PAKISTAN

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Map of Pakistan

Having now secured our Iranian visa it was time to depart for Pakistan. Obviously we only scratched the surface of India and its culture but that is true of all the countries we've visited and the nature of the trip to a certain degree, as each deserves a solitary visit in its own right. Again as we drove north from Delhi we were able to make good progress on a motorway and covered 500 kilometers, a distance I would have not believed possible here on our first introduction to its roads. We reached Amritsar that evening where we looked at its famous Golden temple over the next two days. This area of India which is predominantly Seikh struck us as much more prosperous than the region further south. As Amritsar is effectively on the border with Pakistan it was only a short hop across to Lahore, whose traffic was every bit as chaotic and frantic as any in India. One of our primary objectives in Pakistan was to travel up the Karakorum Highway to its end on the Chinese border and so to that end we soon left Lahore behind and were blissfully heading up a brilliant and deserted motorway when our progress was suddenly halted by the Highway Police who informed us that motorbikes are not allowed on their autoroutes. Obviously this is to prevent the hordes of small bikes that crowd the roads here from doing likewise to the motorways but the fact that there is no limit on the size must indicate the poor popularity of big bikes here. At any rate the police were more than good natured about it all as they gave us an escort back the 30 odd kilometers complete with sirens and flashing lights. I had asked them to do it in the other direction. Indeed when they caught me speeding some days later they were equally easy about it as they let me off. It delayed our progress a little but the alternative route was a dual carrageway on which we made very good headway which saw us at the start of the Karakorum that evening.

The Karakorum Highway, which is effectively the ancient silk route to China, was built by the military between 1966 and 78 and has been described as the eighth wonder of the world. It certainly rates as one of the great roads to travel and it proved a memorable section of our trip for many reasons. The road hugs the course of the Indus river valley though the road itself is cut into the cliff face at anything up to 1000 feet above the fast flowing waters below. It takes a week to do the whole route up and back as progress is slow due, not to the distance but,to the condition of the road. Firstly as I said it hugs the cliff face with the result that it is continuously twisting and turning. It's also a narrow road but the width is further effected by lanslides and places where much of it has dropped into the gorge below. This is an area of platectonic movement and earthquakes and landslides are common place. I feel though as i'm over dramatizing it now as it really is not difficult but it has the potential to be. We certainly made good progress up the first half of it where we stopped at the Shangrila hotel in Calas, the traditional half way point. This is Talaban country being not fat from the Afghanistan border and indeed was seemingly only raided recently by a joint American and Pakistan unit, how true that is I don't know. At any rate while at tea there we spoke to a very unlikely family of Christian missionaries dressed in local attire who said that it was a town they wouldn't venture into. Thinking that a little melodramatic I dismissed it and was starting to walk down its unlit streets when the hotel manager sent a lad running after me to bring me back, so perhaps it can be dodgy, i'll never know.

The road for 60 kilometers above Calas proved tedious as it has been badly effected by earthquakes and most of it is unrepaired dirt with streams to cross as you jostle for space with the antiquated trucks, resplendent in over ornate decorations. Beyond this section the road follows the Hunza Valley, which is a beautiful Mediterranean type landscape of apricot groves and vineyards set against the background of the Karakorums, the most extensive range of snow capped mountains in the world. We were blessed with beautiful weather so that the white mountain tops sat perfectly against an incredibly blue sky which colour we also noticed high in the Andes. Apart from the weather we were also lucky that the Chinese border was closed for a further week due to SARS which meant that beyond the last big town, Gilgit we had the road to ourselves. Perhaps we would have had anyway as we encountered a landslide that day which cut of the road. Beyond Sost there is a notorious stretch that is so subject to landslides that there is a bulldozer constantly on standby there. Upon reaching this section we were greeted by an actual slide in the process of happening. Foolishly, perhaps, but having invested so much time to come so far and with only another 30 kilometers to the border we decided to cross it. John with his longer legs rode and paddled while I had the easier task of pushing, all this over moving rocks and with boulders hurtling down that without any exaggeration would have decapated us had they hit us. Beyond this section the road while strewn with rocks and boulders was easy and we reached the end of the road an hour later. At over 16000 feet it is the highest international border post in the world and the weather was so fine that it was actually warm at 14 degrees. Since there were no Chinese guards we both sneaked under the fence into China just for the hell of it. When we came down later the landslide had subsided but the moving stones underfoot made it tiring and tricky and the raging river was waiting below so I was happy that it was John who was sitting on the bikes.

Having safely re-negotiated the landslide we were left that midsummers evening with a wonderful ride down the Hunza Valley which was scented in blossoms as we basked in the warm evening sunshine. The following morning on leaving Gilgit our progress came to an abrupt halt 20 kilometers out the road as we arrived upon a group dynamiting a landslide which had totally blocked the road. We were told that it would take only a few hours but realised that that was a totally optimistic estimation and rather than hang about there aimlessly under a scorching sun we repaired the short distance back to Gilgit and found a shaded petrol station in which we were let service our bikes. The road wasn`t cleared till late that night so the following morning we were glad to get thru as these slides can sometimes take days to repair.


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