When Josh first sketched out the route of his tour, Kyrgyzstan had but a sliver of a red ‘Microsoft Paint’ route line cutting through it, in the far south-eastern corner of the country between the Tajik and Chinese borders. The only marked place on his map was the village of Sary Tash – a crossroad settlement of ramshackle homestays, petrol stations, and liquor stores that link the surrounding Central Asian states; the only road he was concerned with was the most direct route between the Pamir Highway of Tajikistan and the Karakoram Highway of Pakistan.
I was trapped. Trapped In Kyrgyzstan.
In order to reach the start of the Karakoram Highway – a ride I had been dreaming of for years and a mainstay route in the travelling cyclists’ hall of fame – I needed a visa for Pakistan. However, the only way of obtaining one was (is) to apply through the embassy of your home country, which for me meant sending my passport back to England; I would be a prisoner in Kyrgyzstan for almost seven weeks waiting for my stamped passport to return. But what a fantastic country to spend the time, I was so glad I didn’t rush through as originally planned back in England all those months ago.
Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan and Soviet-Turkic-Mongol hotchpotch of life, provided a base for Pete (my travelling companion) and I as we recuperated from Tajikistan by virtue of Warm Showers hosts, international hostels, markets (including Central Asia’s biggest – the Dordoy Bazaar) and nightlife – because sometimes beer and loud music is better than frosty tents and instant noodles. Early on in our stay, we filed our paperwork, posted everything off to England and spent a couple of weeks familiarising ourselves with the city before discarding half of our gear and setting out on a three-week mini tour of the country. Our first destination was the Tien Shan – a mountain range that butts the south and eastern borders of Kyrgyzstan against China, and is home to Jengish Chokusu and Khan Tengri – two of the giants that comprise the seven highest mountains in the former USSR, known as the ‘Snow Leopard’ peaks.
For the first time on my journey the bikes were left behind as we packed up five days worth of supplies into backpacks and set off on foot into the ranges surrounding Karakol on a
recommended loop around Lake Ala-Kul. Our decision to leave the Surly touring bikes behind was rewarded with endless alpine vistas, culminating in the unblemished serenity of witnessing Ala-Kul reflect a summer’s dawn; reminding us that these remotest of places are only really reachable on foot.
Once back on the familiar contours of our B17s, we rode south into the Tien Shan foothills over the Tosor Pass, whose condition continued to deteriorate as we climbed; we were glad to have abandoned our front panniers back in Bishkek. A couple of days later and we reached its summit, bringing us out into the nave of the Jilu-Su valley – a paradigm of Kyrgyz nomadic life with luscious empty green plains and yurt encampments, menageries of livestock and weathered shepherds. From the pass at 4000m, we followed the Jilu-Su valley downstream witnessing the valley walls grow steeper, the river crossings grow sketchier, and the yurt camps more regular. The road switched between the smooth, parallel lines of earthen vehicle tracks and the broken, forgotten remains of a formerly metalled Soviet road, until we reached the town of Naryn (about 200km later) in a dirty, hungry state, but with our appetite to see some of inner Kyrgyzstan at least partially sated.
Our mini-tour over, we arrived back in Bishkek on a high, only for me to discover there had been problems with my visa applications because I had arranged for an agency to apply for both Chinese and Indian visas in a specific order to maximise the chances of being able to follow my intended route. I would experience a further two-week delay, in which time I said a temporary goodbye to Pete and, feeling a little drained from the intensity of having been on the road for 6 months, busied myself with idleness; I needed a break anyway…
"...for the first time on my journey the bikes were left behind as we packed up five days worth of supplies into backpacks and set off on foot into the ranges surrounding Karakol on a recommended loop around Lake Ala-Kul..."
"...sandwiched between the Hindu Kush to the west, Pamir to the north, and Himalaya to the east, the Karakoram range is a 500km channel of rock, snow and ice that is home to the highest concentration of 8,000m+ peaks in the world...
I pedalled into China with the renewed excitement and impatience that had accompanied me through Europe in the first weeks of my tour – no doubt a product of the downtime, the return of my passport with all the documentation I needed until Bangladesh, and visions of the places I would be travelling through for the next couple of months.
