Jacob and I had experienced cycling over 4,800 metres at the Khunjerab Pass during our early days in Pakistan, though we have never experienced consecutive days cycling and camping at such altitudes. Deosai National Park was a highly anticipated destination on our Pakistani travel plan and has an average elevation of 4,114 metres above sea level. The National Park consists of flat but undulating plains broken by gently rolling hills and is encompassed by mountains. The Park is located where the Pamir and Karakoram highlands merge with the Himalayan and is home to a variety of high altitude species including the Tibetan wolf, Himalayan ibex, Golden marmots and the notoriously famous, Himalayan brown bear, the critically endangered and protected species that attracts the bulk of Pakistani tourists. In Urdu, “Deosai” translates to “Land of the Giants” and in the local Balti language, the name for “Deosai” is “Ghbiarsa“, which means “Summer’s place” as the park is only accessible during the summer months. I was surprised that I had never heard of its existence, though I suspected that this was perhaps linked with the distinct decline of international tourism to Pakistan since 9/11, causing the demise of the northern areas region of Pakistan as a globally recognised travel destination of outstanding natural beauty, such as the iconic Great Barrier Reef of Australia or the Niagara Falls of North America.
Deosai National Park was never part of our original cycle tour plan, in fact, it was merely a green section of Google Maps that looked somewhat intriguing. It wasn’t until we learned of the idyllic landscapes, extreme altitude and the presence of wild brown bears before it took precedence on our desired itinerary, so much so that we had twice rescheduled our departure date from the United Kingdom, pulling the date forward to ensure that we could pass through Deosai National Park before the inevitable snowfall and plummeting temperatures. Since arriving in Pakistan we had been advised countless times that the road through Deosai was not possible by bicycle, yet controversially we had also been informed that the road through Deosai was a “metal road“, assuming that “metal” meant a solid tarmac road and somewhere down the line the translation between Urdu and English had been mistranslated. We then heard rumours that the park had recently experienced heavy snowfall and the only way of travelling through the park was by hiring a jeep.
Whilst sat drinking a fresh coffee in the comfortably warm, sanctuary of the Dreamland Hotel in Astore I envisaged myself pushing my bike through deep snow, unable to feel my fingers and toes. I was confident that I had packed sufficient clothing to keep warm in the winter months, but I was perhaps not well enough equipped to battle anything more than a thin layer of frost or few centimeters of snow. The idea of hiring a jeep, extortionate though they were, was becoming all too tempting. Even the thought of abolishing our Deosai plans was beginning to manifest itself. Though these options were the easy way out and making such a decision could have meant missing out on something spectacular and with other adventures to be had, I don’t expect to be returning to Pakistan in the foreseeable future. Despite all my anxieties, I am not one to quit, I like to step up to a challenge and know too well how hard work, maybe a bit of pain or discomfort and determination and can make achieving something you dream of all that more rewarding with great sense of gratification. Fortunately, we received a message from Adam “No snow in Deosai. Road open. It’s warm in day but sub zero at night. Road very rough in park.” Deosai National Park was officially on the menu.
Jacob and I had scheduled sufficient rest days into our cycle touring plans after long, challenging rides or consecutive days in the saddle, though often these rest days aren’t as ‘relaxing’ as a rest day should be and we often found it difficult to resist exploring the local area or hike a nearby trail. Even just crossing items off our to do list was sometimes an arduous and time consuming task. The day that we left Astore in the direction of Chillam, the entry point of the National Park, we felt refreshed and rejuvenated. We had spent five consecutive days off the bikes, though most of these days were spent hiking and trekking. On our way out of Astore, after refilling out MSR multi-fuel bottle with petrol, we were met with a long, steep climb though our legs felt strong and with our cycling stamina renewed it took us little over an hour to reach the crest where we stopped to perform our morning yoga style stretching routine. We descended upon the Astore River which branched off to the east, the crystal clear, turquoise waters were enticing, we found a shaded spot out of sight to go for a bathe and cool off, though the water was absolutely baltic, I couldn’t submerge myself for more than a few exhilarating seconds. We stayed and relaxed as we cooked a steaming pot of porridge in our underwear.
Feeling rejuvenated, we decided to push on to Chillam and complete the 53 kilometre ride in one day. The next couple of hours was easy going, but the road gradually started to climb, we gained altitude and a fierce headwind set in. My legs started to tire and in the late afternoon the temperature dropped dramatically. We stopped briefly for a peanut butter and jam naan to replenish our energy levels before battling the final 10 kilometres to Chillam. I found it extremely tough, the hiking around Rama had taken its toll and it was just as much a mental challenge as a physical one. In the wake of my outbursts of frustration during the ride to Astore I was determined to not let these negative emotions resurface. One thing that got me through was singing out loud to Mike and the Mechanics, “Looking back, over my shoulder” but unfortunately, these five words were the only lyrics either of us knew, so the one line was sung repeatedly for almost two hours, followed by a humming of the rest of the chorus.
I was elated to finally roll into Chillam, so much so that, without hesitation, I was more than willing to pose for numerous photos and selfies with the Pakistani Army. The army had a prominent presence in Chillam, the last town before entering the war-ridden, disputed territory of Kashmir. Accommodation was limited, most available rooms resembled little more than a wooden shed atop the roof of a restaurant or a couple of stained mattresses on the floor accompanied by dead rodents. Fortunately, we managed to find our way to the only guest house in the village, owned by the government and managed by the Deosai National Park wardens. We booked ourselves into the surprisingly clean and comfortable, but overpriced room and ambled down through the seemingly deserted village to the first restaurant with any sign of life. We feasted on plate after plate of daal and chapati. The restaurant was rather odd, it felt like we had once again wandered out of the 21st century and into the wild west, Pakistani men entered and left abruptly through the swinging doors, wearing shawls to stave off the brisk evening chill. The restaurant had a small CRT, box television in the corner, men fought over what to watch, we hoped that we might be treated to a mid-week premier league match but it turned out that the only sporting event was a game of handball which was quickly dismissed by the regulars before mutually settling on the news.
We were both exhausted and agreed that it would be wise to spend a whole day resting in Chillam as opposed to climbing to 4,250 metres in our current state. Chillam resembled nothing more than a dusty, truck stop of a village, home to a large Pakistani Army barracks, nestled into the valley that leads to Kashmir. Fortunately, we befriended the only young English speaking man in the village who kindly offered his assistance in finding all the provisions we needed for the next four days. There wasn’t anything else to do in Chillam so we spent the afternoon drinking tea in the sun, on the veranda of our guest house bedroom, reading and reminiscing of our time so far in this fascinating country.
The next morning we woke early and packed our bikes in readiness for our next adventure. We played the National Park entrance fee and started up the series of switchbacks, quickly gaining altitude. We pedaled past two small, mud brick settlements full of waving children while parents were busy stacking enormous heaps of hay and preparing for the oncoming winter. The road snaked away from us, meandering its way up the valley as far as the eye could see. We cycled above the tree line and noted the leaves had started to turn the autumnal shades of yellow and orange. The road conditions were good, as promised, a “metal” road until, 12 kilometres from Chillam, what was a smooth, tarmac road now resembled an extremely steep, boulder strewn track.
We were forced to push our bikes for the next kilometre, I capitulated,”When roads are this poor, I have no shame in pushing my bike!” I shouted across to Jacob with a sideways smirk. I believe a cycle tour is officially a cycle tour when you have degraded to pushing your bike. Unfortunately, pushing our bikes would be a daily task, the next 50 kilometres were dirt road, though we were mentally prepared for four tough, harsh days.