Imagine this being said with the voice of Jon Snow. Half of you already did, I know. But that captures a bit of how stunning the north really was… I think I do not exaggerate when I say that it is one of the most beautiful pieces of earth I have ever seen. The time was nothing less but perfect, to witness those white capped giants, easily over 7000m high, hidden villages with gorgeous mountain people in endless valleys filled with the most beautiful palet of autumn colors.
But that is not where I left off last time. We caught our breath again at Haider and Guliafshan’s place, in Lahore. We spend here a week, and some people asked us, why do you stick around so long? We’ve basically never been anywhere this long since we started our trip. But the answer is simple, because we felt so at home. It is amazing to see how strangers turn into friends, to almost feel like we are family. So we decided, that after our trip to the north, and before going to India we had to meet again. Luckily Lahore is the exact place to go to before you want to change countries.
Many of the locals have told us that we arrived too late in the season to visit this area of Pakistan. It would be too cold up north. And one after the other mentioned that the ways up north were closed. The fastest one, over Babusar top, was covered with show and ice. Not very funny on two wheels. And though we have a total of four, that certainly does not make us much more balanced. The presumably safest road through the east was also closed. There was no other option than to follow the Karakoram Highway, through Besham and Chilas. That name though, Karakoram Highway. It has caught my attention long ago. Many of our fellow bikers/travelers (we are certainly not the only ones, definitely not the craziests) have posted pictured of this jaw-dropping road. A stretch of asphalt winding through vertical mountain walls, along an icy blue wild river and snowy peaks in the distance. It was what encouraged me to definitely not skip the upper provinces of this country.
The road was long, and honestly, for the biggest part quite boring. It wasn’t even the bad road condition that made it so slow, as it took us five days to cover about 1000km, but majorly it was the traffic. There are just so many people here! I really think it would be a good idea if the Pakistani people stop making so bizar many babies and definitely stop basing one’s status up on the amount of children they have. But well, who am I to judge. After all I left my whole team of kids behind at my mom’s place to make this trip, right. But busy it was. And though I really tried to pay attention to everything at once, I kind of failed. Or better said, a driver of an ugly minivan decided it was time to turn on to the road just when I was riding there. At the last moment I tried to dodge his car, but it didn’t help, he hit the back of my bike. Inevitably we found our way to the ground. The driver made some gestures that he was really sorry and tried to turn his car. I got so mad, yelled at him that he had to get out of his *** car. Might have been more efficient to say that all in English, as I discovered while i was ravishing in Dutch. My attention went back to the bike, with some bystanders we picked it up and relieved I found out that he seemed to be fine. I was lucky that I was driving so slow. I had some scratches, but nothing big. The police, that arrived after two seconds (would they still be following us?) took over the driver from Ruben, who had caught him before he could secretly drive away, again. They wanted to take me to the hospital, and the driver to the police station. When I calmed down a little, and discovered the damage was nihil, I realized that both wasn’t really necessary. And after my confirmation: yes, you can really set him free, he rushed away. It was weird though, to be put in such a powerful position. Obviously that had to do with my big bike and white skin. But how unfair is it? To let a tourist decide whether someone can go free or not, whether he has to pay years of salary to meet up to the potential damage on a – for him – ever too expensive bike? It’s crooked. Sometimes it is nice at what kind of stage they put foreigners, often I think it is just very sad.
We continued, and apart from some daily business as waiting for a landslide to be removed not much happened. Roads changed into bumpy, potholed stretches and slowly but steadily the views also began to transform. First the mountains came, and, as you might have noticed in my previous writings, I love riding through the mountains. Somehow it makes me feel so alive, the curves, the bends, the views. There where both nature and my machine flourish. It was not long after the mountains started that we began to see something else, something spectacular. Those rough grey solid rocks rose up so high that their tops were capped with snow. It was magnificent. Maybe it has to do with me, coming from the Netherlands in which the highest point is just over 300m (it’s a mountain!), or maybe because I am simply fascinated by natural beauty that seems to put everything in perspective. Putting us, as human beings, right in our place: we are only so, so small. This northern part of Karakoram highway was even more than we expected it to be. The wild and untamable nature was nothing less than breathtaking. Softly the wind whispered through the trees, summer truly has come to an end. It is the time of the year to let go. And so they did, as leaves in all imaginable shades of red, orange, yellow and brown performed a beautiful last dance on their way to the ground.
Through this beauty we found a way to Karimabad, in Hunza Valley. It is one of the few places where you can see white mountain peeks basically all around you, right from the valley. Our lovely, quiet guesthouse that we had all to ourselves even made our jaws drop a little further. From our room and our terrace the view was just out of this world. Karimabad became our basecamp for the days to come. We had some time to explore that little village, that while located in the middle of the mountains felt like a kind of island. Maybe because it has always been cut-off of the outside world, maybe because mountain people are so close to nature, I don’t know. But it is lovely. From one of the centuries-old forts that used to house the king and queen of the once independent Hunza region the view was even more magnificent. In the next days we found some sweet little offroad tracks, leading us to remote villages and up on beautiful mountain paths. Here and there stopped by blocked roads, landslides are the most normal thing in the world. We hiked to one of the nearby glaciers and though the rough white mass was fascinating to see – the view definitely was more amazing than a glacier we saw earlier in Georgia – I simply couldn’t get my eyes off the view on the other side of the valley. Some lost trees tried to shake off the leaves of that season, but mostly we saw a vast, rough grey mass, rising up high and of course, that ever present snow. I understand the fascination to master and climb such places, but it scared the hell out of me, thinking to go up there. It looked so remote, so impossible to ever reach. The shape of the mountain was wild and so incredibly rough. Remember how we all used to draw mountains, when we were younger. Perfect triangular shapes, with rough and steep sides and halfway to the top a whimsical line of snow. In complete solitude a mountain stood there. One of them was exactly shaped like a young me had imagined. It was perfect.
