Cycle Touring Pakistan. Chapter 2: The Khunjerab Pass

The Khunjerab Pass is known as the highest paved international border crossing in the world. It was officially completed in 1982 and has been measured at an elevation of approximately 4,880 meters. For Jacob and I, this was our gateway into Pakistan. Despite crossing the border the previous day cramped up in a sleeper bus I, as some will know, am never one to back down to a challenge. It was inevitable, we would be cycling from Sost to the border crossing; bikes fully loaded. An endeavour that would take us two days; we would cycle a total of 164 kilometers and climb 2,130 meters altitude, consume an inhumane level of sugar, suffer an almighty inner tube blow out and become new found celebrities, posing for a ridiculous number of selfies.

Day one started with our discovery of Pakistan’s breakfast of kings, vegetable omelette and chapati, a perfect start to the day and a welcome change from the steamed baozi and selection of deep fried foods that we had grown accustomed to in China. We were in no rush on our first morning in Pakistan as we only had 32 kilometers to cover until the Khunjerab National Park entry point where camping was permitted. We resupplied with fresh vegetables and were delighted to find ginger and red chillies to liven up our evening meal.

After an early lunch of mixed vegetable curry and naan, we headed back up the Karakoram Highway. In no rush and with all afternoon we casually rode up stream of the Khunjerab River, that we later learned translates to ‘Blood River‘. The sun was high in the sky and we were gifted a slight breeze to stave off the midday heat. Almost immediately the walls of what I can only describe as a ‘canyon’ shot up into the sky, we were engulfed by near vertical walls that jutted out from the road side. Distant white mountain peaks would appear between the deep red and orange pinnacles, glistening like white crystals and just as quickly as they appeared, they were gone. Miraculously, the road found a way to snake it’s way up the river between the narrow and winding canyon walls. Further along, great heaps of shale and loose rock had formed huge banks that met the road. In the distance we saw a cloud of dust settling, we heard an explosion of rock as boulders bounced down the slopes, then the clip clatter of hooves, we looked up and saw a herd of Ibex, one of the protected species in the Khunjerab National Park, galloping up the side of the valley wall, a rare sighting that we were fortunate to experience.

Jacob Picking His Way Through the Narrow Canyon Walls
The Canyon Walls Growing Ever Steeper

We enjoyed a comfortable night camping at the Khunjerab National Park entry point and registration office. We had had an epiphany, a means of improving our camping culinary skills. Rather than literally boiling everything in one pot, vegetables, rice and all, we used a little oil, kindly donated by the restaurant owner, fried onions, garlic, chilli and ginger to inject a vibrant flavour to our, what used to be a somewhat ordinary, dish. We ate in abundance, a hearty dish for the endeavour that lay before us the following morning. Shortly after dinner a comedic group of men from Lahore joined us for a chat, they also bought tea and shared a plate of pakora. It was becoming clear that the kindness of the Pakistani people is second to none, they want certainty that western tourists enjoy their stay and have a positive experience in their home country. After accidentally insulting a 31 year old man by guessing his age at 40, we settled down early in readiness for day two, setting the alarm for 05:00 to meet the day head on at the crack of dawn.

Cooking Up a Storm

Day two. The alarm sounded and we packed up camp. Completely forgetting to buy food for breakfast we broke into our rations and halved a cake spread with orange jam that we had ‘smuggled‘ in from China. Perhaps not the most nutritional start to the day, but calorie dense none the less. At 06:35 we were on the road. With only 32 kilometers under our belts meant that we had to cover a total of 132 kilometers to make it up to the pass and back to Sost.

The first few hours we pedaled at a steady pace taking a break every hour to stretch and replenish our calorie stores with dried fruit, nuts and sweet biscuits. As we gained altitude signs of vegetation diminished, trees that lined the river were replaced with small shrubs. It was evident that the air was growing thin and only the hardy could survive such a harsh environment. The valley opened up, rock faces becoming darker shades of grey, as even greater mounds of shale ran down to the road. The surroundings brought back a sense of nostalgia, reminiscent of an encounter I had in the Lake District. I had left the trodden path to crest one final mountain, Base Brown, before descending to meet my father and sister at the pub in the village of Seathwaite. As the descent grew ever steeper, I had no choice but to start ambling downward on hands and feet until I found myself stranded with no phone signal. The only reassurance was the presence of sheep muck. Growing quite concerned and wracking my brains for a plan of escape I thought to myself “If sheep can descend such a steep, desolate mountainside, surely an experienced fell walker and climber could.” This fell side was described by Alfred Wainwright in such a way that could relate to the high, deserted valleys of the Khunjerab Pass; “gaunt, steep-sided, a pyramid of tumbled boulders and scree, a desert abandoned to nature,” “chaotic fellside scarred by gully and crag, and strewn with the natural debris of ages; a stark declivity.” Finally, after scurrying down to safety and sitting comfortably in the warmth of the pub, my father, sister and I spent the next hour laughing about the ordeal over a much needed pint of English ale.

Desolation at High Altitude

Four and a half hours into the ascent and we made it to the first of 13 major switch backs, from here we battled our way up the side of the valley, climbing for 11 kilometers and gaining the final 800 meters. Drivers and motorcyclists waved and cheered us on, hoping we would stop to pose for a photograph. It took another two and a half hours until we made it to the plateau. At 4,600 meters above sea level I was beginning to feel the effects of decreased oxygen levels, becoming slightly light headed and nauseous but my legs were still going strong. The road curved to the left and then the right until finally we got our first glimpse of the Khunjerab Pass, a rigid monument, standing bold, yet seemingly out of place. Feeling renewed strength and vigour we cycled the final kilometer until we triumphantly made the border security post.

