Thursday, 9 October 2008

Dont look down. Riding a motorcycle into the Himalayas

Another incredible two weeks has passed. Pakistan is definitely my number 1 country so far. I've just returned to the Pakistan capital after riding up to the Chinese border through the Himalayas... I didn't think I would do that even when I started my trip. The views up there were incredible, I found myself just staring dumbstruck by the size and beauty of it instead of staring at the road and I didn't care. Every single challenge and difficulty involved in getting up there were completely wiped from the slate leaving me with a feeling that matched the clean and crisp mountains topped with snow.
The views, the smells, the feeling of being so high, it's like being on top of the world! The temperature was a nice few degrees cooler and the mosquitoes cant survive at that altitude. It was magical and for once I am going to upload some pictures to prove it!
The river Indus in Pakistan
(A view over the river Indus from between Murree and Abbotobad)
a view from the Karakorum Highway
(A view from the KKH)
Lets see, Tino headed off for the KKH a day before us and so I guess we left Islamabad around the beginning of October and headed North towards the Karakorum Highway and some of the highest peaks in the world (K2, Nanga Parbet and Passu peak amongst them) The first day we planned to head up passed Muree and into Kashmire. This was to skip the majority of the traffic infested section of the KKH. The roads were perfect up to Muree. Thick, twisting, dual carriageway up to the hill town and the roads were empty. We had a blast! After Muree things changed somewhat. I was going to explain the science of grip but I bored myself so I will just say that a crash is usually the result of using more grip than you have available. say using 70% of it to turn and then trying to use another 35% to brake because of... oh I don't know, a cow. The roads after Muree had less grip than an ice rink. We were riding slow, less than 30mph, and not accelerating out of corners but still the rear and front were sliding all over the place. It was tiring throwing the bike around trying to keep it sticky side down. When we reached the Kashmire border we were promptly turned around and told that it wasn't safe so we turned back towards Muree planning to turn off and head for Abbottabad. After a while the road returned to its previous stickiness and the pace picked up again. After a while through overheating my rear brake failed and my front brake was crap anyway (and warped) so after a close call bunny hopping the front wheel towards the edge of the road I slowed down considerably and let Graham shoot off. It wasn't until half hour later that I rounded a corner and saw Graham and his bike lying in the middle of the road. It had turned to "ice" again but there were no broken bones and no real damage to the bike so a quick cig to relieve the nerves and we were off again.
Two schoolchildren in Muree
(Me and two schoolkids in Murree, their dad took the photo)
We arrived in Abbottabad at around 5pm and stayed in a good hotel with satellite TV and a warm shower glad to both be ok after a long days ride. The porter got us a nice cup of Chai and we skipped dinner and watched a movie. The next day we figured we would ride until we found a nice place to spend the night. No real plans. In total we must have ridden for 6 hours and covered less than 100 miles. The roads were atrocious with potholes coming out of nowhere, crowds of people filling the streets and all kinds of livestock being marched up and down a road barely wide enough for one car. The KKH is the only overland connection between China and Pakistan and is used by more than a few big lorries trying to scrape a living on a road that claims many lives a year. Add numerous local cars, tourist buses, horse n carts and jeeps it resembles the M4 in traffic volume if not in width. We finally arrived in Besham and after almost riding straight through town we decided it was best to rest for the night. Riding tired would only make things worse. And besides, I was shattered. You try to keep 100% concentration on the road to avoid potholes and after an hour I was thinking "Damn I'm good" and then you hit a big one. All the suspension in the world cant stop it from launching you out of the seat and I am pretty certain I sat back down on my left nut at least 3 times (I have since upgraded my underwear for some with more protection for my left nut). After 6 hours I had given up. Screw dodging potholes, it was too much effort and I was just riding straight over them up on the pegs. The views at this time were average and it just didn't seem worth the effort to ride a road so technically difficult and with a ridiculous drop off to one side.
a huge pothole in the Karakorum Highway
(Yes there is literally nothing underneath the tarmac! Scared? Me? Nah!)
I slept delicately that night avoiding any undue pressure on the sore parts of my body expecting the same kind of ride the next day and just not thinking about it. It was good I didn't think about it because seriously I could not have come up with what happened. We must have ridden about 40 miles when it dawned on me. We were heading towards Chilas and I was watching my petrol gauge and the distance to Chilas and kept running the maths around my head. My very best estimate left me at least 5 miles out of town and that was hopeful. I said a little prayer to the gods of petrol and used every technique I could think of. Coasting downhill, following behind fast moving trucks, high gears and ducking behind the windscreen all the time telling my bike she could do it. Just 5 more km, 4 more, 3, 2, 1.. I MADE IT! "What the hell do you mean you have no petrol?" "16km to the next petrol station? GAH!" So I sent Graham on, no point in two of us being stuck, and I spent about an hour trying to pursued someone to load my bike onto their flatbed and take me to the next petrol station without any success. I figured f*ck it, if I get on the bike and ride and only get 1km I am in no worse a situation than I am now. Back on the bike, back whispering sweet nothings into the petrol tank begging for just a splash of petrol to be left and then, in the distance I see it like a shining beacon lighting my way I yelled, I screamed, I did a little victory dance on the bike I... No petrol... awesome! So there I stayed for an hour trying to wave down a pickup of some kind. A big truck stopped after about an hour and reckoned we could lift my bike onto the back by hand. It was about 15 feet and the bike weighs a quarter ton or more. So while about 10 kids tried feebly to lift my bike 1 inch off the ground I sat in despair figuring I was going to spend the night by the side of the road I was contemplating this when a car pulled up into the petrol station and started filling up not at the diesel pump but at the petrol one. I ran at the attendant. I think he decided when he first saw me moving that not giving me petrol wasn't an option. He offered me 5L, just enough to get to Jalgot. Before resetting the mileometer I looked at the distance since last fill up. 220 miles, that's practically impossible, in the UK at sea level I got 200 tops out of it and that's running it dry. At altitude it I should get less MPG. I think my bike has magic powers, or that it runs on love. :-)

