April 23rd: Karakoram Chronicles Part 2, Besham, Karakoram Highway, N.Pakistan
The afternoon heat is tempered by a blanket of sombre clouds draped across the mountains, muffling the town into silence and darkness. An electric storm provides disco lighting; bolts of electricity unravel across the sky and hold their form for a few moments, flickering night into day. We venture into the Swat Hotel for supper, a characterful hangout where groups of men lounge on 'charpois' and chat over bowls of mutton and dahl, scooped up with chunks of fresh naan. Buses come and go, a fanfare of horns announcing their movement, as local travellers pour in and out of the night.
April 24th: Besham to Dasu, Karakoram Highway, 76 km
Beyond valleys of terraced farming, once open valleys are now hemmed in by ever encroaching mountains looming like a natural corridor above us. The Indus is our companion. Sometimes a murky brown mass, gently flowing in lazy swirls, sometimes plummeting over boulders as a white froth of energy and power. Sandy beaches provide ideal grounds for packs of kids, while above, cradles of snow lie forgotten in rugged upper reaches. Waterfalls glisten like silver threads drape across the mountainside, feeding this mighty river.
Each day brings a shift in scenery and a rise in dramaticism. Our road snakes through these interlocking mountain valleys, jutting out like knuckles, climbing steeply directly above us, so close we can make out layering in the rockface like surface veins, or directly overhanging us; we feel as if we are tunnelling into the mountain's heart, exposed to the debris that flicks down its sides, as if drawn by their momentum. Mountain goats scatter as we approach, leaping in abandonment over the road's edge, long ears dancing in synchronised motion.
The Indus, far below, reverberate's through the rockface. A low rumbling permeates the air, like 'Om', the hum of the universe. As the wind gusts through these tunnels of rock, a whistling echoes through the bike frame, adding another timbre to this natural, living sound. Every rock, etched with deep cracks and gullies, might begin a landslide. The Karakoram isn't about looking out on a spectacular piece of nature, but being amongst it.
April 25th: Dasu to Shatial, Karakoram Highway, 65 km
A day of mixed emotions. An ongoing journey along a narrow and winding ridge chipped into the mountain side. Scratched brown surfaces rise high at contorted angles like twisted skyscrapers. We stop to rest at a truck stop nestled in the elbow of a bend, cooled by a turbulent tributary cascading into the Indus. Back on the road, unexpectedly our dramatic surroundings melt into a beautiful, bleak and parched landscape. Like gnarled dinosaur skin, folds gather in the rockface, cradling piles of windswept sand and stone.
Stones which remind us of the infamous Kohistani kids, who have targeted us with their catapults as we are slowed to a crawl on steep ascents. It's the only event to mar these memorable days, and seems to reflect the underlying tension of Kohistan, the region through which we are now thankfully leaving. At one point, a gang of twenty scoundrels chased us, leading us into ambush to those waiting, standing dramatically on overhanging rocks. Like a scene from a western, we race through a bombardment, stones clanging off bike frames and thudding off our bodies. 'One pen! One pen!' They call out aggressively. I try and placate them with a smile and a greeting: 'Asalem malekum!' But when we fail to comply to their demands, they raise their slingshots again in retaliation. Who was it that first gave out so many damn pens?!
Feeling they are fully aware of their actions, seeing their malicious glare, I appeal to adults to stop this hail fire. But patience breaks at one point as I leap off my bike and take chase down the dusty highway. We know our actions will come to nothing, but it's a much needed release of energy and frustration!
April 26th: Shatial to Chilas, Karakoram Highway, 62 km
We've arrived in Chilas, a small roadside town, a rambling pocket of eateries and hotels lining the edges of the Karakoram Highway. We check into a surprisingly luxurious room - carpets, pine furniture and tiled bathroom - in a half constructed hotel. It's been a hot morning, for here we are in the 'furnace' of the KKH. We've seen a rapid evolution of scenery. Interconnecting valleys that soared above us have given way to a vast mars-scape of jagged shining rocks, glazed from the kiln, incongruously set into soft rolling dunes. A backdrop of sharp snowy peaks is almost lost under the haze of the beating sun.
Fellow UK overlanders Jonny and Liz stop in their converted Land Rover, fitted with a solar panel and an extra potent horn to compete on Asia's roads. We are invited for peppermint tea and biscuits, and swap travel stories in this barren and beautifully desolate landscape.Under the cooling breeze of a fan, we rest in our 'luxurious' surroundings. Tomorrow, the valley promises to take on yet another incarnation, as we await another glimpse of the peaks for which we are heading.