April 27th: Karakoram Chronicles Part 3, Shatial to Talechi, Karakoram Highway, N. Pakistan, 68 km
Still following the Indus, our surroundings take on a larger but more distant perspective. Grey shadings give outlines to an overcast sky, another layer of loneliness in these bleak surroundings, beautiful in their windswept silence. Vast piles of earthy scree lie still by valley sides; a few razor rocks point like outstretched fingers into the emptiness. We could be traversing a stretch of no man's land, a rugged desert of weariness.
Rickety electricity pylons lining the highway and the odd horning from friendly truck drivers, are the only reminders of a life outside our own. All the more majestic in this solemn landscape, these old Bedford trucks are decked with bells, religious motifs and loaded with graceful designs on their cab roofs like bows of old galleons. For all their diesel belching hostility, the faces that peer out of their tiny windows are smiling and their friendly waves, sincere.
In remote outposts, vehicles lie surrounded by parts, bonnets gaping open in radical surgery. Oil and grime seems to invade every pour of these small enclaves of life. Minibuses, laden with passengers dangling precariously but naturally atop roofs, pause for breath before reembarking on their speed crazy missions. Darkened shacks stock eclectic mixtures of biscuits, 'computer' socks and bag upon bag of dried apricots. Two (human!) Swedes on Pakistani single speed bikes struggle over the crest of a hill and we stop for a chat. Guiltily, I think about the 24 gears I take for granted!
People are once again warm and inviting; we feel a distinct mental divide between here and Kohistan. The 'One pen!' slogan is still popular, but there is a smile where there was once a glare. Makeshift mosques mark the passing of time as we take advantage of a strong tailwind that whips through the valley, hurrying us along.
Arriving in Talichi, we settle in a government rest house as the clouds lift like a theatre curtain and reveal the show: a mighty range of jagged peaks, headed by Rakapushi and the 'killer' mountain, Nanga Parabat. As Rosal says, 'I have lived 25 years never knowing or imagining that a landscape like this could exist.' From this island of grassy meadows and stone houses poised amongst this sea of grey rock, we look out in awe at this unimaginable world. Kids approach with boxes of minerals and crystals, their clothes worn and in tatters, their gestures friendly. 'What is your name? What is your father's name?!'
April 28th: Taliche to Gilgit, Karakoram Highway, 65 km
Our last day on the road before Gilgit, in our minds a metropolis of life and change. We talk excitedly of yoghurt, of cereal and other such luxuries; of a meal without dahl... Sweeping round bold winding bends, smart 4WDs with tourists and officials point us the way towards these treasures.
Frontier roadside workers, designated the never-ending task of maintaining this slide prone highway, wave and offer tea as we rush by. Is their consignment to this remote outpost a coveted or maligned service? We have learnt to recognise the bizarre Pakistan hand twist that asks, 'Where are you going?' 'Gilgit,' we shout out in reply to this silent question. There's no stopping us now!
An obelisk states our position; surrounded by 3 great mountain ranges of Asia - The Hindu Kush, The Karakoram and the Himalaya. Although masked by cloud, we nonetheless feel the raw power of our surroundings. Ranges formed by immeasurable heat and pressure so many years ago. Breaking away from the Indus, we climb the valley to Gilgit as the kilometre stones count us down. Such a feeling! To believe these white characterless rocks that once told us we had 500 kilometres to go are now crying out we're almost there!
A cool, natural apricot juice is an excellent introduction as to what might lie in store. Fresh from the Hunza valley, we're told. We track down the popular Medina guest house and gratefully consign our bikes and panniers to our temporary home. A few familiar backpacker faces appear, others look up in mild interest from the tasks at hand; washing, eating, writing.
There'll be no cycling tomorrow. For us, it's time to savour moment of having arrived...