I finally got to Gilget, the roads the whole way had been far better than the day before and so we covered far more distance. Gilget is basically a town that exists because of being closest to some of the highest and deadliest mountains in the world. K2 expeditions launch from either here or Skardu. It's a pretty ugly town but it is in the most amazing surroundings. Crisp clean snow topped mountains and the valleys deep and green with a ribbon of blue river passing through it. Incredible. We stayed in the Park Hotel, I somehow arrived first and after seeing that Graham wasnt there went and checked every other hotel in the city looking for him. There are alot. When I finally passed the Park again there was his green and white BMW another beautiful sight after a long day. We spent two days in Gilget, I got my brakes fixed and spent the whole day with the owner of the repair shop and his son who literally tormented me for 4 hours. Holding him upside down seemed to quell the attack but when he started to turn a funny colour I figured I'd have to find another way to keep him entertained so let him use my camera..... Big mistake but no harm done. Amir spent hours working on my bike, changed the front bearings, got the disks skimmed and got it washed. He wanted 600 Rupees which is about $8. I tried to pay him 1500 but he outright refused and in the end accepted 1000. In the UK it would have been hundreds of pounds.
The son of the mechanic who fixed my bike in Gilget
(Amirs' son, the terror of Gilget)
The valley outside Gilget in Pakistan
(A view of the valley just outside Gilget)
We tried to get in touch with Tino but email was impossible and he has no phone. We figured he had gone further up or had found his ideal place to "chill" and so the day after fixing my brakes we headed to Sost. The last big town before the highest point of the KKH. The ride to Sost was pretty uneventful, the road was in pretty much the same condition as before but throw in a couple of landslides for good measure. At first when made to chose between skipping a pothole and riding with your foot hanging over the abyss and just going straight over the pothole I always chose the pothole. By this point I was choosing the abyss, It was just easier, quicker and probably not that much more dangerous. Remember what I was saying about grip earlier? Well imagine what a pothole does to that equation.

(It was the day before Eid, the end of Ramadan,
and animals were being slaughtered all along the
roadside for the feast the next day)

Sost wasn't exactly a big town, it in fact was very small, we stayed in the cheapest hotel available and cooked up a nice meal of fried eggs followed by soup and with an apple for dessert. Perfect. Here we met Bjorn and Len who had just come through from China after having more border troubles than anyone deserves. The KKH on the Chinese side is like a perfect stretch of motorway and they were hoping that the Pakistan side improved further down. We just laughed. We had breakfast with them and arranged to meet in Karimabad in the eagles nest hotel the same day if me and Graham made it up to the border and back in daylight. The road was deadly from this point on. We rode through landslides that were still sliding and around sections of road that were missing. Riding through the landslides was real hit and miss, you couldn't look up to see if anything was coming because you had to keep looking down to avoid the rocks that were already on the road. At one point a rock about the size of my fist flew in front of me and I panicked and rushed to the other side. Knowing we had to come past them again was not a happy thought. As we slowly went higher and higher the bikes started to struggle with the lack of oxygen and the cold as did we. I have no winter gear and at almost 5k meters it gets bloody cold but as we passed up as high as the snowline the feeling of being on top of the world was incredible and knowing that we had practically followed the Indus from Mouth to Source and had seen the entire country change beneath our wheels made every second worth it from the police chases to the rockfalls, the sweltering heat to the bitter cold. I was standing at the peak of the second highest motorable road in the world.