My first checkpoint, Kashgar – China’s westernmost city and ancient staging post on the old Silk Road trail – provided a cultural and ethnic mix like I had not yet experienced on my journey. London, New York and Paris offer a relatively young definition of cosmopolitanism in comparison to Kashgar, whose hereditary lines have been stitched from far older Eurasian strands. The faces looking back at me across the stalls of the famous night market were as subtly different as they were broadly similar – a mixture of freckles, epicanthic folds, dark skin and fair hair portraying complexions that reflected Turkic, Persian, Mongol and Far-Eastern ancestries. Then, riding south towards the Pakistani border (the highest paved international border crossing in the world at 4,693m) provided further intrigue; despite being in China, there was only the occasional sighting of a Chinese sign or flag advertising such. The faces, clothes, housing and even demeanour of the
people I encountered appeared simply an extension of their neighbouring territories – be it Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan.
Restrictions over the pass mean that cycling across the border wasn’t possible, so we were obliged to take a bus for the 100-ish kilometres between Tashkurgan and Sost, the Pakistani customs village. Arrival in Sost brought the same buzz of reaching each of the major checkpoints on my route. This time, it was the south-Asian faces and traditional garb; the roaring engines and extravagant decor of Pakistan’s fabled trucks; the surrounding towering presence of mountains the like of which I had never seen; and, of course, the satisfaction of having gained entry into one of the most delicate, difficult to reach but beautiful regions in the world. Sandwiched between the Hindu Kush to the west, Pamir to the north, and Himalaya to the east, the Karakoram range is a 500km channel of rock, snow and ice that is home to the highest concentration of 8,000m+ peaks in the world, as well as the second highest peak – K2 (8611m).
The Karakoram was a land of majesty and might; our passage through, along the Karakoram Highway, would be relished with every pedal stroke.
...the Karakoram was a land of majesty and might; our passage through, along the Karakoram Highway, would be relished with every pedal stroke."
Pete and I’s first destination in Pakistan was Karimabad, a tame 100km ride downhill (as most of Pakistan would be, starting from such a high point at the border) but we took our time to get there, meandering slowly along the Highway, appreciating such a magnificent feat of engineering. The road is not yet complete though because 2010 saw a landslide not only wipe out an entire village, killing 28 people, but also create what is now called Attabad Lake – a 100m deep body of water which submerged 20km of road. In the wake of such devastation, it seemed wrong to praise Attabad Lake, but upon arrival at its northern shores, the sheer beauty of the thing was impossible to go unnoticed: turquoise waters framed by glowing cliffs; the tiny silhouetted shapes of boats making their way back and forth across to allow travellers to continue their journeys on the Highway; the gaggle of upstart cafes perched on the banks, with dozens of tea-sipping ferry agents bartering their way through the crowds fraying the tempers of those looking to cross. As we sat in a teahouse drinking our salted milky tea, a loud noise echoed and the hive of activity changed up a few gears as people ran past us in the direction of the lake. Naturally we followed, and were confronted with the sight of some poor person’s vehicle that had fallen into the water during disembarkation. “Happens about 50 times a year” said the cafe owner when we returned. “Right out in the middle there’s a truck at the bottom, too…”
After biding our time we managed to get a fair price from the agents for our passage across and made it to the southern tip of the lake in a mesmerising 40 minute journey without any more trucks, cars, or bicycles falling in so we rode into
Karimabad that afternoon, three days after leaving Sost. The reason for staying in Karimabad, in the heart of northern Pakistan’s tourism district, was to find a place to secure the bikes and hire a guide for a trek we wanted to do – a three day round trip to Rash Peak (5093m). Again, similarly to our hiking experiences in Kyrgyzstan, heading out on foot provided an intimacy and appreciation of these powerful environments that the bike just doesn’t quite stretch to. But if hiking and scree-scrambling are one thing, then glacier travel is surely another as we found out during our passage across the Hopar and Barpu glaciers on our trek. The moraines lining the sides contained building-sized chunks of ice, detached from the main channel and lying dormant beneath tonnes of dirt and vegetation like sleeping giants. “You’ll need a guide” a shepherd had shrewdly said to our guide as he stood surveying a route through. “We don’t need a guide. Not as his price” our guide, Sultan, confided to us before striding out into the labyrinth of gullies, crevasses, ice shelves and seracs. Despite his possible shortcomings on the equipment front (his food supply consisted of a loaf of bread and a bag of loose tea), Sultan was indeed a good craic around the camp fire, and with 17 years spent earning his living this way he had many stories of Karakoram adventures – the peaks and troughs of which he knew like a chef knows his kitchen. His favourite part of the region was the western Hindu Kush frontier on the Afghan border – a land of remote valleys, unclimbed peaks and pagan worshippers that Eric Newby and Wilfred Thesiger have famously documented in the past.
