The trek to Rakaposhi Base Camp was the perfect break from the cycle tour and enabled me to experience more of the natural beauty that Pakistan has to offer, the only regret was that Jacob was unable to join the adventure, although he was having a Pakistani adventure of his own in Islamabad. The 14 hour taxi ride from Gilgit to Islamabad had taken its toll, he rolled into the capital at a very late hour, fortunately finding a hotel with all the necessary amenities. It didn’t take Jacob long to determine the formalities of submitting a tourist visa extension application, which it turns out could be extended for up to six months for no charge, though it would take a few days to process meaning Jacob had time to kill.
Pakistani people can be extremely helpful most of the time and Jacob had made a friend of his own in the capital who simply wouldn’t leave him alone. Initially his new companion was a great help and invited Jacob to join him for lunch. It soon became evident that he had in fact been recruited to join property development business meetings. Whilst Jacob wasn’t so hot in the meetings, the heat of Islamabad meant that his one and only change of clothes soon became saturated, leaving him uncomfortably and visibly moist. Despite feeling the awkward Englishman or perhaps the latest office attraction, the air conditioning provided some much needed respite. After the second day of business meetings Jacob decided that the property development industry wasn’t his fortè and endless hours spent sat at the back off an office was becoming quite awkward. He spent the next few days exploring the capital, though his new business partner couldn’t fathom why he had decided to spend this time apart. Jacob’s WhatsApp inbox was flooded with messages, his new companion was clearly concerned about his whereabouts, so much so that he visited Jacob’s hotel three times one afternoon in an attempt to track him down. When Jacob was finally back in possession of his passport he was glad to get on a plane and fly back to Gilgit to continue the tour.
I had received a message from Jacob informing me of his plans to return to Gilgit the following day armed with a 60 day visa extension. The news was well received, we could continue our original plan with no time constraints and this meant we would also get back out on the bikes, I had almost forgotten that we were travelling by bicycle. In the meantime I had treated myself to the full-monty, a hair cut and a cut throat shave at the local barbers, who, for £1.56, did an exemplary job, I felt like a new man. That morning I enjoyed a relaxing coffee fuelled morning. It just so happened that the guest house we were staying at provided ground coffee and to my amazement, a cafetiere, albeit a cafetiere in pieces that I had to reassemble, but the caffeine infusion was worth it. I had been carrying fresh coffee bags that I had acquired in France but you simply can’t beat a fresh cafetiere coffee in the morning. If only I had some ASDA Extra Special Guatemalan Arabica. One can only wish, the bitter Pakistani equivalent had to suffice.
A short while later I was elated to see a familiar face pop around the corner. I was greeted with a big hug followed by “I am so happy to see you man!” The sweaty weekend in the capital with his new follower had been quite the experience. We both shared our stories, it felt like we had spent weeks apart. I was relieved to learn that, putting my digestive complications aside, I had probably pulled the longer straw but more importantly we were back together and keen to get going.
The next morning we were ready to leave and wave Gilgit goodbye to continue south along the Karakoram Highway. We cycled through a small village, Jaglot, where we stopped for lunch and sheltered from the soaring midday heat. We finished our mixed vegetable curry and sat in the relatively cool restaurant for over an hour, the owner must have realised that we were waiting for the stifling temperatures to subside, he asked if we would like a “room” to rest in. We weren’t entirely sure what he meant by this so Jacob volunteered to investigate. He kindly opened up a carpeted store room, arranged a series of pillows and set up a gargantuan air conditioning unit that sounded more like a 747 jet engine. Despite the roar, we were extremely grateful for the offer and gladly lay down for an hour. Feeling we needed to press on, we continued on our way, the relentless sun still beating down on us. We passed the somewhat barren and nondescript, yet iconic point where the worlds three greatest mountain ranges meet, the Karakoram, Hindukush and the Himalayas. This was also the meeting point of the Indus River, that springs from the Tibetan plateau and flows the length of Pakistan to the Arabian Sea, is met by the Gilgit River, one of its main tributaries. Just around the corner we had our first glimpse of Nanga Parbat, the world’s 9th highest mountain.
