Weeks before entering Pakistan, we already had a love/hate relationship with it. The odyssey-like circumstances which brought us, on a surprisingly hot afternoon, to its land border with China, had more than mentally prepared us to its catastrophic bureaucracy. However, we had heard nothing but good things from other fellow cyclists and we truly tried our best not to let any of that interfere with the fact that we were there, we had somehow managed to win a huge hand of IT-gone-wrong, and we just couldn’t wait to cycle down the mighty Karakoram Highway!
The stars up above had even given us great company; Oliver was still with us! We tried to shake him off and lose him a couple of times but nothing worked! Obviously just joking, his presence was truly a blessing and we still, months after, miss him!
Sorry, if you don’t know what the first part of this entry is about, we strongly suggest you read our previous one… LINK
We still couldn’t believe the huge turn of events which had occurred lately, and we realised that it all didn’t matter now; we had another shot at cycling all the way to Surket in Nepal in time for the endowment of 45 bikes! We had already made arrangements with both the NGO running things over there and with 88bikes (for whom we are fundraising), and we really wanted to get there on time and without having to “cheat”. Anyway, luckily, once in Sost there’s only one way to go; down.
You’d be a fool to think that when anyone says “down” it does indeed mean exactly that. We would soon discover that “mostly down” is a much more precise way to describe cycling the KKH (Karakoram Highway) southbound; we were climbing 1200 metres on average every day and, because of the traffic, we found it a lot more stressful than The Pamir (Tajikistan).
Without any doubt though, the first couple of days were, by far, the best. Due to its geopolitical and economical importance, and the fact that the Chinese have been spending billions in tarmac in order to impose their presence in the Arabian Sea and also move goods out of their factories (great article about this here), we actually expected way more cars and trucks but, the first hundred kilometres or so, you hardly cross paths with any other vehicles at all!
For the vast majority of the local people, the KKH is just a high altitude dead-end and the villages, at the beginning, are small and scarce. So, our daily routine was immediately set right from day one and we simply shifted between cycling, stopping to marvel at the amazing views over snow peaked colossi and sipping tea in roadside tea houses where we would, more often than not, share a few words with lovely English speaking locals. For the first time in a very long time, we could really speak to and share experiences with locals given the (fun) fact that English is the official language there.
Every time we stopped, a number of men would approach us (sometimes even out of nowhere) and interrogated us about our comings and goings and invited us for a cup of tea. Further down the road through, just after Aliabad to be precise, things got busier and we started getting selfies requests.
It was Eid (the end of Ramadan) and many Pakistanis came to the mountains to catch a breath from the heatwave currently sweeping across the country. Our biggest worry was their obsession with catching a snap with interestingly unique individuals such as ourselves. During the month spent there we were asked more selfies than in all the rest of the trip put together, not joking. It was all way too much and it really spoiled our experience of this amazing country so much that it inevitably influenced the title of this blog entry. So this was all there was to it at the beginning of our time in Pakistan. For, let’s say a week, all we did was cycle mostly down a breathtaking valley, marveled at some of the world’s highest peaks and some of the world’s biggest glaciers, chatted with lovely locals, drank delicious milk tea and had some incredible curries.
The KKH also entertains with its unique history; as a major link between Central Asia and the Indus Subcontinent, thousands of years of trading have literally carved a significant branch of the Silk Road on the sides of its valleys and most of it is still visible from its newest, widest and much slicker counterpart. However, after having followed for many months the same path as countless caravans and explorers before us, it was a magic experience to realise that those intrepid travellers stepped on that exact path etched in stone up there.
Inevitably though, as you slowly make your way down, both the river and the valley broadens, villages turn into towns and then small cities, traffic light uselessly try to maintain the order in busy hot-spots, you ride past your first McDonald’s and Starbucks and then you realise that the capital is only a couple of days away.
We always plan our way into big cities carefully. A very useful acquired talent for bike tourers is to be able to read a map and a vital ability is to avoid big roads so…… The day before entering Islamabad another major event occurred; we saw, for the first time in a very long time, an all-women car! More than a week before we had already found ourselves gobsmacked by the absolute lack of women in the Northern Areas (a.k.a. Gilgit-Baltistan) and this meaningful sight was a direct reminder that Islamabad, the capital, was just around the corner and that things were going to be very different there.
We had expected Islamabad to be a real nightmare so we decided to sleep just outside it. The day before we had ridden through Abbottabad, a biggish city, and it was total chaos! So, we told ourselves that the capital would be the same but multiplied by a million (fun fact about Abbottabad; that’s where Osama Bin Laden was killed).
