Pedal Pushing in Pakistan: Karakoram Highway 2000

by John McHale


After several weeks of planning, I'm finally on my way to complete the Karakoram journey I attempted two years ago. This time, I'm flying directly to Pakistan to experience the famous Hunza valley, which from all accounts is the highlight of the journey between Kashgar and Gilgit. During my last Karakoram trip I was unable to make the crossing from China over the Khunjerab Pass, and I'm anxious to see what lies on the other side of those mountains.

Other than this, I have no specific interest in Pakistan. I just know it as a country where women dress in bed-sheets, and little boys play with real guns. In fact, I have heard nothing but bad things about Pakistan, and my experience in other Muslim countries has me prepared for the worst. During the two weeks I have available, I'm hoping to get into the mountains as quickly as possible, and minimise the time spent in lowland cities.

Day 1: Taiwan - Lahore Sunday 8 October 2000

Friends have done nothing to dispel the notion that Pakistan is a fundamentally bad place, and I'm feeling nervous on the way to the airport and during check-in. I'm finally on the plane and able to relax a little, but during the onward flight from Bangkok I start to get nervous again. It seems I'm the only passenger not wearing a shalwar chamiz and beard.

The plane lands at midnight, reloads, and then flies out again within the space of an hour. This is a once a week run for Thai Airways, and clearly there is no interest for them to hang around here. Lahore International Airport seems more like a domestic terminal, and baggage collection is chaotic. But surprisingly, I'm feeling fairly relaxed and bemused by it all. In contrast to my expectations, there seems to be a general atmosphere of friendliness here. I clamber over the conveyor belt to grab my bike, and then start looking for the official Money Exchange area. I'm directed to a very casual looking desk with a few guys lounging around on chairs. I'm quoted 62 Rupees to the US dollar. Wow! That's almost twice what I had anticipated. My trip is going to cost half as much as I had budgeted!

There are no late flights to Islamabad, so it looks like I will have to cycle into Lahore and find a hotel. This was something I was dreading, after all the reports I'd heard of this city. Eventually I head out of the airport area. While I'm getting organised with the bike, a man and his son come out of their home to offer me some water. I politely decline, but the friendliness of Pakistanis is beginning to impress me.

As I set off there are still lots of people out. The streets are so wide and clean: it reminds me of a New Zealand suburb, and I'm feeling fairly comfortable. As I get further into the city the streets get narrower and dirtier, and everything starts looking more and more like part of a Third World scene. I chat with a local named Aser as we cycle along side by side, and he shows me the way to the Orient Hotel. I'm wondering if he wants payment for this service, but he just leaves with a wave. The room is basic with no hot water, but otherwise fine.

Day 2: Lahore - Islamabad Monday 9 October 2000

A noisy fan has prevented me from sleeping well, but I get up early to survey Lahore during the daytime. The Monday morning street-scene is a lot different from last night, and the chaotic traffic seems really scary. But even more disconcerting is the complete absence of women.

I need to change more money. I'm directed to one place, but can only manage 61 Rupees/US there. Eventually I set off again on the bike back to the Airport. After my initial panic subsides, the Lahore street-scene starts to appear really interesting with all sorts of vehicles and horse drawn carriages coming from all directions. I'm tempted to hang around longer and take photos, but I remind myself that this is not the object of my trip.

I just make it to the airport in time for a commuter flight to Islamabad. In fact, they have to re-open the door to let me on the plane. The flight is $NT 700….wow! at this price, everything is going to be so easy. I'm sitting next to a businessman from Islamabad, and we talk for most of the half hour flight.

Islamabad Airport is also a fairly relaxed place. It occurs to me that it is really a very small city with only 1 million people and a further 300,000 in Rawalpindi. I chat with a friendly security guard with a very unfriendly looking sub-machine gun. He says it is called an "MIB5" or some such thing.

