Pakistan is one of the main Chinese allies. Antagonistic attitude to India is what cement this big friendship. What is more interesting for a cyclist, one of the results of Pakistani-Chinese friendship is Karakoram Highway (KKH). The road connects Islamabad in Pakistan with Kashgar in China. The highway, also called the 8th wonder of the world or Friendship Highway, was build for 20 years and fully financed by the Chinese government. It offers a perfect surface on almost all its length and, like a rollercoaster, takes you up and down all time. And that is why I was so exited to enter this country. I soon realised that all Gilgit-Baltistan, a northern region of Pakistan where KKH lies, is a hidden miracle of this world.
From the border to Lahore
After passing the Pakistani-Indian border, I was still in Punjab, historically the one region with Indian Punjab. What changed was a lower density of traffic and much less rubbish on the street.
Many people in Pakistan where surprised to see a foreigner on a bicycle as in India. During my ride to Lahore (maybe 25kms), I was approached by one boy on a motorcycle. He was driving making loops around me and laughing 😀 When I reached Lahore, I mad a navigation mistake and cycled into the city. I got stuck in a traffic jam and only after one hour managed to get to the second part of the city, where my warmshowers host lives.
Ajmal and his brother studied in London and, before going back to Pakistan to join family business, cycled coast-to-coast in USA. Their family offered me a great hospitality. They took me for an evening ride around Lahore and the next day, I joined their family for a dinner in a “poshy” part of the city. What is visible very quickly in Pakistan is the importance of a family. They have family gatherings few times per week. In Europe we have them few times per year. And the most respected person by the family is the oldest member – their grandma.
I spent one day visiting Lahore. They had a political protest so it was impossible to drive into the centre of the city (elections coming in 2 months). I walked a lot but also used Uber. Thanks to this app, I knew how rikshaw drivers wanted to rip me off (like in India). They offered me 2-3x higher rate. Again, I had to negotiate a lot or order Uber and hope that the driver will find me. During visiting Lahore Fort, I was approached by few guides offering their service. Finally, after dropping price by half, I agreed to take one. He was rushing a lot and try to up-sell his other services all time. Not a pleasant experience. I recommend to hire a trusted guide for the whole day incl. food and transportation. It will save you a lot of hassle.
From Lahore to Islamabad
After two days in Lahore, I continued my journey to Islamabad. I still had diarrhoea so cycling was hard – only drinking Sprite or Mountain Dew and not eating at all. I remember when I stopped in a shop after 60kms completely exhausted. I opened LinkedIn and read something like: “when you fell that you are completely out of power, you still have half”. So I cycled 60kms more that day 😉
Every time I passed across a city, motorcyclists approached me to invite me for a lunch, a drink or even to their home for the night. It is a pity I was sick and could not accept these invitations. I even gave an interview and was photographed by the local newspaper (celebrities lifestyle).
People always asked three questions: Are you Muslim? Are you married? Are you employed? And only then asked me where I am from 😀 When they did not speak English, I started conversation by saying: No, No, No. You do not have to understand Urdu when you know what people ask for 😀
When it got dark, I passed by a big house under construction. I asked boys working there if I could camp in their garden. No problem. One of them went to the restaurant 500m far to bring me a tea. That is hospitality in Pakistan. In the morning there was an obligatory photo session.
The next day, I had to cycle 180km to Islamabad. I already committed that I will come that day to my Couchsurfing host. During this day, I saw Pakistan as I imagined it: flat, open areas burn in sun and villages with low buildings somewhere on the horizon.
I was still approached by many curious people and received many invitations. Most of the people engaged in a short talk, offered food or help (one person wanted to give me money for my travel!). When I stopped in a shop next to the road, a seller dropped the price for me because he wanted to invite me to Pakistan. WOW. Exactly opposite to India…
I entered Islamabad in the evening by one of the main roads. The traffic was really dense and I did not feel safe, but, fortunately, I managed to get to the sector where my host lives with no issues.
