banner connect on Twitter connect on Facebook connect on Hyves cycling in Europe part I cycling in Asia part I cycling in North America cycling in Central America cycling in South America cycling in Europe part II cycling in Africa RSS feeds home page

On the road . August 2007 . Pakistan

sonalinks Nuweiba Beach, accommodation in Sinai advertise on justifiable web design Bedouin Craft Cycling Egypt
go back evening view of mountains in karimabad
Internet café in Aabpara, Islamabad, 25-08-07
Never a dull moment
Karimabad to Islamabad via Babusar Pass
(10 cycle days; 4 rest days; 590km; 5399m; 45km by bus)

Karimabad to Gilgit (108km; 893m)
Gilgit to Thalichi (65km; 650m)
Thalichi to Chilas (68km; 571m) * estimate kms & altitude
Chilas to Gittidas (6km; 106m; approx. 45 km by bus)
Gittidas to Besal (20km; 270m)
Besal to Naran (46km; 532m)
Naran to Balakot (83km; 754m)
Balakot to Abbottabad (65km; 1052m)
Abbottabad to Taxila (89km; 308m)
Taxila to Islamabad (40km; 263m)

Before you know it...
Time passes quickly in Pakistan. There is never a dull moment anywhere in this country. On the road you either contend with soaring temperatures, landslides, mountainous terrain, lack of bitumen, newly formed rivers across the track or the complete madness of the toot-happy truck and bus drivers. In any township, you'll be the centre of attention and especially if you are male. People are incredibly friendly wherever you go and they go out of their way to help you with anything you need. They will dart through traffic to come and shake your hand or drop what they are doing to escort you to the hotel you are looking for. Policemen, security guards and officials smile in Pakistan and locals yell "Welcome, welcome...thank you", as you pass through their village. Before we know it, our 30-day visa is running out and in need of renewal.

It is then strange to hear the adverse reports of terrorist attacks in these far-flung corners of the globe that somehow get the rest of the world into a barking frenzy. Before you know it, they have cancelled initial travel plans and are getting on other planes to other tourist destinations. But the truth is, Northern Pakistan is isolated physically, spiritually and politically from the extremist battle. It is unfortunate that the international media is capable of blowing even the most minor incident so far out of proportion. So far, that it could well appear, from the comfortable confines of your western living room, that an entire country is focussed on mass destruction.

It is not. I feel safer here, walking around than in Athens or even some of the seedy side-streets in Amsterdam. The lack of confidence from the rest of the world has lead to a major lull in the tourism trade and while, quite selfishly, I would like to keep this magical place for myself and the few other daring travellers, I would still recommend putting Pakistan high on your travel itinerary. Long live Pakistan.

On the downside, as a non-Muslim woman in Muslim territory you are likely to face a few difficulties. As a female cyclist, I seem to feel as though I am threatening the essence of manhood in this publicly male-dominated culture. The men just don't know how to deal with you and you will therefore, have to contend with the clicking-come-sucking noise the men find normal to get your attention. If there is anything I dislike then it is this sound, but nothing that a silent glare of disgust doesn't cure. One ill-mannered man also thought it would be appropriate to suggestively wiggle his saliva dripping tongue at me as we crossed paths on route to Abbottabad. Then again, such an immature gesture as this can be experienced all over the globe, so I can't allow a tainted few to spoil the hospitality and warm heartedness of the majority of men in Pakistan. Even so, foreign women should tread carefully and keep their guard up at all times.

It is not until we reach Islamabad that I can really make comment on the Pakistani women I see, because up until then I have rarely seen any. They are not present in everyday public life; whether that be on the streets, in shops, hotels or restaurants. They are more likely impelled to work in the fields or look after the household. The closer we get to the capital however, the more I hear their happy hellos and see their cheerfully pretty faces; the latter not always completely covered either. The dress code is modest and despite western clothing being readily available, the traditional and colourful three-piece Pakistani outfit is definitely in fashion. And before I know it, I too have purchased an one from a local tailor.

long live pakistan

Double Gee-pers
I think we have broken all records by staying in Karimabad for almost two weeks without doing one single trek. In fact, we do little else than update our site, work on a few new ones, send out the "one year on the road mail bomb", catch up on all the other emails and just simply enjoy the magnificent views from our bedroom window. In all honesty, another break is needed and it has been a bit like a vacation away from our cycling vacation. Rather indulgent you might agree. Still, on August 7, we lift our rested legs over the saddle and place the feet firmly in the toe clips for the onward adventure towards Islamabad. The route is still uncertain and we will decide which path we will take once we make it to Gilgit.

The road is incredibly undulating and there's nearly 900 metres of climbing to get the leg muscles pumping. Entering some towns along the way can be painfully exhausting in the heat of the day. In general, there are some smooth bits, lots of bumpy sections, certain parts that you can't call a road at all and a couple of places where nature has reclaimed the man-made terrain back as a river. One important piece of advice for anyone riding the KKH: whatever you do, don't pull off to the side of the highway without checking carefully for double-gee (also known as bindie and goats head) prickles. These spiky perpetrators from innocent looking ground weeds are in plague proportions and it will be more than an ordinary patch job on the inner tube if you happen to roll over one. We know only too well, since Ali does just that. It takes us 2 frustrating hours of roadside repairs before we are mobile again. Later that evening, we discover another 16 holes before giving up on one of his tubes and throwing it once and for all in the rubbish bin.