The ride into Rawalpindi is easy, although the traffic is even more chaotic than in Lahore. Rawalpindi seems nothing more than a grubby, congested village. I eventually locate a guest-house which is well set up for travellers, and has a rooftop which gives a good view over the city.

That afternoon I head down to the PIA office to enquire about flights into the mountains. It seems that the best way of including Skardu in my trip is to fly there, and then bike "downhill" into Gilgit. Apparently, flights have been cancelled for the last five days, but a Business Class seat is available on tomorrow's flight. Clearly, this doesn't make sense….but it occurs to me that this is the only way I can do it. Perhaps it's a veiled form of baksheesh, but I don't care. The 3400 Rupees seems justifiable, given my tight schedule. It's interesting also how the attitude of the staff changes once I'm recognised as a "commercially valuable" passenger.

On the way back to the guest-house I casually get bumped by a vehicle in the chaotic traffic, and it strikes me that Pakistanis have quite a different attitude to driving. Downtown Taipei seems like a kiddie playground in comparison.

Day 3: Islamabad - Skardu Tuesday 10 October 2000

A noisy fan has again deprived me of sleep, but I have a great seat on the early morning flight to Skardu. The fare seems more than justified once we enter the mountains. The view is fantastic, and I bang off a whole roll of film. After landing in an empty dust bowl I already feel like I've achieved a lot by coming here. I just hope the weather holds.

It takes a while to get ready, and I spend some time chatting with locals. Finally I'm off: cycling towards Skardu 6 km away. Fantastic mountain scenery, and I'm taking photos at every opportunity, even if the light isn't quite right. Arriving in Skardu, it appears like a kind of "wild west" town. I opt for the K2 Hotel at the end of town which faces the upper valley to the east. Great room with a hot shower and view - it's newly opened, so available at a discount following some discussion.

The evening is spent climbing up to a nearby fort and admiring the scenery. The only other foreigner is a rather quiet German. Maybe he's been on his own for too long. In any case, I'm more pre-occupied with the scenery. There's a full moon which lights up the whole valley. Eventually it falls behind a mountain and I head back down in the dark. Intermittent power cuts encourage me to go to bed early, but I fall asleep easily.

Day 4: Indus Valley 11 October 2000

I'm up early to try and change more USD, although it involves a little more hassle, and the rate up here is much less: 55 Rupees. I'm beginning to regret this piecemeal approach to changing money.

I finally set out at 10.00am for the ride down the Indus Valley toward Gilgit. Again, perfect weather and some good photo opportunities. I start off cycling strong, and the scenery gets even more interesting as I enter the gorge at the edge of the Skardu Plateau. Below is a Police Checkpoint and naturally I'm taking photos of the bridge as a foreground to the mountains behind. This almost lands me in trouble. Taking photos of police/military installations of any kind is simply not allowed, even if it's nothing more than a mud hut with a flag on top.

I'm feeling a little embarrassed after my first scrape with Pakistan bureaucracy, but it's a beautiful ride down the gorge. Mostly down, but later in the afternoon the ups start to increase, culminating with one steady climb where I'm eventually forced to get off and push. I hate it when that happens, but I remind myself that it's my first real day on the bike.

I have my sights set on staying in Thowar, but it's so basic when I get there. The locals all go quiet and stare, like some wild west movie where someone will eventually say "strangers ain't welcome in this here town". So, after buying some biscuits and water in this atmosphere of silence, I push on. I figure it's better to maximise distance today so that tomorrow is easier.

Evening is approaching, and 90 km down the valley I'm starting to feel very tired. OK….it's my first day, I tell myself again. In spite of this I push on in the darkness thinking I'll be able to camp out on some grass flats somewhere. But it seems now that I'm in a never-ending canyon with no space to pull off. Occasionally large trucks roar past with headlights blazing on the narrow road which cuts into the side of these steep mountains. It's getting pretty nerve wracking, but eventually I spot the lights of a village on the other side of the river. I figure there must be a bridge somewhere nearby, and after fooling around in the dark I eventually find a small track leading off the road down to the river. It's a relief to get off the road and sure enough I spot the bridge below. I'm content to stay on this side of the river and not go into the village.

