Keeping cool & Kalashnikovs

The shared camaraderie between tourers had been an integral part of cycling the Pamir highway, which, had been lost ever-since crossing the Chinese border. If there aren’t many foreign tourists there, then vaulting the border into Pakistan was definitely one hurdle too far. Nobody cycles here – not even the locals. In a country split between areas of intense development and those far more primitive, being seen to be doing well in the community is paramount to any family. Riding a bicycle instantly spells out poverty (otherwise you’d be riding a motorbike, right…?) and people can’t be seen to be poor. Consequently, we’d heard tales from locals who loved to cycle, yet their family had forced them to stop because of its projected image on them. It all seems so strange to guy whose bike is far more expensive than his car…

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This combined with the western media’s popular documentation of the very worst of Pakistani affairs, means that we had been the only cyclists on the road for weeks – foreign or not. This was until we left the small city of Gilgit, where we bumped into Katya and Mirko on the road. Two Czechs who had been riding around the world for 16 years! They carry every worldly possession they own with them, and judging by their smiles, it makes a strong case against all our consumerism. They had gone two months without seeing any foreign cyclists and were more than excited to unleash a barrage of Pakistani-based recommendations onto us.

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Little chance meetings like that can really make your day whilst cycling. You appreciate the small things more when heading into hours of a sweat-fest cycle that forms the staple of touring in the low-lands here. These low-lands however, had another obstacle to sit alongside the heat – safety. The British Foreign Office had recommended us not to ride this section of road at all, but judging by the local accounts, the Police would stop us before we got to any dangerous parts of the road. Or so we thought…

Riding through the roadside villages, we garnered a few harsher stares than usual but nothing felt wrong. We stopped to buy some fruit, then a cold drink, with the usual friendly faces stopping to ask what we were up to. After riding a few more miles, we were assigned a police escort to ride alongside us on a motorbike to our hotel. A hotel where, an officer with a pump-action shotgun would patrol past our room all night long. There was something uneasy in the air around here. Groups of men arriving at night for discussions with the owner didn’t help to quell the tension. Groups of men who looked visibly disgruntled at the sight of me, only to be reassured by the owner. The officer was ‘mysteriously’ assigned our personal bodyguard after this debacle.

We weren’t put off however, we had known for a long time that we had to be on our guard travelling through this area. The rest of Pakistan had been far more friendly than we could’ve imagined, this was just the exception.

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After reassurances from the owner, we left our bikes at the hotel before taking a jeep up the mountainside. This terrifying jeep track turned out to be rated ‘the second most dangerous road in the world’. Watching with baited breath as the truck almost straddled a cliff-edge trying to get round another, it was obvious to see why. Happy to have survived the road, we trekked upwards for a further few hours to Fairy Meadows – one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Despite being incessantly bombarded with the usual questions from Pakistani tourists, we managed to find some peace roaming the wooded hills around our log cabin. Having just missed the Eid festivities, the place was calm and we could just soak in the view of jagged rocks and ice that comprise the world’s 9thhighest mountain – Nanga Parbat. Also known as ‘killer mountain’ for its notorious difficulty, not the unfortunate killings that occurred at basecamp a few years back, it provided the most immense backdrop to the next days hike.

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We opted to walk up the basecamp 2 the following morning. Unsure whether our trainers would be up to negotiating the loose scree, we left ourselves plenty of time. Although, we were no longer alone, we had been assigned a ‘guide’. A guide who happened to carry an AK-47 and be a member of the anti-terrorist squad… The previous armed escorts we’d had been all show but this guy was scanning the tree line through the sights as we walked. We were certain it was all precautionary, yet you couldn’t help but wonder what local problems they must be facing here.

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After three hours following the trail that flanked a black glacier, we arrived up at basecamp 2. It was a real bonus for us, having not expected to make it this far without any kit. Dad is a mountain-man first and foremost, so it was really special to achieve something together that held a real significance for him. We gleefully walked our way back down from 4000m over the afternoon where we spent the evening with the locals in the ‘hotel’ kitchen. Surrounded by the most friendly group imaginable, we were back in the Pakistan we knew and loved.

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Eventually it was time to return to the bikes. We’d been warned we would need an escort for the next section, so keen not to take any chances, we told the Police we would be cycling out of town at 6am. It seemed they hadn’t computed that a foreigner would actually be cycling along this road, as, the following morning there were no police in sight. A little miffed, we got on our way. After a couple of hours riding, the world started to wake up. The first traffic on the road consisted of cars dispersed between armoured army patrol trucks with mounted machine guns. Despite there being hardly anyone about, it was clear we should have had an escort.

