Cycling into Shangri-La

If two bordering countries truly presented a cultural ying and yang, it would be China and Pakistan. One country forced us onto a bus to cross the border, the residents of the other cheered us over the line into the new land. Voicing all our thoughts at the back of the bus were a group of recently graduated Pakistani medics. Having studied for five years in China, this was to be their final homecoming. Their smiles quickly infected the bus, making for a marked contrast to the overcast skies and sleeting weather outside. Despite the cold at the top of the pass, we had agreed that if the driver allowed us out on the Pakistani side for some fresh air, we would cycle down the pass to the first village.

Secretly I hoped to cycle up the pass, there’s something about putting yourself through some hardship, grafting your way up the banks of a particularly tough climb to then reap the rewards of the downhill. It’s all the sweeter for having earnt it – stepping out at the top felt like being handed it on a plate. This is the highest international border in the world, I wanted to look back, remembering that challenge through painless rose-tinted spectacles. This section isn’t about just me though, I want Dad to enjoy the cycling too. If that means getting off my purist must-cycle-everything high horse every once in a while, then so be it. This time we have together is special; I don’t want to unnecessarily run him into the ground – the mountains will do that for me.

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So that was our current situation as the bus tentatively rolled from one nation to another, the medics were all shouting to be let off to take a photo at the top but the bus kept on rolling! I could tell Dad wasn’t looking forward to riding back up, yet I knew afterwards he’d be thanking me. Cycling is a strange game.

As the bus released us into the mountain town of Sost, we were hit with a wall of noise and laughter. Motorbikes were razzing up and down the road with three or four smiling people mounted. Local busses steamed by with hordes of kids clinging onto the roof with one hand, the other eagerly waving at us. Locals just wandered along the main road, stopping to chat to each other whilst traffic weaved effortlessly between them. They didn’t have a care in the world – this was Pakistan.

It had already been a tiring day having to wake up early to ensure we got one of the limited tickets from the bus station. After which we were transferred to customs, where bags were once again x-rayed, faces scanned and general morale sapped by China’s pointless beaurocracy.  Now faced with exchanging money and finding a hotel, it would’ve been too easy to walk into the plush looking place opposite the bus station – recommended by a smart looking Pakistani man on the bus with us. I wasn’t convinced, so I quickly got chatting to some locals who found a man to give me a good exchange rate, a discounted room with a friend and place to eat. They seemed genuine, so I took their word and didn’t look back. We were welcomed by everyone there – it may as well have been a different planet to China.

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The following morning we set off on a planned two-day cycle back up to the top. After a serene morning spent in the saddle riding up a rocky canyon, we reached the main military checkpoint. The army informed us we were not allowed to camp further than this point and that we didn’t have enough time in the day to reach the top. Therefore the afternoon was spent hanging out at the café, where queues of Pakistani tourists began forming to take photos with us. This local intrigue culminated with national TV interview focussing on our first impressions on of the country. Since it was national Independence Day – 71 years since colonial British rule – I refrained from commenting how they’d forgotten how to make a good cuppa (tragically they put milk and sugar in the teapot).

Despite the politeness of the tourists, the novelty quickly became tiresome, forcing us to seek refuge out of the line of sight behind some bushes for the remainder of the afternoon. After a palaver with the authorities deciding whether we were still allowed to camp by the barracks, we bedded down for the night, ready for the big climb that awaited the next day. Soon we were following the smooth road up into the sky again. After a kind offer from a local hotel owner, we ditched Dad’s bags to speed up the riding now the road was getting steeper. Steep and winding, the road was a thing of beauty and I couldn’t stop taking photos of Dad cycling the best sections. He was putting in a herculean effort – pushing himself right to the limit in order to reach that summit. But reach it we did. 4730m, the highest international border in the world. Immediately we were mobbed by tourists rushing to take photos, but we turned the tables, getting them to take photos of us and this special moment.

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It quickly got cold – a sure sign for us to start descending. 50 miles of winding road awaited our tired legs and we were both eager to get back before dark. It felt like we were flying. Bombing it around tight switchbacks to then take both hands of the bars only to salute the sky, it doesn’t get better than this. We were quickly brought back to reality however, when Dad hit a bump in the road which sent his bar-bag flying under his front wheel. A set of serious wobbles ensued, which, from where I was viewing, made me certain he was about to hit the deck. Watching it all unfold, I swore profusely under my breath knowing that falling at this speed would spell a certain broken bone. All credit to him though, he just about held it together and everything inside the bag pulled through in a similar fashion.