It's about 10.30 pm when I find an abandoned hut off the trail and a flat terrace outside - perfect! The moon comes out and lights the sheer face of a mountain side across the river. The scale of my surroundings here is awesome. I'm now away from the noise of the road traffic, although I'm worried about rain, mosquitoes, snakes, etc, and anything else that could happen in this strange environment, but eventually I get to sleep with the sound of the Indus river roaring below.

Day 5: Indus - Gilgit 12 October 2000

I wake up and get dressed just before the locals arrive to investigate. After a quick breakfast of biscuits and water, I set off about 7.30 am. I'm keen to get as many kilometres in before the full heat of the sun. It's a barren, dry gorge, but it's mostly down with minimal traffic. I'm still feeling tired, but plug on through the gorge admiring the frequent rapids. The Indus is a big volume river with lots of big holes. Scary from a kayaking point of view, but it looks like a great river to paddle. I wonder if paddling a kayak would be easier/quicker than biking??

The small towns roll by as the morning progresses. After miles of desolate rock I eventually reach an idyllic spot with grass, where I rest and finish the rest of my food. Finally on to Sassi: the first "major" town on the map, but there's no bottled water available, so I push on, conscious of my limited supply.

The gorge opens out again and returns to being dry and barren. Very hot now and increasing uphills. I'm confused about the distance markers on the road, and then I realise the 170 km total distance refers only to the length of the Indus Valley down to the Karakoram. Clearly it will be an additional 40 km to Gilgit. It's tough going through the remainder of the gorge, but the sight of distant snow-covered mountains reminds me why I'm there. I finally make it to the junction of the Karakoram in the afternoon and I'm very tired and thirsty. The locals at the bridge give me some water from a tap. I'm not sure if it's clean, but I'm too thirsty to care.

I hang out in the shade near the bridge, and decide to try to catch a lift to Gilgit. I'm not interested in killing myself today. A Swiss couple appear on bikes and stop for a chat. They're on their way up to Skardu and I give them as much detail of the road as I can.. They're really loaded up and wearing the prescribed long sleeves and trousers. Wow - I'm exhausted after riding down the valley. I feel sorry for them riding up - but then, they're probably tougher than me.

I finally get a ride after crossing the bridge and getting onto the Karakoram Highway. They first say 200 Rupees but agree to 150. I'm in the back of a small covered van which they drive like absolute maniacs. I'm seriously wondering if it's worth the risk, but after 10 km's they get stopped at a checkpoint for illegally transporting timber. I get sick of waiting for them to sort out their problems and bail out. I feel a little bit better on the bike, and it occurs to me I could try to make it to Gilgit after all. After 5 km's the van catches up to me (minus their timber), and they want me to get back on board. I tell them the price has gone down to 50 Rupees. They can take it or leave it as far as I'm concerned. I'm prepared to ride all the way to Gilgit if necessary, but eventually they agree. The hills that appear around the next corner make me glad to be back on board.

It occurs to me that the scenery on the KKH south of Gilgit seems less spectacular, and I'm beginning to think I should spend all my time in the upper part and perhaps try to save time with a flight out of Gilgit. In any case, my immediate concern is whether I will get to Gilgit without experiencing a really bad car crash.

We finally enter Gilgit. After paying the driver, I lecture him on how his driving habits suggest the need of some pyschiatric help, but of course he just shrugs his shoulders and disappears. I'm tired and dirty when I arrive at the Taj Hotel but they welcome me in. It's been a hard start to the trip, and a shower is much needed. The hotel food is also good, and I spend a relaxing evening walking around Gilgit.

I go in search of a bus station where I can catch a morning bus to Sust. The locals here are generally very friendly. It seems also that there are a number of foreigners living in the town. I chat briefly with a British/Pakistani: Sagheera, before going to bed. He's straight out of London, but of course has a good insight into the culture. Like me, he is enjoying Pakistan as a tourist.