It wasn’t long before the Police picked us up. “What are you doing here?”. “Cycling”. “Why here…?”. “You must come with us”. Us and our bikes were chucked into the back of a pickup filled with armed personnel. They had decided that there was no way we would cycle up the Barbusa Pass. A horrendously steep 25 mile section that would take us up to 4000m – the last pass of Pakistan. I was especially eager to ride this incredible road but there was no way they were letting that happen. Soon I understood why.

Hidden in the pickup of our armed escort, we could only be seen from behind. Even so, when people did finally see us, it’s fair to say we generated a bit of interest. On one occasion, when the truck slowed to negotiate a bad section of road, a man clocked us and immediately came at us with pole. Thankfully the truck pulled away in time to avoid what would’ve been an ‘interesting’ escapade. Apart from a couple of kids firing rocks at us with slingshots, the rest of the journey passed without a hitch. Now released from the shackles of our escort, we were free to cycle down the other side of the mountain. When it comes to this ride I have to admit I am a purist. I want to cycle every possible inch. Yet, even I knew something would’ve happened to us trying to cycle up that section. We would have had to camp and that would’ve spelt immediate trouble. I could ride on knowing that like the Chinese border crossings, there was no way of cycling that road.

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Quietly assured of this fact, we rode onwards down the undulating road to a small riverside village. As darkness approached, I took a little walk about town to find the best place spend the night. After locating a reasonable hotel, I came back to find that Dad was surrounded by a group of extremely conservative looking local muslim men. They turned out to be both extremely friendly and devote men of the community. We had stopped in their village, therefore as the religious leaders, they had come to investigate. We were invited to spend the evening eating with them in the mosque, to which we eagerly obliged.

We washed our hands and feet before joining them for a quick snack inside the mosque before their prayer. They assured us that it was okay to wait at the back of the main room whilst they prayed together and would join us afterwards. As the call for prayer rang out from the megaphones atop the minarets, men from around the village descended on the mosque. By this point it was dark outside and the room was very dimly lit. Consequently, men would arrive, glance a look at us in the darkness before doing a double, or triple take to check if we were real. Two white Europeans, in a mosque, in this village… Something can’t be right. If they were indeed thinking that, the thought was reciprocated when a tall, well-built man entered late for prayer. I glanced the light reflecting off something in his hand, yet I couldn’t quite make it out. He shot us shrewd look before hastily turning to face the front, where he placed his AK-47 on the floor in front of him and assumed his prayers.

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Me and Dad shared a nervous look of disbelief, we had just been taken up the other side of the mountain in an armed escort due to the threat of militants. I knew they had massacred a bus load of Shia Muslims up there a few years back, as well as a group of foreign climbers in the mountains. We had been told this village was safe, yet hostile stares and weaponry said otherwise. My faith was in the fact the elders has invited us in, nothing would happen to us if we were with them. Whatever they wanted to talk to us about, I was certainly all ears now.

They invited us to listen to a discussion about Allah’s teachings, which they translated just for us. After the discussion we tucked into a hearty meal of their finest local cuisine, easily the best we’d eaten here. Talk over food was dominated by religion, and it was clear they were trying to convert us to Islam. I felt sorry for them, they had stumbled across the two most religiously indifferent people on this planet and had more than their work cut out for them. Still, it was interesting to hear what they had to say, it offered us a snapshot into a world far-removed from that of home, which is why I set off after all.

 

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After finishing dinner, they walked us back to our hotel before wishing us luck with our journey – that was an evening I shall never forget! I’ve noticed that people really connect with the idea of a father and son cycling together much more than me cycling solo. In the Islamic world there is real value placed on family, community and the father-son relationship. Hence, people find my Dad extremely interesting, even more so when they hear he is 56. Back home that isn’t considered old, but over here people don’t appear to exercise in the same way as we do in Europe. They are in disbelief that anyone over the age of forty can ride a bike up these hills, which I’ve found very interesting. When we were trekking, there were men my age opting to ride on a donkey up the track to the hotel. I couldn’t believe it, a two-hour walk was too much for at least half the twenty-somethings. Yet, they would proudly declare that they rode up on a donkey without any loss of pride.

We nearly needed a donkey ourselves the following day, bad road surfaces caused a few spokes on Dad’s wheel to snap; laying waste to our hopes of a big mileage morning. I was pleased realise that I was now becoming a dab-hand and bicycle maintenance, having everything fixed up in 20 minutes, I even surprised myself. Wheel all intact, we rode the undulating road through glorious forested hills for the following two days. The temperatures climbed in tune with the humidity as we descended down into the foothills once again. Riding with the crazed traffic along litter strewn roads, we were about to experience whole new Pakistan. After a night spent with a man sat outside our room with a shotgun (again), we were assured of our safety. Yeah right! I’ve decided if someone proclaims your safety without you asking the question, you can be sure otherwise. Not that we needed ask any questions seeing the gun there. You could say we were keen to put some miles between us and the place the following morning to reach the next destination.

