Jacob, I and our trusty touring bikes had been put through our paces, we were in dire need of rest, relaxation, recuperation and a wash. Skardu provided the perfect opportunity to achieve this with a wide range of accommodation, restaurants, shops and even a bakery that emanated the sweet scents of freshly baked goods, situated just across the road from our base for the following three days, the Danish Guest House. No longer did we have to rummage through stalls of half rotten vegetables to find the most palatable, and the multitude of convenience stores offered everything we needed to resupply; peanut butter, fig jam and granulated Nescafe Original to name a few of the cycle touring essentials. To our amazement we found a number of shops selling Cadbury Dairy Milk, temptation was immense but I firmly stated “We shouldn’t, if I start I won’t be able to control my willpower to stop.” Literally, at the next shop we capitulated, we meticulously calculated the price of each variety vs the weight to ensure we bought the most cost effective bars. Strangely, treating ourselves to such a western luxury in a central Asian country on cycle tour where we had set ourselves such a stringent budget felt as though we were committing sacrilege. Quickly and carelessly brushing our irrational woes aside and assuring ourselves that we had earned the right, we placed four bars on the counter, paid the small fee, walked around the corner and ate them in a matter of seconds. The chocolate was actually manufactured in Pakistan, it tasted slightly different to the British equivalent but still, it was sensational.
We spent the following two days relaxing and refueling our energy stores. Ali, our host, recommended that we ate at an establishment a few minutes walk away, The City Inn Restaurant. We navigated our way through the busy streets of Skardu and up the stairs to the modern, clean and neatly furnished restaurant. It was full of locals, which is always a good sign, so we perched eagerly on the end of a long table and were impressed to find a laminated menu with English translations. With the standard selection of vegetarian dishes available we ordered a bowl of daal, mixed vegetable curry and roti. In a matter of minutes, two large, double sized portions were placed on the table before us with four fresh, hot roti. In comparison to the multitude of daal and curry servings we had sampled throughout northern Pakistan, this meal was served piping hot, with a fresh salad and was fantastic value. The restaurant staff even swapped roti that had gone cold for a freshly baked one. Both dishes were “mazadaar” one of the few words of our Urdu vocabulary, apparently a literal translation of “delicious.” A term that we used frequently throughout our time in Pakistan and often reciprocated with a smile and a thankful gesture, two clasped palms and a nod of the head. We were so impressed that we returned that evening for dinner, and then lunch and dinner the following day, each time placing our identical order. By the time we left Skardu we were regulars, the same friendly faced waiter serving us at each sitting, “the usual please.”
Having used the last of our first jar of peanut butter on the road through the Deosai National Park, but not wanting to waste the residual, sticky, goodness, Jacob had deviated a plan of using a little hot water to salvage the remaining scrapings of peanut butter, add this to a few bars of Dairy Milk, melt the concoction, pour over fresh banana and sprinkle with crushed biscuits. Oh my days, this was an absolute ingenious idea. That afternoon we retreated to the guest house and got to work. The result, a rich, indulgently delicious creation, we sat and devoured our bowls in silence, save for the odd euphoric murmur of utter delight, my brain receptors fired on all cylinders. We could have demolished another bowl but had to restrain ourselves.
That was it, the flood gates were officially open, over the few days we spent in Skardu we found it impossible to resist the 18 gram bar of Cadbury Dairy Milk for a meager 12 pence, and bought handfuls at a time. Despite the low cost, every time we entered the store, which was at least twice each day, we were served by the same shop assistant and we had to reassure ourselves that we were getting the best deal by checking the weights of the larger, more tempting bars, though this neanderthal performance always ended with the same result. We felt like crack addicts and were rather embarrassed each time we entered the same shop, giggling like children on their way home from school, spending their left over dinner money on sweets. It could be said that the time spent unwinding in Skardu was outright gluttonous Each night I lay in bed, my stomach was full to bursting, though my body craved nourishment. I am quite sure I put on half a stone by the time we moved on.
Our time in Skardu wasn’t solely taken up by feasting like psychotic gannets, other highlights included our visit to the sixteenth century Kharphocho Fort that granted us views overlooking the Skardu valley and the time when Jacob electrocuted himself in the guest house room in audacious style while attempting to fix a plug socket with thin nosed pliers, the horrifying roar and wide eyed, demonic glare that followed was something of a nightmare, never had I heard or saw Jacob react to anything in such a way. Unsurprisingly, considering the electrical safety, or lack thereof in this region of Pakistan, this moment haunted Jacob for days to come.
We left Skardu following the Indus River back to the Karakoram Highway to complete the unforgettable three week detour. The entire 171 kilometre stretch of road leading back to the Karakoram Highway was largely under construction and provided some pretty rough riding. After 12 kilometres the road deteriorated into a boulder strewn dirt track as we cycled past an expansive military barracks, a truck of soldiers waved jubilantly in unison as their vehicle over took us. It took five days to complete the journey, including one rest day due to inclement weather. We spent two nights camping in the grounds of a hotel overlooking the illustrious Shangrila Resort that our strict budget came nowhere close to affording. Though, we were extremely satisfied with our quaint patch of grass for £3.08 per night. And in fact, it was money well spent. It was the first patch of grass that we had the pleasure of camping on since our time in Kyrgyzstan.
