As the dark brown brake fluid seeped on to the ice, I knew I was in trouble.
After riding some 3 hours on compacted ice and snow, up and over the world’s highest paved border crossing, my luck had finally run out – the Tenere lay on its side in the middle of the road in the fast fading light, still high in the Karakoram Mountains. It had been a victim to a momentary lapse in concentration and an accidental neutral when rounding a bend. With no braking power or grip I’d gone over on my side.
36 hours earlier, I’d left Kashgar in western China with Brett, an Aussie, and Hassan, a fellow Brit in a Nissan Pajero 4×4. Hassan was towing Brett’s KTM, after he’d broken his foot riding across Kyrgyzstan the week before.
We’d formed our group in Kyrgyzstan 6 weeks earlier to split the costs of the guide that the Chinese Government requires foreigners to have. We were a group of stragglers – the last overlanders of 2015 trying to cross through the Karakoram Mountains before the Central Asian winter set in, border crossings were closed and roads iced over until the spring.
I was originally meant to be part of a group crossing China at the end of September, all the way to Laos. But on the way to the border I’d taken a puncture to the front wheel and went over, breaking my foot in the process. After 4 weeks on crutches in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, and another 2 stressful weeks of waiting for paperwork, we were raring to go.
An ancient trading city that was once at the heart the network of Silk Roads that linked east and west, Kashgar marks the start of the 800 mile Highway, which ends just north Islamabad in Pakistan.
The day’s ride south was fairly unremarkable to begin with. But the size of the mountains slowly grew as we headed south past the huge Karakul Lake and the landscape soon opened up to the huge panoramas for which the Highway is famed. We were treated to a golden sunset reflected on the snowy peaks as we made progress south.
With the exception of 60km of roadworks, the roads were good and our little group was soon strung out, meeting again at nightfall in Tashkurgan, the last Chinese town before the border.
After taking 2 hours to complete the usual customs formalities at the vast complex on the outskirts of the town, we left our guide behind to be shepherded south by Chinese border guards towards the border at the famous 4,700m Khunjerab Pass.
And this was the point where the scenery turned up to a Spinal Tap ‘Level 11’ on the ‘epicness’ scale as the jagged, snow capped peaks flanking the road grew and grew.
Brett and Hassan soon went ahead in the Pajero. I would only see them once again, that evening just over the border. I carefully negotiated the last 10km of compacted snow and sheet ice on the ungritted road. Slowly the road wound its way upwards until, finally, the famous huge concrete arch marking the Pass came into sight.
There was only small amount of time to really take in the huge scenery – and to remember to switch to the left hand side of the road. The road conditions would stay the same for another 40km down the other side, requiring a painstaking crawl around the hairpins, resisting the temptation to reach for the brakes and relying almost solely on the engine instead to slow the bike.
It was just 5km before the end of the ice that I went over. After slipping around on the ice for a bit doing my best Torvill and Dean impression, I got the bike back upright with the help of some Chinese truckers who arrived shortly afterwards, I soon realised that I was not only now without any front brakes but the brake pedal was also bent up at 45 degrees.
This was going to be interesting.
Nonetheless, I figured that the bike might be rideable and that I didn’t have too much to lose by giving it a go. Turning down the suggestion of waiting for a truck, I cleared the final 5km of ice. I figured if I could ride the bike on that, then I could ride it the remaining 30km of cleared road to Sost, the first town of any kind over the border.
Threading my way through the mountains in the dark, under a full-moon, was a ride that I’ll never forget – at times the peaks loomed like a gaggle of peering giants, as me and the bike tootled along at no-more than 30km/h, dodging the remnants of the rockslides from the October 2015 earthquake.
I finally coasted into Sost at about 7pm, freezing cold, tired, and welcomed by customs and immigration formalities that were thankfully quick.
After 2 months of often muted Central Asia, a change of energy and the colourful atmosphere was welcome.
I decided to try my luck of the pick of truckers’ lodgings and stay in Sost. Hotels in this part of the world are basic, to say the least – minus 20 at night and no heating, so I was soon to bed wrapped in all the clothes I could wear, huddled in my sleeping bag for good measure too.
The next morning, whilst relishing the truly Wild West feel of the town I managed to find a local mechanic to bend the brake pedal back to shape. But this far north, bikes don’t have hydraulic brakes so I was still without the front brakes. I’d have to wait, and ride another 40km or so to Ahmadabad, the next major town.
Once again the ride didn’t disappoint, despite the difficulties with the bike. The huge peaks jutted high in the sky, flanking the road as it twisted and turned following the Hunza river. Tootling along at no more than 40km/h allowed me to take in the huge scale of the scenery, breaking out the stove mid-morning for a good old British mug of tea, whilst surveying the view around Pasu Glacier.