(The Khunjerab Pass, almost as high as a motorbike can get)

(This is well worth reading, the KKH really is the 8th wonder of the world!)

(Me standing on the mound of earth marking the highest point! Checkout the windswept look, it was freezing!)
I feel sorry for people who look into the mountains and think only of the mechanics and science behind how they were made, standing there staring out at impossibly high peaks towering still almost 4km above us.. Nothing could have felt better but it was bloody cold so we stayed for about 20 minutes, walked on Chinese soil, improved international relations between China and Britain and pissed off. We gave a local worker a lift to his house on the way down and had a couple of cups of tea, back through the landslides, the potholes, the ever waiting valley and down to Sost to refill before heading to Karimabad.

(hit the 10,000 mark on my way to the pass, I missed it by 3 miles because of a landslide)
Did I mention my headlight broke? I don't think I did. It's kind of significant to this part of the story so just imagine me telling you earlier my light broke and then everything will be ok again.

So we arrived at Karimabad just as it was getting dark (told you it was significant) so Graham led the parade into town looking for the eagles nest hotel. (Whats in a name?) After riding through town twice we saw the sign pointing the way and turned off onto the little side road the road initially left town before coming to a small village and then went up... and up... and up and turned into a sand track and carried on going up. I let Graham go ahead and tried to fix my light. It wasn't happening so after a while I carried on. The road was crazy, on the left a stream ran down and on the right the usual unforgiving drop to nowhere. I think I was fortunate without a light, I couldn't see how bad it was and just concentrated on two inches in front of my wheel travelling at about 15mph. It was a long road and although I didn't fall off I did end up in a drain once and in the stream another time. When I came back down in the morning and saw what I had ridden up I realised how stupid I had been. When Len and gone up he had fallen twice, hurt himself and given up. Graham made it ok as did Bjorn. The sunrise in the morning wasn't quite worth the risk but watching as the sun slowly lit up the mountains with shades of gold, black and white cutting perfect lines we sat for hours just staring and taking photos. We went to see the Baltit Fort before heading to Gilget where another accident happened. Riding up the thin cobbled roads to the fort I was in front with Bjorn behind, very close behind. I stopped at the top of one junction to work out directions and instead of stopping slipped back a few feet before I could get my foot on the rear break. I hear a crash and look behind me and see Bjorns bike lying on the cobbles with Bjorn hanging off the edge of the road. It was a close one but he wasn't hurt and so we picked him up, checked over the bike and headed on up.

The fort was nice.

We arrived in Gilget later that day and found out we had missed Tino by 30 minutes. He was going north to the border and we were heading back down via Skardu. We did however meet up with Daniel and Andy again who were also about to head north. Andy had picked up the flu and so had been resting for a few days. The Madina hotel was the perfect place to relax and so we planned to stay for a few days watching movies and chatting about nothing. Fortunately I had picked up a puncture and in taking off the front wheel to make the repair realised that the bracket holding my front axle and wheel in place had snapped in two. Not a part readily available in towns like Gilget I have had a new one made up from a tractor conrod (the extremely strong metal bar that connects the piston to the cam shaft) so I probably have the strongest axle bracket in the world now. And in turns out I didn't have a puncture but I did pick one up the next night....

(the crack is on the right hand side, the whole thing was split in two)
The ride from Gilget to Skardu was different to anything else on the KKH, the tarmac was near perfect with a thin line of sand running down the middle of it. It was great fun picking unusual lines and swapping sides of the road when there was a gap in the sand. We were all grinning like idiots when we finally reached Skardu. It was a mixture of sweeping bends, nice Esses a couple of tight ones, few hairpins for good measure and it lasted for hours. Next time I'm bringing a sports bike. We stayed only one night in Skardu and ate in the restaraunt where I accidently stole some of Bjorn and Grahams egg fried rice to go with my Jalfrazi and Chips. In the morning Bjorn had a puncture so while he got that repaired I went to buy some new underwear which would save my nuts from being crushed. and which although a little tight have proven to be incredibly comfortable and dont go anywhere they shouldn't. A good buy for less than 20 US cents each.