Gulmet is definitely the place to stop and refuel. It is 30 kilometres from Karimabad and just past the turn-off to Minapin: a steep 4 kilometre dirt-track. Refreshingly cool water cascades down from Rakaposhi's glacier, passed the terraced area where you can sit and enjoy the mountainous view from every direction. It is clearly a notch up on the Pakistani tourist venture and there are a couple of guest-houses here if you like the cool, relaxing scene.

We continue on with today's journey, taking us through numerous villages, all with plentiful supplies for cyclists. The spitter-spatter of rain remains almost all day by our sides, but never eventuates into anything too threatening. On the other hand, a couple of kids throw apples from an orchard as Ali cycles by, but to their demise, in view of an elderly local man. And does he give them what for! He also makes one of the offenders give Ali a handful of apples as a peace offering, which is a very nice gesture indeed and as a double bonus they are quite delicious.

views of valley along KKH leading to Gilgit Pakistan

The grand
A few hours from Gilgit and the late afternoon sun intermittently highlights a colour spectrum of golden greens on the blue-brown silhouette hue of the mountain range before us. The rock formation soars high into the penetrating blue back dropping the landscape. Petite wisps of fluffy cloud sit to the front of this picture, just as if someone has ripped a cotton wool ball into little pieces and glued them ad hoc to the sky. To the left and in the distance, a vivid rainbow, shining its colours with fervour, is caught between two adjacent rock faces. A grand visual that no photograph can really do justice.

As we enter Dainyor we are on the look-out for the shortcut that takes you through a tunnel and via two suspension bridges to Gilgit. We miss it altogether and irritatingly add another 10 kilometres to our trip. It is well and truly dark before we arrive at Mountain Refuge in Gilgit (108km; 893m), where we stop for three nights in total.The gardens here are beautiful to sit in and relax and you would hardly know that you are right smack bang in the middle of a city. While the bathroom is a little run down, the rooms have clean bed linen. The accommodation price is a reasonable 250 rupees per double.

Food on the other hand is markedly expensive for what you get. A simple potato and pea curry with chapatti will set you back 125 rupees each. Then again, like anywhere else in Pakistan you may ask for seconds. Breakfast is also overpriced compared to local standards. Every morning Ali has a hearty bowl of porridge and I, a decent serving size of hunza bread with homemade mango jam. We both order 2 black coffees each and after three mornings our breakfast bill is quite a grand 600 rupees. Now, I can hear you all crying "that is only €7.50 for three breakfast for two persons". I know, I know, but in the grand scheme of things in Pakistan, it is still quite a lot to pay.

While in Gilgit we need to book the NAPWD (Northern Areas Public Works Department) rest house in Thalichi and we venture to their office on the outskirts of town. The Chief Officer is pleasant and officious enough and assures us that it will be no problem to stay at the lodgings. According to him, even if they are full, we may camp. We also want information about the state of the roads leading to and from the Babusar Pass. In his own words, they are "very good". Apparently, the roadwork department has been working extremely hard to bring them up to scratch for masses heading up to the polo match at Gittidas on 14th August for one of Pakistan's grandest celebrations: Independence Day.

Apart from banking, sending off some postage and trying - with absolutely no luck - to find an internet café that has a connection, there is little else Gilgit can offer us. The town itself is hot and dusty and not at all appealing. Adding grandly to our disenchantment, the electricity is forever out.

Too hot
It is at Mountain Refuge that we meet Molly, a cyclist from San Francisco. She decides to join us for the ride out of Gilgit, but plans to stop in Jaglot, 25 kilometres out of town. We are all on the road by 8.30am but Ali gets a flat just outside the town. Neither Molly nor myself mind resting in the shade of a conveniently placed advertising board. It is already baking hot and it will actually reach our all time record of 55°C in the sun today. Needless to say, we stop frequently to re-hydrate and convalesce. It hits Ali the most and he is lack lustre for the better part of the afternoon. We are soon to discover that this Superman's kryptonite is raging heat.

We get reasonably close to Jaglot, where we take it in turns to venture below to a pipe spurting deliciously cold water from the stream following the road. Entirely soaked, we ride on with our own custom air-conditioning. Unfortunately, our clothing soon dries and hot and bothered we roll into Jaglot. The numerous serias [budget travellers inns] or hotel mentioned in LP do not exist and the town has obviously been turned into a military base. We manage to find a crummy shack like room with the only lock being on the outside and no running water on the premises.

