I knew it was time to leave Karimabad when i found myself at a barbecue party at two in the afternoon nibbling on a piece of burnt cabbage hosted by my brethrin travellers; the Japanese. Once i had a good look at myself, i contemplated the fact I was sitting with a load of tie-die lunatics, got on my bike and was driving north by four o’clock. It was good to be back on the road after a few days sitting about, even the potholes, the overflowing water channels which saturate my boots endeared themselves to me and plowing North-East I head for the Chinese border.
The Khunjareb pass sits majestically at the top of the Pakistani side of the Karakorum highway, marking the crossing point into China, and another road of mystique and old. I have to tick it off on my list, maybe toe the line (An expression of old) and do some more Marco Polo impersonations, on the road which leads to Kashgar, the road which begins to feel and leads to Central Asia.
Leaving the Hunza valley, the twisting roads cost me time though, i have spent too much time nibbling on bits of burnt chicken gristle and it soon becomes clear that i won’t be able to summit the pass the same evening. I begin driving faster and faster in an attempt to make the pass before the freezing sunset and to return the 80km or so to the Pakistani customs post which sits at Sost much lower down the valley. As the altimeter on the bike shows a constant rise in altitude, twice the front wheel hits sandy water and begins to lose its place on planet earth, sending alarm bells ringing inside my smash hat, that it might well be time to stop.
Pulling into the last Pakistani checkpoint, I am at 4000m and the deep blue sky is darkening by the second, the prospect of a further 17km to the pass, followed by an express train drive back to Sost does nothing for my worsening mood. Nobody comes to the barrier across the road, so i casually put my hand on the horn for a couple of minutes, which seems to be the polite thing to do round here.
Ambling towards the gate, a turtlenecked soldier approaches me with black beret, silver belt and swagger stick and makes the gesture which could drive you insane on the sub-continenet. It can mean anything from ’What do you want?’ or ‘Where are you going?’ or simply ‘Good Evening’ or any other question you may like to ask. If you want to practise it at home, take your thumb and first two fingers from your right hand and point them at an angle to your palm, then in a swift motion twist your hand and make an expression on your face like you are constipated. It helps if you have a little moustache, a slightly moronic facial expression and can raise an eyebrow on demand. The reply is to waggle your head indiscriminately from side to side, in a gesture which means ‘yes’ or maybe ‘no’. I waggle my head. Nobody understands as usual.
The Englishman on his motorbike seems deeply puzzling to the Koksil checkpoint. The border was officially closed an hour or two ago, how did he manage to decieve the customs post? I explain my predicament to the officer on duty, and within a moment i have an invitation to stay. Fantasic. I can make the pass in the morning, stay longer, take more photos and no longer risk life and limb on the icy roads. I set to work setting up my tent to the mountain back drop, while copious semi clad border guards wonder around in various states of uniform.
I’m just inflating my mattress when i realise something is not quite right at this checkpost. They are all quite clearly as drunk as skunks. And within about ten minutes so am I. Its slightly surreal really, but having three drinks at this altitude and having not drunk for a couple of months, i am all but ready to do a strip tease while singing ‘God save the Queen’, wearing a turban made from my sleeping bag, in an act of national pride (or is it embassrasment) thanks to the small glasses of Chinese rum being passed around. A large plate of charred Yak meat slips down much easier than the Japanes cabbage and gristle combination, and the atmostphere is good. The toast is ‘Chost!’ or ‘Happy’ and most of the toasting is done towards a large grumpy bear like man who sits in a gold shalwar kameez in the corner.
They refer to him as ‘Chief’ and shout ‘no problem’ at me, gesturing towards the rum, in an expression which suggests they are worried that they might be comprimising my Islamic ideals in this dry country. Polishing off the last of the yak, i think it might well be time to retire to my boudoir, but the Chief has other ideas. He is terribly upset that the rum and meat is finished, and seems sure that he must correct the situation. He jumps into his car, and zooms off into the darkness. The soldiers all tell me ’2 or 3 kilometres’ as some sort of explanation, which could mean anything. I know for certain that apart from a few cold skinny Chinese border guards 17km away, there aren’t any shops or people for atleast 50km. Even in Pakistan Chinese border guards can’t taste that great.