This Photo Says it All. The Khunjerab Pass was Tough

Immediately we were approached by inquisitive Pakistani tourists who were keen to hear answers to the usual questions; where we were from and what our thoughts were of Pakistan. Initially we were forbidden to cross the security barrier to get to the Pass with our bikes, but after pleading with a rather ‘hench‘ looking border guard branding a weapon we were granted “Only ten minutes.” We had to wave off the latest members of the Jacob and Luke fan club and pick our way through the crowds. In a rush we set up the tripod to get the mandatory photo before we were swarmed. We didn’t even have time to celebrate our accomplishment, we were surrounded, selfie after selfie, photo after photo, as if we were wearing the yellow jersey of the Tour De France. Once one person had a selfie you could sense the envy of their friends as they desperately tried to get themselves next in line for a shot. They wanted pictures with the bikes, wearing our sunglasses, it was insane. Jacob and I got separated as we relished in our new found fame, though I eventually managed to pick my way between our fans to hug Jacob in a congratulatory embrace. We had made it to the highest point of our journey, 4,880 meters above sea level, an altitude that I have never experienced before first hand.

The Khunjerab Pass

We found the whole ordeal hilarious. Though concerned that we had taken more than our allotted ten minutes we rode down from the pass to the border security barrier, pushed our bikes across what resembled a car boot sale car park and bought a cup of sweet, milky Pakistan tea from the only merchant hardy enough to lay claim to a tourist attraction over four kilometers above sea level. Thankfully, away from the border crossing the crowds had diminished, though the adrenaline rush had subsided and our body temperatures dropped, we started to feel cold from the brisk, biting winds. The tea was a welcome warmth clasped between my hands, the sweet nectar quenched my thirst.

Needless to say, as comical as the mobbing and never ending series of selfies was, thankfully I managed to find a moment of solace, to stop, catch my breath and take it all in. I sat on a rock and gazed out across at the distant glacier, it felt as though I was on top of the world. After a seven hour grueling climb, I couldn’t believe we made it. Thinking back to the leaving Sost the previous day felt more like a week ago.

The View From The Khunjerab Pass

As any mountaineer would know, summiting a peak is only half of the challenge. Although this is slightly different as a cyclist, ascending 82 kilometers over the last two days meant that we undoubtedly had 82 kilometers to return to Sost, which we planned to complete the same day. Excited for the thrill of the descent, we set off albeit, cold and fatigued. We cruised down across the plateau to the top of the series of switch backs. Picking up speed, we shot down each one in a fraction of the time it took to climb, taking a racing line to keep up speed around the corners. Magnificent views of a sharp mountain peak depicting a sharks tooth appeared at the end of a valley, gleaming with splendour.

The Karakoram Highway Snaking it’s Way Through the Valley
The Shark’s Tooth

As we descended further into the valley we were once again dwarfed by the mountain walls, I felt so small and insignificant in such great surroundings. After 24 kilometers we found a spot reasonably out of sight to hide from our fan club and cook a pot of porridge, our first substantial meal of the day. Loaded with more dried fried, our blood sugar levels must have been horrific, yet our bodies were craving sustenance. With 58 kilometers to go there was no hanging about, it was almost 16:00, we had just enough time to return to Sost before nightfall. Unfortunately, a headwind strengthened, which meant we had to digest our porridge whilst fighting head on, drafting behind each other, trying desperately to maintain speed. It was tough work but we were having such great fun, slinging around the corners and valley walls, dodging rocks and holes in the road, I felt as though I was the pilot of a Star Wars Startfighter.

The Sun Sinks as Darkness Closes In

The headwind had set us back, darkness begun to close in, sensibly, we mounted our bicycle lights. We continued cycling when “BOOM” I thought we had been shot at, adrenaline surged through my veins as my heart rate doubled. I glanced round at Jacob who shouted “BLOW OUT!” Thankfully, we were not being hunted down for our sweaty clothes, but Jacob had completely ruptured an inner tube that was now wrapped around his axle, tyre handing loosely off his rim. He immediately got to work, changing his tube as I entertained the inevitable onlookers who stopped by to offer help and of course wouldn’t leave without a group photo of the cycling Englishmen. Back on the road and it was pitch black, cycling the final 12 kilometers with only the illumination of our bike lights. As I looked up, magnificent stars were glistening between the dark shadows of the imposing valley walls. It was eerie but at the same time, exhilarating.

Finally, not long after 20:00 we rolled into the familiar streets of Sost. Dropping our bikes off at the Asia Star Hotel, we headed straight for the Four Brothers restaurant and orders double portions of curried vegetables and naan. After the 13 hour ordeal I couldn’t relax, my mind was buzzing, eyes wide and my body was still tingling with the after effects of adrenaline surging through my veins. I didn’t feel my normal self until halfway through devouring the heap of food that was laid out before me.

What an unbelievable, exhilarating day. It had provided everything and a day we would never forget. We couldn’t believe we were back, but happy to be in one piece, bellies full and in bed for some much needed rest. We looked forward to some stress free cycling with no major mountain passes as we continue following the Karakoram Highway south through the Hunza Valley.

The Jacob and Luke Fan Club

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