The army presence is enough to put anyone off staying overnight and I express my concern at leaving her alone in this village. Molly is also not so sure it is a good idea and so, with not too much persuasion, decides to join us in attempting the Babusar Pass and cycling on to Islamabad. The road has been - and continues to be - an up and down excursion; an energy taxing grind for every minute of the way; and a strain in the 50 plus Celsius temperatures. Out in the open there is a high risk of overheating and dehydration. This is definitely dangerous country and by the time we reach Thalichi (65km; 650m), we are all totally numb, frazzled, hungry and ready for a wash, food and sleep.

The NAPWD rest house is easy enough to find, but a rude and arrogant militant man refuses to let us further than the stairs leading to the sleeping quarters. The place has been taken over by the military, it is evidently full and we are not permitted nor welcome to stay under any circumstances. Even our reservation slip signed by the "Chief Officer in Charge" himself is not enough to persuade this big-headed, big-weaponed soldier to give in.

A young local man comes to our rescue and offers us a place to stay at his soon-to-be hotel. There is one simple, mud floor room finished, which he fills with three charpoys [rope-strung beds]. A primitive bucket bath and toilet are out the back and much better than I have described after the torture heat of today. The brothers of this hotel cook us a delicious meal comprising fresh chapatti and two different dishes: one of okra [lady-fingers] and the other a fried tomato, onion and egg scramble. The company is quite charming, the sunset view of Nanga Parbat [8126m] absolutely beautiful and we consider the change of lodgings a blessing in disguise, considering the not so warm welcome at the NAPWD camp.

We are all in bed by 8.30pm but the night's sleep is sporadic. Our room is situated close to the highway and the trucks stop outside our window all night long. It is also stifling hot in the little stone space with three bodies pooling sweat under them. Not a breath of fresh air reaches us through the hole in the wall, even though a hot wind storm brews outside and remains blowing until morning. We wake at 5am and it is still hot.

before we leave thalichi , pakistan

Even hotter
We manage to get away by 6.30am after a breakfast of stale bread and sweet tea. It is 32° Celsius at 7.15am and it feels like the temperature will easily out do yesterday's. It reaches the same: 55 degrees and cycling feels like riding down a furnace tunnel into a blasting oven with headwinds of course. My eyeballs are dry and irritated and every push on the pedal is hard work, draining and not much fun at all. We pass way above where the blue-grey Gilgit River meets the brown-grey Indus. The KKH is winding, rocky, sandy and barren of plant life. Our tiny forms are so insignificant against the cut-out track on the sheer cliff-face that drops to the mighty flow beneath us. While it is not always particularly pretty, it is impressive.

After roughly 50 kilometres, Ali simply can't cycle anymore. He looks terrible and I have never seem him like this before. Besides being completely red, he has no energy to drink or eat, let alone push the fully loaded bike up and down these killer climbs. After resting for little more than half an hour, the situation doesn't get any better, so after 53 kilometres and 445 altitude metres, we flag down a car. Ali and his bike are motored on into Chilas about 15 kilometres further up the road. The plan is he will wait at a soda-stop just before the town for Molly and myself to pedal the final distance.

One and a half hours later, we find him in Chilas (68km; 571m) re-hydrated and looking much better. We are, on the contrary, completely shattered from the journey and it is difficult to concentrate, converse, or collect any more thoughts about the day. Our heads are aching, even though we have been pumping as much liquid into our bodies as possible. We settle for a triple room at Karimabad Inn for 500 rupees - bartered down from 700. We shower; we eat in the hotel's restaurant; and we crash straight away, only to be woken at 6am when the electricity cuts out and the fan stops. Immediately the room becomes an unbearable sweatbox.

Here a man, there a man, everywhere a man, man
Our bodies need a rest and we spend the next day cheering and booing in our hotel room as the electricity comes on and goes off respectively. We drink almost the cost of an overnight stay in water at the elevated price of 50 rupees a bottle. Though, it must be said that the food in the restaurant is great with tonnes of veggie options and not at all expensive. There is the added bonus of an English menu as well.

In Gilgit, the women that you did manage to get a glimpse of in the streets were completely covered, with only their eyes showing. But at least there were a few women present. It is kind of spooky the first time you see men, and only men as the villages only public population. They aren't doing much to be scared about, they are just milling around in groups. But is just weird and it is overly noticeable where we are staying and in the actual township of Chilas, 3 kilometres further on up a steep, winding road-come-gravel track, that the women of this region stay at home. Well at least that is where I imagine they are, but there is not one around to confirm or contest this.

After the owner of the hotel quotes us 4500 rupees for a private jeep to cross Babusar Pass, we decide to try our luck in the town centre of Chilas. The price there is a little less at 4000 rupees for a jeep, so I guess the 500 is a little add on for our hotel manager's pocket. But we also learn, that in light of the Independence Day celebrations in Gittidas, a few opportunistic bus drivers are going up the pass with their vehicles for the insignificant amount of 300 rupees each. Upon our return we relay the information to our hotel owner, who is impressed with the 300 rupee charge and before we know it, he has someone else that will match this price as well as pick us up directly from Karimabad Inn. That hill leading up to Chilas looked mighty uninviting, so we take the offer as a blessing and agree to travel with his friend.

children on the way to barbusar pass in kaghan valley pakistan

Waiting by the busstop-ped
A storm kicks in early evening with incredibly powerful winds and rain, but remarkably all is clear the following morning. The bus arrives at just after 8.00am as promised and the bikes and bags are loaded on top. We are off. The first 15 kilometres or so are okay and then we hit the outcome of last nights storms: almost a kilometre of landslides. We, along with all the other traffic, wait for an hour for road-workers to level it off enough for the attempt to get the bus up the boggy slopes. It takes several goes, with the first half of the bus disembarking to assist pushing the vehicle up and over the hills. the back passengers have to remain seated for weighted traction.

