Its strange in Pakistan, it’s the first country i have visited where i havn’t seen a single national flag flying. Here its the flag of Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party which is all the rage. Every last car and building is adorned with her picture, the colours of the party and proporganda posters surrounding her martyrdom. The colourful trucks, a symbol and image of Pakistan, immortalize her, her sunglass toting son and party associates in vivid murals on the back of their wagons. There are seldom few truck drivers who havn’t stumped up the cash to have their General Musharraf murals re-done, it would seem that in Pakistan it’s your best bet to back the leading horse and then sing when you’re winning.
The Karakoram highway is a road of legend and mystery. Its a road which took over 5000, mostly Chinese lives in its construction, one for every 1.5km of its length linking the lowlands of the Punjab with the Chinese Border. It took twenty years of hard slog and labour to complete, the Chinese workers mainly using pick axes and shovels to fight their way through the mountains, which flatly refused to be beaten. Large signs have been whitewashed on the side of the road proclaiming ‘Karakorum HIghway; the eighth wonder of the world!’ and arguably the claim is true. The KKH has been one of my leading desires and desperations for the trip and I am determined to leave no pothole unridden in its entirety.
I leave Islamabad, past the old colonial British hill station of Muree, I wish I had a pith helmet and prehaps a good moustache, I have to settle for my Shoei motorcycle helmet and a decidedly patchy attempt at a beard, but i feel decidedly superior to the locals. Joining the KKH proper the mighty Indus river, cascades through the valley as the road passes through multiple landslides which have removed the roads surface, the mountain range desparately trying to claim back the roadside.
With kids selling Apricots from the side of the road and also throwing a few large rocks at me for good measure, more and more majestic white peaks come into view, towering over the green and forested, lush lower valleys. Soon I find myself at the crossroads of the Hindu Kush, The Karakorum and Himalayan ranges. I stand on the exact spot by the memorial for a few minutes expecting something mystical to happen; I just get rather cold and begin to realise how knackering the twisty, truck ridden road has been. Riding through a sand storm, across the mountain plains, I decide to rest in Gilgit, home of wild games of Polo and the way to China. Its taken around 17 hours of solid riding to get this far across two long days covering only around 400km. The people are blond and fair here, some with stunning green eyes and have nothing cultually in common with the Punjabi’s, and Sindhi’s who sometimes share some traits with their Indian brothers in the personal space department. It seems my only Urdu is no longer useful; ‘Please don’t touch’
With the signs now in both English, Chinese and Russian i see the first marker for Beijing. It’s marked as only 5000km by road from my exact point, around ten days easy ride across the good fast Chinese highways, it feels a little crushing and cheating that I don’t have a Chinese visa. It’s so close yet so far, i am a (big) stone’s throw away from Beijing and far far closer to my home, to Europe. Beijing felt so foreign, so distant on my last visit there, yet the atmostphere, the food, the signposts make it feel down the road. The Himalaya is only just beginning and already i am blown away.