Our bones and joints reverberated as a result of the rugged roads of the Deosai National Park, but as a releif, we were back cycling along the asphalt comfort of the Karamoram Highway, but only for a short time. We were making our way south, further from the relative safety of Gilgit-Baltistan, and ever closer to the high risk area for tourists. Chilas was recently involved in a sinister, malevolent attack on a series of girl schools throughout the area and Abbottabad that was linked with Bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
During our first visit to Jaglot, a militaristic town, home to another division of the Pakistani Army, I had later learned that Jacob had felt slightly uncomfortable and less welcome than our recent experience of the highly accommodating peoples of the Northern Areas. I must have been naively oblivious to any signs of hostility, but Adam too had expressed his concerns about his sense of unease in the town. This second visit to Jagot we spent the night and it did somehow feel different, though perhaps it was a manifestation within my own thoughts after hearing of Jacob and Adam’s experience. We didn’t encounter any antagonistic behaviour but the locals weren’t as overtly amiable as we were used to in Pakistan. I did however catch the hotel owner out when trying to overcharge us for 300 grams of tomatoes. After placing them on a set of uncalibrated, electronic scales, he paused for a second, insinuating a “Hmm, how much can I get away with here” expression, he asked for 50 rupees. Keen eyed and on the ball, I swiftly responded “50 rupees!? How much for one kilogram?“, stunned and not expecting any deliberation, he hesitated and replied “80 rupees” which was overheard by his acquaintance, who then kindly offered his assistance, reset the scales and weighed the fruit. The scales displayed 26 rupees, I smirked at the gentleman with a looks of gratification. We left paying the official price which his acquaintance rounded down to 20 rupees.
Before leaving Jagot Jacob was in need of a pruning and if there is one thing that Pakistani men are deeply passionate about, it is their appearance, specifically their physiognomic appearance. The typical barber in Pakistan expresses meticulous precision while fastidiously snipping away at lightening speed. As Jacob was tended to I watched WWE Smackdown on the small television in the corner. 40 minutes later Jacob left rubbing his head, reborn a new, free man, beaming with satisfaction. I was envious but I still had a few weeks left of my ever growing gingerbread beard.
For the second time we crossed the glacial tributary that we had previously bathed in under the watchful eyes of the locals. Fortunately, this time around it was overcast and we had the cool, vitalysing waters to ourselves. Shortly after we had dried ourselves we were greeted by two familiar looking young men who had coincidentally taken a selfie with us during our first bathing experience in these waters. We stopped for a sweet chai and a quick chat at the Spring Resort before continuing on.
The next stop along the Karakoram Highway was Telichi, the service station of a village where we had spent a night camping in the grounds of a restaurant admiring the milkyway on a spectacularly clear night. At the police check post we were astounded when the guard firmly outlined that there was strictly no camping in Telichi due to tourist safety concerns, we erupted in bemusement as we tried to explain we were here three weeks ago and that there was in fact a campsite sign with photographs of tents above the next restaurant, but he simply wasn’t having it. This debacle surprisingly ended with the Chief of police offering us two beds in the dormitory at the local police station. We shared the police sleeping quarters with the Chief, Muhammah Zaman, who was keen for us to hand write a positive review of the Gilgit-Baltistan Police. The evening was spent conversing with an ex-soldier and member of the Anti-Terrorist Squad who later went out on night patrol after asking us to pose with his semi-automated assault rifle. I had had a positive experience with the GB police who provided a simple breakfast and sweet chai in the morning, though Jacob had come to the end of his tether after taking the brunt of the ever-inquisitive questioning and, to my amusement, ended up jostling with the Cheif as he tried to move his bike indoors while Jacob has eggs balancing on one of his panniers and later tried to help him repair the strap on his peaked cap, after wrestling cap back off of him, Jacob reassured that everything was in hand and no assistance was required.
Raikot Bridge was our next destination, where we planned to hire a jeep to take us on the perilous ride to Fairy Meadows. We left early to give ourselves a chance to find other tourists in a hope to share a jeep to keep our expenditure to a minimum. We planned to spend a few days at Fairy Meadows and hike to the Nanga Parbat view point so needed to take sufficient supplies. We were geared up perfectly for a cycle tour and therefore lacked practical hiking gear and had no choice but to pack our essential items into bicycle panniers and drysacks. The jeep ride was quite an experience. The ancient four-by-four huffed it’s way up the rugged track. I couldn’t quite believe how precarious the road was, the drop down to the valley below must have been thousands of feet, though the driver, who was obviously well accustomed to the perilous journey, drove nonchalantly holding the steering wheel one handed whilst casually choosing a playlist on his mobile phone with the other. As we passed oncoming drivers ferrying tourists back down to civilisation the two jeeps would squeeze passed one another, driving scarily close to the plummeting depths.