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Abbottabad, a city named after the British colonist, John Abbott, also the last home of Bin Laden. We cycled through the grubby streets with the aroma of fresh human waste greeting us with the charm of a rusty nail to a foot. Yet, the people who saw us were smiling and friendly as ever. We were staying with Mohammad and his family on the outskirts of the city, coincidently right in the area where they found Bin Laden… They gave us the warmest of welcomes, helping us get sorted with all the menial things that suddenly become a real hassle in a foreign country. A SIM card and some medication later, we were able to enjoy their company, even venturing up into the hills to catch the setting sun over lowlands.

We left them with a big goodbye, before heading out onto the unbearably hot road to Islamabad. A purpose-built city, complete with a Nandos and Subway, it is like nothing else we’d encountered in Pakistan. We could even pay by card in some places… Remembering these past luxuries, we were even treated to some drinks at a bar in the hills overlooking the city lights. Muhammad (another one) is Senior vice president of the national bank here in Islamabad. I met him at a hostel in Uzbekistan a few months back when him and his friend were backpacking across central Asia. I was very happily surprised to find a man of his position enjoying a hostel atmosphere in his time off, something I hope I would do in his shoes. We got chatting, exchanged details and vowed to catch up in Pakistan. I love it when a plan comes together!

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The following day was spent pottering about the city, buying bits and bobs that needed replacing. A new cycling shirt and camera tri-pod. Items acquired, we rode out of an already horrifically muggy city the next morning towards the large border city of Lahore. Almost every tourist we’d met in Pakistan had come from Lahore, consequently, we felt like we already knew everything about this place. It would be a good few days riding along this dirty road to get there mind. A few days where the only breaks came in the form of truckers caf’s; where there was no rest bite from draining heat of the day. Soaked in sweat, people would immediately surround us, peppering us with the standard questions whilst we tried to find the table with the least number of flies to sit at.

To add to this experience, on the first night spent travelling this road, Dad became violently ill after drinking some fruit juice that a vendor insisted on giving him as a gift. We were couchsurfing with a family in small city called Jhelum, where the kind strangers unfortunately didn’t seem to understand the concept of personal space. In fact that goes for most Pakistanis we’ve encountered. There’s a feeling of, ‘if we aren’t spending time talking to you we aren’t good hosts’, which for two tired cyclists couldn’t be further from the truth. Poor Dad had to hold back being sick whilst they were about. They even went to a nearby shop to buy me some glittery silver shoes, which I said I couldn’t take with me on my bike but they insisted it would be an insult not to accept them, so accept them I did.

That night was a tough one, the room was too hot for either of us to sleep and Dad was being sick all night. The next day we checked into a hotel, for now we needed some space and solitude to rest up. Feeling slightly better, he was keen to cycle the next day, but after a few hours it was apparent that he hadn’t fully recovered. We flagged down a truck to take him to the next city whilst I cycled on to meet him there. We repeated this again the following day which took us into the crazy city of Lahore.

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Cycling on my own into the city, I got caught in small deluge; sending the already manic traffic into a frenzy. It was like a shoal of salmon swimming up a narrow stream, all the motorbikes and tuk-tuks practically on top of each other weaving in and out like mad. There are no rules, just wave your hands, check behind, then bolt between tuk-tuk’s and just avoid everything. Cars hurtle the wrong way along the motorway, scattering the oncoming traffic like a shark through a shoal. People will park in the middle lane and buses fire down the outside lane with the warning of a deafening horn. Do not rely on anyone else to do anything because they will hit you. A screech of tyres 20 feet back drew my attention, an out of control car skidded into a motorbike just a couple feet behind me, knocking three lads to the floor. The collision sent them skidding into a tuk-tuk before spinning into the central barrier. The car just managed to avoid clipping my back wheel before speeding off.

I ran back to check on the guys who somehow had come out unscathed from all this. That was a real close call and I was yet to reach the epicentre of this traffic melee. I continued on through the rain to the hotel where I found Dad watching the cricket. England vs India, it was to be how we spent the majority of the next two days. Breaking only to embark on a tour of the city, courtesy of our local friend Shah, we enjoyed watching England beat India in the last game of the series. I had hoped this would be the case, as we were to ride into the country the following day. Or so we thought…

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