The next morning, I swapped buses in Gilgit – the largest town on the Karakoram Highway. An hour into the two hour journey, we reached a checkpoint. Multiple checkpoints lined the Karakoram, where passports and visas are reviewed, and anyone who doesn’t hold the correct documents is either questioned or taken off the bus. This time, however, we were held up due to a religious protest.
Fast forward six hours and the barriers were lifted. During the lengthy travel hiatus, I spoke to two University students, on a semester break, who were travelling home from Islamabad. In impeccable English, we discussed Pakistani politics, corruption, and the military's over-powering control of government. How the US are heavily involved in the country’s future and their ties to the military. And, how the Hunza Valley, the area in which we resided, is an autonomous region (like Kashmir), where residents don’t pay tax, identify as Pakistani, and religious laws are relaxed.
An International Relations student, Salar’s knowledge and interest in world affairs was thorough. I thought he might be interested in ‘Unfree Speech’, so I gave him the book. An unspoken gesture of appreciation for the time we had spent together. I like to think that he read it; if nothing else it would continue to help his understanding of the English language.
That evening, we arrived in Ali Abad – the last stop on the bus. My original plan was to jump onto another people carrier for Passu, but it was late. In the pitch black, pouring rain and with no phone signal, I rode through the small town in a bid to find a resting house. I almost cycled past a hotel, due to its bleak lifelessness, when all of a sudden the lights turned on. Fairy lights draped the outside walls and parking area, and an LED ‘Hotel’ sign flashed green. I braked and jumped off the bike. A man appeared, so I asked for a room. He saw the bicycle and boasted: “Your friends are here!”. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but after being shown to my temporary home I saw three familiar bikes resting against a wall outside.
Quickly after, Joris, a French cyclist, appeared from a hotel room. “Joris! Mate, how are you doing?”, I asked, surprised to see him. Our conversation rustled up the attention of Antoine and Guido, another French and a Dutch tourer, who appeared from the same hotel room. I had met all of them, separately, in Georgia. After Georgia, Joris and Guido cycled through Iran together. They were joined by Antoine on the Pakistani border. As a three, they meandered through southern Pakistan – dodging the flood stricken areas with a mandatory – yet arduous – police escort. All tourists in the south are required to have a police escort until the city of Quetta. The area borders Afghanistan and is known for hostage situations from Taliban insurgencies. After reaching Islamabad, they embarked on the same bus journey I had taken. The difference being, they made it to Passu.
The meeting wasn’t mere coincidence, however. I had loose plans to join them on the Karakoram Highway at some point. I knew they were one day ahead, so I was keen to catch them. Staying in Ali Abad, at the same time and in the same hotel, was pure luck – if it wasn’t for the lights turning on at the exact moment they did, I would have cycled past.
We caught up over pizza and discussed our plans. It was nice to be in a group of familiar faces. Although the time I had spent with them in Georgia was small, the shared journey and mode of transport broke barriers quickly. Touring is a small and close-knit community, most people know or know of each other; a community where information and experience sharing through WhatsApp, Instagram or Facebook creates trust and reliance.
As we ate paratha for breakfast at a roadside cafe, a fight broke out between two men. Unbeknownst to us, local rivalry between establishments was strife. The brawl was between the cafe owner and one of the hotel employees – the hotel employee wanted us to eat with him. After some time, Antoine stepped in to help break up the brawl. The rest of us watched from the sideline.
Entertainment over, I told the guys I would meet them in Gilgit that evening. I knew it was a long-shot, but thought it was worth a try. I found a taxi willing to drive to the Passu Cones – a collection of peaks that shadowed a glacier and the Hunza river. It was the closest I could get to the Chinese border and was reachable within an hour’s drive.
Glaciers dotted the upper mountainous regions, feeding meltwater into the gushing Hunza. A spectacular valley that sat in the shadows of six to eight thousand metre peaks. I took it all in before mounting the saddle. As I tackled the rolling Himalayan hills on traffic-less tarmac; fresh, cold air dried my face from the sun’s warmth. A peaceful, therapeutic ride – where nature was at its finest and the only entertainment I needed.
The road led through pockets of small villages until it reached a vast lake that shone a glistening turquoise. Small boats lined the shore; tourist vessels used to explore the tranquillity hidden in the Karakoram's remotest region.
