Road tripping to Gilgit

Marie’s stomach has been increasingly complaining for a few days now. It finally gave in and she was up and down all night like a cat on a hot tin roof, with it getting steadily worse until it reached an explosive crescendo about an hour before we were due to depart Islamabad on a 7-8hr journey.

The food has been amazing, we think it’s just a combination of food she’s not used to and heat. Regardless, it was less than ideal. She decided food was going to be a no go until the overnight stop and positively sulked when her delicious breakfast omelette arrived and she couldn’t risk eating it.

Tabish was going to be guiding the Dutch guys on their trek so was travelling up with us. He met us at 8am and took us to the car, then the Dutch guys rocked up in another car. The price had gone up a couple of days before because they’d quoted wrong and they had said it might be a car each but that would be the same price as one bigger car. We each had a Toyota Corolla. It kinda defeated the point for us since we’d agreed to a car hire in order to share costs, but we weren’t overly bothered, it’s a long journey so we were inclined to pay more to not make it any harder than it is going to be anyway.

We were soon zooming down another massive Chinese made highway that was basically empty. For the first time we had some proper spots of rain and it looked like it had rained overnight. Tabish had got in with us as our driver Marney was the boss.

We had agreed to go to Taxila on the way as there is a very old Buddhist site there. Our original plan was to visit it as a half day trip from Islamabad as it is out of town but given it is on the way we’d agreed it made most sense to stop on the way. Tabish confirmed in the car that was the plan but we never stopped and he didn’t say anything else about it. We think maybe no one had told the drivers that bit. There was no apology or fessing up to a mistake though, and we were pretty annoyed as we could have used our day in Islamabad to visit it, but we let it slide.

Somewhere just out of the city we were also told that we were going to travel via Naran not Besham as we’d been intending. The reason was a landslide had almost closed the road. We’ve come to travel the Karakoram Highway so weren’t thrilled about having to leave the highway to go via Naran and then rejoin it at Chilas but we had to, so that was that. This is the only part where we have an alternative route, any other landslides we’ll be sitting them out. It is said you need a flexible mindset when you travel in Pakistan. We realised very quickly that morning just how true that is.

Before we took the detour off the Karakorum Highway we went through Abbottabad. In May 2011 it gained worldwide attention when Osama Bin Laden was killed in his compound in the city. 9 months later Pakistani authorities demolished it. As we drove through Marney pointed out the part of the city it was in.

The drivers went fast, it appeared to us to basically be as fast as they could. But Marney assured us their return would be much faster, and when they turned around in Gilgit what had taken us 2 x 7.5hr driving days the guys reckoned they’d be home by midnight, 10 hours later. We can only imagine the speed needed to do that. Even Tabish told us they’d gone fast.

The driving apparently was worse for the Dutch guys, what we couldn’t see was the manoeuvres their driver was making to stay behind us as Marney was driving his own drive and making no allowances for being in convoy. At one point their driver got ahead of us and Marney had words, he was the boss and there was to be no overtaking us.

We’d finally got into the hills proper then we stopped for lunch. They were filming for a local movie in the garden of the hotel we stopped at. We were seated us on the balcony so watching that was our lunch entertainment. Marie sulked at having to pass on lunch. But somewhere over the course of the morning she’d got her colour back.

Marney told us that the area we were in was completely destroyed by the 7.6 earthquake in 2005,  one of the deadliest earthquakes ever in Asia. It was easy to see why, the sides are sheer. It looks like they had rebuilt the buildings just as precariously.

It was beautiful scenery. From there we just kept heading up and up, into bigger mountains. The road also changed into a narrow winding chaotic typical mountain road and we started to pass through bad patches where landslides and wash outs had taken out the road.

We’d told Marney to put his music on when we’d first got in the car, so we started out with what sounded like Pakistani love ballads and eventually progressed onto something with a beat, until finally in the afternoon Tabish put his music on. He has a varied taste. Here are 2 clips of the ride:

It took us 7.5hr driving with an hour stop for lunch to reach Naran, a mountain town, at around 6pm.

Marie had a lie-down, she’d survived the fast bends and bumps but felt very tired and delicate. With evening rapidly approaching we knew our window to see anything of the town was diminishing so she dragged her ass up for a small walk. Tabish caught us on the way out and wanted us to wait and go with him and one of the Dutch guys. We explained we weren’t going far at all, just for a quick look. But he was insistent we wait for just 5 minutes, Marie protested strongly that we’d be fine, but he was still insistent and mumbling about security. In the end he said sometimes they have issues with the police. Given we’d arrived with them and companies can get held responsible for the foreigners they bring to places Marie relented but made very clear she was only reluctantly doing so to ensure they didn’t get any hassle.

The hotel security guard pointed out a shortcut down to the bazaar so off we headed. We then walked downhill through the bazaar, which was effectively just the main street. People stared and spoke and we did the same. We’d walked way too far and the walk back, given we’d just reached  high altitude, nearly finished Marie off. We ordered dinner from the hotel which was delivered with a mat so we could eat off the floor (much more comfy than the usual hunkering round a little table in the room) and then totally knackered all we could do was crawl in bed. The light was off by 8:20pm.

