Acts Of Kindness enroute: a donkey ride, just for the fun of it...
AOK: A cup of chai on the road side
On to Islamabad 13/3/08
Lahore is a big city and frankly not much different to most large Indian cities. Traffic though wasn't as frantic and as we entered we asked directions. It seems everytime we speak to a Pakistani, they want to shake our hand and welcome us to their country. This is good and already we are feeling more at ease here.
We got directions and checked into what looked (at the reception area) like a reasonable hotel. In hindsight it was probably the worst hotel we have ever stayed at, dirty and old. To compensate we got a tuk tuk and found a restaurant that served wonderful Pakistani food. How a good meal makes up for so much. We're travelling now with Chris Cowper, the Australian we met up with in Amritsar. He's a great bloke and it's good to have him along.
The noisy two stroke tuk tuks raced up and down the street outside our hotel all night and we didn't get much sleep, so we thought we'd beat the traffic and get an early morning start for Islamabad over 500km to the north. Well even at 6.00am the traffic was heavy, but more controlled and nowhere near as aggressive as in India and we easily made our way from the hotel to the outskirts of the city. There are two routes to Islamabad, the expressway and the Grand Trunk Road. Bikes are not allowed on the expressway and we reckoned that the GTR would be clogged with trucks so when we saw the expressway entrance we went for it. 6th gear and 120kph, how good is this. We zoomed through a couple of toll booths past stationary police cars and thought we would get away with it, but alas about 40ks down the road a police car caught us up and politely, but firmly requested we exit the expressway and continue with the great unwashed on the GTR.
As it turned out, the GTR wasn't so bad. The surface was good, the traffic fairly light and it skirted the many small towns along the way. We were able to average nearly 90kph and see a bit of Pakistani life and we reached Rawlpindi and then 15km later the capital Islamabad about lunchtime. My cousin Dave, in England has a work colleague living in Islamabad and Zahid invited us to stay at his house. Well house probably isn't the right term because Zahid and his wife Taps live in a magnificent mansion. After the hotel last night what a pleasure it was to enjoy an evening here and a fantastic home cooked meal before heading out for the wilds of the Karakorum Highway (KKH).
A bit of History.
Besham to Chilas (200km and 5.5 hours ) On this leg the traffic thinned and the scenery improved, but there were several sections of major road works to repair landslide damage. If the landslides are this bad down here, what will they be like when we reach the pass? Something we can ponder on in the days ahead perhaps.
Chilas to Gilgit (130km and 3 hours) A shorter leg and the magnificent mountains become more and more impressive and fortunately the landslide damage becomes less and less. Very little traffic now and we really begin to enjoy this famous road and what it offers the adventurous motorcyclist.
After an emotionally and physically exhausting ride we arrive in what looks like a real outback and largely deserted town. The signs say Sost so this must be it, but it seems that it is still too early in the season for visitors and although there are lots of hotels, none are open. The Rivieria Hotel has been recommended but it is locked up. Desperation starts to set in pretty quickly in conditions like this and it's already really cold and we've nowhere to stay. Fear not though, the ever friendly Pakistani's came to our rescue and someone seeing our plight phoned the hotel manager and he came and opened up for us. Whew.
After ensconcing ourselves in our room, Dianne and I decided to go for a walk through what appears to be the town. At the far end there is a Customs and Immigration post and a barrier blocking the road. We mentioned to the official there that we were excited to be going to the pass tomorrow, but he became concerned, saying, and I'll translate. 'Oh no you won't. This is the border post and it's closed until May 5th. Nobody, including you can pass'. Well, we were gob smacked. All this way and we can't get to the pass. 'Not on your nelly,' I explained to the official, 'this is going to be the highlight of our trip to Pakistan and the Karakoram Highway, we're going through tomorrow'. We exchanged differing views a few more times and then he ushered us to his boss. After some whispering between them, the boss man reiterated what the official had said. 'Make an exception.' we pleaded, but to no avail. 'This is the official border post and it is closed to all traffic until May 5th and we cannot make any exceptions, but come inside and have a cup of tea and lets have a chat anyway.'
The tea was good and we were offered biscuits too and after a brief chat the boss man said he would drive us 10km up towards the pass in his official 4X4. He understood our disappointment and wanted to at least give us an opportunity to take a few photos, and he apologised for not being able to take us any further as he had no fuel in the vehicle.
We have been amazed at the friendly and generous nature of the Pakistani people since our arrival and this was yet another example. Dianne found an excerpt from our guide book that perhaps explains why this is so.
According to Islamic teachings, guests are considered an expression of God's blessing and even the poorest people will go out of their way to greet and help strangers and expect nothing in return.
Well we are disappointed not to make it to the Khunjerab Pass, but nevertheless we are still pumped to have made it this far. The Karakoram boasts the highest concentration of lofty peaks and glaciers in the world and we are indeed fortunate to have travelled through such grandeur for so many kilometres. (about 800km) A walk after breakfast up the road and then it was back on the bikes and down to Gilgit. Going back the other way the scenery appears different but just as impressive as it was yesterday and we know a comfortable hotel in Gilgit awaits us .
