June 12th: The Karakoram Highway, Gilgit to Khunjerab Pass, North Pakistan... one last time!
Skirting around a storm, our prop plane shudders in the wind, its wings reflecting the violet tinge that seeps across a darkening sky. All around, rugged mountains evolve into plateaux of snowy peaks towered over by mighty Nanga Parabat. Faces pressed against the window, we point to villages we recognise far below. A seven day bike ride, a sixteen hour bus ordeal over in just 45 minutes...
With a squeal of tyres and a burst of smoke, we touch down in Gilgit. At last, back in the Northern areas of Pakistan, our business spree to Rawalpindi thankfully over - Chinese visa, bicycle wheel, and new Psion MX5 all accounted for. Toiling on our bikes, we've experienced the Karakoram as a dramatic, shifting corridor. Uncomfortably contorted, we've seen it as darkened silhouettes on a night bus. And now, soaring above the highest mountains, the KKH has unravelled before us as a velvet ribbon, shadowing the Indus far below.
Welcomed like old friends in the Medina Guest House, our steeds lie coated under a layer of dust. Smiling Mark from Belgium offers a helping hand and the new wheel is soon in place; after weeks of inaction, I'm itching to get back on the road. We savour one last apricot juice, then prepare to retrace our steps to Khunjerab Pass...and delve into what lies beyond: North West Xinjiang Province, on our way to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
June 13th: Gilgit to Minnapin
It's not until 12.30pm that I'm riding, solo - Rosal decides to forego bike for bus on this stretch. But just a few kilometres out of town, I bump into New Yorker, Jason. Like many cycle tourers, we fall into easy banter, pedalling along, exchanging a synopsis of our lives and recounting travel stories.
It's hot, and a bright light filters through a bank of clouds. In a haze of overlapping browns and blues, a reflective sheen coats the rock-face like a chunk of clay fresh from the kiln. Catching first sight of a range of craggy peaks is as awesome and unreal as ever, mountains shining a brighter white than the clouds themselves, like a cardboard cutout propped up on the hills. After a break to feast on plump apricots, Jason turns off at Chalt. A sense of challenge, a chance to see Rakaposhi glowing in the late afternoon sun, and immature stubbornness spur me on to Minnapin, still some thirty kilometres away. I arrive as night falls, utterly exhausted, saddle sore and too dizzy even to eat. It's been a hard day...a few iotas of energy keep me on my feet. Hobbling over to the tent we relax for an evening of stargazing and satellite spotting; pin pricks of light, flickering against a blackened sky, undiminished by the glow of the city.
June 14th-17th: Minnapin to Sost
In Aliabad we supper on steaming bowls of chicken soup and enjoy a last meal of oily dahl at a local roadside restaurant, oozing truckstop atmosphere. Further on in Passu, rumours circulate of a tandem sighting, just a day ahead. We pause to investigate two Spielberg-style suspension bridges, the cover to the Lonely Planet's guide to the Karakoram Highway. Strung across a gushing river, a tangle of frayed and dangling ropes sway dauntingly in the wind.
A local bounds over, back from tending his potatoes on the other side of the valley. Clad in tight jeans, mirrored shades, a white collared shirt, and a baseball cap, he cuts a peculiar figure as he strides confidently across this tightrope, a hoe over his shoulder. We're invited for lunch with his family - well, with him, eating food cooked by his family. In a room softened by pillows, we lounge regally around a simple feast, discussing Ismaili culture, the local Muslim sect. The Ismaili interpretation of the Quern is more liberal than that of the Shias and Sunnis; women fare considerably better, and can be seen wandering the fields veil-less, unhindered by the glare of male possession.
In Khyber village, just a few kilometres from Sost, we're invited yet again into a local mud and stone hut for lunch. Centred around a natural attic window, a beam of light swirls like a projector. We pull out our Wakhi phrase book and attempt a static, but enjoyable chat. Chappatis, potatoes, and spinach are offered and we dine to the plaintive tones of Ismaili song, played through the speakers of my walkman and orchestrated by the humming of the children.
The opening of the KKH as a major vein of trade, and now tourism, has propelled these once untouched villages from their time-warped life into a different reality. But their own traditions still abound, and we notice that the family's ten month old baby wears eyeliner to fend of evil spirits. The past few days have been more of an insight into the life led by women than the two months in Pakistan put together. I know Rosal has felt the strain of being a woman in this conservative Muslim class structure, just as I have felt the elevated status this country bestows on every man. Despite its incredibly warm hospitality and open friendship, I cannot help but see its imbalance between the sexes as an intrinsic piece missing from an otherwise perfect puzzle.
As our days here draw to a close, further hospitality is lavished upon us, underlying the Pakistanis' distinctly un-European approach to visitors. An invitation by a friendly geologist in Sost leaves our bellies full of dahl baht, a reminder of my time in India. Sispal, our host, is part of a very small minority of Pakistani Hindus. Like many, he has relatives on both sides of the border. We talk of the futility of the bloodshed between Pakistan and India, both past and present, stemming from the hurried mismanagement of Partition and general colonial blunders. Heading an Aga Khan coal excavation project, he laments the postal system in these parts - a letter sent to his home in Karachi takes all of ten days - for the first three it's carried by foot or bicycle! It's a peaceful evening and epitomises the hospitality we've received throughout our stay in this country.
June 18th: Exit stamps and a farewell to Pakistan
Breakfast. Fellow James and Steve from Australia offer us valuable data on the road ahead; potential camping spots, tasty local dishes, and warnings of a soul-destroying headwind. With a cursory prod of our backpacks , some polite chitchat in which we extoll the virtues of Pakistan and its people, customs wave us through and our visa is stamped...there's no turning back now!
Appropriately, the ever-changing Karakoram throws up one last challenge: a landslide. As dust billows out of the canyon below, a bulldozer struggles to make sense of the sliding scree. But after almost a week, it's under control. Scrambling over the piles of rock, we're soon on our way once again, winding gently but unendingly towards Khunjerab top.
We camp under a full moon, rising in fast motion over the valley in which we're nestled. Listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with the guards at Barkhun, I can think of no finer place to spend our last night in Pakistan. At dawn, a haze slips over our surroundings as we sip on sweet milk tea with friendly transport drivers, delivering a shipment of nuts to China. "Bicycles and trucks are very similar", notes one, "We are both the slowest on the road!" Our stay in Pakistan is all but over. All that remains is the last punishing climb to the border, a farewell visit to our friends at Koksil security post, and one final invitation to share a picnic of biscuits and fruit at the top of the pass.
And then we're gone, bidding "Khuda hafiz" to Pakistan... and "Ni hao" to Chinese Turkestan, gateway to Central Asia.