Pakistan Zindabad (Long-Live Pakistan)
“I see my path, but I don’t know where it leads. Not knowing where I’m going is what inspires me to travel it. “
Rosalia de Castro 1837-1885
Pakistan, one of the most beautiful places on earth lies at the cross-roads of the historical silk route and the meeting point of south central and west Asia with China, Iran, Afghanistan and India as its neighbours.
The north is dominated by three great mountain ranges: the Karakorums, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kushe with 5 of the worlds 14 highest peaks over 8000 meters.
I arrived in Islamabad during the Eid celebrations in late June and I spent several days meeting and feasting with my host’s family and friends. Everyone was in celebratory mode after the Ramadam fast. Although Islamabad is the capital, it is a very relaxed and easy to move around city. It is laid out in a grid system F-9, G-6 etc. so you can’t get lost. To the north are the Margalla hills and the Parliament lies to the south.
I had brought some Irish stuff with me, flags, coasters, and CD’s of Irish music. (preserving the phone battery is a priority when travelling, so CD’s are handy). One of my many highlights was driving down Jinnah Avenue in Kamran’s car and listening to Altan’s Mairead Ni Mhaoinaigh singing “Eoghainín Ó Ragadáin” and explaining to Kamran’s daughters Maria and……….. that this was an Irish lovesong.
Is trua gán mé thiar
Ag Eoghainín Ó Ragadáin
Seachtain nó dhó go gcóiríodh
S m’fhallaing domh
Mise gach neoin a breith ‘seoladh
A chuid eallaigh dó
‘S mé bheith ag baint chnó
Faoi theorainn an bhaile seo.
It’s a pity I’m not over
At Eoghainín Ó Ragadáin’s
For a week or two until he would
Repair my cloak for me
I would be driving his cattle
And I’d be collecting nuts
On the border on this townland.
My herbal first aid kit came in handy and I managed to treat a cold with Echinacea and muscular aches with my comfrey cream. There is an opportunity for a herbalist in Islamabad!
NATCO Bus to Gilgit
The Karakorum Highway was built Between 1966 and 1978 by Chinese and Pakistani engineers, above the shoulders of gigantic mountains of Himalayas , Hindukush & Karakorum ranges. More than five hundred died building this road. The highway runs along the river Indus and later continuous to Gilgit alongside the Gilgit river.
It is not permitted to cycle the section of the Karakorum highway from Islamabad to Gilgit, so the cheapest way is a 17 hour bus trip with NATCO (Northern Area Transport Corporation). After much negotiation and cajoling by Kamran and Bilal Paktripper we got the bike on the NATCO bus and off I left at 8.00pm.
Bus conductors in Ireland don’t tend to carry guns, but the sight of a Kalashnikov in the hands of the conductor is somewhat reassuring when travelling through Kohistan, a region that experiences ethnic tensions. Besides my travel insurance did not cover me to travel on the Karakorum Highway between Islamabad and Gilgit. However, the only tensions I could see were from my fellow passengers facing into a long bus ride. The gun was not required.
8 hours into the journey we had a second stop in Besham around 4.00am for prayers and a toilet break. It was still dark, but I could make out the outline of the mountains on both sides of the road. I was indeed in the land of giants, I could feel their energy surrounding me, inviting me in.
Life is a series of unforgettable moments that gladden the heart and make you feel truly alive. This was one such memory. Cycle touring bestows these enduring memories in bucket-loads on the cyclist. And as for solo cycle tourist: well these moments flood in because they have your undivided attention.
Gilgit city is the capital of the region that is known as Gilgit-Baltistan. India does not recognise this region as part of Pakistan and classifies it as being part of the Indian province of Kashmir. This has given rise to one of the largest conflicts between these two countries. Gilgit has been an important trading post for centuries because of its situation on the silk route.
The majority of the inhabitants are Muslims belonging to two different communities i.e. Sunnis and Shias. I found it quite conservative but the people I met were very friendly and helpful. I just wore my headscarf when I went out and about.
I arrived at Madina guesthouse Madina Guesthouse tired and slightly worried about my bike since I hadn’t yet seen how it had survived the 6,000km plane and bus journeys. The owner, Szerbaz insisted that I have tea first and then later Mirzabeig took it upon himself to assemble my bike. We had stimulating conversations about life and nature and taking the time to enjoy it and peoples’ increasingly busy lives that reduces their connectedness with nature. I’m loving this country!
