Pakistan - Part 3
1/6 I head down the KKH and turn off to Skardu. Good choice: this road is even more spectacular than the KKH. It is also a lot narrower and there is more traffic, notably trucks, but the truckers are nice here and often even stop to let me through. The mountains, unfortunately, continue to hide behind thick clouds. I meet a Spanish family in a VW van who tell me about 4 Spanish bikers ahead of me. Skardu is a surprise: it's a lot bigger than I thought. But first I head for Satpara lake, only 9 km out of town, but a lot higher. To get there I have to cross a dam construction site which spoils the setting. Spicy trout for dinner - yumm! Something I have eaten doesn't agree with me, so the night is long.
2/6 I decide to leave the noisy, cold and windy lake with its primitive hotel and move into town to where the Spaniards are. It turns out they are on a different kind of trip (vueltalmundobmw.com): 4 BMW R1200GS, 18 months, but the trip is shared by a total of 120 riders who take turns at the handlebars. They also have a small TV film crew for this part of the trip. As I feel totally stuffed today I stay in the hotel and on the net.
3/6 I manage a walk up to the old fort. The entrance gate is barricaded, I have to squeeze through the tiniest door I have ever seen. The entrance fee for foreigners has quadrupled in the 3 years since my LP guide went to press, but there is no sign that any money is being spent on the ruin. I have to watch my step so as to not fall down one floor. There are good views down into the valley. The Indus sure looks strange here with all the sand dunes in the river bed. Now, if the mountains were visible the views would be great.
One of the many suspension bridges. They are not attached at the ends
and swing up and down and sideways. Feels like being on a boat.
4/6 An excursion to Shigar and Khaplu. Masherbrum finally appears out of the clouds for a while. At the other side of Khaplu my progress is stopped by the Army. Foreigners must have a local guide to drive further on this road. (Comment censored.) Just as well, as the sky darkens and a dust storm whips up. On the way back it rains a little. Back on the net I make a nasty discovery: Free, where I store all my pictures, has blocked access to their FTP server from outside France, supposedly for "legal reasons". For now I'm unable to upload any more pictures for my website.
This island and most of the greenery will disappear once the dam is filled.
5/6 In the morning - blue sky! I'm off to Deosai Plains. The high peaks soon disappear again, of course, but the weather is good. I ride up the rough track, manage the first ice sheet crossing, but get stuck in the second. Luckily, just at this moment a jeep arrives and I have helping hands. I get to the National Park checkpoint. They have started operating today, i.e. yesterday I would have gottin in for free, but today they want 4 $US. Before handing over any money I find out that a bridge hasn't been put back yet, so I can't actually cross to Astor Valley. Bummer, I turn around and head back to Skardu. Lunch at Kachura Lake, where there is a whimsical resort called Shangri-La. Stop for the night is Astok, where I camp, for the first time in a very long time.
Peasant woman and her family on their way home
6/6 It's a very long day's ride to Besham, particularly since the KKH is very badly potholed for long stretches. I meet two Pakistani bikers on KTM, businessmen who get to ride their bikes only once a year. At a lunch stop a guy turns up and tells me he is a friend of Gilles, a biker I have been trying to meet for a while. He also has a hotel in Rawalpindi and I'm invited. He also pays my lunch. I pitch my tent at the PTDC Motel again, where I meet a French family in a campervan.
IMG_2558-65 Confluence of Gilgit and Indus rivers
IMG_2570 7/6 The French are still hiding in their van as I leave in the morning. The turnoff to the Shangla Pass in Besham sets the mood: rough broken surface, mad traffic. The scenery is nice and green, but I don't see much of it, as my eyes are glued to the road. There is also a lot of traffic and the upper part of the road is all road works. I eat a lot of dust. There is a police check point at the top of the pass, but I pretend not to see the cop jumping up and down as I overtake a van and continue down again. Then, after all the frustration, a miracle happens: smooth new tar seal all the way to the bottom.
I make my way to Madyan, an old hippie hangout, but in the end decide not to stay here, as with only 5 days left on my visa and the road conditions this would be cutting it too fine. Back down the Swat Valley to Mingora.