It becomes apparent after several clashes with boulders and a nasty burnt-clutch odour that this bus is not really up to it. Half an hour down the road and we stop again. This time the axle is out of alignment and for some reason the transmission needs bleeding. Ninety minutes later and we are all back in the bus, bracing the white knuckle ride as we grip hard on the seat in front of us; partly to keep ourselves from landing on the floor and partly as a futile push-gesture, as we all wish the bus over the other side with all our might.

The state of the road surprises us; especially remembering what the Chief Commissioner in Gilgit had said: "the road is very good due to the festivities at hand." It isn't and it winds precariously up to an altitude of 4175 metres and it is absolutely treacherous stuff. Even so, we are happy about a seat in a bus in contrast to a saddle on a bike.

As we bounce along, everyone is very friendly: welcome signs in hand and plenty of waving from locals are a total contrast to comments in guidebooks about how inhospitable this area is supposed to be. We don't experience any untoward behaviour at all. Maybe the celebrations have put everyone in a good mood.

By now there is an incredible clunking sound from under the bus and it stops again. This time on an incline that all traffic is finding difficult to negotiate. While holding up traffic, the driver and the mechanic secure the axle in place with some string - about the extent of their fix-it kit along with a few spanners and pliers - and we are mobile again. Passengers need to continually jump off to push and then have the added task of catching up with the bus to jump on afterwards. At these altitudes, that is pretty difficult. Some of them are unlucky at getting back on and need to traverse the mountain side to meet the bus on the opposite bend of the switchback.

Just 6 kilometres from the top, the crossed arm signal from a fellow passenger indicates the death of our transport. Well, at least we thought this is what he meant. And by looking at the axle: completely split in two with its mechanical innards lying on the ground, Molly and I take this as the end of our semi-comfortable ride. We start hauling everything down from the roof rack.

Ali is one of those who needed to scale the mountain side and we keep expecting to see him waltzing up the path any minute. He doesn't, which worries me slightly, but even more bewildering is the bus status. It just takes off after 20 minutes and actually looks like it is going to makes it over the pass. The axle has been tied back together with that same piece of string. From this day on, I'll place more faith in the Pakistani ability to repair a broken down vehicle.

So we've abandoned ship, which is now chugging up the pass and we are still waiting for Ali. He finally appears, walking down from almost reaching the top, where he had been anticipating the arrival of the bus. So, when he saw that we were not on board, he wasn't really happy that he had to climb all the way back down to us. He is even less happy when he spots that there is one bag missing; the one containing our computer and electronic equipment.

taking photographs on the road to Gittidas, near Babusar Pass, Pakistan

I would like to put it down to not thinking straight at high altitude, but whatever the reason, I stupidly forgot to grab the pannier bag from under his seat in the bus. After quite a few words - that I will not repeat in this report - he has climbed on the back of a van heading back up the pass. A road block stops him from reaching his target and so he attempts to run the rest. Unfortunately, altitude wins over this idea and he luckily manages to hitch with another car. With all the breakdowns on this road, space - on even the back of a car - is scarce and drivers are reluctant to weigh their vehicles down anymore than necessary. But this has its positive effect too, because after reaching the top, the bus breaks down yet again and Superman successfully rescues our bag, much to the amusement of driver and passengers. His mission crosses him back over the pass for the second time.

The wind picks up and we optimistically get on our bikes to pedal. After less than 50 metres, Molly and I are walking. I turn around to see how Ali is coping and he's doing exactly the same. We push 1.7 kilometres of 7% average climb at around 4000 metres above sea level. At one stage we huff and puff up a 29% gradient of rubble and grit. That is tough. The 106 altitude metres required to reach the Babusar Pass [4175m], take more than half an hour.

At the top we are stopped for a picture for the Gilgit Daily before dropping a further 4 kilometres into the valley of Gittidas (45km by bus; 6km; 106m) below. We are immediately hassled by police to register on arrival and although we are obviously exhausted, it is starting to rain and the registration tent is a mission in itself to get to, they are insistent. So are we, and after quite a bit of yelling and stubborn refusal, we may go and set our tent up first. By this stage the rain is really pelting down, which is really annoying. Molly is suffering badly from altitude sickness, which means she can do little else than get out her mattress and lie her head down. The tent is erected and Ali and I venture out to find some food. What we find, would have to be the worst meal of mutton flavoured dahl and smokey rice we have ever had and the vendors try to get 300 rupees out of us for it, which is just plain sad. Ali, in no mood for games by this time of the day, pays the outrageous amount of 200 rupees and we get back to the tent quick smart before the next downpour.

