Shortly after getting back from Astor to Karakorum Highway, I passed the place with the famous sign “Look right. You see killer mountain”. I was looking for this place for the last few days.
After the break, I continued to Gilgit. It was a pretty hard ride: completely exhausted after the downhill from Astor, I had to constantly cycle up and down. Like on the rollercoaster. All the time I had earphones on what turned out to have very bad consequences. With ears blocked and altitude increasing and decreasing multiple times, I ended up sitting next to the petrol station with a full blackout. It took me 30 minutes to recover. Soon after, I reached Gilgit.
The city made a bad impression on me. They could not host me in two first hostels. Finally, I stopped in one hostel where the staff gave me an exorbitant price (something like 2000 rupees). Aha, India again. This was the moment when I reminded myself that these two countries were one for a longer time than two. Tired, I proposed that I will pitch a tent in their garden for a few dollars. They agreed. After 1 hour, the owner came to the hotel and told me that I can stay in the room for a normal price (1000 further dropped to 800 rupees). He was surprised that the receptionist proposed such a high price. OK, I am back in Pakistan.
Pakistan, life consists of three dimensions: religion, family, job. I received a standard set of questions (Are you Muslim? Do you have a family? Are you employed?) plus additional: Do you want to marry a Muslim girl from Pakistan? Why not? Do you find them beautiful? After responding, that I could not judge because of burkas, they said that I can judge by eyes. In the officially conservative country, people seem to be more interested in those topics than in modern states. People are the same everywhere, and when someone gives them constraints on what they can do or think of, they cannot find balance.
Karimabad and Baltit
The next day, I cycled to Karimabad, the capital of Hunza District. The road followed a rollercoaster pattern: up and down. This time I used small wire headphones to not block all ears. I enjoyed this day a lot. I could not imagine a better place to train road biking (a few months later I was on Transfogarasian Road in Romania and it is not even comparable). All the time going up, down, left, right on a perfect surface and with low traffic. Plus, the scenery changing every 15 minutes from valleys with villages to mountains and an abyss on the side. Not mentioning 6-7000masl white peaks on the horizon.
Baltit and Altit are two fortresses from medieval ages. I visited Baltit only. It looks more like a house than a fortress for me. Till this day, the ruler of Hunza lives in Karimabad (Baltit) and has his own hotel, but too pricey for me 😉
I stayed in the hotel in Alliabad, near Karimabad, after negotiating the price down to 1200rupees for the night (the conditions were good, so I could agree on that). In the morning, I planned to leave early, but the owner could not find keys to unlock the room with my bike inside. I got really angry and kicked their doors. It was a very immature action and I am ashamed of that till today. Fortunately, the owner was forgiving.
Attabad Lake and tunnels
After 1d stop in Karimabad, I continued to Sost, the border city. On the way, I passed by 4 tunnels built here after the natural disaster in 2010, when tectonic movements created a lake covering few villages. Most of the people died. You can still see the old constructions jutting from the lake. To restore the continuity of the road, China built the tunnels. Tunnels with no lights and no ventilation. I liked them!
After passing the tunnels, I stopped for a photo session. Despite the heavy wind, I set up my camera on a tripod. Few seconds later it fell on the ground 2 meters below. 30minutes of making the lenses round again and the camera was repaired. Sony a5000 passed many tests on the road, finally breaking down in Georgia. Overall – good equipment.
There was one unique element of scenery – big inscriptions on slopes along the highway. These are welcome messages to the ruler of Hunza District. Cool.
Somewhere ahead of Sost, the border city, I passed the place where tectonic plates collide. It is exciting to imagine that you are on the edge of one huge piece of Earth. Thanks to this collision, we have this awesome Karakorum Highway.
For a moment, on the other side of Indus, I could see the old road which functioned here before KKH was created. It would take me 3x longer to cycle here if I came to Pakistan 40 years ago.
I also passed by the 5th longest iceberg outside of arctic circles
A moment later, I was stopped by a motorcyclist for a photo. The photo was made by his wife. The driver had a helmet but his passenger did not. Safety is disregarded in the whole of Asia.
Sost is a border town. Or rather a village. I approached the first hostel and they proposed me an exorbitant price for a room. I asked in the second hostel. They proposed 4x less for one night. When I told the Pakistani tourist from the first hostel the price they proposed to me (he wanted me to stay in the first hotel to talk about my trip), he looked astounded. He got 2x less. Be careful, if you are a foreigner, they will want to rip you off literally everywhere. Even in Pakistan.
In the evening, I met again Greg, a Polish cyclist who I first met at Fairy Point north to Nanga Parbat, with his two Pakistani companions. We went out for dinner. Both Pakistani guys got altitude sickness and took a lift to the border. Greg climbed to the top, but the first day he cycled to the national park border and started from there. He advised me to try to camp on the warden checkpoint. He had already finished his Pakistani trip and the next day took a bus back to Gilgit.