Day 6: Gilgit - Sust 13 October 2000

I'm up early, but breakfast isn't available until 6.30 so I go out for another walk. After breakfast I go to meet the bus. The guy selling tickets is very keen to buy my bike, and I smile nervously while tying it to the top of his mini-bus. At the same time two women in saris walk past talking English with unmistakable kiwi accents. This causes me to stare after them. But all I see are their beautiful silk outfits draped over their heads, which make them look very dignified and confident.

The bus is off by 9.00 am and travelling fast. As we head up the valley the scenery becomes more and more impressive, but I wince every time I see a potential uphill for the bike trip down. We pick up two Japanese couples along the way. The guys share space on the roof with the bike, until the bumping around eventually scares them back inside the bus. We arrive in Sust around 2.00 pm and I'm wondering if I can get up to the Khunjerab Pass that afternoon. However, there are no buses, and in any case there is a strange arrangement whereby you are not allowed to get out of the bus unless you are going through to China.

Rather than waste time in shitty Ayitabad amongst the rubbish and lethargic locals, I decide to ride up towards the Pass as far as I can during the daylight remaining. I head away fairly fast. It seems flat for miles and a good road following the river. I set my sights on an out and return to Dih 30 km away. As evening approaches it starts getting steeper and colder…much colder. Eventually I've got all my gear on, but the cold is still biting. I'm determined to get to Dih, but finally I bail out 3 kms short. There's a strong headwind now, and it's getting dark.

Going back down, I realise how steep the road has become. I can't believe I rode all the way up this. After rolling down fairly fast the darkness eventually slows me down to a crawl. I'm worried about an impact puncture, or buckling a wheel on a stray rock. This time there's no moon, and there's a seemingly endless period where I am feeling my way along nervously and trying to discern the road in the pitch black. I curse myself for not thinking to bring lights.

It's such a relief to finally see the distant lights of Ayitabad. My head and fingers are now feeling numb, but I continue through the first collection of buildings to the Old town of Sust and stop at the Mountain Refuge Guest-house. I'm the only one there. Tourist season is over, and all the owner can give me for dinner is a basic potato dhal, but it's good to be inside away from the freezing night air.

Day 7: Sust - Kharimabad 14 October 2000

I'm up early as usual, but the Hotel owner says there's no kerosene, so no breakfast… hmmm. It's too cold to ride, so I go back to the room. The scenery around is impressive and I decide to wait for the sun to fill the valley and take some photos. Eventually I head off down the valley to the Dreamland Hotel in search of some breakfast. It's very pleasant sitting on their terrace in the sunshine, and admiring Rakaposhi and the surrounding mountains. God knows how many barrels of oil have been used to cook my omelette, but my instant coffee mix goes down well. Still a little chilly when I head off again. I stop to take photos at every opportunity. So many mountains, and the riding is easy.

I make Passu for lunch and again it's very pleasant in their garden with grass and trees and a fantastic view of snow covered mountains. I'm not looking forward to the 4 km climb up to Yashvandan, but ultimately it's not bad. After Yashvandan the run down to Ghulmet is fast and easy, but it's only 2.30 pm and I see no reason to stay. I figure Karimabad is only about 30 km's away and that it would be a better place to spend the evening. I'm also intending a rest/maintenance day tomorrow so I continue energetically in an effort to get there. However there is now a headwind, and some further climbs to deal with.

Starting to feel noticeably tired as I enter a barren gorge which undulates around recent landslides. It's not a good place to hang around in. This time I have plenty of water and I push through doggedly. Finally I'm out of the gorge with a long down hill ahead of me to Ganesh.