Being quite the gentleman he is, Ali sleeps in the vestibule, while we girls crash in the inner tent. Since Molly hadn't intended to go over a 4000 metre plus pass, she isn't really set up for camping in the extremes. And seeing as it is less than 5°C inside the tent, we share my down sleeping bag.

basic room at besal, pakistanSlip, sliding away
Our petrol stove won't work this morning, so some of the off-duty police kindly lend us their gas cooker for making our breakfast. Of course this automatically means we are obliged to drop by - on our way to watch the highest polo match in the world - for a cup of tea. The chatter over a sweet brew is of excitement. The atmosphere is boosted at this prestigious event even more since Chilas are playing against Gilgit. Obviously with Chilas being so close, the amount of their supporters outweighs that of the opposition ten fold. Unluckily for Chilas, Gilgit win 10-6. We hang around to see the celebratory dance, but take off before the formalities of giving out the trophies begin. It is around 1.00pm when we start the ascend from the valley up the hill.

Besides contending with all the traffic - both foot and automated - climbing back up is way too difficult and Molly and I sleaze our way onto the back of a military pick-up truck. The boys are pretty impatient about getting everything on and take off well before we are seated or the back of the ute is shut. While Molly tries to hold the bikes firm in hand, I find my way to the other side of the pickup to secure the bikes from that side, which is easier said than done on the back of a slippery metal tray top with muddy boots. Vehicles stop and start as they get stuck and need to be pushed out of trouble. Engines strain and the exhaust fumes are rife. The rain the night before doesn't make life any easier for the drivers. It is one slippery mud bath.

There is somehow a major communication breakdown between us all. Molly and I continue on in the pick-up around the hairpin and back to the top of the pass, where we wait long enough for a hail storm to come in and to realise that Ali hasn't travelled in the same direction. At first I think he's having a hard time making it up the hill, but after walking down to help out, I find him waiting very impatiently at the switchback turnoff.

All the wasted time and the cold spell that has closed in out of the blue, eventuates in a public screaming match between us and I storm back off up the hill to get Molly and my bike. A driver takes pity on my obvious vexation and takes me to the top in his car. Molly is there huddled down as close to her bike as possible while being pummelled by ice stones. It is a tentative pedal back down the muddy slope and we meet Ali coming towards us. It has become so cold and wet for him that he thought it best to keep moving than to stand still. The only thing keeping us all sane is the sight of sunshine in the distance.

After that, there is nothing else occupying our minds except how to contend with the off-road adventure that lies ahead through the valley, meadow, stream, river, and muddy, rock-ridden paths. The roads are pretty bad. Yes, worse than in southern Kyrgyzstan. Our hands cramp with all the downhill braking and our legs strain with the uphill pushing. There is also the added necessity to put on full wet weather gear for the 20 kilometre journey into Besal. It takes us almost 3 hours to complete. It rains almost the whole way. It is 3 hours of pushing through the slosh. The film below probably gives a better idea of the days activities than any words can.

Just after passing Lake Lalusar, which is really a most beautiful sight, we know that Besal is close; just a couple more energy zapping climbs. Ali has to help with the 28% gradient as I can no longer push my bike up. He also goes back down a second time to help Molly too. Finally, we coast - well as best you can on rubble - down into the very primitive township of Besal (20km; 206m), just as it is getting dark. The owner of the "hotel" asks 500 rupees for a plastic carpet lined room with oil lantern and well used, smelly mattresses. The only running water is the stream across the road, where the outhouse is also situated.

We explain that that is way overpriced and are prepared to pay 50 rupees each for these bare minimum facilities. Two hundred rupees in total is eventually agreed upon and after a "wet-ones" wash, we venture into the also oil-lantern lit restaurant for dinner. In light of the accommodation standards, we do not expect much, but surprisingly the dahl is tasty and made from red kidney beans instead of the usual lentils. Sweet green tea, tasting more of sugar than anything else, finishes off the chapatti and spicy dinner just nicely. Out of sheer necessity, we all slip easily into sleep soon after, though I wake in the early morning as I smell a mouse. My nose is impeccably good. I am sure it ran over my sleeping bag. Ali insists it was him, but I am sticking to my story. He might smell after a few days of not having a shower, but he has never once smelt like a mouse.

waiting for the shoes to be fixed in Naran

One pen, one pen!
The initial stretch of road is much the same as yesterday and we cross more rivers than I can keep count of, climb and push against more rubble than I would like to remember and rely way too heavily on my brakes to prevent me from flying arse-over-tit on the steep, downward slopes. Any fear I ever had for water, mud, sand or stone has disappeared. However, my phobia for crossing grid-like structures has not. I freeze at the bridge girder with holes big enough for both my feet to slip through. Embarrassingly, Ali has to guide me over by the hand. After 17 kilometres, we hit bitumen at Burawai, which has us all smiling and the going is good for most of the way. The rough spots become a little more frequent as we approach Naran.