But for now, unfortunately, that area was largely off limits.
"...the sheer beauty of Attabad Lake was impossible to go unnoticed: turquoise waters framed by glowing cliffs; the tiny silhouetted shapes of boats making their way back and forth across to allow travellers to continue their journeys on the Highway..."
After returning to Karimabad and all our cycle touring kit, we continued on descending through the Hunza valley to the base of Rakaposhi which, at 7788m, was the highest mountain I’d ever seen. Craning our necks up at the colossal wedge of ice, framed by bare hillsides and green vegetation, it certainly felt it from where we stood. However, passing Rakaposhi, we were now on our way out of the high mountains, and the small town of Gilgit where we arrived the following afternoon marked the end. We were instead immediately immersed in the frenetic energy of our first Pakistani urban centre, a game of football (my first since Kazakhstan), and a visit to the British Cemetery to see the grave of George Hayward – a 19th Century explorer of esteemed The Great Game fame.
Our next stretch of road, between Gilgit and Islamabad, would go directly through the Kohistan region, which has been part-occupied by the Taliban in the past, and where fatal attacks on tourists have been known to happen, but which many locals told us was safe at our time of passing; those who travel through it independently are still obliged to take a police escort. However, after serious consideration, in the interests of our own safety and those around us we opted for the conspicuousness of a local bus for the 400km to Islamabad, during which our biggest problems turned out to be slightly different: breakfast curry. Twenty of the most uncomfortable
hours that Pete and I have had to endure…
The north of Pakistan has been well acquainted with tourism in the past because of the mountaineering appeal, but the plains of the southern provinces are a far less travelled and this was intensely apparent in the reactions at the crowded bus station where we unloaded our bikes from the roof. A small team of policemen forced us to wait at the bus station until dawn, owing their reasoning to “Afghan thieves”. We obliged after a tired fight, finding a small stand by the road to eat some dahl, chappati and sip sweet milky tea, while providing much cause for conversation between the groups around us, and providing many of them a chance to practice their English. And so the theme was set for our passage across the plains of the Punjab: dahl, chappati, chai, and conversation. In a continuation of the experience we had had prior to our bus ride, the reception we received along the next stage of our ride,to Lahore, was nothing short of incredible. Somewhere in the region of 40-50 scooters daily would pull up alongside us as we cycled, eager to know: where we were from; where we were going; what we thought of Pakistan; if we felt safe; if we followed cricket. No matter what the circumstances of the road, whether it demanded riding into oncoming traffic, carrying five people on a moped, shouting over the top of three cars, or else, people just wanted to talk to us.
"...the theme was set for our passage across the plains of the Punjab: dahl, chappati, chai, and conversation."
It was three days until we arrived in Lahore, the Punjabi cultural capital and former stronghold of the British Raj, now home to 10 million+ souls. We stayed for a couple of nights, spending our days visiting the quite exquisitely constructed Badshahi Mosque, Lahore Fort, and a host of other British-built buildings with the same reddish stonework styles. Then, by night we traipsed the impossibly tight alleyways of the bazaars, marvelling at the urban carnage that surrounded us. One evening we were invited to go for a drive with some young guys that had seen us looking lost. The stomach-clenching nature of the ride was complemented by the impeccable music choices – the rhythmic melodies of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, turned up to 11, prompting the windows to be wound down and our friends’ joints to be lit. We took a backseat ride through a country far different from the one we had witnessed upon entering in Sost, almost three weeks ago.
“JOSHUA. JOSHUA, WAKE UP, NOW!” says a loud voice from a group of figures standing over me. The piercing light of a torch fleets across my face as I prop myself up on an elbow. Where am I? Who are these people? Are we in trouble? I gain enough consciousness to work out we are on the rooftop of a disused petrol station on the outskirts of Lahore, with Pete is in his sleeping bag next to me, and our bikes propped up on a wall nearby. My watch reads 23:40. The group of men begin to laugh, and as their lights turn away from me and onto each other I recognise them as the group who had kindly spoken to the property owner and organised for us to sleep up here in the first place.
“JOSHUA. JOSHUA, WE HAVE BOUGHT YOU SOME TANDOORI CHICKEN! GOOD NIGHT…”
This was one final encounter that would sum up our experiences towards the end of our Pakistani journey, before we crossed into India…