It's a great run down, and as the road levels out I spot a female cyclist on the roadside taking a photo. Seems like a good spot, so I stop to take a photo and chat. Funnily enough, she's a kiwi also. We cycle along to meet up with her husband who is ahead waiting for us. The two of them seem very nice, but also strangely familiar. After a further period of talking the woman suddenly says to me "Are you John?". I respond with my usual tact by saying "Yeah, who are you?", and in a quiet voice she says "Anna".

I momentarily draw a blank: Anna...??, and then it hits me. This person with her jacket hood up and wearing sunglasses is Anna Pool: an old girlfriend from my university days in New Zealand. Whoah!!

I'm also well disguised with a full blown beard and cap, but even so, she guessed before I did, which was a little bit embarrassing. Her husband: David Tyler, also completes the picture. During that time 15 years ago, I remember him now as a quiet boy in the background. This is a wonderful coincidence, and we cycle into Karimabad together talking non-stop. They're great company, and it's reassuring to be with old friends and enjoying Pakistan together.

Karimabad is nice, but as expected, very touristy. I accompany David and Anna to one hotel, but it's too dingy for me. I'm suddenly feeling tired, and get a little stressed in the search for another Hotel now that the sun has gone down. This is compounded by a sudden and unexpected dose of diahroeaa. It's a close call finding a toilet, but eventually I'm settled in the Karim Hotel with a good view over the valley.

Pakistan's spiritual leader: the Aga Khan, has status akin to the messiah, and will be visiting Karimabad in four days. Already people are celebrating with fireworks, but I'm not in the mood, and feel intimidated by all the explosions close by. I seem to have a mild dose of Giardia, and sleep for an hour before joining the others at a restaurant. In addition, there is another Swiss biking couple: Sandra/Stefan, who became acquainted with Anna and David in China. The company is nice after two days alone, but I leave fairly early after eating very little. I go straight to bed to nurse my stomach, hoping I can sleep through the worst of it.

Day 8: Karimabad 15 October 2000

I wake up feeling happy that I don't have to ride my bike today. My stomach seems reasonable so I go for a morning walk where I meet up with Sagheera again. Small world up here in the mountains. We chat easily and then I return to the Hotel in time for another toilet stop. I feel tired and out of breath. I wonder if it is altitude induced or simply a symptom of my Giardia. It's nice sitting on the verandah outside my room and doing nothing except to admire the view. The morning is clear, but I can see some high cloud developing. Maybe it's time now for this clear run of weather to end?….but the Hotel owner says that during this time of year every day will be fine and sunny.

I eventually get organised to clean and oil the bike, and then sleep again for an hour or so. In the afternoon I make my way up to the Baltit Fort. This is the major tourist attraction here. The restoration of this historical fort has been sponsored by the Aga Khan Foundation and it's easy to understand why this organisation, and the man himself is so well-respected. There's no English speaking guide at the Fort, but the presentation is translated for me by a nice British/Pakistani couple. It's a great view from the fort which occupies the highest point above the town, and the sight of birds wheeling in the sky against the backdrop of mountains is very dramatic.

On the way down I meet up with Sagheera again and a few other tourists. This place is so small, and it's easy for travellers to relate to one another while enjoying the spectacular scenery here. The others continue up to Baltit Fort and I head towards the smaller Altit Fort. I meet up with Anna and David as they are coming back from the Fort. Seems we are all doing the same things, but at different times. We agree on a restaurant for dinner, and I continue towards the fort in the late afternoon. Altit Fort has not been restored with the same attention given to the Baltit Fort. In fact it's nothing more than stabilised ruins. The village below seems far more interesting. I completely forget the advice in the travel books that the locals do not like being photographed. It's only when I get yelled at by one of the villagers do I realise my mistake. I put my camera away sheepishly, and walk back to Karimabad village feeling very much like an ugly tourist.

On the way back I pass by some very pretty Hunza women. Their faces are uncovered, and many have striking western type features such as fair hair and skin. There also seems to be a sense of pride and self-confidence in their manner. I can't help thinking that this is a characteristic of people throughout Asia, who live in mountain areas. I have dinner with the others that night. The food is simple but good, and I'm able to manage eating again. I'm intending to leave tomorrow, so after dinner I say good-bye to Anna and David, and I'm in bed by 8.30 pm.