Charming countryside views are on display as the highway goes up and down like a roller coaster ride. Pine forests, lakes, fast flowing streams and strangely shaped ice glaciers greet us roadside. The other unavoidable reception comes from the local children. And since, kids will be kids, and these kids have probably never seen cyclists on loaded bikes before - they can be quite a pain at times. The "one pen, one pen" greet is usual. Rumour has it that this form of begging was initiated years ago by well-meaning westerners giving away pens instead of money. Unfortunately, it started a trend and now nearly every child you come across in Pakistan will run excitedly towards you, hand held out, screaming this quite annoying catchphrase. Generally, they go away when you refuse to give them anything or they are spoken to with adult stern. A handful will take it further, run after or crowd around and try to grab you and your bike. Only the odd few throw stones.

A seven hour journey, whereby only four is actually spent cycling, is the result of being stopped continually by bus loads of guys wanting their picture taken with us. The cameras might be out of the eighties, but everyone has one and the photo session each time is consequently long. A few kilometres before Naran (46km; 532m) and the road flattens out. It is a popular summer destination among Pakistanis and the evidence hits you the moment you enter the small town. There are plenty of hotels and guest houses ranging from budget to luxurious as you head south. On the way out of town, a few campsites with permanently erected tents and cooking amenities are also available. We choose Paradise Inn, one of the more budget options at 500 rupees for a room with enough sleeping facilities for three and a small, rather poorly tiled bathroom. Hot water runs only from 6am to 10am daily, though a hot water bucket bath is available on request. Electricity, like in the rest of Pakistan, is completely random. If you need to charge up anything, then make hay while the sun shines.

We hang out in Naran for just one day before heading towards Balakot. The journey ahead is full of winding roads that lead us from one mountain to the next. It is beautifully green. We hit some quite difficult terrain and there's a bit of pushing to do. Even the logging trucks have to battle with the unpaved, uphill grind. Some neighbourhoods have been badly affected by earthquakes and as we close in on our target the fault lines across the road are frequent. Parts of the highway have shifted metres from their original location and the last section of our trip takes us forever. With each ascend, we hope to see Balakot below but are bitterly disappointed when another rise and fall becomes imminent.

At long last and following nearly six hours of riding, we spy a very makeshift township full of rectangular structures with blue, corrugated iron roofs. The only structure still standing in Balakot (83km; 754m) after the earthquake three years ago, is the shopping arcade with Serenity Hotel situated at the back. The rest of the place is adorned with mobile homes and tents surrounded by rubble and built-up garbage. Hotel Kohi-toor, where we stay is exactly fashioned out of transportable units donated to the area from Saudi Arabia and erected in quarters resembling and smelling like a rubbish dump. Separate amenities with a bucket bath is cool and inviting after the long hot ride, while the electricity is just as temperamental as anywhere else in Pakistan. This means we unfortunately get little use out of our wall hung fan.

girls in the kaghan valley

From Balakot it is virtually downhill for 10 kilometres before hitting the roundabout at the Muzaffarabad turnoff and the staggering 7 kilometre and 260 alti-metre clammer out of the valley. Normally, it wouldn't be so bad, but the heat of the day makes this one hard work. We drop once again, only to find ourselves ascending further on down the track. This is the basically the pattern for the day and by the time we get to Mansehra we have climbed almost 650 metres.

By this stage, Molly is finding the heat a bit too much and I must admit it has dulled my brain as well. Her tyre then gives up while climbing out of town and after replacing it and a few hundred metres of cycling later, she decides to catch a taxi into Abbottabad which is 20 kilometres up the road. It costs 300 rupees, though the guy in the shop where we shelter from the heat and slurp on a few cold drinks, thinks it is way too expensive. According to him, a local would pay just 200 rupees. Molly doesn't really mind as she just wants to find the Al Faiz, a hotel that boasts a bathtub plus other luxury conveniences in their "suite room".

Ali and I continue on up the monster climb. It just never seems to end and the trucks and buses come unbelievably close to our small frames balancing perilously on the edge of the bitumen. We often have to slip into the gravel shoulder which means even more exertion getting to the top. Their horns are deafening and their lack of respect for our presence on the road is quite maddening. Simple fact is, you are one from the bottom of the transport pecking order, pedestrians having the lowest rank of course.

The coast down into Abbottabad couldn't have come sooner and it was relatively easy, though a few loud "oy's" and a couple of whacks on car side doors are necessary to avoid a crumpled body and bike. The road splits at a roundabout just 8 kilometres or so from the start of town. This is Jinnah Road and leads directly to the hotel where Molly is probably already soaking her exhausted body. The room at Al Faiz in Abbottabad (65km; 1062m)does not really live up to LP's write up: apart from the fact it is dirty and run down, it has no hot water, no towels on arrival and we need to ask three times to get them sent to our room, it also has no key and a new one has to be re-cut, and the guys at reception - to top it all off- are not particularly friendly. A real farce for the 2000 rupees they initially quoted. Still, we are not sure exactly what Molly has agreed on for the room and we shouldn't be the ones complaining because she is shouting us the night, as well as the long talked and drooled about pizza at Red Onion. The mere thought about something other than the very dull dahl and chapatti standard, has the mind in gastronomic heaven!