I stayed with Bilal from couchsurfing. He has a construction company and owns an apartment where he lives with few friends. As in Lahore, I received a great hospitality. Bilal provided me with plenty of food, did not want me to pay for anything and let me stay longer at his place.
The next day after coming to Islamabad, I had to go to the hospital. My host took me to the very clean hospital just nearby. Two doctors treated me with antibiotics and after 4 hours, I was free. It costed only $20. My host did not allow me to pay and also bought me medicines. Now I had to stay in the city for another 3 days to rest.
Next day, Bilal took me to the party at his friends’ place. I was still so exhausted after cycling while sick, that I slept all the party 😀
As a result of staying in an apartment for 2 days to rest, I came with the idea of twriting a blog. I even bought the wordpress membership. And that’s all I have done before crossing Kaspian Sea 2 months later. Cycling across Asia was too interesting to waste time on writing a blog 😉
On the third day I walked around Pakistan. It is a “design city”. It was planned and constructed 50 years ago so everything is in the right order. It is separated into sectors, e.g. in the sector F live Foreigners – ambassadors. I like cities like this. Maybe they lack “ancient soul” or whatever, but you can always easily find direction.
As I am a very lazy person, I limited my sightseeing to Pakistan Monument. It offers a great view on the whole city and mountains.
In the evening, one of Bilal’s friends took me to Faisal Mosque and to Centaurus Towers (the shopping centre and residences of many Chinese businessmen). We talked about the social and political system in the country. I could sum it up with one sentence – Islamabad is a very progressive city, especially compared to the rest of the country. He also asked me about my experience cycling between Lahore and Islamabad and suspected that people were not friendly and rude. Exactly opposite to what I experienced. The same thing happened in Nepal – a person from the capital has a wrong, negative opinion about the people from rural areas. Interesting…
Into the mountains
Finally, after 3 days in the capital, I was ready to hit the road again. I exited Islamabad using the main highway and, after 30 kilometers, turned right on the shortcut to N35 (KKH). During this shortcut, I was approached by a guy with a long beard on a bicycle who tried to convince me to Islam. Fortunately, he was not very pushy and after few sentences resigned 😉 I was approached few times by curious people on motorcycles who really wanted to ask me 3 standard questions.
Shortly after turning on the KKH, I stopped in the small shop. And again, I got lower price, water and snacks for free and the owner prepared a tea for me. To welcome me in Pakistan. Awesome!
In the evening, I cycled into Mansehra to find a hostel. This city is one huge traffic jam with plenty of police patrols. Finally, I found a small hostel where they accepted me (big tourist hotel were out of question – very expensive). 10 minutes after I entered, the owner came and said, in a rude way, that he cannot accept me because I am a foreigner. Fortunately, I found another hostel very close where the owner gave me good price (~7$) and called police to confirm that I can stay at his place. He also gave me his phone number to call him whenever I would have any problems in Pakistan.
Police escorts are organized on the ca. 300km stretch of Karakoram Highway between Battagram and Raikot Bridge near the turn to Nanga Parbat. Each escort is covering a small part of the stretch and you have to change to the next escort on each police check post. In total, there are more than 20 different police check posts where you are “exchanged”.
The local community living there has antagonistic attitude toward foreigners but it has nothing to do with terrorists. There have never been terrorists in Gilgit-Baltistan. 😉 6-8 years ago it happened that cyclists were attacked by local people – no one ever was harmed (or killed), but people were robbed. That explains the need for an escort / control. Nowadays, the escort is limited to maybe 20% of this whole 300km distance but you pass police check posts so they always now where you are. In summer, it is possible to cycle an alternative route on this stretch across Babusar Pass, shortening the route and omitting police escorts. In April the Pass was still closed.
Few hours after leaving Mansehra, I finally reached mountains, that is Chattar Plain. It started raining what only improved the beautiful scenery.
