Before I went to Pakistan to cycle the Karakoram Highway, two people who know the country well gave me warnings. One said that to use a cashpoint in Islamabad was taking your life in your hands, such was the probability of robbery at gunpoint. The other told me that while 90 per cent of the Pakistanis liked the British, the rest were not so keen.
A couple of weeks in, I was sitting at Baltit Fort in the Hunza Valley of northern Pakistan telling all this to a local man who had asked me about my impressions of his country. He looked out over the valley – reportedly the inspiration for Shangri-La – and said: ‘It’s bullshit.’
He was right. Pakistan has its problems, but from what I saw in the very northern tip of the country, he summed it up perfectly.
The Karakoram Highway links Pakistan with China. The road is on the right.
The Karakoram Highway, KKH for short, runs from near Islamabad, 800 miles through the Karakoram mountains, over the 4,900-metre Khunjerab pass into China, and down to the city of Kashgar. Our trip went on to Kyrgyzstan.
I had wanted to cycle the KKH for 30 years, since I was last in Pakistan. I had read of its stark beauty and the friendliness of the people. I also wanted to see how it felt to cycle from one culture, race and landscape in Pakistan to a completely different one in China, simply by crossing a mountain range. And different it certainly turned out to be.
Back then, I was in Rawalpindi, near the start of the highway, but still 600 miles away from the interesting part in the high mountains. I had limited time, so I decided on my other option – to go back to India and meet the Dalai Lama.
I never regretted that decision, but the KKH was always in the back of my mind. Two things stopped me. I didn’t want to do it while my mother was alive, as last time I was there the worry almost finished her off. And in that 30 years, the news reporting of terrorism in Pakistan made me think it was dangerous.
When my mother died in 2016, I started to think about it again, and even more so when I discovered that whatever was happening in the rest of the country, the extreme north was still as peaceful as it ever was.
In September 2018, I finally cycled the KKH. It was everything I hoped it would be. A sensational place to be, let alone on a bike. Five of the world’s 14 peaks of 8,000 metres or more are in this part of Pakistan, where the arid climate makes for scenery like nothing else on earth.
But it is the people who really make the area. We couldn’t cycle 100 metres without someone shouting out “Hello! How are you?” The adults were often more excited than the children. Life expectancy in the upper reaches is said to be 120.
An example, from a village called Minapin. I passed a school and as ever, the children outside waved, smiled and yelled out friendly greetings. After returning their smiles, I cycled on.
A couple of hundred metres later I looked back to see a crowd of 30 or 40 children running as fast as their legs would carry them up the hill after me. They didn’t know quite what to do when they got there and when one of my riding companions asked if she could take a photo, they took fright and bolted, like a flock of sheep.
They didn’t go too far, and in fact they didn’t mind at all having their photograph taken at all, especially when I lined them up to try on my bike helmet. When we were finished, a small hand pushed a walnut into my palm and they went back to school.
A minor episode, but similar things happened all the time. Any stop would find the whole village gathering round. Respect would be shown to the older men, and space given for them to come and meet the visitors (although Shangri La hasn’t got quite as far as extending that honour to the women).
There was a time when the KKH and the Hunza Valley was a popular tourist destination. But then came the attacks on the World Trade Center, to say nothing of the assault on the Sri Lanka cricket team in Lahore in 2009. At that Baltit Fort, a Tibetan style fortress high in the mountains, before 9/11 they had 250,000 visitors each year. This year it was 50,000.
Last year, just 3,699 foreign visitors went over the Khunjerab pass into China – an average of 10 per day.
The KKH is in fantastic condition for cycling with very little traffic. So much so that I wondered why it had been built at all. The highway was paid for by China, and while trade between the two countries has increased, from what I saw it has gone up from nothing to next to nothing.
At best, the Chinese are buying influence in a sensitive area. At worst, that road could one day be full of military vehicles.
For the first time in my life, I did the tour as part of an organised and supported group, run by an adventure travel operator. I did feel unbelievably soft for not having done the ride solo, but this trip would have been very difficult to do without the experience of guides.
My experience 30 years ago taught me there’s nothing quite so red as the tape you find in India and Pakistan.
Little problems with permits and local customs can soon turn into big ones on the Indian sub-continent, but these were patiently sorted out by our British and local guides, who knew what to say, and to who.
The food was great – if a little samey in Pakistan – and every night we got the best accommodation available. Sometimes that may not have been saying much, but that’s the way it goes in remote parts of Asia.
While the KKH would put the condition of most British roads to shame, we did two excursions off it on (to put it mildly) unsealed tracks. I wished I’d put mountain bike tyres on my Roberts Roughstuff, because I found it impossible on road tyres. I travelled in the van and missed what others said was the best ride they had ever done.
After such a great experience in Pakistan, we arrived at the border in great spirits, ready to joke and pose for selfies. But then we crossed into China, and all that suddenly changed.
My friend Giles Rees has a literary blog, Horla, where you can read a version of these articles, and a lot else.
Click on any of the pictures below to get a slideshow: