The BIG day finally arrived and we were in Islamabad, Pakistan. Ready for our adventure ride in the Karakoram mountains and Northern Pakistan.
Our local contact Salman was at the airport to meet us and presented us the customary Pakistani flower leis, much like in Hawaii. Although I get the sense that this is where the similarities end.
Islamabad may not look like the most welcoming city in the intense heat of the summer and remembering its violent history, but the people we meet are extremely kind and ready to help us in all possible ways. We are now in an Islamic country and although we have two women in the group, the people we meet are virtually all men.
Notable exception to this is the quite amazing mosque, which we visited the first night.
After settling into our hotel, it was time to give a closer look at our bikes. We saw them briefly on the arrival and with a closer inspection, they turned out even more challenging than originally thought. Knacked Suzuki 250’s, although clean and apparently serviced for the trip, held together partly with wire and duct tape – Well, we all know that wire and duct tape often do the job!
These were really not the kind of bikes we would choose for the kind of trip we were about to embark. The bikes may be great for commuting but are not designed for off-roading or long distance riding. None of the gauges on my bike worked and turn signals had a mind of their own. It was going to be a very Pakistani experience, also in respect of the bikes. A mechanic followed us along the route and his skills were needed on daily basis.
At this point it is also worth mentioning that Salman received new bikes soon after our departure, better suited for off road riding as well. To my understanding, acquiring bikes of one’s desire is not easy in Pakistan and the Suzukis were the industry standard. On the other hand, the Suzukis were familiar to Salman and his mechanic. They knew the bikes inside-out and would be able to fix anything on the road.
Heading north: Islamabad – Naran – Gilgit
A chaotic first day riding, heading out of Islamabad in intense heat towards cooler air and the town of Naran, some 300 km north. A 12 hour day on the bikes getting used to the Pakistani road culture and the bikes with a temper of their own.
Most bikes had disc brakes in the front, some had only worn drums that were very difficult to control. Drum brakes slowed down the bike very little just before locking the wheel with a screeching sound. The result was two riders down the first day, luckily without any major injuries. Continue reading Karakoram Mountains and Northern Pakistan→
Now this is a trip I look forward to with great anticipation! Flight to Islamabad June 1st 2022 and an adventure ride on the Karakoram mountains at the western end of the Himalayas, northern Pakistan.
Officially the name of the country most of us know as Pakistan, is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and it is world’s 5th most populous country with some 227 million inhabitants, world’s second largest Muslim population. Neighbors include culturally similar India, Afghanistan and Iran. Other neighbors are China and Oman (maritime border) and it has coast line along the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea.
Pakistan is full of history and ancient cultures, too much to go through here. Most will remember from several movies and tv series that Pakistan was part of the British ruled India and partitioned as the current state of Pakistan from India in 1947. Pakistan is a Muslim state and religion was a key driver in its foundation, separating the population mainly from the Hindus in India.
As an interesting note, there is / was also East Pakistan or Pakistani Bengal, which is today since 1971 the country of Bangladesh by the Bay of Bengal next to Myanmar in the eastern NE corner of India with Indian Assam, Sikkim and Meghalaya in the north. You can read about my rides in Assam (Nepal-Bhutan blogs) and Myanmar in other posts on the Someday-site.
Per Wikipedia: The Karakoram is a mountain range in Kashmir spanning the borders of Pakistan, China, and India, with the northwest extremity of the range extending to Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Its highest peak is K2 is the second highest peak in the world at 8,611 m in Gilgit-Baltistan controlled by Pakistan.
The Karakoram has eighteen summits over 7,500 m (24,600 ft) height, with four of them exceeding 8,000 m (26,000 ft)
Karakoram extends into a popular adventure biking destination in Ladakh (controlled by India) and Aksai Chin (controlled by China).
We start from the capital, Islamabad and head north as the map above shows, touring close to China and Afghan borders. Our highest roads will take us to around 5000 meters.
Weather will have extreme variations. Pakistan has been suffering a heat wave recently, which we hope will be subsiding before our trip. However, we expect to experience from Islamabad heat of 45c/50c to freezing -3c on the mountains.
Pakistan has also had its fair share of political troubles but now the country is moving “from terrorism to tourism”. Although Salman, our man in Islamabad just posted:
“Pakistan have political issue. May be Long March on your arrival in Islamabad. Don’t be scare. Feel it normal”.
What comes to mind when you think about Colombia? For the adult generation it is most likely drugs (Medellin cartel and Pablo Escobar), coffee and FARC in that order. For the younger ones it may be the singer Shakira and world’s highest paid TV-actor (2019) Sofia Vergara.
While planning my ride in Colombia, it was clear that the country still greatly suffers from its drug infused past and is struggling to change that image.
While Colombia today is much safer than in the past, US travel advisory states: “Reconsider travel to Colombia due to crime. Exercise increased caution in Colombia due to civil unrest, terrorism, and kidnapping. Some areas have increased risk… Violent crime, such as homicide, assault, and armed robbery, is common. Organized criminal activities, such as extortion, robbery, and kidnapping are widespread. While the Colombian government signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terrorist group, some dissident groups refuse to demobilize.”
Great encouragement indeed for adventure travel in Colombia!
