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Cycling Plus

Cycling Plus #19:
Karakorum Chronicles: Jammu and Kashmir, North Pakistan, Part 1
5/5/00

'Remember, each finger on the hand is not the same.' Says my companion. 'This is true also for the people of Pakistan. Be careful, my friend.' He pauses to light a cigarette, then we merge once more into the tangle of alleyways and coverways that seep through Islamabad's bazaars. Our mission: to track down a chadois camiz, the traditional long shirt and baggy trousers worn by men in this Islamic country.

Suitably attired, Rosal and I begin our first stage of the epic Karakorum Highway, a legendary road amongst cyclists. An endless series of steep climbs and freewheeling descents, through lush green valleys, introduces us to the natural beauty of Northern Pakistan. It's oppressive morning heat is tempered only by the dark clouds that converge in the afternoons. Draped over the mountaintops, bolts of electricity unfold across the sky, throwing truckstop towns into darkness and silence. Beyond, ever encroaching mountains loom like a natural corridor above us and cradles of snow lie forgotten in their rugged upper reaches.

Each day brings a shift in scenery as our road snakes through these interlocking valleys that jut out like knuckles. At times their walls rise directly above us, so close we can make out layerings in the rockface like surface veins. They even overhang us; we feel as if we are tunnelling into the mountain's heart, exposed to the debris that flicks down its sides. As we follow this narrow road chipped into the mountainside, the rockface reverberates with the living sound of the Indus River, far below, and gusts of wind whistle through our bike frames.

Riding the KKH is less as much about viewing its awesome natural beauty as feeling a part of it. These dramatic few days are marred only by regular attacks unleashed by the infamous Kohestani Kids, reflecting an underlying tension in this tribal region. Targeting us with catapults, a gang of twenty scoundrels take chase, leading us into ambush as others lie in wait high above. Like a scene from a western, we race through this bombardment, stones clanging off frames and thudding off our bodies. 'One pen! One pen!' they call out aggressively; when we fail to comply, they raise their slingshots in retaliation.

We reach the plains of Chilas, the furnace of the KKH, where a vast, bleak landscape of jagged and shining rocks seems incongruously set into soft, rolling dunes. A backdrop of snowy peaks is softened under the haze of the beating sun. Piles of earthy scree lie still by valley sides; a few razor-rocks point like outstretched fingers into the emptiness. The only reminder of life outside our own is the irregular horning of friendly truck drivers. These old Bedfords are dripping with bells, decorated to the gills with religious motifs, bursts of colour and noise break the silence of the surroundings. For all their diesel belching hostility, the faces that peer out of their tiny windows are smiling and their waves sincere.

Surrounded by the three great mountain ranges of Asia - The Hindu Kush, The Karakorum and the Himalaya - we climb to Gilgit, taking advantage of a strong tailwind that whips through this desolate valley, hurrying us along. The stone markers count us down, the same white characterless rocks that once told us we had 500 kilometres to go. A refreshingly cool apricot juice is a perfect introduction to the Hunza Valley. There'll be no cycling tomorrow; it's time to savour moment of having arrived.



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