Thursday, October 8, 2015

Discovering northern Pakistan

There is a lot to see in Northern Pakistan, as we were about to find out. The incredible landscapes just kept on coming as we travelled through this beautiful part of the world. Our first priority for the day was getting fuel though, which didn't quite go to plan... We learned two things: when you see a fuel station and are nearing the normal range of a tank; fill up! The second one was: when you're almost out of fuel, keep asking the locals as there is bound to be fuel somewhere. Pakistan is luckily blessed with plenty of small capacity motorcycles, which do not have long range fuel tanks, in short: there had to be fuel somewhere.

In the end we did find it, with the help of a local who guided us to a pump which we otherwise never would have found and which we now have in our GPS. In a small wooden shed, an older man sold fuel straight out of the barrel. The tanks were filled up with the aid of a 5 litre jug and a funnel and we could continue! Meanwhile Petra and Frank on DR650 Suzukis had decided to turn around from the dead-end road we all wanted to try. It was too rocky and too rough. Mike and Chris, (XT and DRZ400) decided to have a look while I thought I had tortured my bike and neck enough in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and thus gave it a miss. A good decision I think as Mike and Chris came back a while later, having found their limits and Mike's bashplate hitting the rocks 5 times in a row, despite having much more ground clearance than the Bonnie.

Next on the 'agenda' was a lake crossing... Quite a few years ago an avalanche had caused the valley we were in to partly flood. The resulting lake had submerged houses and the roads. Inventive Pakistani had brought over wooden boats to transport goods from one side to the other, including cars, motorcycles and even small trucks. Transporting of our bikes had thus to be done using the small boats, the loading of which was quite an adventure in itself...! The bikes had to be ridden on board via planks of dubious strength, and to make it more interesting the loading area was muddy.

Eric's big BMW was a hassle to get on board. It made me realise once more that big and heavy is not an advantage when travelling, despite Eric's unquestionable riding skills. I also realised just in time the limited ground clearance would get me stuck on the plank and I therefore dismounted and walked it, not knowing the plank I had to walk on was rather wobbly and partly broken in the middle. All went well, and with all bikes on board, which took the best part of half an hour, the two single cylinder diesel engines were fired up and we sailed through one of the most beautiful gorges ever. The water, as you can see in the video and on the photos, is as blueish-green as we show it. No Photoshop or anything on these pages. 

The water was calm, which was just as well as the bikes were in fact hanging over the side of the boats, making them quite unstable. The 'captain' who looked like a pirate straight out of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie, had told us to hang on to our bikes during the crossing, but as the water was so calm that the boat hardly moved once we were underway, we all let go of the bikes and started taking photos. About halfway during the crossing a boat appeared from the other side, so of course that was being filmed and photographed too... not realising that the resulting bow wave from the boat would cause our boat to start rocking... The captain jumped up and started waving frantically that we had to hang on to our bikes, just as well as they were standing on planks on the side stand, no rope or nothing to hold them... Had we not all reacted quickly, they probably would have been at the bottom of the lake by now! 

Unloading was easy, just a matter of finding balance and then ride the wobbly plank... feet in the air and definitely not letting go of the throttle once back on land as we rode onto loose gravel and rocks. Then all we had to do was ride away from the unloading area via a steep gravel track, the tyres struggling for grip on the loose rocks and we were away! We were one of the last, and quite possibly the last foreign motorcyclists, to use the boats as the newly built tunnel was to be opened only two days later. We're glad we could experience this, after all tunnels are easy and can be found anywhere while this was altogether reasonably unique!

On the other side the amazing nature of this place continued. We all stopped plenty of times for photos and video, or even just to have a look around. The good feeling of being in Pakistan continued, and if anything became even better. The friendliness here is just amazing. English is widely spoken and in the evening the smells and flavours of the foods being cooked is just unreal. It somehow reminded us of Mexico... The nature is very different between the two countries but the smells, flavours, colours and friendliness are all there. Despite the warnings we tried the local foods and found them beautiful. The curries and the local specialities of which we have no real idea what they were, all tasted good. The stomach problems we'd had in Kyrgyzstan and continued a bit in China were now well and truly over. Maybe the spices had sorted the bugs out? Who knows.

As this part of Pakistan is so unbelievably beautiful, and the people so friendly, we all felt we should stay a day or so. After all what's the point of travelling if you can't experience where you are? We walked to one of the restored and now open to the public castles, Baltit Fort, dating back to the time when this part of Pakistan belonged to Mongolia and was known as little Mongolia. The Baltit Fort is 800 years old, fully and tastefully restored with the help of many benefactors and volunteers. Visitors are allowed inside the Fort but only via a tour, which is very much worth it. 

Mike and I also rode to the top of one of the mountains via steep narrow gnarly roads, which apart from the views also highlighted exactly where the problem with my bike is when going off road: the weight! Just 15 kg less, i.e. my duffle bag and a couple of other bits and pieces which were now in the hotel, made a huge difference. I had wondered for a while why the bike was such a handful :-) Now I know, I simply have to drop a lot of weight.

We stayed in the Hunza valley, enjoyed the magical views as we were surrounded by several mountains of well over 7,000 mtr as well as quite a few glaciers. We enjoyed street food, which in this part of Pakistan at least, is very good and cheap. Walking through the steep narrow streets gave us fascinating views, not only of the surrounding nature but also local craftsman. A blacksmith, working with nothing but the most basic tools, i.e. a hammer, made the most beautiful hand tools. A bit further on we found beautiful wooden spoons made by hand and had any of our bike gear needed attention then it could have been fixed here too. 

Phone reception was available, although quite a few people had problems in getting connection, but internet is very slow. To be honest it was good enough to have any sort of connection really as the town we stayed at doesn't even have a connection to the electricity grid. Everything is run by generators. There is therefore at times no electricity during the day, or at least not in the afternoon. In the evening a small army of little generators supply the power needed for lights, bringing the town to life once more. There are a couple of bigger diesel fired ones too, owned by locals who then sell the delivered power on to the hotels.

Despite being a tourist area, mostly visited by people from other regions in Pakistan it seems, a hotel room for two can be had here for 1,500 to 2,000 rupees a night (15-20 dollars). Don't expect the Hilton but the basics are all there. Street food of good quality costed us 225 rupees for two (i.e. we had an evening meal for less than $1.25 each...) Of course you can also pay more in upmarket restaurants but quite frankly, having tried it, we could not see the point.