It was a little sad that we only had a few days here, as it certainly is far too little to truly discover it. I could have spend months in this region without getting bored, I am sure of that. But we wanted to go to India, to meet Marta, my friend, before she left off back home. Sometimes we just have to make choices, and I do realize how lucky I am that I got to see this at all. This place will not go anywhere, and it will certainly not leave my heart. Someday, I hope we can come back and explore all these endless valleys, put our tent up right in the middle of nowhere, drink out of the mountain creeks and build our castles in the skies…
For now, the way back was what we had to deal with. We decided to speed things up a little, and instead of the five days it took us to get there we stuffed it into four days. If you consider 8 hours as a normal working day (which we unfortunately not get payed for) and you promise yourself that it is absolutely awesome to be with your bike the whole day it is actually quite doable. The thing is, Ruben really doesn’t like to ride the same route twice. He watched the map a little, but our options were limited. Due to snow and landslides the more beautiful roads were closed, so the biggest part just had to be the same. He only found a small detour somewhere through some smaller mountain ranges which are supposedly very beautiful. I didn’t feel too much for making a detour, nor going through mountains but he eventually got it his way. If only we didn’t…
The day started with rain. Where Ruben hates wind, I hate rain. But I pushed myself and made sure that before we headed off every water resistant piece of cloth was taken out of our cases and put on my body. And that worked out pretty well. The way started to lead us through the hills, along wet but green mountain roads. This area was presumably not the safest, so one last time we received a police escort. Only for 5 kilometers! Yeah, till the next zone would pick us up. They sticked with us for a while, we lost them halfway and then the rain became like an actual storm. We decided to take shelter in a weird little restaurant along the road where the owner received us with much love and chai. He even put his gas stove on so that we could warm our hands. That was the only part not staying dry, despite our expensive GoreTex 3 season gloves. We gladly skipped on using his bathroom cause the spiders that took shelter there where I think a little bigger than my hand. When we continued the police found us again. But honestly, that was right at the perfect time. I’ve barely ever, nah, never been as happy to see the police before. As there was one thing we didn’t consider. When you go up high enough rain starts to become a little more white, and a little colder…
Slowly but steadily it transformed into hail and snow and we splattered further up right through the middle of an endless thunderstorm. Our speed decreased, thankful we made use of the freshly made tracks by the police car in front of us. The road became super slippery, and on two wheels that’s not much fun. The layer of snow grew as we went up higher and higher. At some point we passed some monkeys happily playing in the snow. I’d have joined them, if only I didn’t have to make sure that both my bike and I had to get to the other side of the mountain alive. It was beautiful, but incredibly scary, and really, really cold. The minutes crawled, just like the kilometers, we went so super slow. I had to pee, since I didn’t want to do that next to those spiders. And after an hour or so I really couldn’t hold it anymore. I stopped and jumped of, but when I was searching for a hidden place my hands in which no single drop of blood was left and which felt like large heavy chunks of ice started to defrost. I remember one time, a beautiful day in the middle of the winter, I took my babysister for a ride on a horse in the snow covered forest. She was whining that it was so cold, I summoned her to calm down. And when, after hours, I put her under the shower to warm up, she cried her heart out, because everything was hurting so badly. I felt like the worst sister on earth. This time it only were my hands, but I thought back of her, how sorry I felt for putting her through that. I really was nearly crying. The police came rushing back to find us and they put me in their car, I allowed one (happy) police guy to ride my bike as they said that there was a police post in 20 meters. They were quite right, and after less than 100m there was a little building along the road. Shelter!! We rushed in, Ruben emptied his shoes full of the liters of water, we wrung out our gloves and the electric stove was lit by putting some wires on other wires, just to give us a little heat. They were true angels, those KPK police men. The province border was right there, and after more than an hour filled with tea and angered attempts to get everything dry we decided to move on, this time without escort. They made clear that the road would go down quickly from here on, and after a little more hail, a car on its side next to the road and some last slippery kilometers we found out they were right. We made it!
By the time I started writing this blog our time in Pakistan was nearly coming to an end. To be honest, this was the country I looked up to the most before we set out on this trip. The armed police escort frightened me, I certainly expected to run into kidnap-willing terrorist and I’d doubted if we’d make it out alive. I certainly realize now how the image of this country is portrayed by the western media, how this image influences and frightens so many people. I do not say our government is absolutely not right in pointing out the safety risks and advising not to travel to the largest part. But I did realize that it is also only just a country, in which people are living their everyday lives. They are trying to make the best of it. And we saw how people have to fight. We saw extreme poverty and the struggle to survive. We also felt the warmth, the extreme hospitality, for which Pakistan is so famous. And I am happy to see that we were not the only ones ‘daring’ to go there. Tourism is, luckily, not non-existing. Though the first impression many overlanders have due to how the police ensures to keep us safe is not the best. I am happy we didn’t rush out after that, but sticked around for a little longer. That we got to meet the real Pakistan, and its warm, loving, beautiful people. I certainly feel that the world is one big beautiful place and that often what we are so afraid of isn’t half as scary once we meet it. By the time I finished this blog we found ourselves in the smog-filled city of Delhi. But we didn’t suffocate. India is amazing, just like some of the people we met here. But that I’ll leave for the next writing.