Shortly after cycling across Battagram city, I reached the first police checkpost. From now on, police will control my position for the next 300km. Sometimes following, sometimes transporting but most of the time just checking on the check post and letting me cycle free 😉
This time, they were following me on the descent to Thakot. I stopped to give them my camera and let them make me a photo 😉 Unfortunately, after the descent the escort changed and new policemen just let me pack into the truck and drove me up the next hill. Next, they allowed me to cycle down to Besham City where I stayed for the night. So the police role was to give me a free lift up and next I could cycle down. I like it 😀
I stayed in Besham in a tourist hostel in the centre. 1200 rupees for one night (~$11) was not cheap but at least it was clean and they had good food in the restaurant.
Finally, I reached the mountainous part of Karakoram Highway. I expected that the next day I will have a police escort all the time. Fortunately, they allowed me to cycle alone on the first police check post and all the next check posts were open, so I cycled fast to not be stopped by police 😀 Only in the evening, after 100km, I got an escort in Gayal for the remaining 30km.
Cycling was really awesome. This road is crazy – on the left you have a stone wall, on the tight you see a river 300m below you. The surface is perfect and the road goes up and down, so I was not gaining much elevation but still climbing a lot. I really started wondering why all these cycling teams train in winter on Canary Islands instead here 😊
There was plenty of water on KKH. All water streams from melting snow cross the road. In some places there was so much water that cars got stuck in a stream.
I also met many natural inhabitants of this land.
In the middle of the day, one driver asked me for a photo with his wife and a kid. He also cycled Karakorum Highway one year earlier and now was going for holidays with his family. I was happy to have a photo and at the end I asked him to send it to me on fb. He said OK and added me on fb but did not seem happy about it and till today I did not receive a photo ☹
While cycling across small village, I stopped in a shop. Two people came just to see me, but no one was smiling or engaging in talk. Also, there were no women on the streets, only men. It was weird. Normally Pakistani people are very friendly and welcoming, so I could feel the difference in this place. At least they do not attack cyclists anymore 😉When I started cycling after the stop, few kids run after me throwing stones. Fortunately for them, no one hit me.
Finally, in the evening I reached Gayal where I got a police escort. But before cycling, policemen invited me into their house, prepared food and even sang together to invite me in Pakistan. One policeman said that Pakistan suffered from mass media propaganda and he was proud of me that I came to see his country. I could not agree more. When people ask me about Pakistan they very often confuse this country with Afghanistan (dangerous, lack of centralised power, tribes fighting with each other, legalized weapons, terrorists – no one goes there). You cannot make a bigger mistake.
Shortly after getting an escort, we were stopped by construction works. Between Gayal and Shatial, Karakorum Highway has poor surface and suffers from landslides, so they have to renovate this stretch very often. I talked for a moment about China with an engineer preparing explosions. You could feel how much Pakistani people are proud to have such a powerful ally.
After changing an escort on the next police check post, I was not allowed to cycle and had to pack to a truck. I got to know a policeman who was sitting with me on the back of the truck. He was also 23yo, very interested in my trip and happy to talk. He connected with me on fb, but I have never received this invitation There is some problem with fb in Pakistan.
Policemen brought me to the hostel built under the road on both sides of a river. I paid only $3 for the night. In the morning they woke me up (waaay to early as for my standards 😉) and we continued driving in a truck.
On the next check post I was again allowed to cycle. We made a photo session and I could go 😉
The pleasure of cycling alone did not last long – I soon reached the next check post, where I had to fill in some forms and got a paper which I had to show on all next check posts. From now on, I was cycling with a policeman on a motorcycle following me.
Police brought me to the hotel near the main road near Chilas and really insisted on staying there for the night. After negotiating the price for a bit (I paid 1200 ruppes = $11), I unpacked and decided to cycle into Chilas to find a shop. The hostel assigned a boy to go with me to the shop but he did not realise that I left. When I entered Chilas and found a shop, at least 30 people came to see me. They filled all the space in the shop so it was hard to move. This time I received different questions: Do you like Pakistan? Pakistan is great! No Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan is the best! Judging by their excitement, tourists very rarely enter Chilas 😉 I think police would not be happy if they knew I cycled to this presumably dangerous city – especially that the big shop with European products was right next to the hotel. It is sometimes good to be an ignorant. Next day would definitely prove that..