After thirty miles of more mouth-watering scenery, I was back in Ali Abad. I ate, collected my bags (which I had left in the hotel) and raced towards Gilgit. As night drew in, I knew that I would not make it. I should have camped, but had left it too late to find a spot. Instead, I stayed in a rundown hotel without a shower – and paid for the privilege.
Up early, I rode the remaining distance to meet the guys for breakfast. We re-grouped over a paratha and continued south. The beauty continued to astound. Perfectly moulded tarmac nestled between the world’s tallest mountains. It seemed too easy. There was no pain or saddle sores. Only reward.
The guys had a more chilled approach to touring than I was used to. We stopped after a few kilometres for an early lunch. There was no stress or pressure. It was a practice I could get used to. We enjoyed lentils and bread and chatted nothing for a while before our saddles beckoned us to return.
The Karakoram Highway is where the three highest mountain ranges in the world meet: The Himalayas, Hindu Kush and Karakoram. We stopped at the viewing platform to appreciate the significant milestone. “I can’t believe we’re in Pakistan! Do you ever stop and think about that? Pakistan! And right there are the highest mountains in the world.”, I announced to anyone who would listen.
As we descended through Mordor, Joris played the Lord of the Rings theme tune on his speaker. An amusing five minutes. The road hugged the mountainside as the sun’s dying rays caused triangular shaped shadows on the horizon. That evening, we settled into a guesthouse at the bottom of the Nanga Parbat Base Camp trail next to the Hunza river.
The group was split on whether to do an overnight climb to Nanga – so we flipped a coin. The Powers that be voted for us to stay saddle bound. We saw the coin and chose to do the opposite.
After a rush of panic packing, we were seated in the jeep at 10am. The jeep was a mandatory requirement to reach the start of the base camp trek. In reality, it was a money making scheme for locals. The jeep took us along a thin, gravel road, which made the Wakhan Corridor look like a highway. It was stomach churning. Sat in the front seat, the view to my left was a vertical drop and the abyss of the valley below. The edge of the road was hidden beneath the 4x4; a clammy two hour drive I didn’t want to repeat.
Relieved to free the legs, we started the ascent. The trek followed a valley deep into the Himalayas. We stuck to a steep, well trodden trail through heavy forest. The higher we climbed, the thinner the air. We rested in the village of Fairy Meadows – a warm lentil lunch was paired with a majestic backdrop of Nanga Parbat. The cold sun and crisp air was a welcomed change from Karakoram's heat trap – hours passed until the dying day forced us to keep moving.
The remainder of the trek was filled with chatter about lessons learnt from the trip, life back home, work and general banter. Guido's bellowing voice echoed down the valley as he recited his favourite poems to us – a nice distraction for our strained legs.
We found a small hamlet to erect our tents – the villagers made us dinner and we learnt about life in the mountains. Our gatekeeper explained that most villagers are taught English from tourists – and that school was less textbook and more of an outdoors activity. He also, jokingly, explained the end of Money Heist. I was shocked for two reasons: 1) He had unashamedly ruined Money Heist 2) How can Netflix's reach be so wide that it's watched in the Himalayas .
The conversation ended once our stomachs were full; the freezing temperatures of high altitude forced us to bed at 8pm.
At 3,500m, frost had reached the outer layer of the tent. The sun was yet to rise, but we unzipped our sleeping bags, wiped dust away from our eyes and struggled to find the energy to put on our winter base layers. It was 4.30am by the time we emerged from the warmth of our burritos.
A dog from the village spent the night curled up next to Guido. Bambino was her name, appropriately baptised by Joris. Bambino, despite her bent paw (she limped), was quite the adventurer. She was up and on the path with more enthusiasm than any of us could muster. A veteran on the trail, she led us towards the glacier.
We followed a ridge; deep forest on one side and a sharp drop on the other. The sun had begun its daily ritual over Nanga Parbat; a mesmerising orange tinge lit up the iced valley below. It was almost silent as we stood on the ledge and watched the Himalayas come to life.
The last few miles saw us traverse across the glacier and scramble the last few metres of elevation. A green field of grazing horses and cattle finally led us to the Nanga Parbat Base Camp – 3,850m. With our necks strained, we sat on the side of a glacier with a 180 degree view of the ninth tallest mountain in the world. As we rested in silence, the full rays of the sun finally appeared over the top of the summit and warmed our crystallised cheeks. We absorbed the tranquillity for a while, before we embarked on the walk back to our tents.
