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RoughGuides #7:
Jammu and Kashmir, North Pakistan

'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.'

Pausing to light a cigarette, we merge once more into the tangle of alley ways and cover ways that seep through Rawalpindi's bazaars. My mission: to acquire a chadois camiz, the long shirt and loose trousers worn by men in this Islamic country.

Suitably attired, I turn my wheels north with Australian Rosal, now a diminutive face peering from a concealing shawl. From the dusty plains of Punjab, an endless series of steep climbs and freewheeling descents introduce us to the legendary Karakoram Highway. Approaching the stifling summer months, an oppressive morning heat is tempered by dark clouds that converge in the afternoons. Draped over the mountain tops, bolts of electricity unfold across the sky, throwing truck stop towns into silence. We venture into characterful hangouts for dinner where men lounge on charpois (italics), the Pakistani rope-strung beds. They chat over bowls of mutton and dahl, scooped up with chunks of naan. Buses come and go, a fanfare of horns announcing their movement, as local travellers pour in and out of the night.

Beyond, ever encroaching mountains tower like a natural corridor, cradles of snow lie forgotten in their upper reaches. Each day brings a shift in scenery, a rise in dramaticism, as we snake our way through these interlocking valleys that jut out like knuckles. Rising sharply overhead, their walls are so close I can make out layerings in the rock face like surface veins. They even overhang us. I feel as if we are tunnelling into the mountain's heart, exposed to the debris that flicks down its sides. On this precariously carved road, the rocks reverberate with the living sound of the Indus River, far below, and gusts of wind whistle through my bicycle frame.

Hospitality is synonymous with Pakistan and wherever we stop, we are plied with gifts of dried apricots and bottomless cups of tea. A local English teacher invites us to lunch with his Pathan Khan, the tribal head of the area. Proud and traditional, we enter an unfamiliar world where men and women remain segregated in the home. Rosal is beckoned upstairs while I am left to discuss the topic of Islam and love. Surrounded by a small army of men, I'm queried about the ways of the West. 'In Jane Austen, love comes before marriage, but in the Muslim tradition, marriage comes before love!' my teacher friend comments with a smile.

Back on the highway, we reach a beautifully bleak and parched landscape, the plains of Chilas, where razor-rocks point like outstretched fingers into the emptiness. The irregular horning of truck drivers is the only reminder of a life outside our own. Decked with dangling bells and technicoloured motifs, these old Bedfords appear over the horizon like galleons in a rugged desert of weariness. We are surrounded by the three great mountain ranges of Asia, the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram, and the Himalaya. Frontier roadside workers, struggling with the relentless task of maintaining this slide-prone highway, wave as we rush by. We have learnt to recognise the bizarre Pakistan hand twist that asks, 'Where are you going?' 'Khunjerab Pass,' we shout out in reply to this silent question. There's no stopping us now!

And suddenly, scale wreaks havoc on my sense of perspective. Within a day's ride from Gilgit, I'm craning my neck towards ranges heavy with snow. Colossal glaciers gently bulldoze their way down to the roadside, squeezing through corridors of rock in a frozen wave. Forgotten suspension bridges lie strung across the Indus, ropes frayed, planks missing, swaying in the wind like sets from a Spielberg film. We arrive in Karimabad. Legend knows the Hunza Valley as the lost Shangri La, rich in tradition and woven with mysticism. Tales are told of a realm lost in the course of time, of spells cast by lovelorn suitors over locks of hair. But the tentacles of commercial tourism are fast encroaching. Now, four wheel drives and American Express herald the arrival of the twenty-first century, as the Karakoram opens up the new trade route of tourism.

Onwards, our road delves in and out of the shadows of 7,000 metres peaks, rising like a set of kitchen knives over the valley walls around us. Rivers are dark, milky and mineral laden. Spring water filters through the rock face, which I drink abundantly in defiance of the heat of the day. 'Relax, you're out of a landslide area,' a signpost reassures us, as we pass gnarled electricity pylons misshapened by random rock fall. Reaching the border town of Sost, groups of men wander its main street, chadois camiz flapping in the wind. There are no women to be seen. Tucking into oily dahl in a local restaurant, the television is flicked on and the room soon bustles with skullcaps, topis, fist-length beards, young and old. In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, it's World Wrestling Federation night. Live by satellite, two glistening hulks battle before a crowd engrossed in this slice of western culture. 'Your country!' remarks a traditionally-clad bystander with a jubilant smile. 'No!' we reply as one. 'America!'

Continuing our climb, we camp for the night at the army post of Koksil. I contemplate this bleak and lonely landscape, where mountains loom like forlorn giants in the surrounding solitude. A series of switchbacks twist and turn until we finally crest Khunjerab Pass at 4,730 metres. Reflected in the mirrored shades of the Pakistani border guards, the sky is indigo blue, the snow bleached white and rounded hills, polished like marble-tops, gently rise and roll into the distance. I read the stone that commemorates the lives laid down to complete this epic road. 'The KKH...snaking up to the roof of the world...a guiding light to the Chinese and Pakistanis who heaved and clawed at the towering heights of the Himalayas to link up the destinies of two nations.'

A tiny red flag flutters on the other side of Zero Point. Western China, our next destination on the road to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia.



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