IMG_2576 Production of antique furniture? LP isn't wrong to say that if coming from the North I would be in for a shock. I can't remember ever having seen such a noisy, polluted town. (but I'm sure I have been to worse) I can't find any of the hotels mentioned in the LP guide, but I'm not keen on staying in this dump, so I head further along the road down valley. The road is bad again, it's hot and dusty and the driving here is really bad. I get more and more frustrated. This represents all about Asia that I hate. And I eat more dust. Get me out of here! There is a place I recognise: it's where I had lunch with the UNHCR guys and waited for the Kiwis to catch up. The loop is complete. There must be a hotel along here somewhere... There is, but they want an enormous amount of money for a room where the shower doesn't work. Not with me, mate. There is a place labelled "PTDC Mottel", but it's not really PTDC and they don't have a room, either, but I can camp in the garden by the river. A nice spot, but very mossie infested and I discover that they more or less ignore my repellant. There aren't many people here, but they all take turns wanting to talk to me and ask the usual questions. One lot pays for my dinner, but one of them is introduced as a foreigner police man who will take care of safety for me tomorrow. Oh god, not another escort. I resolve to give the rest of the lovely Swat Valley and its Buddhist ruins a miss and head for Islamabad instead.
IMG_2576 8/6 No escort turns up and I head SE. At Topi I am again stopped by the authorities: the road passes a large dam and is off limits. After a smaller dam I find a small lovely road through the hills which leads me back to the KKH near Haripur. I head North again to Abottabad and a small mountain road to Murree. This is very high and scenic and I take my time. I was thinking of staying in Murree, but the noisy place doesn't appeal to me and I cruise down to Islamabad. This is where I hit the heat. The Tourist Camp is still pretty much how I remember it from 19 years ago: primtive and dirt cheap, the accent being on dirt. There are now two dual carriageways in front of it, making it quite noisy, too. There are some overlanders: a man from Draguignon, France in his flash MAN expedition truck, two Austrian brothers in a 4x4 camper and a man from Jersey. There is also a detachment of soldiers (or police?) permanently camped in the grounds, "for our protection".
IMG_2581 9/6 It's my birthday, but I don't really have anybody to celebrate with, plus it's too hot to do much at all. It is so hot the first lot of washing is dry by the time I have rinsed the second lot. The only good thing about this place are all the fresh fruit juices available in the bazaar: mango, banana, peach and plum are in season. Very yummy.
IMG_2585-7 10/6 The night was stinking hot and I didn't sleep well, so I get away late. Bad news, as it is extremely hot again. There is a new motorway from Islamabad to Lahore, but bikes are not allowed to use it. It turns out, after I get lost for a while in some busy and dusty suburbs, that it doesn't matter: the Grand Trunk Road is mostly dual carriageway and I hardly have to slow down for the towns. The air is so hot that it almost hurts to open the visor. Crossing the Jhelum river bridge I see what looks like a fancy hotel/restaurant. Great, this must have aircon. As I park my bike I spot a large BMW. It is Gilles, who I have been trying to meet for some time. I surprise him in the restaurant. And yes, it does have aircon. We have a good yarn and soon are joined by 2 Pakistani men who introduce themselves as the managers of the hotel. They show us around and lunch is free! It's a very nice hotel indeed and spotlessly clean. So, Gilles and I ride together at last. The heat really gets to us. He can't use his GPS, because it shuts down in this heat. In the shade his thermometer reads 47C, when he rides it, too, shuts down! Meaning it's over 50C. Imagine: everything you touch feels hot. Chairs, tables, helmet, even the ground we stand on. The wind is no relief, either, it just makes you feel hotter. Gilles has an appointment in Lahore, but there is no reason for me to stay here in this heat. At sunset it's still 45C. At the turnoff to the border we split and I promise to wait for him in Srinagar. Unfortunately, the signs to the border have been put up somewhat prematurely: they lead onto the ring road, still under construction, and in the end I ride in the dark. This is highly dangerous, not only because of all the unlit vehicles, but there are roadworks everywhere, holes in the road, a lot of dust in the air and on my visor, heavy traffic and appalling driving. There is only one place to stay in Wagah: the PTDC motel. They give me a very warm welcome. Seeing they have a rate for aircon rooms I count my remaining Rupees to see whether I can afford one. I needn't bother, the old aircon units have never been connected, due to lack of 3-phase power. But, there is one working in the hall, so I just leave the door open. Normally, getting a hot shower is a problem around here. But the manager insists on getting me a bucket of COLD water, as the shower is too hot. In this room, too, everything is hot to touch. I can't sleep in this hot bed and move into the hall.