A few hours of descent and we were in the jeep making the treacherous return journey to the highway.
After much thought, I decided it was important to visit Karachi. I would be riddled with regret it if I hadn't tried. My grandfather lived there until 1947, so I wanted to understand my family's history and retrace his steps. As always, time was not on my side. Joe, a friend from London, who had joined the trip for six weeks in Europe, was flying into Lahore to ride to Delhi. He would land in one week. Aside from that, the Karakoram Highway's next obstacle was the Babusar Pass – a peak with an altitude of 4,000m, the route snakes through the mountains before descending into Islamabad. My resume proudly boasts two 4,000m+ passes; I had nothing to prove to myself and no motivation to do another one. So, the following day, the guys would head for Babusar and I’d continue on to the small town of Chilas, where I’d catch a bus to Islamabad.
Back on tarmac, we battled a strong headwind and a setting sun as we followed the Hunza river south. At a police checkpoint, we were escorted to the nearest hotel that accepted foreigners. An imposed escort which felt unnecessary, but gratefully found us a place to rest our heads.
We slept in. Tired from the past two days, we didn’t break cocoons until late morning.
Whilst Joris fixed a puncture, the three of us sat in the shade and put the world to rights. We spoke about the trip's contradictions, and the overwhelming privilege to be able to cycle as a means to travel. Most places we've visited, the locals have never left their state/ province or even their village.
Guido had a bucket hat where he’d ask people to write their favourite quotes on the inside. After much deliberation, I scribbled: “What is an ocean but a multitude of drops” – a quote from the book ‘Cloud Atlas’. The quote means that no one is insignificant, without the drops an ocean is nothing more than a dry wasteland. In one way, it's reflective of the togetherness, community, and camaraderie felt on a shared journey. In another way, it represents equality: no matter the race, religion, nationality – strip away money and materialism – we are all the same. And together, we can thrive. I thought it was fitting. Quite deep, but Guido seemed happy.
Back on the bikes, we cycled the last few miles to the Babusar – Chilas intersection. We drank a commemorative coke at a roadside restaurant before I bid farewell to my cycling comrades. An incredible couple days, I was lucky enough to share with them. We wished each other luck for our onward journeys, in the hope we’d see each other again.
By the time I had reached Chilas, the atmosphere felt different. Chilas was an extremely conservative town; a settlement where tourists aren’t allowed to be at night. I felt the return of the ‘subcontinent stare’ and with that came vulnerability for the first time. I was on the hunt for an ATM as I needed to pay for the bus. Before I entered the town, I was greeted by two police officers on motorbikes.
“Hello, are you Edward?”, they enquired.
“Yeah, that’s me”, I replied. The police from the previous checkpoint had radioed ahead and informed them of my imminent arrival. They asked where I was going, what I was doing, etc. So, I told them. “OK, please follow us”, they insisted.
“Why do I need an escort?”, I replied.
“For your safety, Mr. H”.
I followed the motorbike laughing to myself. Mr. H, sounded Bond-esc. I felt important. I was also slightly relieved to have an escort.
No bus journey in Pakistan is complete without a delay. After two hours, we came to a halt. A long standstill traffic jam hung to the mountainside. There had been a car crash. An eerie silence fell over the highway as vehicle engines and headlights were switched off. Passengers disembarked and sat on the side of the road. I rested on a small patch of grass and analysed the outline of mountains drawn by moonlight. Fully accepting of the situation, I patiently waited until the road was cleared before I returned to the bus and fell into a light sleep.
Three weeks later, I read in the news that the Taliban had taken a high-profile, local politician hostage in the Chilas – Babusar area. Tourists sought safety inside villagers’ homes until the Taliban had left and calm fell over the Karakoram once more. The news was slightly too close to home. I had no idea the Taliban were still active in the area. In fact, I only realised after leaving Pakistan that Osmar Bin Laden was assassinated whilst hiding in Abbottabad, a town I travelled through twice. It’s a shame that Pakistan is riddled with negative headlines – the people, culture and nature are an untouched gem, overshadowed by small acts of extremism.