As we rode on battling kilometre after kilometre of sand and gravel, the valley walls grew, intimidating rock faces towered above. Thankfully, the road improved in sections and granted sweeping descents that we joyfully threw ourselves down, though, shortly after the thrill and adrenaline rush of gliding through the valley around the tight corners on the precariously placed highway we were abruptly stopped in our tracks. The road was blocked by two large Chinese cranes attempting to rescue a truck that had fallen into the depths below, a stark but welcome reminder of the dangers of travelling these treacherous roads. We negotiated our way past the action and spent that night at the next small town along our route.
After a struggle to communicate our desire to spend the night, repeating the words “Hotel? Guest house?” to everyone and anyone who we made eye contact with, we were directed from one end of town to the other until finally checking into a dingy “VIP” room, consisting of two beds laden with dirty sheets atop a carpet in dire need of a vacuum. The next morning we were startled out of our slumber at precisely 04.45 to the horrifying screeching of the morning prayer. Whoever granted permission for this monstrosity of a performance to take place at such an hour needs to seriously reconsider. This rendition of the morning prayer wasn’t a recording or a recited version of what we had grown accustomed to, this sounded more like the village drunkard, who hadn’t yet retired to bed after his night of downing pint after pint of special brew, rampaging through the mosque on his way home and snatching the microphone out of the Imam’s hands. I cannot understand how, in this small town, this daily ritual is simply accepted by the local community, perhaps it was a one off or he was a local legend with an unfortunate bout of bronchitis or maybe we had arrived when it was open mic morning. We were thankful when the racket ended and we could enjoy another hour in bed.
After our usual breakfast of hard boiled egg and tomato wrapped in naan accompanied by a mug of instant coffee, we hit the road. The next section of highway was an impressive feat of engineering, my respect goes out to the men who would have worked tiresomely at crafting such a piece of art. The undulating road had been painstakingly chiseled into the rock, forming one sided tunnels with death-defying drops down to the raging torrents of the Indus River below as it continued, picking it’s way through huge boulders sitting precariously on the cliffs edge.
We arrived late into the afternoon at the next village where we had planned to spend the night. To our despair, the only accommodation available was a series of lattice beds outside a restaurant at what resembled nothing more than a grimy truck stop. Eager to avoid spending the night outdoors and with nowhere else to camp, Jacob offered to cycle down to what appeared to be a Pakistani Army camp in a desperate hope that they would permit us to pitch our tents within their grounds. Miraculously, with Jacob’s innocent charm, the Major had kindly offered us a room with a private bathroom in his personal quarters at no cost. We of course gladly accepted without hesitation and unloaded our bikes with the enthusiastic help of one of his comrades. After an unexpected, indulgent hot shower we were invited to use the kitchen to prepare our food. The Major’s minions even provided a stack of fresh steaming chapati and a bowl of “Chicken and cow” daal, that we carefully piked through, they found it hilarious to tease us about paying the “bill“. With their limited English and our primitive Urdu vocabulary we didn’t share a great deal of intelligible conversation but with elaborate facial expressions and hand gestures we had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. It is common to encounter these interactions when travelling through such remote areas, I find it extremely gratifying when it is accepted that, although vocal communication is a challenge, the moment is enjoyed by all as you revel harmoniously in each others company.
The following morning we enjoyed a breakfast burrito in bed, a newly invented cycle touring creation that comprised of left over cinnamon and raisin rice with orange jam wrapped in a chapati. The condition of the highway had improved and to my amazement we rolled effortlessly down a silky black ribbon of smooth tarmac, a sensation that we had been deprived of for almost three weeks, large black lizards a foot long darted across the road before us. Down below, sitting precariously deep within the valley were hanging bridges, decades old, providing access to small settlements that were home to immaculate, green terraces, waiting patiently to be harvested. In the upper reaches of the mountains, the first signs of autumn were gradually descending from the higher, colder climate, trees turning a golden orange and yellow.
We bought some fresh fruit from a roadside stall and sheltered from the sun under a tree while we conducted our daily stretching routine. It was timed perfectly as the inquisitive local children on their way home from school ran towards us, assembling themselves in a semi circle. At first they were timid and kept their distance, but after a few giggles, the ice was soon broken and Jacob lead a brief yoga session that was followed by an elaborate performance of hand stands and cartwheels by the children before engaging in a group patty cake activity.
That afternoon, after passing another village that lacked any means of accommodation, we were forced to push on and cycle into the late afternoon. We rode for a further three hours and battled the final stretch of steep sand, rocks and gravel before being reunited at last with the soft tarmac of the Karakoram Highway, valiantly completing the three week detour. I had almost forgotten what it was like to change gear to my second and third chain rings. We cruised at high speeds, wind flowing through our wiry beards as the highway descended into the familiar town of Jaglot where we ate lunch three weeks ago. We checked into the first guest house on the main road and enjoyed a double portion of of vegetable curry and naan. We shared a packet of caramelized, Candy biscuits in bed while excitedly planning the next stop on our tour of north Pakistan, the renowned Fairy Meadows.
Sorrowful that our cycling experience of Pakistan was quickly coming to an end, Jacob and I both shared the same thoughts, that over the last three weeks, despite enduring the toughest roads, braving the most brutal conditions of the tour thus far, our experiences of the Rama Valley and Deosai National Park were distinct highlights of this trip, and contrastingly provided idyllic, tranquil moments of serenity with breathtaking views and have left us with a feeling of nostalgia as we make our way to the capital, Islamabad.