I planned to climb Khunjerab Pass and come back (cycling over the border is not possible), so I re-packed food, water, and spare parts in front panniers and hit the road in the morning at 7a.m., 30th of April. After two hours, I reached the national park border, where I bought the entrance permit, left my main panniers with camping stuff, and started climbing. It was going very smoothly till 4200masl. After that, the altitude hit me. Cycling was hard, taking the rest was also hard. If you stop for too long, muscles cool down and you feel soreness when you start again. After overcoming soreness and warming muscles up, you are already tired. Tricky. There is one additional factor. You are constantly overtaken by Pakistani tourists in cars who want you to stop for a photo. And they do not understand that you cannot stop.
Finally, after another 5 hours, I reached the top. After negotiating with police, I was allowed to cycle to the border itself, 300m from the police check post. As a result, I could make a photo with everyone who wanted a photo earlier while overtaking me 😉
One Polish accent: one boy came to me and told me that he is a big football fan and his two most favorite players are: Ronaldo and Lewandowski. Lewandowski makes Poland famous.
I could not stay there long. I soon started a descent. Cycling down on a perfect surface starting from the altitude of over 4700masl (low air density) means that you gain speed superfast. I hit 60kmh in a time when normally I would reach 30. It got harder at 4000masl when I got a front wind. However, my speed rarely dropped below 30kmh. After almost 2h of descending, I was back on the national park border.
It was 7pm and got dark, so I asked policemen for camping there, as Greg advised me. In the evening, I ate quasi-Italian food in the local restaurant. It was not good at all, but would you care what you eat after cycling at 4715masl? 😉 You already know what Pakistani people want to talk about. Soon, the owner started asking me about the beauty of Slovak girls 😀 And of course, I had to explain why I am not married as I am already 24yo. The weird thing is that he is older, also not married, but was surprised that I was not. I was so tired that I could not care less. Later, he and two friends “helped me” setting up my tent. It took twice as long as alone, but still experiencing human kindness was great 😉
In the morning, I ate breakfast with the restaurant owner. He told me his story: He was working in Australia, was sending money to his family in Pakistan, and had not enough to pay for studies or visa, overstayed his visa and got deported with a 2y ban on entering Australia. Now, he is waiting until this ban will end to go back. He does not like the situation in Pakistan: extractive institutions that limit the possibility to create wealth and ownership for normal people. Read the book “Why nations fail” and you will understand what I mean.
After a 2h pleasant ride, I was back in Sost. I chilled out on that day as the border was closed (holidays in China). The next day, I passed the border.
To cross the highest international border in the world, you have to pass the passport (and luggage) control in Sost. Next, you take the bus to the border at Khunjerab Pass, 90km far and 2km higher. There, you pass the Chinese luggage control, a super detailed control check. Next, you get back to the bus to get to Tashkurgan, 130km from the border. In Tashkurgan, you pass the Chinese passport control. So the border has 220km. If you are cycling from the other side, you can pass the control in Tashkurgan, next cycle up to the border and next cycle down to Sost. From Pakistan side, it is unfortunately impossible to cycle through the border. The border is closed in winter due to snow on the pass and officially opens on the 1st of April or 1st of May. I had information about the 1st of May, but NatCo drivers told me that it opened on the 1st of April. Call Natco to confirm if you plan to pass in April.
The controls: First, the passport control in Sost with a quick check of luggage – I had to open and show everything, but they did not check each item. We packed into the bus and drove to Khunjerab Pass. The luggage check in Sost was only to make sure that I would pass the real check. Chinese check. It was crazy, it took more than 1 hour. They screened literally every item, opened my laptop and phone and checked photos. For 15minutes, they were deciding whether the photo of the flag from Baltit Fort is not the breach of their rules. They even knocked on the frame of the bike to check if it is empty inside. I had to pass the screening in a big machine, like at the airport but I had to stay there for 5 minutes, not 5 seconds.
After making sure that I do not want to blow out the whole of China, I could come back to the bus and we continued to Tashkurgan. It was a very different place. All villages in Kashgar are far from the road, buildings are low, and there is a fence on both sides on the road plus cameras above the road. Mountains look breathtakingly – the road follows the wide valley with colorful mountain slopes on both sides. In Tashkurgan, they were debating for 5minutes whether my passport is mine – I was 9y younger when taking a photo in passport 😉 Finally, they let me go and I was formally in China.
There is a big difference between the way how different states are promoted worldwide, by themselves or by foreign media, and the reality. Pakistan is a perfect example. When I tell that I passed through Pakistan, everyone asks if this country is safe. I cannot say that it is perfectly safe. I had a police escort on some part what means that there is some sort of danger there. However, I have never been so warmly welcomed anywhere in the world as in Pakistan. Truly authentic people who were sincerely happy to see me in their country.