Not far from Gilgit we turned right off the highway to Karimabad - 2km west of the KKH and visited the nearly 800 years old Baltit fort located high above the valley.
and from the fort there are amazing views of the valley and now, at the end of April, thousands of fruit trees are in full blossom.
About 35km south of Gilgit is a turnoff on the left to Skardu. Dianne has done her research and it seems like a worthwhile place to visit. Skardu is about 170km off the KKH and the road takes us deep into the Karakoram ranges. The road is narrow, but the surface quite good and the ever winding and twisting road takes us through yet more spectacular scenery. Hard to believe I know, but true. It took us 6 hours to cover the 200km from Gilgit so that should give an indication of the road conditions.
The quaint but dusty little town of Skardu is surrounded by magnificent snow capped mountains and we settled into the comfy Indus hotel. The riding here is exhilarating, but exhausting and we feel that we need a break so today is a day off and an opportunity to soak in the environment, recharge the batteries and get some of the chores out of the way. We strolled through the market and then climbed up a massive rock face to the ruined fort of Karpochu. Just the views down the valley were well worth the effort. Back down in the market place it looks like Boys Town and it's becoming more and more disturbing that there are no women to be seen anywhere. Dianne in particular is feeling very uncomfortable even though she always wraps a shawl around her head, but she is usually the only woman to be seen in the town. To her, a whole community of only men seems so strange and indeed somewhat threatening.
Chris took advantage of the time off and managed to get an oil change for his bike and also some new horns fitted. I wrote this bit of the website and Dianne sorted her photos and planned the rest of the return trip. Oh, and we've ordered STEAK for dinner.
Back to Islamabad
Another good nights sleep and it's on the bikes again for the return trip to the KKH proper. It's going to be too big a leg to make it to Chilas so we'll stop at the PTDC (Pakistan Tourist Development Corporation) hotel half way down. It's a modern hotel and that night we meet 3 Spaniards who are riding small Russian Minsk bikes that they bought in Vietnam. Actually they are not riding them now as they don't have a Carnet de Passage for them and the Pakistani customs wouldn't let them ride them in Pakistan. Instead they have freighted them to the Iranian border and will continue from there. They have hired a jeep with driver so they can at least see the KKH and that is a viable and inexpensive option for visitors without their own transport.
Even though we are retracing our route, the scenery is quite different going the other way and we have another fantastic ride to Chilas and then on the following day back to the PTDC at Bisham.
On the way to Bisham, Dianne has decided that we should take a short excursion off the KKH towards the Astore Valley. It is yet another amazing road with breathtaking scenery even if we only ventured about 70km into the valley and well worth the effort.
We haven't had a drop of rain since we left home in August 7 months and 30 000km ago, but today the heavens opened up. If fact it's been raining through the night and there is now a real possibility that landslides could have blocked the road. We have a choice, stay a day and hope the rain stops or leave and hope the roads are not blocked. The predictions are for more rain, probable landslides and road blocks so we decide to leave and make our way up the muddy and slippery small road connecting to the main KKH and then down to Islamabad about 250km away.
Motorcycle travel is all about ups and downs. When things are good they are very good and when they are bad ... well. Our rain gear soon proved it wasn't really up to a whole days rain and with temps ranging from 8 - 12 degrees all day, we soon got really cold. The roads too were slippery and there were numerous landslides which fortunately had been cleared, but were very muddy and slippery. We took things easy though and luck was on our side and arrived back in Islamabad tired wet and cold nearly 10 hours later at about 6.00pm. Fortunately we were welcomed by Zahid and Taps and soon cleaned up and warmed up and enjoyed their hospitality again.
We may not have made it to the Chineese border post at the Khunjerab Pass, but we have experienced over 2000km of fantastic riding and scenery. It has been a 'once in a lifetime' adventure and we are really pumped at having had the opportunity to ride what is regarded as one of the greatest motorcycling roads in the world.
Across Pakistan and through Balochistan
From Islamabad we need to make the long haul south east to Lahore and then west to the Iranian border passing through the troubled Balochistn province. We estimate that it will take us about 6 days of full on riding and the condition of the road is questionable, so some preventative maintenance, cleaning and checking over of the bikes, after what they've been through is in order.
Jack the BMW has proved to be an outstanding choice for this journey. He is basically unaltered from the showroom apart from the fitting of Ohlins shocks and panniers. We realised on our central Australia trip that the stock shocks just weren't up to carrying 250kg plus of us and luggage over bad roads. The Ohlins are expensive, but they are everything people say they are. Sometimes we look at the road surface and can't believe how smoothly we are riding along and sometimes we hit the many speed humps at speed and simply glide over them. There is no doubt in my mind that they have saved major damage to the frame and us, while providing us with a mostly comfortable ride over thousands of kilometres of diabolical roads.
