Cheeks As Pink As My Kashmiri Chai
The Story of our Winter Ride 2017
Breath constantly steaming, air so cold it bites deep in the lungs with every inhalation, cheeks flushed pinker than the strongest Kashmiri tea, light snow flurries as a sun snow shower breezes past. We walk up the main market street of Karimabad in search of a store that will sell me a flu remedy...
Back track in time to about six weeks prior...
"Maybe we could do a Winter Ride," said Lizzy
"It will be freezing dude," said Shah
"Yessss it will be," Lizzy replies with a manic grin.
Four bikers on three bikes decided to throw all attachment to being warm and cosy out the window (or in this case thrown off the back of the bike), throw caution to the wind and head into the wilds of winter north.
So our plans were set and we committed to riding towards Khunjerab Pass along the Karakoram Highway, a ride we did not that long ago in summer months — but we wanted to see how it was in winter. In the lead up to our trip I saw a post on a facebook group from a fellow Aussie asking for biker company in Northern Pakistan, rider buddies who could help "pull each other out of the mud and snow". Enter Dutchie a biker enroute from UK to Australia on his 800cc Triumph, we were fortunate enough to be trippin Hunza style at the same time. Also coerced into this madness came Matt, another Aussie traveller, found chillin at the same hostel as Dutchie. So 3 half crazed Aussies and one extremely calm Pakistani, decided to embrace the sub zero temps and take to the open road. Shah (the calm Pakistani) fondly referring to us 3 thereafter as -
all these muthaf*ckin Aussies :P
Shah and I headed out from Lahore and were meeting the others in Islamabad... then the heavens opened and we hadn't even left the city outskirts before getting completely drenched. I'm talking a serious dumping, a tidal wave of water pouring from the sky, thunder, lightning and all! So after some faffing around with purchasing extra plastic to cover our gear we finally headed off, already cold and soaked through. By the time we arrived freezing and shivering at our hotel in Islamabad some 6 hours later we were more than ready to crash for the night. Shah lovingly passed on his cold flu type bug to me and while he was getting better I was getting worse. So now Shah had a miserable patient on his hands! Cough cough splutter snot. "Lizzy drink this", said my bearded carer... I'm like, "What is it?" staring suspiciously at something disguised as Chai (I then learnt it is called Johar Jushanda, a herbal mixture that you can blend into tea and it actually does help)... followed by some syrupy sweet bright red tonic that tasted like drinking pure treacle. I'm now an initiate in local Pakstani healthcare :D
It continued to rain heavily all the next day.
So after a rest indoors, spending a full day staying warm, we met the other two Aussies the following day at their hostel, with a full crew of locals standing around to cheer us on our merry way. We decided to try our luck at the Nathia Gali road. Ummm maybe not such a great idea in the end. The rain that fell heavily the last couple of days was falling just as heavily in the form of snow in the hills and so the roads were jammed with locals trying to see the best snow everrrr. Which meant of course crazy ass traffic stuck going nowhere, thank goodness we had bikes to duck and weave... certainly not my idea of fun sitting in a car stuck for hours. Still, Pakistani people have a way of creating fun wherever they are, why let being gridlocked put you down, just jump out of the car and start a BBQ and do the Pakistan dance, arms waving, head bopping... no one's going anywhere, so we may as well party the afternoon away... of course this ensures that no one will ever go anywhere as the drivers have all abandoned their cars. My party is your party, whether you're in a rush or not. Just chill dude, this is Pakistan!
Being on a bike has excellent advantages, traffic jams don't usually apply. So weaving through the worst of it we headed on up the road as snow got thicker and slipperier. As I was riding buddy on the back, I hop off through some of the worst of it to promptly be literally pulled into a jeep... "I give you lift," says random driver heading up the hill... ummm ok sure. That was great until I realise he's wanting 10000 Rupees for the ride that I didnt even ask for. After some negotiations between Shah and the driver we agree on 300 rupees for the 1 kilometre journey to the point where I was left standing alone in the snow wondering if the bikes would even make it this far. The snow was very thick at this point.
I find a local hotel, the only place that seems open and chat in very broken english and my pathetic Urdu. My new found friend tells me we can't go any further as the road is blocked with heavy snow and won't be cleared for at least another 24 hours. Hmmm now what... stay here and wait the night? The hotel is ridiculously expensive. I head back out onto the road and wait for the others. Just when I think that probably they're actually stuck down near where the jeep took me and I start walking back down the road, around a corner appear Shah and Matt on the Suzuki 150s. There's no sign of Dutchie.