Cycling the Karakorum highway
I had spent years googling the Karakorum Highway and fully intended to kiss the tarmac once I hit it on the bike. The reality was that I took a wrong turn when I left Gilgit, cycled up a hill only to discover that I had to go back down again. Besides, once I was on my fully-loaded bike, I was reluctant to get off again. Just at that moment of doubt when I was wondering what the hell I was doing here, a Canadian woman (married to a guy from Islamabad) stopped in her car alongside me and hopped out to give me a hug. She wondered how I kept motivated in the vast expanse of the mountains. The kindness of strangers. Thoughtfulness and generosity flows in just at the point where you need it most!
Gilgit – Baltistan
In the past, Gilgit -Baltistan was said to be a part of occupied Kashmir. The status of G-B right now is that of an autonomous province but the political affairs of the area are in the hands of the federal government. The so-called province of Gilgit -Baltistan has still not been given its constitutional right in the National Assembly. The prime minister Nawaz Sharif, during his visit to the Attabad disaster site in 2010 had promised to give the area a separate seat in the National Assembly if his party won the 2013 elections. The people of Gilgi -Baltistan are still waiting for their constitutional rights.
Most of the inhabitants of Hunza are Ismaili Muslims and have Prince Karim Aga Khan IV as their spiritual leader. They have a more relaxed attitude to Islam and they pray themselves without the need for a “call to prayer”. There is more equality between the sexes and the region has practically 100% literacy rate. They live a very simple life and are the most warm and hospitable people I’ve ever met. Peace and education are their main ideals. They are so welcoming to foreigners and love to sit and drink chai and talk. Everywhere I went I got invited in for tea (chai) and indeed to stay the night. So many wonderful people along the way gave me cherries and apricots, the most beautiful sustenance on the KKH!
If you travel to the North, then learn the Hunza greeting. Woman offer each other their hand, take your hosts hand and kiss the back of it. Your host will do the same. Just knowing this simple gesture brought sheer delight to the people I met.
The world is obsessed with selfies and to put it mildly, I’m not a fan.
Here I am in Aliabad at 7.00am having an omelette and Paratha (bread) and the selfie-seekers found me. They were tourists loading up their van with supplies and they came inside to get a picture with me. So if you are a Westerner and travel in July or August you will be asked for selfies non-stop by domestic tourists or people from the “down areas”. In fairness if you say “no selfies” they will leave you alone and not insist. They are always polite.
In contrast, the people in Hunza never asked for selfies, but were delighted when I asked them for a photo.
“Khunjerav Pass (Chinese: 红其拉甫口岸; Urdu: درہ خنجراب) or (elevation 4,693 metres or 15,397 feet) is a high mountain pass in the Karakoram Mountains in a strategic position on the northern border of Pakistan-administered Gilgit Baltistan, Hunza District on the southwest border of the Xinjiang region of China. Its name is derived from two words of the local Wakhi language : ‘Khun’ means Home and ‘Jerav’ means a creek coming from spring water/water falling”
Pak – China Friendship Gate
Hunza Gojal | 2017
Cycling down from the Khunjerav pass was the best cycling I’ve ever experienced. Do it if you ever want to feel truly alive. It’s 80km of pure thrilling downhill cycling until you reach Sost. No pictures or videos can capture that exhilaration. Even the self-seekers couldn’t catch me.
- Arriving in Benzair Bhutto Airport, Islamabad with my bike in the early hours to a very relaxed teminal building with my guide Kamran waiting for me. It was Eid celebrations and people just came to welcome family at the airport.
- Walking up a trail in the Margalla hills at 5.00am with Kamran and Bilal and Kamran’s wonderful wife Sadaf and children, Javairia, Maria and Adil.
- Eid celebrations in Islamabad. Wonderful company and beautiful food.
- Kids chasing after me to give me apricots and cherries on my journey
- The look of delight on the face of the old lady in Passu when she say me. I had come to visit her village and she brought me in to he house for cherries
- Getting a 50% reduction for being the first foreign tourist in the Hard Rock Hotel Hard rock hotel in Minapin.
- Essakhan De Hunza tours rescuing me from selfie – seekers when I arrived in Karimabad
- Sitting on the wall of Baltit fort Karimabad and watching the gorgeous Hunza sunset
- Spent day with Zaiduddin and “superman” in Murtazabad. The beautiful necklace and purse I got as presents
- Staying with Iqbal Hussain and his family in Chalt because the guesthouse was full.
- The little boy in Pisan village who climbed a tree to get apricots and ran after me to give me them.
- And lastly cycling through the most majestic Karakorum mountains and the unforgettable hospitality and friendliness of the people I met along the way. Pakistan Zindabad