Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Karakoram Highway - Islamabad to Gilgit

On the way to Gilgit, there is a stretch of road (between Besham and Chilas) that is home to communities that follow a particularly strict form of Mohammedism and which have a reputation for being particularly inhospitable with foreigners (especially women). Further, following some recent events near Chilas, it was not clear that we would even be permitted to make it the entire way on bike. In a decision that took all of 10 seconds, Gerry and I decided to shuttle to Gilgit and start our ride from there. There has recently been an increase in the number of police checkpoints and we were told that we should leave some extra time to accommodate for that.

We left at 3am.

Even in the darkness of the early morning, it was exciting to be on the road. Trucks here are decorated with every detail; neon lights, reflective paint, chimes that jingle while the truck is in motion. I felt as though I was back at burning man.

I drifted in and out of sleep as the van rocked back and forth with the twists in the road, until we reached Battagram (about 50km before the problem area). At this point, we were asked to register and wait for a police escort. While waiting, Gerry and I found a small concrete pad from which we had a decent view of the valley. We stood there and pointed at the views until we were advised that this was the place where people come to pray. It was a good reminder of how easy it is to inadvertently offend!

From Battagram, we had a relay of police escorts, tagging off every few kilometers. One ran out of gas. Finally, they just sent a policeman with a large gun to ride shot gun in our van. This continued all the way until Gilgit. It was quite evident that we would not have been permitted to ride through by bicycle the entire way to Gilgit, anyhow. Taking the van was a good choice.


We saw thousands of people along the road today as we drove through one village after another, carving through the valley created by the Indus river. Of the thousands of people that we saw, only four were women. It was like 600 kilometers of men, many of whom had long beards and serious faces. It made me glad to be in a car as I felt that I had no place here. I wondered if this is something that I would have noticed or been so sensitive to when I was younger.


We arrived in Gilgit after 14 police checkpoints (and as many different escorts) and 19 hours of driving. We are staying in an overpriced hotel by the raging Indus river. Tomorrow, we will take another rest day, before continuing north, unescorted, in the direction of China.


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