On the 19th September, 2012, we finally rolled out of the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang, China and headed south on the Karakoram Highway toward Pakistan.
The decision to cycle through Pakistan was not one we took lightly and understood the concerns of family and friends very well. It had been a politically volatile few weeks across the ‘Muslim world’, with a small but vocal minority of people reacting fiercely to the creation of a distasteful anti Islamic film by (ironically) an Egyptian American Coptic Christian in California.
Right up until our departure we kept our finger on the pulse of what was happening in Pakistan and maintained contact with friends within the country. We were reassured to find that the film was unable to be accessed in Pakistan and therefore mass hysteria has not spread as it had done in some other countries.
So we decided to go…and it was possibly the best decision we ever made.
What followed was a most intense, challenging, eye opening, rich and wonderful couple of weeks of riding the KKH from Kashgar to Gilgit Northern Pakistan.
Four days riding the Chinese side of the border (on perfect seal) took us through vast desert, arid rocky mountains, a 5000m pass onto high vast plains and alongside pristine alpine lakes, the lands of the nomadic Kyrgyz and their yurts, yaks and immense blue skies. It was barren and isolated and required us to be self sufficient which we thrived on! Every evening blessed us with a ridiculous sunset and perfect peaceful spot of land upon which to pitch the tent.
We crossing into Pakistan, over the Kunjerab pass, where unfortunately the Chinese Government do not allow independent cyclists. So bus it we did! As we crossed through customs in China and met our Pakistani bus comrades, two things became immediately apparent to me. Two things which struck me in the face time and time and time again in Pakistan.
1) The absence of women in public life in rural areas
2) The widespread and perfect use of English in much of Northern Pakistan.
I am suddenly the only woman on the bus and we are suddenly having lengthy conversations with people in English. This had become so foreign to me in China, I hardly knew the sound of my own voice speaking my native language to anybody other than Dave.
The bus crawled high up into the mountains, with the Pamir range stretching out to the West and Pakistan ahead. As we cross over the border, ditch our Chinese military guards who’ve been keeping the bus company (who might I say looked no older than about 19 years old and baby faced, listening to 90s Backstreet boys hits and playing Angry Birds on their I Phones) . A Pakistani man leans over and with a laugh, says to me ‘So we say Good bye to China……now you can enjoy the roads of Pakistan’. And boy oh boy we did. That great road threw us around all afternoon and actually left us physically exhausted with all that immensely beautiful and gigantic scenery.
We depart the bus at the border post of Sost in the Hunza Valley and from here …..we cycle.
Northern Pakistan has the highest concentration of 8000m + peaks in the world and we were fortunate enough to cycle through them under perfect blue skies everyday. Much to our surprise, large sections of the KKH have just recently been sealed which made for hugely pleasurable and relatively easy riding!
IT WAS AMAAAAAAAZING!!!!!
Autumn colours were beginning to creep up the hillsides and splash the trees with rich reds and brilliant yellows, the mountains pierced the blue skies above our heads, the trees were so heavy with fruit it literally dropped onto the road, little mudstone villages hang precariously on the steep slopes of the valleys as if suspended almost in mid air, mountain streams erupt from the mouths of glaciers at 5000m above sea level and from here water is diverted through an intricate stone handmade system of irrigation canals, cut into cliff sides and feeding the villages up and down these otherwise barren valleys.
The people of the Hunza Valley practice a unique form of Islam called Ismaeli. This branch of Islam is relatively liberal, very peaceful, values hospitality and places a huge emphasis on education of both men and women. I would go so far as to say that The Hunza Valley felt like Heaven on earth. It was safe, peaceful, had an abundance of locally grown food and the most hospitable people I’ve ever met. We have alot to learn from the Pakistanis when it comes to welcoming foreigners!!
We were overwhelmed by their hospitality and were invited in for tea and chapatis more times in a day than we could handle. People were constantly offering us apricots, walnuts and apples from their trees..there was only so much weight in fruit our bikes could handle.
But despite all this hospitality and all the great conversations we were able to enter into (about everything from politics, religion, atheism and agnosticism to mountain climbing, cricket and the fall of tourism in Pakistan) I was never able to really talk to a Pakistani woman. I missed this alot and was struck by the fact that all the talk of progression and improvement of women’s situation in Pakistan was being told to us by men. When I asked if women learnt English as well as men in Pakistan, I received a mixture of responses. In Ismaeli areas I was told they did learn but they were shy, in areas further south I was laughed at once for asking such a silly question.
As we travelled through Pakistani, I went ‘under’ the veil’ which was a fun and frustrating experience at times. I had alot of time under there to think about all these issues, the role of women in Pakistani society, how your dress sense influences deeply your perception and sense of yourself. No grand conclusions as yet as this cold require a life time of thought and research and the answers still wouldn’t be clear!
After a few hundred kilometres of awesome and perfect riding , we were sad we had to stop in Gilgit. Sectarian violence has made the area south of here on the KKH unstable and too dangerous to travel independently for the time being. We were put onto a bus which joined another 20 buses and was escorted through the night by an armed local police force.
We were finally spat out the other end in Lahore having had a blast of a time and for me, being left with more questions than answers about Pakistan , its troubles and its beauties and what the future holds for the place.
There really is so much, TOO much stored up in us now from our time in Pakistan that it is impossible to articulate it all while it is still so fresh and close. I think it will take time to process a lot of the experiences and conversations and they will trickle out over time.
I don’t think I’ve ever fallen quite so in love with a country as I did with Pakistan and I am left feeling hopeful and yet concerned for what its future holds with corruption rife within its political arena and religious and sectarian issues simmering and often boiling over, with ongoing border issues with India over the Kashmir dispute and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, with the North West Frontier and the ‘Talibanistan’ there are no shortage of issues for Pakistan to deal with. But I am filled with hope when I think of all the wonderful people we met there, the courage they show and the pride they feel for being Pakistani.
I will watch with a keen interest as Pakistan carves a path for itself into the future and I sure hope it involves a whole lot of women!!
……..There will be photos to follow so watch this space!