So with my nice new boxers and Bjorns shiny new inner tube we headed up into the Deosi Plains south of Skardu planning to take two days to ride through and hit the KKH again at Jalgot. Also planning, by the way, to pick up petrol before heading into no mans land. Bloody Graham has a 35L tank and went shooting off without a thought for petrol, I kept on asking people who kept on saying down the road and eventually down the road turned into a Jeep road and the next petrol station was on the other side of the Deosi Plains in Chilum. Some quick maths and the police check point and another prayer to the gods of petrol I decided I would make it and so we headed off up the steapest and most unroad like road so far. It climbed eventually to about 4.5k meters and it really wasnt a road. Sure the straight sections were gravel and mud and it was ok but each corner and been turned into the whos who of the worlds sharpest stones. At one point I stopped for a smoke and saw some kind of fluid pouring from the middle of my bike. It felt like hydralic fluid and I figured that was it my rear shock had finally given up. Turns out it was the Dot 4 brake fluid I hadn't sealed properly in my underseat storage so I smoked my cig (they burn slowly at that altitude) and carried on up begging for the road to level out. It finally did right next to a big ass sign saying "DANGER BROWN BEARS" so we spent half an hour trying to decide if you make yourself big when a brown bear confronts you or play dead. We voted on play dead and crossed onto the plains. The road was a mixture of gravel and mud most of the way occasionally turning into big pebbles and rocks. Sometimes I would be going at 50 and suddenly it would turn into deep gravel and things got a bit hairy (speaking of which, you should see my hair now) and sometimes the big rocks would come out of the blue, always fun. I didn't realise but Bjorn was close behind me again (when riding off road you stand up on the pegs and cant see in the mirrors) when I slowed for a gravel section he didnt and almost hit me, slammed on the brakes and went down trapping and badly hurting his leg under one of his panniers. He says he yelled to get my attention but I didnt hear and cant imagine why he didn't use his horn. The fear of being left behind in a situation like that is very real. He thought he had broken his leg and says that watching me ride off was terrifying. I was completely oblivous to all of this and rode off down the road happy as Larry enjoying the views and the freedom of the plains. Me and Graham eventually stopped at another checkpoint and spent some time getting photos of ourselves crossing an old wooden bridge which had broken planks and gaping holes in it. By the time we had finished we were starting to worry about Bjorn and were thinking of heading back when around the corner he pottered and rode sraight over the bridge that we had spent 20 minutes walking over working out the safest route. He was obviously in pain when he stopped, leg was badly bruised and bleeding so while he got himself patched up it began to dawn on me that we would never make Chilum before dark and it was starting to get cold. When we started moving it became very obvious from Bjorns pace that things were going to get bad. I was definately the least prepared of the group with almost no winter gear and the cold was really effecting my hands as well as the bike. I had to keep on stopping to warm them up on the exhaust. By the time we reached the river crossing I was freezing. The river, minus a bridge was probably 35ft across (I think it was further to be honest) but fortunately not too deep. Graham walked across to find the best route and then rode through first with me walking by the side. One near miss being enough for anyones heart and knowing that he would have to ride Bjorns bike through he let me go second. It was a pretty good crossing if I do say so myself. My first real river crossing, yes my legs got soaked and yes I almost went down but all in all I crossed the river and that was the main point. Graham then rode Bjorns bike across and offered me a pair of winter gloves. Perfect.

(My first river crossing, it is a river dammit! The big one came later when it was cold and darkish)
We did reach Chilum just before dark and with an empty tank. It had just to rain. We stayed in a "hotel" before the police CP and dried our feet by the fire, drank tea and joked with the truckers who were stopped for the night. Bjorn chose to sleep in the room with the truckers because it had the fire and was promptly woken at 6am when they all got up to goto work. Me and Graham stayed in the room next door under 2 blankets each and a sleeping bag waking at a much more pleasent 8. A quick couple of liters of petrol from the army base, a spot of breakfast and we headed towards Ashop for a full refill before heading to Jalgot for more petrol and the road back to Islamabad.