Abondoning our plans we head back down the way we came, slipping and sliding through the slushy muddy snow that covers the road. We find Dutchie a couple of kilometres back down the road with a somewhat stuck bike. Turns out the 800cc isn't so good at handling the heavy snow conditions and Dutchie already dropped her a couple of times. Now we have the added hurdle of trying to turn said bike around without dropping her again. We begin clearing snow from the road trying to get a surface that's grippy enough to perform a world class icy road u-turn.
Ultimately we get her round and we all ride back... into Islamabd to start again the next day, only this time straight up the main route out and onto the Karakarom Highway.
Dutchie and Matt have never been in this part of the world before. This is something that really drives Shah and I to do what we do... we love sharing travel experiences in Pakistan with others, the real joy that spreads across peoples faces as they see the mountains for the first time is truly beautiful. There are certain places in Northern Pakistan that are mind blowingly amazing, but it's also the initial stages of heading north that make me smile. As you head towards Besham, meet the Indus for the first time, see the mountians growing around every turn, the connection to earth grows, the heart sings. Doing this trip on a bike is just amazing.
The ride continues pretty much smoothly now until Chilas. We stop at all the usual police check posts, become gobsmacked as we see the first glimpse of high snow covered mountains, ride cautiousy around the occasional rock fall and small landslide. The only real delay is the major police base check post at the border into Gilgit. Here we wait for what seems like an eternity while the generator is fired up to get enough power to work the computer and camera for our entry ticket. We start to sing to entertain ourselves and choose a tune or two from our phone. "No music" says our Police friend. Whoops ok sorry... So we sit quietly instead, discussing what the dude in the lockup must have done to warrant his stay. We discuss that we heard that Gilgit has a zero crime rate, and we wonder if that's true. Is being found guilty of excessive hospitality and drowning someone with unlimited supply of chai a lockaupable offence?
We arrive in Karimabad, it's already dark as we take the turn off the main road between Alliabad to Ganish. We accelerate up the hill but don't see the speed bump in the night light. Whaaaaa, we get air, bums bouncing high off the bike, BANG!... That was fun :) I will always remember this bump from now on, be warned it's lethal and definitely designed to be taken slowly :P
...it's insanely cold. The hotel has a gas heater but the supply cuts out at 9.30 pm. I wear everything I have to bed including my down jacket and beanie, drifting off to sleep watching the steaming breath surround me, a self made mist. I am feeling dead from the cold/flu bug, and can't eat the BBQ chicken that my Bearded Carer has bought for me. He's disappointed, but I just can't stomach it right now, although I really appreciate his attention and desire to make sure I'm ok. I just want to sleep.
Next morning we walk up the market street in search of the flu remedy. The light snow but crystal clear air is uplifting. We smile at the mountains around us, feeling the snowflakes fall on our cheeks. The locals tell us this is the first clear day for the last two weeks, so we are extremely grateful that we've arrived in a moment when we can see all the mountains around. There's nothing much open as it's the off season but we enjoy the calm and quiet.
Dutchie and Matt decide to hike all the way from Karimabad to Duikar to take in the view. We rest and ride up later to join them for some hot chips. It doesn't matter how tired, sick, energised or whatever mood you're in, the view at Duikar (near Eagle's Nest) is always going to ground you. This is where true perspective opens up your heart and mind. Deep breath. Peace.
The extreme cold gets more intense the following day as we head further north towards Passu but thanks to our layering, thermals, down jacket, windstoppers, merino wool neck warmer and gortex coat we barely notice on the bikes. In fact just by looking you'd not think it was that cold. There's not much snow which surprised me, but given that it's a dry climate with little precipitation it shouldn't have surprised me. The biggest give away are the frozen waterfalls by the roadside and ice lining the creeks. A stop at Attabad lake however brings home the chill in earnest. It's windy and it bites.
It must be about minus 20 degrees celsius. That doesn't stop us frolicking around at Hussaini Bridge. It really is such a beautiful place to experience. Locals use this bridge to cross to their fields further up the valley on the opposite side. They carry huge loads on their shoulders walking briskly across the bridge without holding on, clearly well practiced. Matt heads off as if he's also been crossing this routinely. No fear, just go. We have a chai break and boiled eggs at the little Tea Shack opposite the path down to the bridge, this has become one of our favourite chai stops on the Karakoram Highway! But my flu is just too much and combined with the extreme cold Shah and I decide to finish our winter ride only a little further north at Passu. We turn for home with a short visit to our friend and mountain guide Rehman at his place in Ghulkin. We are warmly welcomed and offered tea made from boiling water in the biggest kettle I have ever seen, it's the size of about ten of my kettles back home. The heat radiating from the pot belly stove warms us deep down to our bones and for the first time in several days I feel actually comfortable. It's a shame to leave so soon but we have a long ride back.