On the other hand, the problem locations are well identified and only covers certain parts of the country. The internet is also full of praise by the motorcycling community. Some even calling it today “A safe haven for motorcyclists”.
Perhaps I should find out myself!
This time we were be a familiar group of riders, most of whom I have earlier been in many other exotic places. Our ride took place in March 2022 and started from Medellin, which most know as the town where Pablo Escobar founded and run the Medellin Cartel, and eventually died 1993.
Our ride took us to some fantastic places and like its people, also the landscape is fascinating. Highest mountain Pico Cristóbal Colón is 5730 meters high and the area we are riding was truly mountainous.
Our starting point was the famous city of Medellin and we would be heading geographically east and south of Medellin for our ride. The city itself is a popular tourist destination and a very lively place indeed. It turned out that our hotel was just at the party district and entertainment was guaranteed. The city however, also has a very rich history and great sights to visit. Botero sculptures and museums and churches to mention a few, not forgetting Pablo Escobar museum, parks, etc. After listening the tour guides, it is still a bit unclear who the biggest villain was, the corrupt police and politicians or the drug lord. Views vary.
These days Medellin has done a lot to abolish its image and public transportation is one of the shining examples. Metro system and most notably a gondola system taking people up and down the steep hills around the city, allowing easy access to the whole town for work, education and entertainment. This system has been adopted in many cities around the country, we noticed on our rides through some of the cities.
Medellin is full of street art, mainly murals.
Three Kinds of Roads
To begin with, the area for our ride was very mountainous and therefore all roads were full of curves and bends. Great start!
For a biker, there were basically three kinds of roads. Firstly, some fantastic smooth and clean tarmac stretches that were used also by heavy goods traffic. These roads can be very congested and the only way to move forward is filtering through the traffic and lane splitting. Particularly as there were several roadworks and lines that were miles long. Hitting an open stretch of road, high speed cornering and smooth riding was a hoot!
The second type of roads were also mainly tarmac but as many areas are geologically unstable, the road could have sinked or risen suddenly for more than 30 centimeters or as often the case, could be missing any proper surfacing at all. These may come as a surprise or there could be a speed limit of 20 or 30 km/h giving indication that something strange is ahead. For obvious reasons these roads had a lot less heavy traffic and were quite entertaining to ride.
The third and the road we used the most, was an unpaved mountain road that was often really hard to ride and just full of rocks and steep inclines and declines. With slippery deep mud in the middle, as it rains a lot. Average speeds around 20-30 km/h. A stretch of 100 km could take more than five hours to complete including mandatory drinks breaks.
Temperatures varied a lot from 35c and sunshine on one side of the mountain and 10c and rain on the other. Mountain roads climbed to 3000 – 3500 meters and views over the forming clouds were amazing.
Rode down to Faaker See / Klagenfurt am Wörtensee in Austria perhaps too eagerly. Well, it was 1200+ km but I wanted to cross the distance quickly. After all it was only a transfer ride to get to where the action was.
After the 1200+ km ferry sailing, I was ready to get on the bike! I left Travemunde around 10PM in the evening and having spent the day doing nothing but sauna and jacuzzi between meals, I did not want to go straight into a hotel but decided to do a little run towards Austria. This little run turned into Leipzig 450 km later for a few hours sleep. Eating the miles is easy on a motorway but less fun, particularly at night.
Note to oneself and a top tip for the others: Do not take shortcuts at night, no matter how tempting it may seem!
I have done the run to the alps several times before and did not really expect much from the transit through central Europe. But when traveling overland, I can feel the anticipation growing to see the scenery change rather suddenly from the flatlands of Europe to the majestic mountains and alps. Always a tingling sensation in my body.
My plan was to visit the European Bike Week in Faaker See and to continue my ride south-east towards Transfagarasan in Romania.
The bike week, like many other events, had suffered from Covid-19 but now there were apparently again some 100.000 bikers congregating at Faaker see in the Austrian region of Carinthia. Strick covid measures were in place, but it was all done in very relaxed atmosphere as much as the pandemic could allow. Access to main areas and attractions were controlled and after proof of covid vaccinations using the EU covid passport, one got a wristband to avoid constant re-checks and was free to move about. With the EU covid passport life was simple when visiting restaurants etc outside the rally area.
A chance reunion and a dinner with a good friend on the first day made up for the tiring ride and meant that I had good company for at least a few days ahead.
Bears at Transfagarasan, Romania
Austria is always a great country to visit but eventually it was time to continue on. We actually found a third friend to join our team and while my two friends had plans to ride north, I managed to convince then that while we were so close by, we should all go and ride the Transfagarasan mountain pass. Since it was only two days away!
We eventually decided to stay overnight in Belgrad and as luck would have it, our hotel was right next to the bohemian quarter and some great restaurants. Catchy music by local bands and the best steak tartare I have ever had, prepared by the no 2 tartare chef in the country. Yes, they do run competitions! And preparing the steak tartare is a show in itself!
We were really lucky and the weather was clear and sunny and Transfaragasan was really beautiful that day! To top the experience, in the afternoon, on the southern descent, unbelievably we saw bears no less than nine times on the road. One even with a cub!
When on a motorbike, stopping next to the bears to take picture is a bit unnerving compared with those who were sitting in their cars. Some cars even threw snacks for the bears, apples and such. What a great and rare experience, truly memorable!