The car pulls up into compound once more, and the chief appears to have commandeared a sheep from somewhere. It seems terribly cross to have been shoved in the boot of a Nissan crappy, but it is probably even more cross when it’s butchered in about ten seconds flat. For the first and only twenty minutes of my life i am a converted and fully fledged vegetarian, until the curried meat is served up and i decide to give being a carnivore one last chance.
One soldier is obviously chocking on his lamb, but nobody else seems to give a damn. They point and laugh as he gradually goes blue and staggers about. I’m not sure if the staggering is because of the choking or the drink, but he certainly doesn’t look too jolly. By this point the attention of the men has turned to a rather streched punjabi tape playing from a crackly Chinese tape deck, and it still would appear that the chokee cannot breath.
I give it another thirty seconds, and still nobody seems to be taking notice to the man who now looks like papa smurf on a bad arthritus ridden day. I run towards him spilling a glass of rum in the process and promptly recall how to perform the heimlich manoeuvre. Within around twenty seconds he is also merrily twisting light bulbs and patting cows, or whatever you do to Punjabi tapes. Its definately time for bed, the stars are clear on a perfectly clear night.
The night is bitterly cold and with a bang on my door, a mug of hot tea is shoved through my zip. There is frost on the outside of the tent and i stand doing star jumps on my scrap of turf. I feel terribly groggy with the combination of rum and height, so saddle up the bike slowly and with some difficulty. I begin trundling up the 17km corkscrew to the border post, after a brief lecture where i am told ‘Don’t cross to China’, ‘Chinese Policeman Angry’, ‘Please don’t cross the border’ and finally ‘Just don’t cross the border’. The road is awful, multiple small land slides have partially blocked the road as the altitude climbs and climbs. By 4500 metres Bianca feels slow and underpowered and refuses to idle properly, she either wants to go on painfully or stop, no sitting around.
I havn’t felt this cold in a long long time. My fingers are like icicles and i can no longer operate my camera controls. I wish i hadn’t sent my winter gloves home as the GPS reaches a reading of 4600m. This river’s are covered in ice and in places the snow reaches the road, this is complimented by a brilliant blue sky. Suddenly as if from nowhere, a central asian plain appears infront of me with rolling grasslands. Asian Hares scurry about in the cold and large yaks graze slowly in the meadow. They have large horns and thick thick coats and seem to compliment the landscape, which looks more Pamirs, more Tajikistan than Pakistan. Its exotic, its adventurous, it feels slightly dangerous. This is an unhospitable place, not somewhere for humans to live or dwell, and prehaps this is the only reason it has maintained its raw beauty. I now understand why so many Chinese lives were lost building this road; its horrendous even in the warm month of June.
With the smooth white topped peaks in the background i continue along the road and stop the bike, my GPS now reads 4700m and i hope it will start again. Around 300m away sits the chinese customs post and this is the highest point i have been to on earth, so i set about photographing everything in sight. Ben Nevis sits at a measly 1344 metres and even the summit of Mont Blanc shares a similar height to my current position, and I stop and trudge breathlessly to a line painted on the road. A black asphalt, high speed two lane highway leads into China running smoothly all the way to Beijing and further to the Chinese Sea, this is the very geographical line and actual border. It is probably only 4500km infront of me, without any hazards, borders or dangers. As the old cliche goes; so close, yet so far away.
Taking a few more snaps, I look disheartedly back at the broken, bumpy, potholed track back into Pakistan and wonder. I must say i wish i had a Chinese visa, i long to visit Kashgar, to feel the Central Asian twang and once again feast on Lamb Kebob. One day i will return to this place. Securing the buckle on my helmet, my time in Central Asia is coming to an end after only ten minutes; its hard to do anything up here, cold and bleak. I arrogantly stick a foot across the line onto Chinese territory, as I swing the bike around with difficulty and press the start button. The old faithful storms into action with a new sense of urgency and eagerness. I definately made it to China.