Eight months of preparation, route planning and endless hours spent scouring the web researching and reading other people’s accounts of their cycle touring experiences of the Karakoram Highway, few that there are, were finally becoming a reality. The places we had read about, photographs we had admired and now our own dreams were unfolding. We had put in some seriously hard pedaling through Kyrgyzstan and China, we reached our highest altitude in Pakistan and now we can relish in the enjoyment of cruising down stream of the Hunza River, no major, back breaking ascents for a time, just the sheer bliss of rolling at a steady pace with no time constraints, watching the scenery gradually change, resting whenever we feel the need and immersing ourselves into life riding along the Karakoram Highway.
We rode on with Sost and the almighty Khunjerab Pass to our backs, heading south towards the awesome, sky scraping peaks of the Karakoram mountain range. Weary and still recovering from the previous grueling 24 hours, we gently meandered, gazing upwards and occasionally behind us hoping to never miss the view of a hidden valley or a secret snow capped peak. We passed small settlements, home to orchards of apple and apricot trees, unveiled women working the land, spreading fruit to dry out in the hot sun on blankets upon the roofs of small buildings constructed of mud and clay. It was unfortunate that it was during this moment I was adopting the ‘Asian squat‘ stance to entice my digestive system to process something that didn’t agree with me earlier that morning.
The skies were a brilliant blue, the sun was shining and we were in our element. We spent the next two days feasting our eyes on the banquet of delights laid out before us. The spectacle almost masked the ever-present dull ache in our legs. Cycling passed the Passu Glacier, the awesome Passu Cathedral that resemble the sharp pinnacles of the spires of the Sagrada Familia and the Attabad Lake. The lake was formed as a consequence of an landslide in 2010, skeletal trees that puncture the serene blue waters are a stark reminder of the villages that were flooded as a result of the unforeseen natural disaster.
The highway hugged the valley walls, a gradual incline lead us to views overlooking the the Hunza Valley. Melt water flowed from the sky high glaciers. It was evident where ancestors of the Hunza people had constructed canals to channel the mineral rich water to irrigate the now fertile land, creating an emerald green oasis in the shadows of the towering, rugged slopes where poplar trees perforated the landscape. Continuing south a long sweeping descent took us across the Karimabad Bridge to the picturesque district of Karimabad where we planned to spend a few nights and explore the surrounding area. In an attempt to stick to a budget that we had set ourselves we set out in search of a reasonably priced campsite or guest house that would allow us to pitch our tents. After rejecting a few extortionate offers we wound our way up steep roads passing shack-like convenience stores and restaurants emanating rich scents of spices and offering a selection of local dishes, until we stopped by the Hunza Traditional Guest House, a family run establishment where we were greeted by Kareem, one of five brothers. We inquired about the cost to pitch our tents, he considered our request and offered us a room but we were keen to keep our expenditure to a minimum and stressed our intent to camp. Accepting his final offer we set out unloading our bikes. Kareem’s younger brother Qayyum, the apparent ‘CEO‘ of the family business according to his business card, appeared and spoke to Kareem in Urdu. “My brother says that you can stay here, with no charge, as our international guests, for as many days as you would like.” Stumped by this unexpected generosity, we looked at each other almost speechless and of course, gladly accepted. Qayyum kindly created a space and helped us pitch our tents. We later conversed over a cup of sweet tea and were fed a bottomless meal of vegetable rice. Jacob and I hoovered up bowl after bowl as our bodies craved nourishment, Kareem was keen to see our hunger sated and encouraged us to eat until we simply couldn’t eat anymore, which, for Luke Woods, is a rather dangerous prospect. On this cycle tour I seem to have developed an insatiable appetite and lost the connection between my brain and stomach. Or perhaps this has always been the case.
Kareem took us under his wing and did everything in his power to ensure that we had a comfortable stay at the guest house. The next morning after a breakfast of vegetable omelette and poratha he accompanied us on a day trip into the Hopar Valley to see the emerald green, shire-like settlements and view the Hopar Glacier. Reluctant to cycle and in dire need of rest we decided to walk, taking a shortcut through the village via the family fruit and vegetable garden to pick some fresh apples and grapes and try our luck to hitch a ride. Pakistani drivers were more than willing to offer the foreigners a lift. We squashed into the back of a car that took us part of the way before jumping into the back of a wagon style taxi, an open bed vehicle with a canvas roof and wooden benches and later held onto the back of a small van as the delivery driver picked his way through traffic and skirted dirt roads with sheer drops down into the valley below.
Between lifts we had to walk part of the way, we were astonished to see vegetable gardens lined with tall marijuana plants that towered above Jacob. The plants smelled so sweet, Jacob and I were both mesmerised. It turns out that these were merely “Jungle weeds” and it seemed that the villagers grew the plants as hedges or boundaries to deter trespassers from spoiling their crops and only cultivated them for their seeds. Apparently, they would dry the seeds and grind them to a fine dust and mix with milk or sprinkle on chapati, and as an elderly local with a weathered face and a wide grin had informed us, they are also excellent for “male sexual stamina.”
We stopped for lunch that consisted of a moreish daal and saag with naan, which Jacob and I insisted we paid for. A short walk lead us to an impressive view of the Hopar Glacier, where we sat in the serene stillness and soaked up the view. We later flagged down another vehicle and made our way back to the guest house, ate another lavish meal and played cards with Kareem and his cousins. Considering myself an esteemed card player, thanks to my rich family gaming history, I frustratingly lost every game with the age old excuses of “It’s all about the luck of the deal” and “There’s just no strategy to this game!” Which were swiftly snuffed out with waves of sarcasm. As we climbed into our tents, Kareem stopped us and offered us a room to spend the night. With potentially six months sleeping under canvas we couldn’t and weren’t allowed to refuse. We were astounded at how welcoming Kareem and his family were, we struggled to understand what we had done to deserve such generosity. However, I once read that sometimes, even when perplexed, the right thing to do is to be noble and simply accept a gift. In Pakistan it can be regarded as disrespectful to refuse such an act of kindness.
The following day Kareem lead the way on a two hour hike to the Eagles Nest, an iconic view point overlooking the Hunza Valley. We set off in the late afternoon stopping en route for tea and unusual cumin flavoured biscuits with a grand view of the Batura Muztagh mountains and the prominent pinnacle known as ‘Lady Finger’. We reached the Eagles Nest in time to watch an atmospheric sunset as the sun gradually sank in the distance behind the jagged ridge line.
The hospitality of Kareem and his brothers was second to none, they fed us every meal during our stay and refused payment. The chef cooked a delectable selection of dishes, omelettes for breakfast, rice dishes for lunch and vegetable curries with chapati or naan for dinner. The few days spent with Kareem and his brothers felt like a relaxing weekend retreat. We were thankful for a short rest from our bikes and sincerely grateful for accepting us as guest and treating us like royalty. Though the Karakoram Highway was calling our names. Feeling we had spent enough time in one location we loaded up our camels like a nomadic caravan and continued cycling south to the next dot on the map, Gilgit, the capital of the Gilgit-Baltistan region.