Day 9: Karimabad - Challat 16 October 2000

It's overcast this morning, and after an early breakfast and a cold shower, I'm back on the bike heading down through Karimabad to rejoin the Highway. The travelling is mostly downhill for several hours, and the bike is running so smoothly after it's cleaning and oiling. Aliabad comes up sooner than expected and I roll through quickly. Again there are regular stops for photos along the way. Finally I stop for lunch at a collection of roadside restaurants where there is a good view of Rakaposhi.

In one of the restaurants I meet a friendly Canadian who is running a business in Gilgit. Also at the table are a group of Afghanis, and since I have never met anyone from Afghanistan before, I strike up a conversation with them also. Most of them are older men who do not speak English, but the youngest there has travelled throughout Asia, and he tells me they are working in the jewelry trade. They all seem very civilised and pleasant, and with a quiet sense of Afghan pride. But like many Afghanis at the moment, they feel safer living in Pakistan.

While we are eating, an avalanche rolls off Rakaposhi, and a few seconds later we hear it also.

Looking at the map: Chalt seems easily possible and I amble on. More downhill and the weather is now hot and clear. I arrive at the Chalt turn-off late afternoon, and since Challot seems a better place to stay, I make my way down the gravel road to a bridge crossing the river. The approach to the village is very pleasant with a tree lined track leading to the main guest house in town. Again, I'm regarded by everyone with a mixture of curiosity and mild suspicion, but I'm now hardened to it all. There's no power in the village at the moment so after settling into the guest house I buy a coke and go for a walk up the river nearby.

When I finally return on dusk the power is still off and the village is in darkness. With nothing else to do I'm in bed at 6.30 pm.

Day 10: Challat - Gilgit 17 October 2000

After a basic breakfast I give the owner a handshake and head off early. Again it's very pleasant ambling out of the village and waving to children on the way to school. I'm taking a back route which leads to another bridge and back onto the KKH. It's easy travelling on the highway with minimal traffic and I look set to reach Gilgit by lunch time. Sure enough, after an interesting short-cut via Dainyor, and across an impressive bridge, I'm back by 11.00 am and welcomed back into the Taj Hotel. The shower and lunch is good, but I'm left with a feeling of dissatisfaction. My trip is over too soon, and in hindsight it's all been too easy. I have this longing to continue. Suddenly I wish I didn't have a job to go back to. I'm starting to feel much fitter and comfortable on the bike. My brain starts racing. I could continue down the valley…overland to Lahore, and then ultimately India, Nepal…south to Thailand, Laos?…maybe Indonesia?, Australia?…and then....and then New Zealand, in time to see Mum for Christmas?…or maybe in time for the next Christmas??….but no - I know I'll be back at my desk on Monday morning. Hmm.…I wonder if there will ever be a stage in my life where I will finally have the courage to completely let go like this, and follow my heart.

In contrast to my previous Karakoram trip, everything in Pakistan so far has gone right, and I'm convinced now that, logically, something bad has to happen. I'm still faced with the prospect of trying to get a flight out of Gilgit, and I'm feeling rather pessimistic about this. Sagheera turns up again at the Hotel: having caught the bus down from Karimabad, and offers to go with me to the PIA office.

The ticket office is crowded, although Sagheera suggests that four out of five of the people there are probably relatives or friends with nothing better to do. Chatting with Sagheera helps to pass the time while I am waiting for confirmation on whether they can issue me a ticket. After half an hour nothing seems to be happening on either side of the counter, so I stand up and try pushing the issue.

To my surprise, they look up and then casually begin writing me a ticket: as if they had been waiting all along for me to get impatient. Even Sagheera doesn't fully understand this, and we leave with a ticket for a flight tomorrow morning, feeling both relieved and confused. This is one aspect of the culture here which has my western sense of logic completely stumped.