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After that incident we enforced a break to finish of the last of the food. It was clear that tiredness was creeping in, effecting our decisions which could spell disaster for our trip.  Adrenaline now replaced with glucose, we could safely enjoy the rest of the descent into the darkness.

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A jubilant mood swept through both of us the next day and was instrumental in deciding to make a late start for the next village. Stunning scenery greeted us around every corner, sheer faces of jagged granite reached high into the sky where their peaks were adorned with a coating ‘icing-sugar’. Behind the closest crags were the real big-ones. Their huge walls of ice gleamed in the afternoon sun. Right here in the Karakoram’s is the highest density of 7000+ meter peaks in the world, and we were to be today’s lucky spectators.

The next two days were spent taking it real easy on the bike, stopping in fruitful orchards for lunch before walking around pristine local villages in the evening. This famously pretty region is relatively small, so we were keen to take our time exploring it. Every little cove or corner, crag or cottage, the place was immensely beautiful. Now located at the Old Hunza Inn, the famous traveller’s establishment located in the depths of the Hunza valley’s capital Karimabad, we could gawp at the view from the comforts of our room.

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Every now and again you would be reminded that you were in Pakistan though. Electricity was a rare occurrence and the tap water was comically black with silt. This was to be expected as we adjusted to the workings of a new country. Adjustment of the stomach was to take a few additional days for Dad however. Yet with a great room located in a beautiful local town, this was to be a perfect rest stop. A tour around the local forts, invitations of tea with shop-keepers, I could’ve stayed for weeks. One morning I scrambled out of my bed painfully early to cycle up a nearby crag in time to catch the sunrise. I rode up the steepest climb I’d ever encountered for a pitch-black hour to a fabled viewpoint called ‘the Eagles nest’. From the top here, the first light shone over the valley at 5am.

I had read about this valley in books long before setting off and the recommendation of seeing the sunrise from the Eagle’s nest had been sure-set in my brain for months now. I’d picked the perfect day for it, a cool ‘blue’ light shone over the valley, illuminating the all the surrounding 7000m peaks. Dead-ahead of my vantage point was Rakaposhi, at 7780m the peak just towered over everything in sight. I was mesmerized, stuck in place for hours just taking in the beauty of this place. The very same place that stunned James Hilton into coining the term Shangri-La in his book Lost Horizon, meaning the most beautiful place on earth. I’d heard from round-the-world cyclists that nothing else they saw ever matched this valley. I now understood why.

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Having had my head firmly in the clouds all morning, it was time to come back down. The chain had snapped on my bike, giving me an awkward push/ride back to the hotel before I set off for the only working ATM (5 miles away). The cash machine promptly swallowed my card, just after the bank closed for the weekend. Brilliant. I was fuming. We were out of money now, leaving us unable to buy food or pay for the room. In a place that has never seen the light of electronic payment, this wasn’t ideal. Of course with Pakistanis being the friendliest people around, this wasn’t to be a problem. Our saintly hotel manager happily spotted us cash to see us through the next two days and the opening of the bank.

Two days of just relaxing was supplemented by eating local dhal and hanging out with a chilled Aussie guy called Tim. He drove me down to the bank on his rented Suzuki motorbike, where I managed to retrieve my card before resolving my financial problems over a cup of ‘milk tea’ as they call it. Finally, we cycled out of Karimabad, said our goodbye’s to the Hunza valley before stopping for a drink in its last village. Nestled in the shade of the Inn’s orchard, we had the perfect view of Rakaposhi. We liked it so much that at 11am, we called it quits for the day, deciding to stay put. We read books in the garden between chats with the owner; savouring our last day in the beautiful Hunza.

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Our stay-put ‘antics’ had left us with a decent cycle to reach our first city of Gilgit. The cool morning air was soon warmed to a blazing furnace that quickly drained both us and our water supplies. Thankfully our early start meant we clocked up the required 50-miles to reach our lodging for the night. If we could find it… We had paid to stay with a helpful motorbike agency who had done a lot of leg-work in helping us get our visa’s. In addition to visa payment, we’d booked a room in their place at a hefty price as a thank you. Now covered in sweat, seemingly next to the pin on the map, we couldn’t find the place. One of the locals took me to the nearest guesthouse but the man who opened the door shook his head when I said the name of the place.