Then, the first big sight I’d really been looking forward too – the bright turquoise waters of Lake Attabad, perfectly reflecting the mountains around it. Until recently, this was where the Highwa’s route was interuppted – the Lake was created by n earthquake in 2010, severing it. Since then, crossing it using small wooden boats was an iconic part of the journey. Now, the boats now stood idle by the shore – the Highway had finally been repaired and reopened just two months earlier.
Shortly after the Lake, the mountains gave way to the Hunza Valley with its terraced hills reaching up all the way up the the mountains’ peaks. At Ahmad Abad, the security stepped up a notch. I was allocated my own AK47 wielding policeman and this turned to my advantage – he quickly became a de facto guide, helping me find a mechanic to help get the front brakes working again before escorting me to nearby Karimabad, with it’s spectacular views of the valley, where I stayed the night.
The next morning it was time to move again – but not before a quick scoot up to the ‘Eagles Nest’ providing the best views of the valley below, riding up a natty winding road up from the valley into the mountains through villages, terraces and fields, where the locals were hard at work.
At the first checkpoint of the day I was told I had to wait for a Toyota Hilux pick-up – a ‘mobile’ – to escort me to the next stop, some 40km up the road. This was to be the flavour of the next few days, as I continued to make headway to Islamabad – handed from checkpoint to checkpoint by each mobile, sometimes having to wait for the next to arrive. Two guys in the back with guns, one up front with the driver. On the odd occasion there was a fourth in a roof turret, squatting behind a heavy machine gun with an army helmet on.
The roads were good and the scenery didn’t disappoint. I arrived at Gilgit in the early evening, escorted right to the front door of a hotel and told I wasn’t allowed to leave without calling the police first, for them to provide an escort. There were 4 hours of electricity a day, the hotel owner told me. Two in the morning, two in the evening.
As we sat white wrought iron chairs on a beautifully manicured lawn in the centre of the courtyard at breakfast the next morning, in a scene that wouldn’t have been out of place 100 years earlier, a lively conversation ensued about the security situation; his view was that the police were being too heavy handed in their approach to security, seeking to create extra work to justify their existence and being sure to avoid any risk at all, should something happen to a foreigner. And to be honest part of me sympathised with this view.
Four days in, and the ride was living up to everything I’d hoped it would be. But there were few opportunities to get off the beaten track due to the police’s instance that I stayed on the main road and wait at each checkpoint for an escort. Hotel accommodation for the next section was trickier and the condition of the road deteriorated in places; I was having to jockey with huge old Leyland, six-wheeled ‘jingle’ trucks, 4x4s and whatever else happened to be on the road to negotiate the potholes that spread the width of the road.
Just before dusk, after much asking I’d finally got permission to ride solo. I’d taken the view that waiting for an escort at each stop and so ending up have to ride in the dark was far more of an immediate threat than anything else. I would still have to check-in at each checkpoint, but not need to be escorted closely all the way. Hotels were few and far between but I had one in mind. I rode on, reaching it just after dark – to find it was closed.
“Hello, dear. This is the local police commander. You can’t stay here I’m afraid, dear…” As anyone who’s visited this part of the world will tell you, Pakistani-English and Indian-English often doesn’t seem to pick up on how different phrases are appropriate for different genders.
This slightly surreal conversation was taking place over a mobile phone at a petrol station close to where my hotel was meant to be. I was about to accept the petrol station owner’s offer of letting me sleep on his floor, when a patrol had turned up. They’d put me on to their commander to explain that I needed to ride on into the night for another 80km to Besham, the nearest place that was considered safe for me to stay.
So, despite my best effort to avoid it, I found myself riding at night again on one of the world’s most dangerous roads. Luckily the conditions had improved and the traffic had died down. And just as I found on the first evening, the solitude of riding on into the night gave me chance to reflect on the sense of the occasion, as I cruised alongside rivers, over bridges and through villages.
A couple of hours later, filthy, knackered but, for once, not cold, I pulled into the Pakistani Tourism hotel in Besham, which was also being used as accommodation by the local police. As I munched my way through my portion of sweet and sour chicken, I was monosyllabic with the policeman who tried to talk me, as they stood around me in flak-jackets, helmets and casually brandishing their AK47s.
I was finally within a day’s ride of Islamabad. Friday marked one week since I had first crossed into China, 5 days since beginning the Karakoram Highway. The mountain scenery gave way to bright green foothills, with terraced plantations and then, finally, the urban sprawl north of the capital.