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,
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
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
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
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,