Khunjerab, Avoiding holes and Pakistani milk tea
Trip Start Feb 05, 2009
29Trip End Dec 16, 2010
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So here we are in Pakistan, the country that so many people fear for at the moment, mostly because of all the negative media attention. Parents who will sleep worse, friends who think we are mad to drive through this country at all!
No Pakistani border check-point in sight for the first 87km (the official part will take place in Sust). We are driving on the famous Karakorum Highway (KKH)! And Frits is going strong…fuming a bit of black smoke, but going uphill easy peasy. I am very proud and happy about this. See…this LDV is not a bad car at all ;-))
The KKH is a High (altitude) Way, but unlike the name it has no resemblance to a highway as we know it! The road has been build between 1963 -1978, and is now again under construction by China. It is more like holes with a bit of road…and the further we go the worse it gets! Now it is not the altitude but the crazy holes-avoiding-driving that makes me fear for Frits! I will never again complain about Kazakhstan roads, they are amazing compared to this ;-))
We cross a few police check points at which we are kindly offered the national drink: Pakistani milk tea (black tea with a lot of milk and sugar!). No time to linger, so we continue. The road finds its way through the mountains, following a river, like a little back road into a hidden valley. Everywhere we look the mountains seem to look higher and higher, the light reflecting a palette of gold, red and brown; very difficult to capture on photo.
Then we are at Sust, a boring little place, where we have to fill out a health form, get the official Pakistan entry stamp and the Carnet de Passage is filled out for the first time! Quick van check and we are allowed to leave, total time: 20 min. Welcome to Pakistan!
Getting late, so we stay here for the night, the people direct us to Hotel PTDC, one of the government owned hotel chain. Throughout our stay in this country we will park more times at a PTDC, either on police orders or by own choice. Funny detail: At all hotels they have exactly the same menu (and prices). New country,: so new currency, language etc. From now on Assalom Alekum!
The next morning we are enjoying our milk tea, eat chapattis and arrange with a business man to change some money! Rupees is the new currency. We follow the road further down to Gilgit, but as the road gets worse, we travel even more slowly. It takes us the whole day to get to Karimabad, only 100km in 9 hours! We are in Hunza valley, surrounded by high mountains and decorated by beautiful autumn colored trees and bushes! We find the perfect parking spot at one of the hotels. The manager is bored stiff because of lack of customers nowadays, so invites us for a tea. Even recommends us to stay bit longer so we can do one of the tracks into the mountains. But with parents worried at home, we decide to move on. At the parking we meet some other overlanders, a german couple and some cyclists who made their way here via Iran and South Pakistan. We are definitely not the only ones traveling here. A lot less since 9-11 however, when the tourism industry received a huge blow, leaving many hotels and restaurants half empty. Such a shame, cos the people are so hospitable and the scenery so beautiful! Maybe difficult to imagine back in Europe, but it is really not only what you read and see in the media! I urge all travelers to cross through this country, enjoy a milk tea and get to know this culture. It will change your preconceived opinion for sure. In Shalla! (With the will of Allah).
Once we stop at a petrol station for lunch. And again I see these amazing Pakistani trucks. They are decorated with beautiful paintings, colorful decorations and all sorts of ornaments! On the outside and inside! I can imagine my van all done up like that one day. As I am taking pictures of one the trucks, the guy opens the door, so I can have a look inside. He even tries to tell me that I can ride with them, as they turn the car to fill up. So enthusiastically I jump in, not telling Mira, as I am it will only take 2 seconds….that is until I find out they are turning onto the road…with no intention to turn back. Oh oh! After about 1km I can make it clear I am not coming with them and I get out. In the meantime the guy a the petrol station has told Mira that she should get going, because I am already on my way to the next to city with the people in the truck!!!! Somehow we miss out on each other when I walk back, so when I get back, Mira is already gone to find me. Only to get reunited again 5km later, when a nice Pakistani man drops me off at a police checkpoint, where she just found out I have nót crossed here yet! Will I ever learn???!!!
KKH continues: slowing down every 500m for yet another road construction detour….and this for about 160km! Trying to avoid pot holes, rocks and other traffic in between! Making it to Gilgit with a soar back and butt! Poor Frits, poor us! But Madina guesthouse makes us forget very quickly. What a nice place with helpful staff! And the house guest, an old but wise man, who is eager to welcome us! We can park our car at the car repair place next door and use all guesthouse facilities. No extra charges, how great is that! Turns out this is the same place where Yvonne and Frank stayed 7 years ago. Some things never change ;-)) Mira is not feeling well and I need a break as well, so we decide to stay here for some nights, enjoying Pakistani food, read a book and discovering street life, which is dominated by men. But must admit, does not feel intimidating at all. It is just a way of life here.
Far too quickly we have to move on again. Could stay here much longer, but the good thing is that you can always return to a place, and that is what I will do one day!
The next 300km, which takes us 2 days we spend driving in convoy with an Austrian couple and even some armed police escort for part of the way. It remains unclear why that part supposed to be unsafe. On local and tourist advice we park on hotel parking every night (PTDC or other one). No problems, nice and friendly people. We sleep in the van as usual.
Note to all you overlanders: From Besham going South the road is getting better!
Sticking to the KKH and GT-road we make it to Islamabad, where we can park cheap and save on the tourist camping ground at Jasmine and Rose Garden. Here we meet up with Altaf, a guy we met in Gilgit, who can help us find a garage for some much-needed repairs on the van! Turns out some of the bashers have gone and steering part needs replacing. Also the stairs have kissed some hard rocks and has gone a bit crooked. The car repair shop is nothing more then a big parking where each mechanic has its own space to work. As soon as we turn up, 6 Pakistani men dive under the car, taking it apart, each one playing a different role. Improvising is what they do best here, something the mechanics in Europe are not allowed to do, due to the strict procedures and quality regulations! While they are working on the van, Altaf and us are jumping into a rickshaw trying to find the replacement part! Going on a special sightseeing tour! It took a whole day, but in the end (almost) all is fixed for less then $50! Thank you Altaf for all your help, translating and good laughs!
Islamabad – Lahore – Wagah. We make it easily in one day. At the border we enjoy our last Pakistani meal and milk tea when one guy comes and warns us that we should hurry if we wanna cross into India, customs is closing soon. So after drinking our tea, we race inside. The Pakistani officials run with us, stamping our passports, filling out the carnet the passage etc. Only 5 min. to get through the gate….but it is too late. Even 10x please does not change the fact that we do nót have a diplomat passport and are too late to cross over to the Indian side. The only option is to stay at the border till the next morning.
Not planned, but our last night in Pakistan turns out to be one of the best! Sharing a meal with the PTDC staff, talks in the special smoke room, milk tea with a feel good teenage movie, a Punjab breakfast and hot water shower the next day! Only after several milk teas and another border-almost-closing warning we make it just in time to cross….going into India, our final destination. After 13.820km and 14 countries it is time to discover this spiritual country that I have heard so much about…