It took 90 minutes to bounce our way to Fairy Point from there, it was a 9 kilometre hike to Fairy Meadows. We refused to succumb to the need of a donkey or a porter and proceeded to haul our awkward baggage up the trail to the Greenland Resort of which we had previously met the owner who had promised us a free place to camp. Unsure what to expect, we were delighted when welcomed to the resort with picturesque views overlooking the Nanga Parbat glacial valley and soft, luscious green grass with ample camping space.
Jacob and I spent three nights camping at the Fairy Meadows, a renowned tourist destination in northern Pakistan, though perhaps we had arrived late in the season. Shortly after erecting our tents on the first night in the heavens opened. Fortunately, we were invited into the Greenland Resort kitchen to stay dry and keep warm beside the multipurpose stove. The wood burner had many functions, it could heat multiple pans at any one time, it was utilised as a hot plate to make chapati and of course, central heating. I sat, mesmerised as the cook made chapati after chapati, he worked with such competence and elegance as if he has been churning out chapati before he could walk. I enjoyed this evening even more so due to the fact that, despite the number of people in the kitchen, I was not quizzed or questioned, I sat in the corner by the side of the wood burner, an innocent ‘fly on the wall‘ free to silently observe the culinary activity and Pakistani camaraderie.
One of the main attraction and activities undertaken at Fairy Meadows is the hike to Nagna Parbat basecamp. Under prepared for a hike above the snowline Jacob and I decided to hike the two and a half hour trail to the Nanga Parbat and glacier view point acompannied by Pete, a fellow tourists from Thailand. The trail was an easy hike, following the ridgeline before meandering through a pine forest. The forest opened up as we walked through small settlements where elaborate wooden huts were under construction in preparation for the start of the tourist season next year. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the view point the mountain peaks were obstructed by a heavy cloud layer though the view of the glacier and the visual transition of seasons depicted by of turning leaves from green to yellow and then a burning orange was spectacular. As the temperature dropped we made our way back down to the Greenland Resort for a hot drink and a dinner consisting of camp curry with a large portion of rice and daal that was covertly salvaged from the untouched mounds left over by a group of young Pakistani tourists.
The night that followed was cold, not quite as cold as the extremes of Deosai, yet cold enough to snow. I woke at first light to a thin layer of snow weighing down the outer lining of my tent, the grass partially covered by the light sprinkling. I quickly tightened all of my tent straps and guy lines before returning to my sleeping bag to keep warm until sunrise. A short time later the sun crested the ridge to herald the start of a new day cutting through the biting cold and warming my face while I boiled water for a mug of coffee. The hour that followed was heavenly. I opened the doorway of my tent, poured a mug of black coffee and sat back gazing out in awe in the silence, except for the squarkes of a few birds circling above and knocking snow to the floor as they landed on branches of the surrounding cedar trees. These serene, tranquil moments are the moments I live for. The simplicity of living outdoors, stress free, no unnatural noise or disturbances, at the mercy of the weather, though at times like these mother earth welcomes you with open arms. I smiled to myself as the hot enamel mug warmed my hands, the steaming coffee igniting me from the inside and the feeling slowly returned to my toes. It took me back to the many nights spent camping out in the Lake District. My thoughts drifted to my sister who also shares a love for the outdoors, it would have been nice to have shared these precious moments with her.
The following day was spent relaxing, drinking copious amounts of tea until the temperature dropped significantly. Unable to shake off the cold, we resulted to running laps of the Fairy Meadows view point until the warmth returned to our bodies. The next morning were relieved to be welcomed once again by the warming, golden rays of sunshine as it peaked over the ridge. After breakfast we packed up camp and made our way back to where the Jeep was waiting to ferry us back down the track to Raikot Bridge. From here we hitched a ride in the back of an empty livestock truck. Initially a thrilling ride that later became quite uncomfortable and as thankful as we were for the free two hour ride, the excitement waned as the smell of urine stuck to our clothes and panniers.
We spent the night cleaning our belongings in Chilas, a town that I wasn’t very comfortable with visiting due to the recent terrorist activity, but were assured by the police that we would be safe and our whereabouts would be closely monitored, thankfully we escaped the following morning unscathed. We booked ourselves a seat on a bus to Manserha via Naran. It was such a shame that we were unable to cycle this stretch of road. It climbed a ridiculous number of switch backs and above the snowline, through high altitude valleys before descending upon the Kunhar River through Naran, a picturesque alpine village nestled amongst steep sided valleys. From Manserha we hired a private taxi in the form of a somewhat small Suzuki Mehran to the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad. Our precious bikes were strapped to the roof rack with some old twine. With visions of our bikes crashing down the highway, I clambered into the back with the baggage as the gloomy skies erupted with a violent storm, heavy rain fell from the thick grey clouds, awesome bolts of lightening struck the earth.
Five hours later we were in Islamabad and thankfully, with the help of the taxi driver, finally managed to find a hotel with an available room. Sadly, this meant that the Karakoram Highway chapter of our cycle tour had officially come to an end but in contrast, the next chapter, India and Nepal lay excitedly ahead of us. We had no choice but to spend some time unwinding in Islamabad while I waited at the mercy of the Indian High Commission for a tourist visa.