Never have we been more wrong!
Having taken some small back roads to reach its “centre”, we continually told ourselves that the worse was still to come, at every corner we held our breath and… nothing. We made our way to Faisal Mosque without the trace of a car horn! Apart from the suffocating heat and our throbbing stomachs, that day everything went as smooth as silk and we arrived at Nasir’s house safe, sound and incredibly happy.
Abdul Nasir Khan was the very first person we met in Pakistan (after the delightful Custom guys that is). We reciprocally caught each other’s eye for some reason and we exchanged phone numbers as we were heading in opposite directions and could help each other out with useful tips and the lot. We immediately categorised him as a well educated and curious man with an awesome beard so we were also really looking forward to hearing about his adventures and point of view on Xinjiang (China) where he was going to travel around for a while.
He ended out being one of the most amazing people we have met on this trip and, by far, the single most important and inspiring man we have had the honor to spend time with in Pakistan. He kindly invited us three to his house where he treated us like royalty, showed us around the city and his culture and introduced us to some truly fantastic people.
HE EVEN GOT US BEER!!!!
If it hadn’t been for him this whole blog entry would probably be very different and we sometimes still joke about the fact that, without him, we’d still be in Islamabad trying to work our way out of the many bureaucratic messes we had to solve (more on that later) and with our huge to-do list. So, for 10 days we stayed at Nasir’s eating delicious food in great company, fighting with the Indian Embassy and having a pretty busy social life thanks to all of Nasir’s great contacts!
Just to give you a couple of examples; through our beloved Warmshowers we met another fantastic man; Kamran from the Islamabad Critical Mass group. We even went for a Sunday night ride with them where we witnessed women riders in full Lycra apparel such as Misbah (a life-saver) and also had the pleasure to meet Valerie and Mahammad Khan who are fighting to improve the lives of many Pakistani women through their NGOs.
Although Islamabad was a real blast for us, we were really getting stressed because of our deadline. The Indian Embassy’s numerous mess-ups, of course, meant that we were
“Visaless” and every extra day they delayed us meant that we would have to cycle harder to get to Nepal in time for the endowment of the bicycles.
This gave us the idea of making a small VLOG series on our YouTube channel showing our precious few (but faithful) viewers what it all means; it’s hard for us to get the message across that bike touring is not a walk in the park and, seen as we were off to a very bad start, we realised that the 1500 kilometers which separated us from our objective would be an interesting way to show friends and family the ups and downs of cycling across the globe (when you have a serious deadline).
In the first episode we got turned away from the utterly incompetent Embassy worker who was in charge of Visas, and in the second one we actually pitched our tent in protest in the Embassy’s garden! The other 18 episodes are equally filled with as much fun, interesting people who helped us along the way and incredible landscapes. A definite must. If you’re curious, here’s said playlist; LINK.
In hindsight, deciding to publish a daily episode was a crazy thing to do but we’re super glad we did actually. It absolutely kept our mind away from the boredom and hardship of cycling through the flat and uneventful straight line we had drawn to reach the orphanage in the shortest possible delay and we think that our spectators really enjoyed living that crucial time with us.
We finally left Islamabad a scorching Tuesday morning after yet another scrumptious breakfast with Nasir. As always the roads were quiet so we quickly reached the countryside. Again, most capitals are tedious to enter and leave but after only one hour we were avoiding cattle and looking for food and a cold Coke! That particular time, our search resulted in getting invited by a farmer to milk tea and chicken!
As always we chose to stay away from the main road (in this case, the infamous Grand Trunk Road) which was just a dusty mess, and decided to take smaller roads through towns and a small mountain chain and, once again, we were right; we saw and experienced so much more than if we had just gone straight to Lahore and, if I had to go back, we’d definitely still choose the same.
Having said this, there is a huge BUT which is the other meaningful dent in our experience in Pakistan; the Police.
High up in the KKH, we already had a few days of cohabit with the Pakistani police since there is an area, called Kohistan, which is considered highly sensitive and through which we were escorted. Apart from Beluchistan, where authorities are still fighting a harsh war against terrorism, this is the only small pocket of Pakistan where, apparently, it’s not advisable for foreigners to wander alone. We knew this very well so the odd “preventive” armed police patrol watching over us was more than welcome. It also meant that other vehicles would behave a lot better around us!
