Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
149Trip End Ongoing
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-My father, he is queen!
-No, don't worry, most Pakistani's dress that way
-My father, he is queen of police!
-Right. Good for you. I smile at him.
At this point my young friend's command of English deserted him, and we had to resort to more primitive communication. He stood in front of my bike. I smiled, waved goodbye, and tried to move off, but he grabbed my handlebars.
-My father; queen of police!
-I know, you said, but I have to be moving on...
He stayed put in front of me, and gestured up the road ahead; He said a word I somehow understood without need of a translator. If I hadn't understood, the accompanying mime would have clarified- two fingers pointed to the left temple and twitched, head swung sideways and, for total verisimilitude, right hand thrown out to signify bits of brain and skull and blood flying into the Indus. The word was 'bandits'.
I paused. I considered my options, and I recalled that I had passed a policeman within the last kilometer. Surely, I reasoned, if this road was unsafe, he'd have mentioned it? If it was suicidal, he'd never have let me pass. Pakistan does not need that kind of bad press. I stiffened my resolve and firmly nudged the boy out of the way.
-I'll take my chances, my friend.
It's probably for the best that I had not, at that point, come across the following:
"Between Thakot and Chilas the road snakes through the area called Kohistan. Up to about a decade ago this stretch of road was frequently occupied by transitory bandits, who held up buses and other vehicles occasionally killing the occupants. There is still occasional nocturnal robbery along this section of the road and public vehicles are provided with a four man armed police escort if they travel through it overnight. There have been no daylight raids for several years and travel between dawn and dusk is considered safe. It is strongly recommended however that independent travellers stay in villages overnight"
I did stay in a guesthouse in Dassu, not being offered any alternative. Dassu, along with most of the towns along the KKH, was an unwelcoming, ill-appointed non-place, but with a guesthouse. There was not even a slop-shop with couldrens of highly dubious week-old congealed curry. Eventually I managed to locate some fatty kebabs and naan on the street. I walked around the town, but the only thing of interest in the town was me, and I found this unnerving. I thought I'd found a restaurant at one point- there were tables around and a reception desk- but the owner assured me no food was available. On the wall behind the desk was a hand-drawn and crayon-coloured picture, such as parents might stick to the fridge, of an AK47.
Several times I was asked 'are you muslim?' and alwalys said no, even though sometimes the question seemed a challenge, if not a threat. It's part deathwish and part the fact that if you can learn anything travelling its the way different people react to you, and if you go around pretending to be someone else you really are wasting your time. Anyway, normally people are simply curious. Several times in Dassu they gave me a black look and turned away; if they were being friendly or had given me something they sometimes seemed resentful, as if I'd taken advantage. There's a lot of caucasion Pakistanis around, so maybe I looked more native than I thought. One person asked "You Taleban?", because of my (very minimal) beard.
I had to leave Dassu before sunrise, since I knew I was in for a long, hard day. Between Dassu and Chilas, 122km away, there is no water, no shade, no camping spots. Nothing, in fact, but bright sun, blue sky, hot road and hot rocks. And climbing. The inevitable discomfort of being exhausted and dehydrated were exacerbated by the untimely arrival of my first saddle-sore. The consequence of too many long, hot, unclean days and too few showers. An increasing boil-like infection meant I rode for a week sitting only half on the saddle. A matching nuisance, presumably not saddle-related, appeared on my shoulder-blade, so when I finally arrived in Chilas I couldn't sit, couldn't lie down, and was too bloody knackered to stand.
Once again I ended the day feebly racing the setting sun. I was deeply unimpressed to discover that the town was in fact 2km from the main highway. Up a hill. I was even more unimpressed when I finally reached it, labouring through mobs of pestering children, only to discover that the 'town' was little more than a construction of self-storage style garages. In a quarry. I can't even begin to describe how unimpressed I was the following morning, when I found that there was a half-decent guesthouse, on the main road, 300m after the Chilas turn-off...
I might not have made it to the town at all, I was so exhausted by the ride and demoralised by the children. Their father, however, could see this. As I struggled, painfully slow up the hill, he called his brood to heel and made one of them fetch me some water.
I managed to recover overnight, and rode the next day to a guesthouse 10km from Jaglot. I had intended to ride to Jaglot, but circumstances mitigated against this.
Residual tiredness and dehydration meant that I drank my water supply rather quicker than usual. I was almost completely out when I saw clear water running down the wall beside the road. I necked the dregs in my bottle and went to resupply. This was, in many ways, a strategic error, as I discovered the second I held my aluminium bottle under the flow of steaming hot sulphurous spring water. I whipped my scorched hand away in a reflex action, dropping and nearly losing the bottle in the process. I cursed repeatedly, loudly, profanely and quite inventively before remounting the bike and pushing on, now thirsty, waterless and scalded. To add insult to injury, there was a checkpost only a few kilometers further on which was supplied with distinctly cloudy but cool Indus water. I decided I deserved a rare midday break in the shade, and sat and chatted to the guys manning the checkpost. Their job was to check HGV's using the road to make sure they weren't carrying illegally felled trees, which wasn't too onerous and left plenty of idle time. I cooked up some instant noodles in the river water, posed for photos with middle-class Lahore students on holiday (girls in public, a strange and disturbing occurance) and relaxed for three hours.
When eventually I moved on, I didn't cover much ground before I was hailed from a lawn above the road by Akira, a Japanese-naturalised Australian who'd overtaken me the previous day on his BMW motorbike. His wheels had failed him, and he was temporarily stranded.
-Hey! You've lost me my bet!
-That's ok. Hey, you should stay here! It's only 100roops a night, and they'll bring you food. You can kip on a charpoy outside. Just look at that view!
At which point I finally noticed the view. The guesthouse was sited on a bend in the road, which gave it an uninterrupted line of sight to Nangar Parbat, 'Killer Mountain'. It didn't take long to decide whether I'd prefer to spend my evening staring at a 7500m peak or the stains on the wall of a fleapit hotel room.
From my charpoy to Gilgit was a mere 90-odd kilometers, passing the point of convergence of the 'world's three mightiest mountain ranges' (so the sign read) - the Karakoram, the Himalaya and the Hindu Kush. The mountains converge at the confluence of two rivers (the Indus and the Gilgit), which form a Y shape, neatly dividing the mountain-ranges to the north, east and west respectively.
Gilgit was all you could expect from the middle of nowhere. More shops, restaurants, guesthouses than the all the previous towns combined, since they were not even suburbs of nowhere. But functional, unattractive and at the time, uninteresting. I have since read P. Hopkirk's 'The Great Game' and discovered that the then kingdom of Gilgit played a small, but not insignificant tactical role in the various nefarious activities of the British empire. There's a British cemetary, which I passed but didn't enter, where lies, according to the headstone I didn't see, "G. W. Hayward, Gold Medallist of the Royal Geographical Society of London, who was cruelly murdered at Darkot, July 18, 1870, on his journey to explore the Pamir steppe." He stuck his nose in and had his head cut off.
The intrinsic disappointment of Gilgit was enhanced when I found that Peter, who I'd been riding hard to catch, had (understandably) buggered off to somewhere nicer. Karimabad, 150km north. Nonetheless I stayed two days in Gilgit, desperately in need of rest, food, and antibiotics. I was grateful, in a way, that I had an infection on my shoulder. Since the only way to get the required medication was to go to the pharmacist and display my ailment, it saved me a potentially excrutiating moment, both socially and physically.