Where marijuana truly is weed
We plummet down 14 kilometres to Havelian, where the KKH officially ends and it takes 400 metres off our altitude. Then an additional 270 metres also disappears once we have reached Haripur, another 22 kilometres further on. We are really cruising at this stage, though the sun is getting increasingly more intense. It shines on the copious hemp plants lining the highway and growing higher than the corn in adjacent fields. A pleasantly sweet, sticky odour fills the air and the tropical environment abundant in bananas, palms and roadside nurseries is a pleasant change after the rockiness of the Karakoram Highway and Babusar Pass. It is still 53 kilometres to Taxila with a finishing 20 kilometre stretch on the Grand Trunk Road, which through hearsay, is notoriously dangerous. Actually, it is not as bad as everyone makes out. At least there is a medium strip to stop the traffic from the other direction overtaking and pushing you off your path.

The day roasts to a sweltering 49 °C in the sun. It is becoming quite difficult to keep the wheels turning as we enter Taxila (89km; 308m): a bustling town of equal proportions of disorder and garbage. We first are lead down a grotty lane way where a single hotel is situated. No-one is manning reception and we wait out on the street. On one side fresh bread is being baked which is always a bonus to a cyclist, but on the other mutton is being chopped into little pieces and the smell of bloody flesh in the hot summer heat becomes too much for me. I venture onto the main strip and ask if another place to stay exists in this town.

Apparently there is a guesthouse, near the museum. It takes a few stops to ask for directions before we cross under the overpass bridge and head out of town. We are well and truly on the outskirts before the restaurant at Gandhara Hotel [Khanpur Road near Taxila museum] catches our attention and they have a room upstairs for 800 rupees. The price is bargained down to 600 rupees and it is pretty good value for what we get. The spaciously pristine area comes with a fan, bathroom and very clean bed linen taken for the first time right out of plastic bag. The brand new mattress that soon after arrives for Molly confirms that this place is just starting up. The restaurant downstairs has good food too: Pakistani variety considerably cheaper than the western fare.

Bottom of the barrel
It was a thunder and lightning loaded sky that entertained us for the best part of last night and when we awake today, it is as if the storm has split the heavens in two and water is gushing out. We are too early for the restaurant staff, which is not difficult in Pakistan and so we attempt to cycle out of town at around 7.15am. The rain is too heavy to ride safely in and we are forced to take shelter a few hundred metres down the road. Though we needn’t have bothered because within minutes of getting back on the bikes, we are completely saturated from passing traffic.

Thank goodness it is only a short ride today and after a not so scenic journey we find ourselves across the road from the tourist campsite in Islamabad (40km; 200m). It is 50 rupees per person to pitch your tent or stay in one of the bare-basic concrete dorms. A 100 rupee fee applies for each vehicle. There is a cold shower that is actually quite good and one usable toilet for everyone to share: men and women; foreigners and locals alike. Needless to say, it gets filthy pretty quickly and the method of cleaning never amounts to much more than a quick squirt over with the hose. The bin full of soiled toilet paper gets tipped in the bushes next to the toilet block entrance. The once operational kitchen facilities are obviously out of commission seeing as the owner now uses the space as his bedroom. On the comforting side, an armed guard protects you and your belongings for the entire length of your stay.

Understandably, Molly wants something a little more up-market , so we take a look at what's on offer too, but soon discover that Islamabad is very expensive in comparison to the rest of the country. You won't find much for under 800 rupees for a double room and while these budget rooms are not as bottom of the barrel as the campground facilities, you certainly can’t expect too much for this price either.

toads taken over our tent in islamabad

Workstation Broadband Internet Café (Jinnah Super Market, College Rd) Islamabad, 31-08-07
Held up in Islamabad
Why we haven't shifted to Rawalpindi by now, I just don't know. Islamabad is becoming increasingly boring. The campsite might be cheap and the tiny chipmunks chasing one and other highly entertaining, but it is very hot, humid, infested with mosquitoes and a family of toads have moved into the front vestibule of our tent. The only refuge we have from the elements is the Ambassador Hotel, where Molly is staying and most of the staff are very friendly. It is way over our budget, but she moved after the first and only night at Hotel Friends Inn, where her room had no outside window and only a fan for the pricey sum of 600 rupees. Her new place of abode has a decent restaurant with reasonably priced meals and we don't have to frequent the toilet an abnormal amount of times after eating in there; a highly likely prospect after dining in most establishments in Pakistan. So, we can be found at breakfast and dinner on most days sitting in air-conditioned comfort.