I leave Sagheera to talk with his local friends, and wander around Gilgit alone taking photos. I'm hoping the plane will be able to get in tomorrow. In fact it is a bit of a risk because I would then have to abandon the flight ticket, and rely on a 16 hour bus journey.

Sagheera and I meet later for a nice dinner in a "fancy" restaurant , which has the combined cost of 2 GBP. I'm in bed at 10 pm. After ten straight days of beautiful weather I'm still feeling confused by it all, and convinced that it can't continue. Most likely this "run" of weather will break tomorrow, at a time which is most critical for me.

Day 11: Gilgit - Lahore 18 October 2000

It seems I've become even more attached to my bike than ever. During a final breakfast the Hotel owner tells me his friend wants to buy it. Again I smile nervously, and then cycle off quickly to the airport.

There are a few clouds in the sky and I'm a little worried. The airport guards with their big guns maybe sense this, and look at me suspiciously, as if I'm riding a two-wheeled bomb. Luckily, there's no fuss about getting the bike checked in. The check-in process, as usual, is a real shit-fight, which is ridiculous considering that we are then left to lounge in the departure room for half an hour. The clouds have since burned off - yet another beautiful day, and I'm assuming that since we have checked in, a plane is on the way. Sure enough, a plane eventually lands quietly outside the window. I'm last to board since it's very pleasant on the tarmac, while taking a last look at the mountains surrounding Gilgit.

My seat is on the right, which is not ideal for taking photos. Nor are the small windows. I resign myself to not getting any photos, but the Hostess sees me: a solitary foreigner fidgeting with a camera, and immediately invites me to go up to the cockpit. I can't believe my luck.

The pilots are great guys, and I spend the rest of the flight up there with them talking about the current cricket match between NZ and Pakistan, and of course, taking photos of the wonderful mountain scenery. The plane is 30 years old and the cockpit interior is showing it's age. We pass over many ridges quite low and weave in and out of valleys, but it's a great experience. I stand balanced between the two pilot seats all the way until we finally touch down in Islamabad. This is the highlight of my trip, and it puts me on a high the whole morning. What a great country!!

I get a ticket to Lahore at 1.00 pm. Everything now seems wonderful and easy. Instead of waiting at the airport I decide to kill time by trying to cycle into Islamabad. It's further than I think, and I'm not impressed by the motorway so I return in plenty of time to catch my flight.

Back in Lahore, I head once more into town. This time I try the more "upmarket" National Hotel, but the obsequious porters there irritate me, so I return once more to the tatty, but more down to earth, Orient Hotel. I go walking in the evening looking for food, but now things don't seem so easy. Lahore really is a nightmare city in places. People starving amongst incredible filth on dark, muddy streets. There's a kind of mad desperation in the air, with people yelling and vehicles coming out of nowhere. I'm glad I'm not noticeable in the shadows as a "rich" foreigner. It's also hot down here on the plains, and I'm drinking lots of sweet soft drink. Shame I have to spend another day here before my flight out.

I'm exhausted when I return to the Hotel at 9.00 pm, and after a cool shower I'm asleep straight away.

Day 12: Lahore 19 October 2000

I'm up latish in search of breakfast on the bike, but it turns into a protracted, tiresome exercise. Nightmare traffic and hunger makes me irritable. I hate these places where everything is so spread out. I finally eat a burger at 10.30 am and set out for a look at the Red Fort and Old Town area. Traffic is getting worse and I'm feeling quite scared. In addition, there seem to be so many people begging and starving on the streets amongst the chaos of vehicles and dust. I circumnavigate the Fort, but the light is hazy and not good for photography.