Eventually we found someone who did know, and it was the same place where the man shook his head at me. What a melon! I was too tired to say anything. Instead we relegated ourselves to the sofa, where after declining a tea from the guy, we fascinatedly watched him try make us one anyway. After observing him curdle a load of milk after pouring it in the kettle, we couldn’t help but laugh. I decided to check out the place, only to discover that the ceiling in our bathroom had collapsed. Huge rocks now littered the floor and had cracked sink. I came back to relay the finding to Dad, where the melon was throwing out the milk after a second unsuccessful attempt at making tea. We’d paid a lot for this place and were too tired to ride another half-hour to the city. Instead we embraced the circus that was unfolding around us, finding ourselves in fits of laughter at the ridiculousness of the situation.

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After that initial showing, we decided to take out one of their motorbikes to grab dinner. Dad hadn’t ridden one in 35 years but what the hell, we were hungry. We tentatively rode the bike into the city, where we found every single restaurant was shut. It turned out that today was the first day of Eid – just our luck. We explained our situation to a shopkeeper who immediately started trying to help us. Within two-minutes he’d located a passer-by who just happened to be carrying a bowl of warm rice and mutton – as you do! A table was hastily setup for us inside a newsagent, where the locals were all too eager to help us out. It was an amazing experience, a real community coming together and welcoming us in with open arms. They refused payment for everything, so we bought some cake the man was selling instead and said goodbye.

Buoyed after our successful outing on the motorbike, we decided to try rent another one the next day. First and foremost, I have never ridden a motorbike in my life. The closest I’ve come was renting out an electric scooter in Barcelona. Ali who worked there, successfully managed to find me a bike, only, there was a ‘small problem’ with it – the brake didn’t work… You’re having a laugh if you think I’m having that one I thought. ‘I think Dad should take that one, he’s got more experience on a bike’ I suggested. I was still hoping to take the bike to a car park so I could actually work out how to ride one, before Ali suggested we all ride down to his friends’ hotel for breakfast. Their place was only a few miles away on the other side of the city… Bloody hell.

To get out of the place, I would have to ride the bike up a concrete ramp up out of the garden and through the gate. Careful not to ‘gun’ it and run straight into a stone wall, I’d then turn 90 degrees before riding down a narrow alleyway between the houses. After reaching the end of the path, I would have to negotiate my way over some large rocks and a dirt slope to pop out onto a hilly country lane. To make things that much more interesting, I’d come out right where there is always a group of local kids hanging out who’d definitely be watching. This was all before riding through the frenzied traffic of a Pakistani city. Did I mention I had never ridden a motorbike before…? I certainly hadn’t to Ali, that’s for sure.

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In the spirit of true tourists, me and Dad donned full-face helmets. We looked at each other just before mounting the bikes, a look that said, no matter what happens this is going to be ‘interesting’. Ali went back into the house for something, sensing my opportunity I decided quickly started the bike and put it into first, which was about the only thing I knew how to do. Now with my legs splayed out either side, I jerkily started my way up the ramp until, shit! I stalled it. Now for a hill start, damn! Stalled it again! This time I gave the throttle a good pull and shot up the ramp, through the gate, taking the tight corner too quickly and had to prevent myself hitting the wall by pushing off with my leg. I knew the dodgy bike stalled in neutral, so the only option was to ride the rocky alleyway. Well I tentatively rode down the path but tentative wouldn’t get me over the rocks at the end. Time for a bit of throttle again. The front wheel bounced up over the large rocks, leaving me to do sketchy wheelie down the slope with my legs sticking out down either side as a group on onlookers keenly watched.

I’d made it onto the road without totalling myself or the bike. So far so good.

Ali had no clue that I had never ridden a bike or yet seen my unique approach to bike handling. I was determined to keep things that way, at least, until I had worked out how to change gear. I left him and Dad to go in front, hoping he would retain the majority of the focus whilst I fannied about at the back learning how to ride a bike. They both shot off down the road, leaving me dordelling about until I found second. Now I was properly running along, negotiating the cars was just like cycling. Pulling into the hotel drive I executed an elegant stall, which I slyly disguised as me casually turning off the engine early and rolled smoothly into my space. No one had said anything yet. It looked like I’d scraped my way through the first challenge.