We were leaving at 6am the next morning. Marie stepped out onto the balcony to take a photo and one of the security guards saw her and said the hot water came on at 7am. When they understood we were leaving at 6am he quickly went and switched ours on for us. Too late to fit in a quick shower, we had a second hot wash nonetheless. We can’t recall when we last had hot water but it was a joyous occasion. Every trip we moan about how cold showers in hot climates are a form of torture. Bucket baths more so as you have to inflict that torture on yourself.

We continued climbing up and up. After an hour we stopped for breakfast near the top of the 4,173m Babusar Pass. We’d seen a number of anti-terrorism squad soldiers at breakfast. Foreigners get escorted by armed security from the top of the pass down to Chilas, as a result of a shooting attack at a bus by the Taliban in 2012. At the checkpoint Marney hustled the guards to get organised quickly so as not to delay us. It was then it dawned on us that Marney was also our fixer for the journey up. He determined meal stops, hotels, departure times and just smoothed the way. He was a very good fixer too. We only waited 2 minutes and we were travelling in a convoy behind a van with a very smartly dressed officer with a gun in the back. An ex-senior military officer and his family were at the checkpoint at the same time and he was insisting they be given security so they put them into our convoy.

The van drove far too slowly for Marney but he tried to be patient. When the other ex-officer’s car started smoking and the whole convoy had to pull over he wasn’t happy and we’re pretty sure he tried to persuade them to let us go ahead or to leave the ex-officer behind. They didn’t budge. The car got going again but drove so ridiculously slowly, Marney was going nuts. From the plates he could tell this guy was travelling in a government car so he was ranting about how he shouldn’t be using it for his own privilege. When half an hour later we were still crawling along Tabish filmed the car while Marney had a massive rant. It was hilarious. We got the jist. We asked him what he was going to do with it, apparently put it on Facebook.

He was actually happy when we got to the police checkpoint in Chilas even though we all had to traipse into the office to have our details meticulously recorded and then us be given foreign registration cards for the Gilgit-Baltistan region.

We were now into massive scenery; big mountains and big landslides. We drove through a lunch stop, instead just stopped for chai and for us to see 2 viewpoints – ‘the junction’ where the Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountain ranges meet and the Indus and Gilgit rivers also join and the second where we stopped for chai at the Nanga Parbat viewpoint (9th highest mountain in the world and the 2nd biggest in Pakistan). Both incredible places and it was nice they gave us all the time we wanted and no one was rushing us.

We arrived in Gilgit at 2:30pm. We said our thank yous and the drivers turned straight round and headed off back to Islamabad.

The company we were with have a homestay in Gilgit so we were all staying there. Us and the Dutch guys were the only guests, which was cool as we were getting along well, but meeting other travellers is something we have missed this trip, even if Pakistanis are very chatty. Not that we actually have spare time to be more social, sleep banks are depleted as it is.

Located on the edge of the city in a lovely quiet residential area made getting into town from the homestay a bit of a hassle. There is a government/military mobile network that works in all the main areas of Gilgit-Baltistan and if you’re lucky in the cities you might get some data. The homestay has no wifi and we’d likely be staying there a couple of times so we decided to head out and see if we could buy a SIM. As we walked down the hill we were touted by a young guy in a local transport minivan. Decked out including with big speakers in the back, he spoke no English. After asking for the place we were headed, which Tabish had said wasn’t far away, we then explained we wanted the SCOM franchise office and he said no problem but it’s far so a bit more money. We ended up on the other side of the city at a SCOM office with the driver acting as a broker having tried to talk to us the entire way with no English. We got a SIM card, we had to wait 24 hrs for it to be activated and put a top up on it but that was the hard part done (we thought).

While we were out we had a walk through the bazaar and picked up a couple of items like laundry soap. We also passed an Internet cafe that had wifi so for 50 rupees looked up a couple of things and checked our emails.

The streets were busy and as usual we were being stared at a lot. There is no harm or malice in it and the cockier ones will speak. You just ignore the staring and be confident, but when you have no idea what you’re doing you do become very aware of it. We had no clue what Gilgit’s transport options are so we paused on corner until a taxi drove slowly by trying to tout us. We negotiated and got in.

The journey back somehow seemed much faster and direct. We’d got Tabish to write out the homestay details as blatantly no taxi was ever going to find it. Our driver couldn’t read but he’d asked a young guy nearby who read it and gave him directions, everyone helps each other out, there is no shame in asking or arrogance in knowing. When he found our street and realised we were part way up a hill he wanted more money. We protested it wasn’t far. Then told him fine drop us at the bottom and we’d walk (on principle!) but he kept going up the hill and dropped us at our place.

A cold bucket bath, talking to the local kids and letting 11 of them queue up to take a photo with Marie’s camera, dinner and bed was the order for the rest of the evening. It had been a very long day.

Click on any photo to enlarge and scroll through

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