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.
Otherwise it was what would be the norm for the two weeks, intermitted stalling of the engine and lost electricity. Help was at hand as the mechanic followed us on the road. Some bush mechanics and some switches may perform a new function but we were soon back on the road.
Mind you, ALL gears were DOWN. Gear change really comes from the backbone memory and it is difficult to change the habit. Particularly if you had to switch gear quickly.
The night in Naran was cold after the Islamabad heat. We had arrived in the dark the night before and in the morning we were all in awe. It was now a bright, beautiful sunny morning and we could see the snowcapped mountains in the distance. That is where we would be heading!
Filled with excitement about the day ahead, the breakfast was spent comparing stomach functions and consoling one team member who had spent the night vomiting.
Somehow one is not at one’s most accommodating mood right after waking up. Pakistanis like to serve curry for every meal, also for breakfast, or in the case of eggs, strongly seasoned omelets. Plain fried egg did not seem part of their staple diet. This was however just a small cultural hurdle and eventually easy to manage. It just had to be managed every morning in a new place. After the initial adjusting to the new culture, we were now getting a gang of it.
The ride to Gilgit was another 250km. It is possible to fly to Gilgit and to start the Karakoram trip from here. Now with hindsight it might be a very good idea. But in our case, we wanted the full experience as none of us had been to Pakistan before.
We arrived to Gilgit again in the dark and both Naran and Gilgit were very loud, brightly lit, busy market towns. Popular nightlife is walking the streets among the street vendors. No bars or pubs – remember islam. We came prepared and had acquired some beers in Islamabad to carry in the support truck and were able to enjoy our arrival beers every night!
Gilgit – Hunza – Gulmit / Nagar Valley
From Gilgit towards Hunza we were in the mountainous region and on mountain roads. Most roads were good and well paved. Landslides however, were frequent and together with the required maintenance work, caused extensive traffic jams. Local driving is sometimes mysterious but takes the traffic forward. Keeps one awake!
In Hunza, we stay at Hopper Glazier enjoying fantastic views over the mountains (Rakaposhi for one) and one of the many glaziers we were about to see on this trip.
As one person is feeling better again, the stomach problem -baton was passed to yet another member of our team. A norm for the rest of the trip.
In Hopper Valley we were very privileged to visit a local family home for morning tea. A modest but comfortable home. The home was clean and we sat on carpets and tea was served on yet another carpet, prepared for the purpose.
Very different to a western home and a special Islamic flavour was the picture of religious leader with his Kalashnikov on the wall. Farm animals live in shelters next to the low house on the hillside.
Later on the road, a punctured tire required help from a tire shop and provided a break. Cherries were in season and enjoyed directly from the tree were a particular treat! The wait took longer than we had anticipated, allegedly due to filling the tank etc but that was fine with the cherries and coffee with again, very friendly locals.
Eventually when I got my bike back from the repair shop it had no front brakes – they forgot to install the brake pads and the tank had not been filled up. No worries, our very own mechanic would sort the brakes in the evening. Filling the tank was no issue.
We had another break by a beautiful turquoise Attabad lake which had been formed by a landslide creating a dam in a river. Apparently this is not at all an uncommon situation in Pakistan, this is how lakes are formed.
Now we were on the Karakoram Highway proper and entering many Pak-China Friendship tunnels on the road.
Here Himalayan mountains and Hindukush mountains come together with Karakoram mountains and the views are simply magnificent.
The roads are carved into the mountain side and the cliff often also forms a roof above the road. When roads are constructed or made wider, the only way is to carve further into the mountain side. The other side would be just a steep fall. So no building on that side.
In some places we saw rocks carved from one side of the road being dumped and hurdled down the hill on the other side, ending in the river below. In the river long way down, an excavator would then clear the river by lifting the rocks to one bank of the river to allow the river to flow freely.
Khunjerab pass at the Chinese border
Karakoram Highway leads to China and a trip to the Chinese border was in the plan. I do not believe I will ever see anything as majestic as I did on this day. The views were simply incredible. No words can describe, this must be experienced!
Karakoram Highway is in good condition with only some stretches where landslides have caused problems. This is however a road that one should not ride in the rain – due to landslides and falling rocks!
Towards the border we were heading ever higher and it was getting progressively cooler. By the border it was near freezing point and snowing! Talking about tourist attractions, the world’s highest ATM sits here by the border!
This is also where ibex and marmot live. Marmots I saw playing on the side of the road and ibex with a telescope when a friendly local stopped me just to show the animals.
It was getting cold and as we know, the temperature changes about one celcius for each vertical 100 meters. Heading back down the weather turned comfortable very soon.
Evening meal was a tasty local yak burger at a local burger restaurant in Passu.
Shimshal Valley Road – The True Balcony Road!
A trip to Karakoram mountains is full of highlights. The mountains themselves are magnificent and today we would be riding yet another absolute highlight of the trip – the Shimshal Valley Road in upper Hunza. A very narrow unpaved balcony road high on the side of the mountains leading to Shimshal valley located at 3100 meters altitude. The road took 18 years to build (1985-2003).
Many have seen the breathtaking pictures taken on this road and this is one of the high balcony roads on many adventure bikers bucket list. Also on mine. An awaited highlight and a day full of excitement! The road truly is narrow, unpaved and challenging high on the mountainside. No railings of any description, needless to say.
It took a day to ride to Shimshal Valley and back. Not much traffic, perhaps one small pick-up truck and a motorbike all day. The high mountain road is too narrow in places for passing a car even on a motorbike but it has wider passing bays. For two cars to pass on the high balcony… I would walk rather than sit is the car.
But it is not all high balcony. There are stretches that would best be described moon-like. Flat areas with rocks that have rolled down from the mountains and travelled a long distance on the flat sandy surface.