(Some last pictures of the mountains, I dont remember where these were
taken but top one was almost a perfect photo so I have to show it off)

When we reached Jalgot and found out there was no petrol in town in kinda ruined the plans. I only had a few days left on my visa and really needed to get out of the country but although I would probably make it to the next petrol station Graham wouldn't so we had to head back to Gilget. When we reached Gilget Graham had less than 2L left in the tank so filled up with 33 and we headed back to the Madina hotel for one more night where we watched Requim for a Dream and I realised the irony of watching that film stoned and also that I have had conversations in the past which are not so different to the ones which the main character had with his best friend. We left Gilget early the next morning and headed south towards Islamabad aiming to get as close as possible before it got dark and then to get to Islamabad early the next day to pick up my new rear. Everything went well with the riding and we made considerably better progress going down than we did coming up and so figured we could easily get to within an hour or two of Islamabad. Like I said the going was great as we had by now learnt to deal with constant potholes and were slicing through them without a problem. We had passed Besham and had stopped by a police checkpoint to decide how much further we would go and figured Abbotobad being less than 57km away was an easy target. Turns out it was actually 157km and it was getting dark again. Well we decided to fix my light anyway and push on. Initially Graham took the lead but the old light on his BMW wasn't upto the job so I went in front. Potholes were the least of our problems. Cows don't have lights, cars do. The car drivers either didnt bother using them or used them on full beam completely blinding us. It took us 3 hours to get to Abbotobad plus however long we stopped for dinner. Apparently Graham had been begging into his helmet for me to stop at a hotel, any hotel, but I was on a mission. It was gone 11 by the time we arrived and we had to bully the hotel owner into giving us a cheap room. We both had a hot shower and were asleep before we hit the bed.

We got into Rawlpindi at about 1pm the next day and fortunatly passed the garage where my new tyre was waiting. So I picked that up and headed to the Tourists Campsite to setup for one night before heading to Lahore then India. Graham had to pickup his passport from the Indian embassy but because of the bombings that day in Rawlpindi they wouldn't let him in without his passport... He got it the next day no problem and we haded to Lahore. The road was a nice wide lane of tarmac with pretty heavy traffic but we kept a steady 60mph most of the way and barring a few near misses made it to Lahore in one peice. The dorm in the Regal internet inn was far too hot at night so after just one night we headed to Wagha and the border spending two nights in the PTDC hotel there with air conditioning and a restaurant. Lovely

I am in India now and spending a couple of days in Amritsar before Graham heads to Shimla and I head to Jammu. Graham and me have been travelling together now for over 2 months and apart from a week when I went to Tehran have spent practically every hour around each other. It's going to be gutting leaving another person behind especially after so long but I need to head out on my own again. I have taken a back seat for most of the route decisions the last month and although I have really enjoyed it I am now really excited about India and need to plan my own route. I have two months to see so much. Tigers, elephants and crocodiles are top of the wildlife list. I also want to try some white water rafting and scuba diving. I'll head to Goa after about a month to spend some time in the party capital of the 1990s sunbathing on beautiful beaches and maybe try some surfing. There is so much to see and do in India that I have spent the last few days just reading through the lonely planet trying to plot a route. It is impossible. I want to give meditation a try and this is definately the country for it, I will be going to the town where Buddah found enlightenment oh and there is one holy site which is dedicated to finding enlightenment through sex which sounds like a worthwhile visit.

Anyway, another long one again. I should try to write shorter posts more often and I will probably remember things better that way too. I have tried to keep it as coherent as possible but I get a bit over excited thinking back on everything that has happened and it ends up coming out very mixed up.

7 comments:

Mum said...

Hi Ollie. So good to hear from you at last. I have no nails left and they were looking so good three weeks ago! You have no idea how far into overdrive my imagination has been. Your blog is amazing and has brought tears to my eyes for the wonderful experiences you are having. God bless you darling boy. My heart is with you every moment. XXX

Anonymous said...

Ollie you never cease to amaze! What a wonderful adventure it all is, and I thought I had a story to tell !!!

Got to agree with you that shorter blogs and more often would be good, seems like you mum agrees as well reading her comment!

Hang in there my friend, it makes great reading, it really does just stay safe tis all.

Pete

Mum said...

Hi again Ollie. Just to let you know that you have another second cousin! Sol Joseph Turner was delivered safely to Philip and Kelly late on Tuesday 14th October. Mum and baby doing well.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ollie,

I've been thinking of a similar journey myself and you've inspired me. I'll be riding on a Royal Enfield Thunderbird!

When I eventually get on the road I hope to meet you along the way!

All my best wishes,
Tahna

rizwan said...

i had visited the northern areas of My country in 2007 but You have explored that area well.After reading your story i can imagine the type of adventure you had on bike .I am planning to visit these area again on bike.

HAJAT said...

I DONT KNOW WHO THE MAN ARE YOU BUT THANX FOR EXPLORING OUR AREA AND VISITING US.



HAJAT ALI HUNZAI

Anonymous said...

Hi.

 
.