But we were not expecting to have the slightest problem in Northern Punjab. Ever heard
anything bad about this part of the world? No. Wanna know why? Because people here are really peaceful, friendly and kind. Well, not according to the Commandos who plagued us most of the way between the capital and Lahore!
The immensely annoying thing about this is the fact that it reduced our interaction with local people to zero. Whenever someone approached us, sirens would scream and that would be the end of it. At every stop, the police officers would draw an imaginary yet well defined line which no one would dare to cross resulting in crowds staring at us from about 5 meters away making us feel like weird creatures (which we are, there’s just no need for all the staring!).
Their orders were to escorts us safely through their sector right up to the point where another escort awaited and then the whole thing started again. More often than not they were very friendly with us and, of course, asked for a few selfies (in return Marco got to hold a few different guns!), but we also had a couple of bad experiences with some quite nasty and rude Sargents who, honestly, just didn’t know what to do with us. Both situations happened at the end of the afternoon when we started scouting for accommodation so it makes us think that they really didn’t want us to stay in “their” town.
Again, this caused great confusion in our naive cyclist’s heads since we saw nothing which looked dangerous and we never EVER felt in danger while in Pakistan and least of all in Punjab.
Actually, once, on a rare occasion that the police had something better to do than babysit us, we stopped in a tiny hamlet for a Coke and spoke a little with the locals. They learned that we lived in Spain and so fetched a man who just happens to visit Barcelona regularly since he has a business there. We chatted for a while and when we took to leave, he invited us to his place to splash around in his pool and try his guns! We laughed so much at that! We mostly laughed at the fact that the day had just started and we had an endowment ceremony to get to far, far away… so we sadly declined.
But that pretty much hits the spot; interesting things happen when you leave the main road and the police is not driving everyone away!
Anyway, after 4 intensely hot and sleep deprived days (at night, because of the Police, it always took ages to find accommodation), we finally arrived to Lahore on what seemed like the day that the earth moved closer to the Sun! We hope never to have to go through that experience on a bicycle again because it was quite simply traumatic!
Lahore is Pakistan’s cultural capital and a beautiful city but it’s exactly what you would expect from a 7 million people settlement in the Indian Subcontinent; it’s very dirty, it’s very crowded and it’s very busy. Oh, and during a heat wave in July it’s like cycling with a hair dryer right in your face. Worst of all? At night it’s exactly the same. We left our hotel to go grab a bite and came back after 30 minutes, ordered room service (only time on this trip), and slept like puppies with the A/C on!
Although we only had one day left on our Visa, we decided to overstay in Pakistan because we read that it’s perfectly legal to do so; you just pay a small fine once at the border and Bob’s your uncle.
So we spent a torrid but jolly day visiting the amazing Badshahi Mosque and the Walled City (mind-blowing!) and the next day we headed to the famous Wagah border at 1 o’clock in the afternoon because at 4 there’s an impressive show where soldiers from both sides of the fence shout at each other and other weird stuff.
1 o’clock… worst time to cycle ever… but we really wanted to see the show, it’s supposed to be really good. On our way there, people were freaking out so much at the two stupid foreigners cycling in that heat that they would buy us cold drinks, catch up with us on their motorbikes and insist that we take them!
OK sorry, Wagah border, long story short, we got rejected and had to go back the way we came. Turns out the previously mentioned law doesn’t apply to E-Visas, which, if you remember, was still a brand new concept in Pakistan and their IT systems were still not caught up. 421adventure 1, Pakistani IT System 1. We wanted to die! To make everything worse, it was a Sunday afternoon and on our way back to the city we attracted everyone’s attention so we had a literal swarm of motorcycles crowded with a minimum of 3 young kids who were mostly asking for selfies all around us!
Nasir came to the rescue and also thanks to all the friends we had made in Islamabad we didn’t have to go back to the capital to sort out the necessary documents and we only lost two days. Two less days to get to Nepal… To catch up some of the lost time we finally crossed the border early in the morning (to get to Amritsar in the evening) meaning we never had the chance to experience with our own eyes the show which entertains thousands of curious souls, on both sides of the border, every evening at the closing.
Maybe next time…
Pakistan was a huge milestone and an immense achievement for us. Not in a million years had we expected to cycle there (stupid human irrational thinking) but we did, and we’re so very glad! We’re not sure whether we would go back on our bicycles but we will definitely return one day to explore what we couldn’t in such a short time, and come back with many more great memories, anecdotes and friends (and selfies).