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Dad was keen to swap his bike out for one which had two brakes (a fairly decent proposal we thought), so he followed Ali to inspect the rest of the fleet. He soon returned, bearing a smile on his face and the same set of keys in hand. ‘One bike, the handlebars are so out of alignment that to go straight on you have to hold them like you’re about to take a tight right-hander and the other one, well the seat fell off when I got on it…’ We set about laughing. We were destined to have a good rider on a dodgy bike and a dodgy rider on a good bike. It seemed apt.

We had decided to spend the day exploring a new valley on the motors. We’d been told that the Chitral road was meant to be a good surface with some great scenery nearby. With that in mind, we soon got lost trying to leave the city whilst I was still trying to find third gear. After twenty minutes or so we pulled in to see where we had got to. Within seconds everyone in the street was staring at us. It didn’t feel right, these weren’t smiles on their faces that we’d grown accustomed to. Their expressions oozed hostility at our arrival. Clearly Dad had sensed it to, because he quickly shot off with me in tow.

At our next stop, everyone couldn’t be friendlier but we both knew we had to be on guard now. We weren’t in the north anymore. Later that day we found out the Taliban had come down into that area just a few weeks ago and killed two police officers. Cheers for forgetting to mention that one guys…!!

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Blissfully unaware of that key piece of information, we carried on riding this crazy single-track road. When someone describes a road as a good surface the first thing on my mind isn’t, ‘it may contain landslides…’. So, as I rolled around a corner to find myself faced with a steep bank of loose rock, I wasn’t too happy. I briefly looked back down the road to see Dad laughing his head off at the thought of me tackling this on my first day. I dropped the bike into first, giving it plenty of gas to pull me up the slope. Just as I neared the top, I saw a bus hurtling along the scree towards me. Dad’s laughter had stopped now as I was squeezed against the rock face in order to avoid becoming a human chapatti. Wow, this was turning into some morning.

Pakistani’s drive like maniacs, cars overtake buses on blind corners whilst two motorbikes will simultaneously overtake the car overtaking a bus. It’s madness. Riding up that road with all this going on was a true baptism of fire, but a bloody fun one. We found a lovely spot by the river to laugh about the mornings antics where the locals were back to being the friendly Pakistani’s we knew. The rest of the day was spent exploring further up the road and we decided the next would be sent riding back up to Hunza. Here we knew we would be able to pick up some speed on the two-laned road to see how the bikes really handled. We had 150cc engines on these things, which made us easily the fastest bikes on the road. Down the big straights we would shoot past the locals, only to have them fire past us on the next blind corner.

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The riding was great fun, although I didn’t fall in love with the motorbike in the way I’ve heard others do. It was loud, brash and trivialised the hills that had challenged me cycling. I felt no reward for reaching the destination nor did I have any interactions with people on the way. I found myself going past spots that on my bike, I had sparked up conversation with a local lad, or stopped for water under that tree with the horse. Here I just blasted past them all, which, for today, was okay.

Back in Karimabad we styled ourselves with some fresh Pakistani haircuts before the beards were also trimmed with a cut-throat razor. After finishing up, we were now cutting it fine (pardon the pun) to make it back before dark. It was on the way out where I had a little mishap with the front wheel locking up on loose dirt. I was slowly tailing a car which had met another on the single-track when it happened, so I slowly dropped the bike to the ground where it began to leak a worryingly large amount of petrol from the cap. I pulled it back up, hoping I still had enough fuel to get me home.

It wasn’t the fuel I had to worry about, it was the dark. It soon engulfed us, playing havoc with the bikes. The roads were packed with traffic, every man and his donkey coming back from their Eid holidays spent in the mountains. Maybe half of them have functioning lights, yet all of them are absolutely razzing it down the road. People are pulling out from behind cars with no lights, sheep are being ushered across the roads by crazed farmers and the odd cow is also wandering about without a care in the world. It was madness. We rode for one intense hour before making it back to our place wide-eyed and ready for sleep.

It had been a memorable time spent in northern-Pakistan. In that time I had began to fall in love with the country, already hoping to return to cycle and explore more of the valleys here. Yet it was time ride south, where we’d heard there had been a flurry of activity recently. Not good activity. No matter how adventurous the past two-weeks had been, this was going to be a different game on a field alien to us.

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