Freitag, 26. Mai 2017

Cycling Karakorum Highway from Islamabad to Gilgit

Part 1 from Islamabad to Gilgit 

More than 10 years ago I first heard of Karakorum Highway (KKH) 
 It's the world's highest border crossing at Khunjerab pass between Pakistan and China. Since then it was one of my dreams to travel this road by bicycle. But there are some obstacles:
When you read travel advices from western governments intended for their citizens (e.g. from the German 'Auswärtiges Amt' or the Swiss Aussendepartement) but also from the the Pakistani government then you read a lot of security issues, especially in the district of Indus Kohistan in KPK province where the KKH passes through. There people are told to be fanatic muslims and do not like foreigners. 
Already two years ago I wanted to do the KKH but then was scared away by the above mentioned travel advices and switched to the high roads in neighbouring Kashmir and Ladakh in northwest India.
Now I came to the opinion that it is doable as there were no new incidents in the last two years.
In short: I think it is save, I never felt threatened and I would do it again. 
The longer version see below.

The KKH starts from Havelan north of Islamabad, then goes via Abbottabad, Beesham, all in Indus Kohistan. Short before Chilas KKH enters into Gilgit-Baltistan which seems to have less security issues. The border at Khunjerab pass into China opens beginning of May  and stays open till end of November. This was an important date for the planning of my whole trip.
So May 1st I flew from Zürich to Islamabad and stayed their to acclimate (mainly mentally) and get used to driving on the left side of the road. I visited a few local sights like the main mosque and main church and the national museum. The city has a generous layout and wide roads with not much traffic, hence a good ground for training. In general, also outside of Islamabad the traffic in Pakistan is much more relaxed and as cyclist you are a respected participant in the traffic, other than in India where quite often trucks push you to the side of the road or into the unpaved shoulder.
As some years before in Iran and Central Asia I tried to respect local habits and wore long trousers and long sleeves to  make the reaction of the people more friendly.
As I was still unsure about the security on the part of the road in Indus Kohistan I booked a car and driver for the 200 km between Beecham and Chilas.
After 3 days acclimatisation I departed from Islamabad on May 5th and took the road via Murree and the Ayubia Nationalpark which leads from 500 m up to 2500 m with nice views in the valleys and plains. After a long day and 118 km I arrived in the chaotic town of Abbottabad where in May 2011 a US commando team killed Osama bin Laden. After the heavy traffic in town I was very happy when I arrived in the nice guesthouse with a green garden in a quiet residential area a few hundred metres away from KKH.
After Abbottabad, before Mansehra there was a police checkpoint. These are scattered all over the land and should help to ensure security. The Pakistani government is extremely concerned about the security of foreigners and wants to avoid any negative publicity in foreign media.
First they insisted on an escort but then let me ride alone for 50 more km. Later I met other German cyclists who got an escort from there. It depends on your negotiation skills if you can continue cycling or have to enter their car. The traffic in Mansehra was quite heavy but with the bicycle I could squeeze through the traffic jam and in effect was much faster than the cars.
Before Battagram a police car stopped me and I had to put the bike into their jeep and they drove me 10 km through the town. In the town there a was a yelling pack of people but to me it looked more like fans of a cricket or polo game. At the end of their district I was handed over to the next police car but I could convince them to let me ride and they just followed me. Most part was downhill till the Indus bridge. Now I was back at that river which I already followed in the Indian Himalaya in Ladakh two years ago.
At the checkpoint at the bridge I had to wait longer for the next police car to arrive and I could not convince them to let me ride. They drove me in their car about 15 km uphill high above Indus to the end of their district. I got off their car and could ride when the next police car arrived. But obviously there was a misunderstanding and the police car did not escort me. So I was free for 5 km until a motorcycle with some sort of security caught me and escorted me to Beecham. The hotel was cheap but dirty, the view from the balcony on the roof of the neighbouring house was like looking at a rubbish dump. Furthermore I had a cricket in my room, not the game but the little insect known for making a loud noise.
From Beecham I had booked a private car to Chilas in advance but would not do so the next time. The other German cyclists I met could cycle the whole way with an escort, except for the 30km before Beecham. Other than originally planned the car was not a jeep but a normal car and could not transport my bicycle so the hotel manager organised that my bicycle was put on one of the buses staying overnight in the hotel and left already before me.
The road from Beecham to Chilas was at many places quite scenic and I regretted that I had to sit in a fast moving car instead of being able to stop whenever I wanted. Later the road conditions got worse and in summary it took us more than 6 hours for 200 km, even though we had only a few short stops at the checkpoints. Once they squeezed for a few km two armed policemen in our backseats, but I had the impression they just needed a lift from the checkpoint back to their main office. 
In Chilas the hotel was quite nice, tastefully furnished rooms in local style and a nice view over the wide Indus valley. In the next morning I had to negotiate 15 min with the policeman at the hotel but then he let me free with occasional visits of police or military cars till the big Indus bridge (Raikot) at the turnoff to Nanga Parbat. From there on it was possible to cycle free to Gilgit and till the border at Khunjerab. But as before many checkpoints which want to see or register your passport. 
The original KKH was built as gravel road in the 1970s by a joint effort of Pakistan and China. Recently China has the new silkroad initiative and it tries to develop new routes for delivering their goods. For this the KKH between Kashgar and Raikot bridge was refurbished as a perfect two-lane road with minimal climb and suitable for big trucks in the years 2008-2013. This will be extended till the port of Karachi 2000 km further south in Pakistan. But also for these remote mountain areas in Pakistan the good road offers big development chances, if goods and local passengers as well as domestic tourists can travel much faster. But obviously this change or these chances are not welcomed by many Pakistani.
The road is still quite good but in this high altitude areas needs constant maintenance. At many places landslide or rockfall damages the road but Pakistan does almost nothing to repair these issues or to clean the trenches along the road from debris and stones. These trenches should help avoid that at next rain the road gets flooded or undercut by water. I have the fear that at many places very soon the road will crumble away. 

Some km after Raikot bridge I met a German couple ( cycling home from Australia to Germany. We talked for a while, separated and met again in a street cafe in the next village where I stopped to let a bad weather front with heavy wind pass by. At the end of the day I got caught by the bad weather again and had to cycle the last hour till Gilgit (altitude 1530m) in the rain. 

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