First, before we can go, we must have some tea, please come with me said the policeman with excellent English. I had been stopped just outside the town of Besham on the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan. The UK foreign office advises against all travel on the road north of Besham until Gilgit but there was only one road so what choice did I have.
Anyway from here it looked like I was going to receive some police escorts. As the policeman explained “it’s not really dangerous although we occasionally have problems but you are a guest in our county so you need to be properly looked after”. Fuelled with tea and paratha we set off. It was not long before he jumped out and handed me over to a more serious escort. This one was a pick up truck with a machine gun mounted on top and six policeman in it. Follow them I was told and so the pattern for the day unfolded.
After dropping Gilly, Alisha and Lucy off at Amritsar station I had headed to the India/Pakistan border at Wagah. This was where we had all been a few weeks previously to watch the lowering of the flag ceremony. As it was morning and well before the ceremony started all was quiet. Clearing the border was polite and ordered if a little slow and then I got to drive through the gates where the ceremony took place. One last stop parked in front of the empty stands and then I was through and into Pakistan. The Pakistan side was much quicker. All the customs official wanted to know was whether I had any whisky, I didn’t, and then to change some money for me!
I had thought about staying at the border to watch the ceremony from the Pakistan side but instead decided to push on. Skirting Lahore I entered the motorway to Islamabad and what a delight. It was quiet and the traffic drove in an ordered way. Motorcycles, tuk tuks and tractors were not allowed, it was just like driving in Europe and completely different to India. I arrived that night at a small town just outside Islamabad, Taxila and slept in the car parking area of a local hotel.
The next day was the start of an 850km drive up the Karakoram Highway. This Highway connects Pakistan with China and was built in the 1970’s. Because of the terrain many lives were lost and the road is in constant need of attention as it suffers from landslides regularly blocking it. It is regarded as one of the most scenic drives in the world.
As I set off in the lower reaches the valleys was lush and green. I passed through the town of Abbotabad, famous for being where the US Seals caught and killed Osama Bin Laden and started gently climbing up to the town of Besham. As it was mid afternoon and supposedly the start of the “dodgy” bit I decided to park up for the night. Everything seemed friendly so I decided to go for a walk. People were very friendly, shaking my hand, saying hello and asking me where I was from. After about a kilometre two guys on a motorbike came up to me. They said I had to stop. They were hotel security from where I was parked and they said it was very dangerous and I had to go back with them on the back of the motorbike. I said that I thought that was far more dangerous so I would walk back. They followed me all the way.
The next morning was the start of the friendly escorts. As we wound our way up the Indus Valley the views became ever more spectacular. Every few kilometres the escorts would swap over to a different one, some been a policeman in the vehicle and other been vehicles in front. As we drove we could see how wild the Karakoram Highway was and how difficult an engineering feat it was. There were cleared landslides, waterfalls cascading onto the roads and traffic hazards too.
After about 70kms the escorts inexplicably stopped and I was waved on my way. As I stopped at some road works the locals came over to chat. They were curious and friendly but some police came over and chased them away. I understood they were told not to talk to me.
Later that afternoon as we entered the province of Gilgit- Baltistan the escorts started again. Some spoke English so we were able to chat along the way. They even helped me find the best spot to take a photo of Nanga Prabat, the 9th highest mountain in the world. The views along this section of the road were even more stunning and as we came out of the narrow valley we entered a broader plateau with snow capped mountains on either side.
Shortly after Chillas the escorts stopped. I was told they were not needed any more and I could drive on to Gilgit without them. The road had also considerably improved. I had now reached the point where the Chinese had recently rebuilt the road to from the border and I was told it was going to now be smooth tar all the way to the border.
It had been a spectacular days driving but a long one. As I entered Gilgit after 13 hours driving it was getting dark and I needed to find somewhere to stay. As I toured the narrow streets in the dark I was worried about overhanging wires and been on my own I could not do anything to lift them up while driving the truck through. Luckily it all passed without incident and I found a place to park and promptly headed to the restaurant for dinner.
I spent the next day wondering around Gilgit. There was not that much to see but it was pleasant enough wandering around. For lunch I spotted a cafe full of old men with their long beards and felt hats so I wandered in. Inside I was shown a number of pots with different dishes in. I went for the chick peas with some meat in it, all served with fresh Nan bread. It was delicious and a bargain at only $1.20. From there I headed over to the sweet shop. I was only intending buying a few sweets to try but there was such a dizzying array. I saw the man in front of me get a box with a selection in and as they were so cheap decided to do the same. The only problem is back at the truck there was just me and I had no one to share them with. Whats one to do? I made them last two days.
As there was not much to do in Gilgit I decided to continue on to Hunza. The weather had changed from the hot sunny day the previous day to cold and rain. As I was heading up the mountains it felt a lot colder. Although the scenery was still beautiful it was more raw and gritty in the clouds and the snow capped mountains were nowhere to be seen.
I have driven over a thousand kilometres in Pakistan in the first few days, some of it with the most stunning scenery. There is now less then 200kms to the Chinese border and I still have a week until I can cross so I need to go and see what there is to do other than just admiring the mountains out of the window.