the plains in the heat and the shit.  A sweaty pass and endless up and down hill brought us into Mansehra at 7:00.  City + rush hour + fasting muslims created a mental atmosphere, shop shutters thrown down to the ground in almost perfect unison, we found a hotel and sat in the serenity of the cool room.  Accompanied by an eager afghan boxer we found some supper and watched the aftermath of breaking fast.  It was a bit like being in a zombie movie, some people would be ambling around stuffed, the body overloaded with sustenance, others slumped on chairs in various stages of sleep or exhaustion.  Not eating or dinking for over 16 hours and still trying to maintain some kind of normality must be a real feat, a true devotion to God.

The next morning we joined the chaotic main road which would lead us all the way to India.  Dusty, dirty and busy it was  unfortunately a world away from the valley we’d been in a few days back.  Trucks beeping, people trying to initiate conversation at inconvenient times and the general hustle and bustle a higher  population density brings would be the norm for the next few weeks.  After a monster downpour left us stranded in a petrol station with some young evangelical muslims abhorred at our desire to fill our bellies at lunch time, we were losing valuable time.

And so we arrived in Abbottabad, a relatively unknown middle class city  which until recently would have completely slipped under the radar, that was until Bin Laden was shot down in his house there.  Keen to get as close as possible we found out the rough location and went about trying not to look too obvious, after a few wrong turns we were on the right track.  I imagined the US special agents making their way possibly  along the same very road armed with one of the most important missions of our time, the excitement was building.   As we closed in, possibly no  more than 20 meters from the front door a line of police stopped us and requested us to leave the area.  It was close enough for us and we didn’t want to push our luck so left with a few snaps.

With limited camping we thought we’d try our luck and look a bit lost around the time of the eating klaxon, sure enough we secured a place to put our tents (in a graveyard) and got a platter of food to devour whilst setting up the tents.  We were then invited into their house and enjoyed some great food whilst chatting about the their reaction to Bin Laden being found in their home town with a well-educated family.  Just as we were about to retire the police show up and tells us we can’t camp because it isn’t safe enough from thieves, after numerous attempts to asure them, we’re loaded into a van with all the gear and driven back into Abbottabad to a hotel.  The police paid for the hotel, nice chaps, and even offered us some drink (completely illegal in Pakistan) before they wandered off visibly a bit pissed.

With the KKH (Karakorum Highway) completely over we settled into the maelstrom with a great deal of unease.  Feeling completely rinsed and still not recovered from the mammoth climb into the Kaghan we approached Islamabad and bypassed it completely arriving into Rawalpindi,, its sister city, on an 8 lane motorway filled with blacked out 4x4s emblazoned with “Terrorist squad” in big white letters, on top gunners sat, their faces completely covered by balaclavas.

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