So, we've now covered eating and sleeping and seeing as walking around is virtually an impossible task in this heat, there is not much else on the list of entertaining things to do while in Islamabad. Even if you could handle the warmth, you would only find yourself walking through the higgledy-piggledy land-grid of suburbia connected by double-lane highways. There are four sections to this jungle and to get around you need to know which sector you want to travel to. For example: G7 or G4. Islamabad doesn't really have a city centre, just lots of micro-centres. Relatively new, since it was only started in the 1960's, it is a concrete and steel shambles with never-ending roadwork and unsightly slums bordering all the sectors. So much of the metropolis looks incomplete and in a way that suggests it never will be.

And we can’t really blame women for this mess, since this is a culture that refuses to acknowledge that they would be useful in the area of infrastructure and construction growth. If the men actually looked like they were doing something about the problem, it wouldn’t be so bad. But they tend to sit around in groups mostly, for the best part of the day, doing little else than staring at any unsuspecting foreigner, chatting with each other, drinking tea, sleeping virtually anywhere, anytime or chilling out with the help of a fan or charpoy [rope bed]. The guys running our campsite are fully-fledged experts in all of the above.

And when they are not doing one of the above, they are in an internet cafe, chuckling out loud at the video or television program they have recently downloaded or, as I caught a bunch of guys out, congregated round a pornographic picture. This is the other thing to do in Islamabad, but not if you are a local female. To date, I have not seen one woman, besides Molly, in one of these cyber institutions. But be warned, male or female, you will be exposing yourself to a punishment of the severest form of frustration. Every computer is completely riddled with viruses in every single one of the internet cafes. This is typical throughout Pakistan and when you suggest, that they should update or even - for crying out loud - install a virus scanning program, they just smile and say: "Sorry Madam". It is complete torture. Mind you, it's cheap torture at 25 rupees an hour.

Why then are we still here you might be asking? Well bureaucracy is having its way with us yet again and after a surprise 4 day wait - negotiated down from 7 days - for our Pakistani extension, we are sitting out a further week long delay to our cycling plans for our Indian visa. In all other towns, the extensions are done on the spot, but of course, we have to choose Islamabad to extend ours and we are shocked when the stamp isn't issued immediately. There is little we can do about it.

The Indian High Commission is completely spilling over with people at any time of day and just for the record, there is an embassy shuttle bus that costs 15 rupees and will take you to your embassy of choice. While this seems like a nice idea, the system of lining up for tickets, unfortunately, takes forever and then this is coupled further with a horrendously long queue for the actual bus. We give up with this procedure and go to the entrance at UN Boulevard. After showing our passports we are allowed to walk to the embassy, however this doesn't always work for females travelling alone.

Indian High Commission: Diplomatic Enclave: Open Monday to Friday 9.30-13.00 and 15.00-17.30. Process takes 7-10 days. Fee: 3,300 rupees and you must have the exact amount in cash. Also required are two application forms with absolutely no mistakes; two pass photos; and your passport. You can apply for any type of tourist visa you like: i.e. single or multiple entry; three months to one year. Though, this doesn't necessarily mean you will get what you ask for.

brass band for women's football  in islamabad

Tourism versus culture
A taxi ride almost anywhere in the main grid will set you back 50-60 rupees, but you will get asked to pay anything up to 150 rupees. Just don't pay it and bargain hard. To pass the time away, we decide to visit a few tourist spots. The raved about Faisal Mosque boasts being able to fit the most amount of people inside at any one time and is of Turkish design. After experiencing some of the most beautiful creations in Turkey, Iran and Central Asia, its modern structure didn't cut it for me, I'm afraid

Equally, the Archaeological Museum in Taxila is an utter disappointment. If not for its small scale operation compared to the hiked up entrance fee, then for the continual harassment from guides inside wanting to lighten our wallets in exchange for their hard to understand information. Locals pay just 10 rupees and while we wouldn't object to giving a little more, the comparative 200 rupee charge is ridiculous.

We expect a decent day trip and so hire a taxi for the excursion. The 60 kilometre ride in total, plus the driver's wait in Taxila costs us 1000 rupees, but it turns out to be a total waste of time, effort and money. The archeological sites are also another 200 rupees each to get into and we all get totally fed up with the hassle from touts and schemers that, within a couple of hours we are back in the cool environment of the Ambassador Hotel again. Tourism makes for more of a trap than any plans of a grandiose exchange of culture.

And just to prove our point, we manage to catch a football [soccer for the Ozzie readers] match at Jinnah Stadium while we are in Islamabad. It is free to get in and complete with flamboyant brass band. Although the level of play of the Pakistan versus Afghanistan final is a little wanting, the atmosphere is great. Now this is what I call cultural enlightenment. The atmosphere is not only great but it is apparent that women's soccer certainly pulls a bigger crowd than I thought it would in a Muslim country.

MCB Bank Your first chance of getting money out of a machine in Pakistan (when coming from the north) is Abbottabad. Here they have an MCB (Muslim Commercial Bank) office. MCB ATM's accept western cards and it is probably your best choice throughout Pakistan. North of Abbottabad you can easily exchange euros/dollars and travellers cheques in Karimabad. The bank there charged us 1 rupee per dollar exchange, which is quite allright, considering.
About Us | Site Map | Feed | Contact Us | ©2011 all rights reserved
webdesign & maintenance