The green Shimshal Valley itself appears from the midst of the mountains and is an unbelievable sight after the rocky and bare terrain. One can see that life here is tough but new houses are being built, made possible by the still very challenging balcony road to Passu and Karakoram highway. Simply unbelievable and absolutely breathtaking!
Here on the mountains men have thick beards. Well, most muslim men do anyway. Here high on the mountains however, I was told, the beard is also a form of sun protection! Any excuse not to shave!
Gulmit- Gilgit – Gupis – Booni
Now we were off the Karakoram Higway and on smaller and much more challenging roads. Very tough and slow riding.
We were still riding high on the mountains and at Shandur Top at 3740 meters / 12000ft altitude we visited the World’s Highest Polo Ground. Shandur Polo Festival is an annual event every July.
Booni – Chitral
This road between Booni and Chitral will be great in the future, now basically a long roadwork. For some entertainment on the road Salman had a habit of taking us away from the main road and organizing steep hill climbs with our stricken bikes. And today we had one. Tough but great fun in great scenery!
The hotels we stayed, were generally comfortable and the type one could expect. Our hotel in Chitral was funny with balconies completely without doors or like in my room, you had to climb through a window to get to the balcony. Stairs had strange turns and odd steps and were probably designed as an afterthought. Anyway, the building was new, it was comfortable and it did look nice.
A popular place to visit also for the Pakistanis with some desire for unusual freedom and even wine, is the Kalash Valley and Kalash village, located near the Afghan border by the Hindukush mountains. Here they produce wine and whiskey and women wear beautiful national costumes, reveal their faces and happily pose for photographs. Their fantastic bright blue eyes are very different from anywhere else.
The Kalash people are the smallest minority community in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. There used to be some 200.000 Kalash but now only 3000-4000 after they have been forcefully converted from pagans with 12 gods and goddesses to islam (source: HistoryPak).
Today the handful of Kalash people are heavily discriminated against and love their wine and whisky! Their village is difficult to get to due to very poor roads but it is fantastic to see and a must visit place if you are ever that way.
More faces of Pakistan here
Lowari Top Pass
Heading back towards Islamabad we crossed the longest high-altitude tunnel, the Lowari Tunnel. This is a 10,5 km tunnel under the Lowari pass where motorcycles are not allowed but instead, are taken through the tunnel on a truck.
As we did not fancy a truck ride and as Lowari is called “the Grand Daddy of passes”, me and my friend Pade decided to opt for the original hair pinned route of the pass and over the mountain at around 3100m height. Regardless of the altitude, it is the lowest pass to enter Chitral. The route was fantastic and well worth the ride. It is closed during the snowy season November to May and each year people die in avalanches.
I can see that the original pass is not for the fainthearted, but I still feel that the Pakistanis have great sense of drama as one youtuber describes the pass as the deadliest most dangerous route in the world!
Second but last day on the road and we experienced our first thunderstorm. The rain was heavy and we had been lucky with the weather thus far. Had it been anywhere else earlier on the route, the storm would have stopped us and could potentially have been catastrophic. We had a taste of what was to come in a month’s time with the floods just across the border in Afghanistan.
Mardan did not appear threatening in any way but for some reason we were told not to leave the heavily guarded hotel and were escorted out of the town by the armed commando police escort in the morning. It was a swift ride through the busy town.
The final approach to Islamabad was taxing on the riders in the intense heat over 45c. Riding times before needing a break were eventually mere 15 minutes in the afternoon. The support truck became valuable as two of the group had to opt for the car in the heat. A good reminder that perhaps it is a good idea to start the Karakoram ride from Gilgit and to fly from Islamabad to Gilgit.
Some final thoughts
I can not make justice to Pakistan or its people. So apologies if I offend anyone, it is not my intention. A visit in Pakistan raises thoughts and leaves a mark. When the world is turning to be more of the same anywhere one travels, Pakistan still is something else. It is also a notably Islamic republic, although religion is practiced in different ways in different villages.
The Karakoram mountains and northern Pakistan must be experienced to give them any justice. The mountains are big, high, sharp, colorful and majestic. The roads are sometimes tough but also a fantastic experience on a motorbike. This trip was another reminder that when traveling overland, one truly experiences the changes in the landscape and one can sense the changing culture as one travels along.
We met many fantastic and kind people. Due to the culture, when it comes to locals, it was mainly men we met. Very friendly and very well-groomed men. Male cosmetics must be big business here.
The difference between the Kalash tribe and their nearby neighbors could not be more striking. Beautifully dressed women in colorful clothes changed into brown burkas, which looked like jute bags with eyes behind the stitched bars. But this was not the case everywhere, dress code for women varies a lot from one place to another.
Although it may not be acceptable to live a secular life here, it seems possible to opt for a more worldly outlook, at least in cities. Modern Pakistani pop-culture being a good example. The two women on motorbikes in our group received a lot of attention everywhere we went.
Men run the businesses, or at least are the front of businesses and women are kept in the background, presumably making their mark in other ways. What the future will bring is a mystery but it looks promising. We saw many school children and based on this observation alone, girls were going to school and were educated the same way as the boys were.
Taliban is still making threats to Pakistan and Islamabad, even boasting having suicide bombers at their disposal (Wionews Oct. 2022. Read here and here.
Pakistan is actively trying to move from terrorism to tourism and I wholeheartedly support the move. Domestic and international tourism is picking up, although most “western” tourists that we saw were from India or overseas Pakistanis. But it is a start! If you are planning to visit Pakistan, now is a good time! You will still experience something original.
We certainly were well looked after and Salman and his team from Spantik Tours did a grand job. Thank you Salman and the team!