I decide to go back through the maze of alleys within the Old Town. Although it's still a little bit nightmarish, it's much quieter and a relief to get away from all the vehicles. I stop for a series of people shots within the busy alleyways, and then I'm back into the main fray of traffic outside. At this stage I really want to get back to the Hotel

Finally I'm back, and it's such a relief to roll into the sheltered Hotel compound. I'm hot and dusty, and the cool shower is heaven. I rest in my room with no windows. I see no reason to go out again, but I know I should eat. Eventually I ride out to the Bhaktawar Hotel nearby. The meal is little strange looking, but the coffee is good. I feel much better as I head back for another cool shower and rest.

I want to stay safe in my room until the final ride out to the airport tonight. I'm feeling paranoid about the traffic, and worried that I'm going to die here on my last day. I check out of the Hotel early evening, since it occurs to me that it would be safer riding while it is still light. I nervously pick my way through traffic: keeping a lookout for anything that seems life-threatening. Once I'm on The Mall, which is the final stretch out to the airport, things seem ok.

Just short of the airport I decide to stop at a shopping area and waste some time. First outside a new MacDonalds, which has to be the best I have ever seen with a beautiful mosaic ceiling. Eventually a bored guard decides to move me and my bike along. I'm bored also and have time to spare, so I decide to stay put and have a philosophical debate with him. The fact that he doesn't have a gun helps, and eventually he wanders off mumbling. It seems like a hollow victory though. This kind of petty mindedness just makes me depressed. Unfortunately it's a particular feature of Pakistan officialdom, and my reaction to it can often make things worse. It's the same elsewhere around the shopping centre. It seems I'm not able to spend more than five minutes in one spot before a soldier or guard of some kind feels obliged to move me on.

Eventually I continue on to the airport, although I still have a few hours to wait for my flight. I have to change my remaining Rupees back to USD, and I'm able to do this over a fence with some locals. It turns into a fun exercise. I chat for a while with these guys, and they give me a free coke.

Finally I head towards the check-in area, but the soldiers at the entrance stop me. Something on my ticket confuses them. Most of the passengers are being let through, but some others like me are prevented from entering. The time of the flight is approaching, and I'm becoming increasingly frustrated by these morons with guns. I finally blow my top when another security guard wants me to leave my bike outside. Whatever is happening here, the system for checking in is clearly very disorganised. Finally I locate a small office upstairs where some Thai Airways people are working, and they help to clarify things with the airport authorities. They are equally angry and frustrated themselves, and eventually I'm let through to the check-in area with minutes to spare. But once inside I'm subjected again to the usual delay involving questions and a luggage search by more soldiers. I'm very conscious of the time now, but this time I somehow manage to keep my cool.

It then occurs to me that these guys are just bored and curious, so I try a more conversational approach. I start chatting with them, and show them on a map where I've been. I tell them how beautiful their country is, and the weather….and how wonderfully friendly Pakistani people are…..god, anything to make these guys mellow out. Finally they start smiling and nodding, and then wave me through. I throw everything together and race for the plane.


In spite of this unpleasant final episode, my lasting memories of Pakistan are of phenomenally beautiful mountains, and the many relaxed and friendly Pakistani people I met. I believe many of the bureaucratic problems I encountered could have been dealt with better using greater diplomacy, and understanding, and perhaps more of a sense of humour. In any case, I'm pleased to have proved many of my friends wrong about this country. Although I was glad to leave Lahore, I very much look forward to going back to Pakistan again.

Similarly, I believe the problems experienced by western women in Pakistan cities are almost always a result of inappropriate or inadequate dress. Many of the women travellers I met who had attended to these very basic requirements (covering the head, etc) experienced no problems whatsoever. Sure, women are under more constraints than guys in Pakistan….but that's just the way it is. It's a different place, and it's up to them whether they want to have a good time there, or a bad one.

My trip to Pakistan also inspired me to do some belated reading. I can thoroughly recommend the book "Kim" by Rudyard Kipling, to get an insight into the depth and wisdom of the culture in this area, along with many of the Peter Hopkirk books which give a fascinating account of the history.

Photographs from this ride are available here