Hot, sweaty and parched we rode south along the Karakoram Highway, the temperature, reluctant to abate. To our astonishment, as we cycled around a corner, the road bridged over a minor tributary to the Indus River and we heard splashing and laughter, then the painted words of ‘Spring Resort‘ jumped out from the side of a cream building hosting rows of tables, chairs and parasols. Not quite the luxurious ‘Resort‘ that one would expect, but it was a place for people to wash, clean and enjoy themselves in the cool glacial melt water. We simply could not resist. We rolled our bikes down to the rivers edge which, as always and as expected, attracted quite a crowd. Two white men with razor sharp tan lines stripped down to their shorts, tiptoed into the clear, flowing water and dunked themselves, simply sensational. Exactly what we needed, washing away the sweat and grime and refreshing our souls. Having the chance to bathe or swim in wild waters is such a liberation. After a few topless selfies we dried naturally by the waters edge, the only problem was how to get changed with 30 men and boys watching like hawks. With no Urdu to English translators we tried to communicate with elaborate hand signals that we were about to unveil ourselves but they didn’t flinch. Unwilling to offer a moment of privacy, we had no choice but to change out in the open whilst trying cover our pearly white behinds and retain a sliver of dignity.
We cycled throughout the afternoon until we came to a police check point in Telichi, we routinely entered our details and signed the standard, tattered tourist log book but were advised to spend the night here as the next section of road to Astore, our next destination, would take at least five hours. Telichi was an extremely small village that resembled nothing more than service station with a small shop, two restaurants and a motel. We camped in the grounds of one restaurant that had a great view of the distant mountain, Nanga Partbat. We drank tea and devoured yet another course of mixed vegetable curry and naan as the sun set. We sat until dark and marvelled at the stary night sky, another divine, cloudless view of the Milky Way.
In the morning we packed up camp and rode on. We left the Karakoram Highway to make our way through a steep sided valley to Astore, a small town nestled in the Astore Valley. The road followed the fast flowing torrents of the Astore River upstream but was brutally steep and largely in very poor condition. Sections had deteriorated to gravel and sand, not an ideal when climbing the steepest gradients we had experienced so far on the tour, and doing so in the scorching, midday heat. The road hugged tightly to the rock with long drops down to the raging river below, crystal clear glacial rivers flowed from smaller streams to join the Astore River, we were teased by the tantalisingly fresh, cool water.
Our progress was extremely slow and after four hours we had only managed 20 kilometres. We powered our tired legs on trail mix and the last remaining cold, leathery poratha at a roadside tea shop. The road never relented, we threw everything we could muster at it. In hind sight, we had perhaps reluctantly refused a lift from a local who was ferrying his calf in the trailer of his tractor. I usually see myself as the positive member of a team, keeping spirits high and motivating others. Unfortunately, this road beat these attributes out of me “This is a joke!” I shouted as we rounded a corner, met with a relentless climb at a gradient where my speedometer couldn’t calculate how slow I was pedalling and dismally displayed 0.0 kilometres per hour. I roared with frustration each time we reached a crest, legs screaming. The road finally eased off and the scenery shifted from harsh, steep sided crags to gentle terraces populated with evergreen trees that gave it an almost alpine feel as we rode into the Astore Valley. My legs were thankful for the break from climbing and it was then when I realised that my outbursts were so unnecessary and out of character. It doesn’t matter how emotional you get, the route is not going to get any easier, it’s best to keep your head down, keep pedalling and succumb to road.
After a gruelling ride that felt more like a six hour interval training session in a sauna, we finally reached Astore, a small, busy town on the side of a valley. Roads through the centre were so steep that we resorted to push our bikes, with the unexpected but appreciated help of the locals. We checked into the Dreamland Hotel and made ourselves comfortable, enjoyed a luke-warm shower and hand-washed my sweaty, grimy cycling clothes. We found a local restaurant that served an unpleasantly gritty saag with naan, we demolished a couple of courses while, as is now customary, entertained the inquisitive locals by answering the standard set of interview style questions. Back at the Hotel we unpacked, negotiated the cost of a two night stay and made ourselves at home. It doesn’t take long for a hotel room occupied by tired cycle tourers to become more of a bomb site.
I should probably note here that being an ex-firefighter, setting up a petrol fueled camping stove on the coffee table of a hotel room surrounded by combustible materials is perhaps not the best way to assert fire safety practises. Though, after an almost non-existent risk assessment, the risk vs reward spectrum swung largely in favour of a fresh coffee and breakfast in bed. Though perhaps the local electrician would increase his life expectancy and benefit from a health and safety briefing of sorts.
After a well-earned, lazy morning Jacob and I packed our day packs in anticipation for a few days off the bikes. We planned to spend some time hiking around the Astore Valley and visit Rama Lake. A few days that would grant us unimaginable views that I never thought I would see from the summit of a mountain that I had the pleasure of hiking to the top of.