Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
149Trip End Ongoing
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Once out of 'Pindi the road to Murree was a pleasant ride, beginning to climb about 30km from the hill station and rising to 2200m at the top. Climbing 1700m in one day reintroduced the concept of weather, as opposed to climate. When I left Pindi the heat was almost unbearable, the sun punishing in a cloudless sky. As I climbed the temperature began to fall, some clouds appeared and a breeze picked up. By the afternoon the clouds were thick in the sky and the air felt almost chilly. Not far from Murree, as I was struggling up some particularly steep switchbacks the clouds broke. Torrential rain quickly combined with heavy, hard hail pounding me for 20minutes. I put on my helmet some of the stones were so large. And then it stopped; and the sun came out. The road steamed.
Murree itself looked like a slightly sodden, run-down holiday town. A kind of eastbourne in the hills. I'd been told that it's beautiful, but couldn't see it myself. Until sunset, when it became clear that Murree is not beautiful, it's the rest of the world that's beautiful from Murree.
I had expected a pretty much non-stop downhill out of Murree, so was a little concerned when the whole following morning was spent climbing even higher. At the top of the ridge between Murree and Abottabad, about 2700m, I stopped for lunch and shelter from the light rain that had begun to fall. A smartly dressed old man on crutches spotted me as I was about to pay for my lunch and stopped me.
-You do not pay! You are my guest!
He, it transpired, was a retired journalist for AP. He asked me about my route ahead, so I fished out my map and showed him.
-I'm planning to take this road, from Manserah to Chilas, over the Babusar pass. Do you know this road?
-It goes through Balakot, which isn't there anymore because of the earthquake. You will stay in Kawai, a few kilometers passed Balakot. Then you can go to Naran, and then the bottom of the pass.
Meanwhile I was finding all these places on the map; the names were correct, the distances looked feasible. He did know the road.
-And the pass is clear at this time of year?
-You will have no problems
-Excellent, thank you very much.
The rain had stopped, so I packed up and left.
The descent was quick, occasionally pushing past exciting in the direction of suicidal. The rain had left the road in a condition Martin Brundel would describe as 'greasy'. And the switchbacks and bends were even steeper than on the ascent. It was at the exact moment that the rain began again, when I was squeezing the brakes until my knuckles whitened, still descending at 40km/hr and thinking to myself 'bloody hell this isn't a road, it's a slide' that my front tyre began to wobble and deflate. Shit. I slid to a halt on a bit of rubble between road and cliff edge, narrowly avoiding an overtaking truck. The rain began to pelt down as I struggled into my waterproof, wrestling with tyres and tubes and trying to smile at the occasional jeeps offering help. Making my 'No problem! Shukria!' sound convincing. Fortunately the shower was brief, and as Yols had brought a fresh tyre to McLeod Ganj I was eventually back on the slick road with shiny new tread. The rapid descent brought me quickly back to the hot, dry plains.
The ride into the Kaghan valley was by far the hardest of the trip so far. To be honest, the journey thus far had been almost disappointingly unchallenging. Naturally I wished before long that this situation could be maintained. From Manserah to Kawai, their was a preliminary, warm-up climb over a ridge about 800m high, followed by the descent to Balakot. This was once a good-size city, but since the earthquake in 2005 it is now a small settlement of tin shacks and NGO homes, donated by the likes of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, America. Not us though, for some reason.
I stopped for lunch in a riverside shack, where I was quizzed by the locals, firstly asking which NGO I worked for, and once it was clear that I was not from an NGO, asking what the hell I was doing there.
I had a brief chat with a Pakistani American involved in NGO work, and picked his brains about my latest bug-bear, whether the NGO's work effectively, and whether they work together at all. His response
-everyone's lining their pockets
was not totally encouraging. He then insisted on paying for my lunch, thus disproving his own cynicism.
In Kawai there was a semi-rebuilt hotel and a shop. I had to haggle everywhere I stopped in the Kaghan valley, since tourism was pretty limited since the earthquake. I always managed to get a bed within budget, but sympathy with the plight of the stricken, combined with options often limited to 'this hotel, or the roadside' combined to mean I rarely got a bargain.
In the evening, while attempting some bicycle maintenance (my stopping distance had been dangerously extended by the wear on brakes and cables on downhills) some Americans appeared in a jeep. They, it transpired, were working further up the valley in Naran, encouraging and training people to use 'straw bale construction'. We had a brief chat;
- I could have sworn the three little piggies rejected straw as a building material for houses
- There's no big bad wolves around here
- True. So... about that earthquake...
The plan was to reach Naran the following day, as per my journalist friend's recommendation. The steep climbing and roads shifting from bad to appalling to 'a big pile of rubble' made slow progress, but I made pretty good time. Occasionally streams running down the valley walls crossed the unpaved road, caking the bike with mud which set like concrete. This was harmless enough, until just outside Kaghan, the capital of the valley and supposedly my halfway point of the day, there was a jolt. And loud Crack! as the cement stiffened and the chain snapped. I spent an hour learning how to mend a snapped chain, before returning to Kaghan, reasoning that if my bodge fix was substandard, i'd rather be stranded in the morning than the evening.
In the hotel I tried to get some more local information about the Babusar pass. This was readily forthcoming, but not hopeful;
-Its not possible. there are 25 glaciers. you'd have to climb over them. you would probably injure yourself. or die.
- oh. I was told it was fine. I'll go to Naran and see..
My fixed chain held up wonderfully, even running slightly better due to being a link shorter, and I reached Naran by the middle of the afternoon. I would have arrived sooner, but for two glaciers inconveniently crossing the road. There were caterpillar earthmovers working to clear the road, but their technique involved scraping a path through the ice. To reach the road would be at least a weeks work, so they work for an hour or so, and then allow the jeeps and trucks to pass, one at a time and with a long run-up. For me, this meant that I had to run up a relatively steep ice-slope, pushing a heavily laden bicycle, in the moments between one high-speed and unstoppable 4x4 and the next. This was fun for me. This was a simple foretaste of what would be to come if I tried to ride the pass, as the glaciers there would not be being cleared by bulldozer.
Naran has fared better than most of the other towns on this route, due to being further from the epicentre of the earthquake, and having a tourist draw which remains unaffected by terrestrial upheaval. A lake, called Saif-Ul-Maluk, which is stunning. I nearly didn't see it, but while aimlessly wandering the area I found an unopened freshly built posh hotel, and took the opportunity to sully their white leather sofas while pretending to be looking for a room. After five minutes or so the manager turned up and insisted on feeding me tea and biscuits.
-You're going to the lake?
-I'm not sure. I need to find out about the pass...
-I'll call my man, he'll know if you can ride the pass. You must go to the lake though! Coming to Naran and not seeing the lake is like going to London and not seeing Trafalgar Square!
He called his man;
-He says you shouldn't try it. He says you might die. He... very strongly... I would say.. you shouldn't do it.
So the next day I went to the lake. Faced with the prospect of riding the 122km back to Manserah, I needed a day off. Not a rest day as such, as the lake was a 4hour hike from the town, plus a couple of hours walking around it and on the glacier that feeds it, but I felt refreshed afterwards. The three days it had taken to get here were undone in one, exhausting day, arriving back in Manserah at dusk with barely enough strength in my legs to stand under a shower, let alone lift a bucket.