Fuel has been readily available throughout Pakistan and even high octane is available in most places. When we have had to use the low octane stuff, Jack has coped well with the knock sensor detecting detonation and retarding the timing appropriately. We've had two punctures, the last was over 400 000km ago in Holland in 1979! Tubeless tyres meant we weren't let down and repairs with plugs were easy. Oil changes every 10 000km are few and far between and Jack uses hardly any of his (expensive) synthetic oil between changes. Certainly not enough to warrant topping up. About the only thing we regularly need to replace is the headlamp bulb. It seems to last only 20 000km and with 60 000km now on the clock, we are on our third one. Even nuts and bolts have remained tight and after a good wash Jack looks as good as he did in the showroom and is rearing to go.
All our equipment is likewise still in good order. Our Mac computer has travelled almost as far as Jack without complaint as have the backup drives and the Nikon D80 camera has performed faultlessly despite taking about 300 shots a day, every day, often in dusty conditions. The Zumo GPS too has proved useful when maps or road signs are lacking, and provides confirmation when we sometimes need to guess a direction. Lets just hope everythingl keeps on working for the remainder of the journey.
With everything checking out OK Zahid and Taps took us sightseeing around Islamabad. Apparently the city only came to life in 1963 and was designed by Doxiadis and Associates, I'm told they were the same firm that designed Canberra! The city area covers 906 sq m with 220 sq m of parks and temperatures rance from -3 degrees to 45 degrees. The city has an urban population of 630 000 and a rural population of 320 000. It is such a modern city and so different to the rest of Pakistan.
Pakistan is a troubled country and there are still dangers for travelers particularly in Baluchistan province where we need to ride through, so Zahid, a former Major in the army has planned our stops for the run to the Iranian border. First night - Multan, then Sukkar, then on to Quetta. Next stop is Dalbandin where we will have to stay at the police station for security and then Taftan and the border. He insists we leave before sunrise and ensure we are off the road by 3.00pm.
We've really enjoyed Pakistan and particularly the Pakistani people, but we are keen to get to Iran, so it is with an air of anticipation and excitement that we leave Islamabad early on our way to Multan on the busy GTR. Along the way Chris had a misshap. The GTR passes many small towns and the locals are constantly crossing this busy highway. Chris slowed down, saw a woman walking into his path, toodted frantically and took evasive action, but nevertheless just clipped her with the left handlebar. That was enough to bowl her over and send Chris and his Rooney BMW sliding down the road. Fortunately, the speeds were low and neither of them sustained much damage but it is a reality check as to the ever present dangers when riding in this region.
An early start this morning and onto Sukkar through interesting and productive farmland, but at 37 degrees we are taking the strain a bit.
At Sukkar a machine gun toting 4X4 greeted us and the officer in charge firmly instructed us to stay at the hotel and not go out at all and wait for the escort in the morning. There are no overt signs of trouble, but this is a reality check that all is not well in this part of Pakistan.
From Sibbi to Quetta the road passes through several rugged mountain ranges and armed police escort us.
The hotel owner though, says that there is no problem and the police are over cautious. We don't want a police escort so take the hotel owners advice and venture out into the main street to get a short glimpse of Quetta.
From Quetta to the Iranian border is a particularly risky two day section that at times passes within a few kilometers of the Afganistan border and the only place to stay half way is at the small town of Dalbandin. There are a couple of hotels in the town, but the police will not allow us to stay there and insist for security purposes that we stay within the police compound. The compound is filthy. I mean really filthy and prisoners in the cells stare continually at us. We arrived about 2.00pm after a fantastic ride from Quetta, and spent the afternoon 'confined to barracks' so to speak.
We need to get bottled water and some fruit for tomorrow but can't leave the compound until the commander arrives and we can have two armed guards to escort us. At 6.00pm the boss man arrives and we get our escorts and our water and fruit. The three of us hastily return to the compound where we settle for the night in a small room on two stretchers with an armed guard on duty by the door.
We were keen to get away and left Dalbandan before sunrise on an excellent road to the border town of Taftan. The good road gave us time to reflect on our time in Pakistan which has been a big surprise and a country which we have really enjoyed.
Nothing but sand as far as you can see on both sides of the highway as we get close to Iran.
The roads are much better than those we experienced in India and the traffic nowhere near as frantic. Truck drivers are courteous and don't try to run us off the road and the sign age is reasonably good. Generally the riding and scenery are great, particularly the KKH which will remain one of our all time greatest riding experiences.
However, the treatment of women in parts of Pakistan is disturbing. The combination of Islamic interpretation and tribal custom generally means that women are simply not seen. At times Pakistan appears to be a country of males only. If women are seen, they are completely covered and as we pass by they will turn their heads away.
Islamabad is the exception though and in this modern city the women are somewhat liberated , have a progressive interpretation of Islam and often do not follow the traditional Islamic dress code.
The face of Pakistan
... the face of Pakistan heading west.
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