Leaving India was a slow process. Our 4th border crossing involving India and the difference from the other 3 was remarkable. No old tin sheds, this was a big complex. Security was over the top, resembling airport security. The bike was searched, we were searched, and the process took at least 2 hours. We did get offered tea and biscuits though!
Once through immigration and customs we still had further security until we crossed to Pakistan. Pakistan felt different from the moment we crossed the border. We were welcomed by the single army officer and directed to immigration where we were processed quickly and then directed to customs, who were also quick and efficient. They exchanged some money for us then told us to get going quickly to try to beat the rain (we didn’t, but did not get too wet!)
The road to Lahore was quiet until we got to the city. Unfortunately we chose to come in on the road undergoing repair, it was busy and muddy but eventually we got to our hotel.
Lahore is a large bustling city built around an ancient walled city. We walked through the old city where small streets run off the central road. The streets are too narrow for cars, only bikes, push trolleys and people. The rest of Lahore is modern with wide streets, shopping centres and several parks. Security was evident, with traffic stops where drivers and riders were checked, we had to produce ID a number of times.
We had been in contact with the Motorcycle Association of Pakistan, and from the start their members had been helpful with advice and hospitality. We were invited to homes and taken for coffee numerous times in Lahore, Islamabad and Mansehra. We have found people to be very friendly and have been approached many times by people to see if they could help us, often this led to offers of tea or a meal.
We went from Lahore to Islamabad, not a bad drive, but annoying that motorbikes aren’t allowed on the motorway so we had to go through cities and struck lots of roadworks.
Islamabad was founded in the 1960’s. It has lots of wide main roads and is easy to get around, but we found it difficult to find some places as entry is through service roads and we found following google maps didn’t work so well. It is a modern city though with everything you need.
As soon as we entered Pakistan we noticed the difference in the drivers. In the cities road users follow road rules, stay in the correct lane, stop at traffic lights, give way, don’t speed. Overall the drivers are much more courteous, tend to move over to allow passing on dual roads and there is much less use of horns. Unfortunately as we have headed north, we have noticed a change with more overtaking into oncoming traffic, less courtesy, more use of horns, and cars trying to push us off the road.
Our plan was to head north along the Karakoram Highway (KKH), spend some time in the Hunza Valley and then cross into China. There have been massive landslides caused by unseasonal rains which blocked the highway for many days.
We travelled north to Mansehra via Abbottabad, made famous for the US raid which claimed to kill Osama Bin Laden and in which a US helicopter crashed. Information about the road was difficult to obtain and inconsistent. We were advised it would be another 4 days and then on the same day received information that the road was open.
We planned to leave Mansehra early the next day, expecting to get to Chilas. Locals informed us it would take about 4 hours. We arrived after a 12 hour day. We had police escorts most of the way. Additionally we had numerous "foreigner registration" check post stops which took 15 minutes minimum while our details were recorded....together with photos with the police at several!
We had been told the KKH was a good road. Apart from the recent landslides which caused delays it was not too bad to Dasu. After Dasu the road deteriorated, even without the landslides the road was full of potholes and slow going. We stopped overnight in Chilas. The poor road continued about another 60 km. It was a relief to reach the new road about 60 km from Gilgit. There were still many landslides, but between these good stretches.
We passed through some amazing scenery. Always there were snow topped peaks and far below the Indus then Gilgit rivers. We skirted around stark tree-less mountains and through green valleys. We stopped overnight in Gilgit then decided to head on to Hunza Valley for several days.
It was only when we got to Hunza that we discovered that the road north of Sost was still blocked by landslides. Hunza valley is very picturesque and not a bad place to spend some time except for the cold! We are in a hotel hundreds of metres above the valley with views for miles. The local people are very friendly and helpful. They pride themselves on their level of education, and most speak some English.
Getting information about how long it was likely to remain blocked was impossible. We were told everything from 4 days to one month, and we had no idea who to believe. We decided to go to Sost and see what we could find out. It seemed that NATCO and immigration had the best information. We stayed at Sost over a week. We experienced freezing nights but beautiful sunny days, except the 27th, which was the day we were supposed to originally cross to China. It was cold, wet and there was even light snow, hate to imagine what the pass would have been like!
After a few days of getting conflicting information about the KKH and how far it had been cleared, we decided to go for a ride to look for ourselves. Even though the road was blocked we still had to endure yet another police check 5km out of Sost. We travelled approximately 32 km out of Sost. We saw many sections where landslides had been cleared, including tunnels where glaciers ran over the top. Entering and exiting one in particular was a bit scary as rocks were still falling over the tunnel opening due to ice melting as well as slippery ice on the floor of the tunnel. We rode to the start of the Kunjerab national park where we were asked for $8US each to enter. We decided not to proceed due to the cost. However fortunately we had a lengthy discussion with the park workers, who assured us the road was fine for the next 25km and would be cleared in the next 2 or 3 days. So we said we’d see them in a few days and returned to Sost.
Similar to Myanmar we needed a guided tour for China. We had contacted the company when we first heard of the road blockages to see if our tour dates could be altered if necessary, and were assured this would be possible due to the circumstances. The tune changed throughout the month, and a week before we could get through we were advised we could have a one week extension at no charge, after that it would cost $US500 for new permits. We thought luck was finally on our side when we were advised the road would be open on May 3rd, the last day the tour company had advised us we could get through without additional charges. Unfortunately when we contacted the guide we were advised we would need to pay for an extension as one day was not enough permit! So much for allowances because of natural disasters😡.
If we had been advised the road was still blocked and we had to wait so long before crossing to China before we left Islamabad, or even Manserah, we would have looked to go through Iran. Unfortunately information sharing in Pakistan is so poor, l doubt anyone outside of the Gilgit Hunza region even knew there was a problem with the road past Sost. We discussed turning around, but decided to wait. The thought of 800+ km of riding back, a lot of that through poor roads due to the landslides was bad enough, but factor in the police escorts and multiple checkposts and turning back was an absolute last resort.
We went to Sost as it was the only way of finding information. I doubt many people spend a lot of time here. There is only so much you can see on foot, and 2up on nearly ½ tonne of motorbike isn’t the best for exploring the Karakorams. We did visit a couple of small villages, it is like stepping back in time to see the low roofed houses and stone walls. The landscape is harsh but stunning.
We were lucky with our accommodation in that we were able to use our camping cooking gear rather than eat at the local restaurants. We bought meat at various butchers, and local vegetables. We have had beef stew, lamb stew and chicken stew! Vin has again proved to be a great cook, although we did get a bit stewed out! Some unsweetened Aussie multigrain bread would have been nice.
This is a bit more long-winded than the usual posts as we have had time on our hands. The motorbike has been scrubbed, the oil changed and the side tubes lowered. We have shaken hands with every second man in the town and even spoken to one or two women. We have learnt to predict when the power will be on, and learnt to shower with a dipper and bucket and lukewarm water.
Some final thoughts on Pakistan...
The good things - people are very friendly, we had lots of offers of help. Accommodation and food is cheap, English is widely spoken, fuel is cheap, the KKH is mostly a good road although the landslides have done a lot of damage. The scenery is stunning through the Karakorams, some of the villages are really pretty. Despite the official warnings, we felt safe.
And the bad - we saw women casually dressed, out and about in Lahore and Islamabad. From Manserah until Hunza we hardly saw a woman, but saw hundreds of men standing around in groups especially in Besham City and Dasu. In Hunza, women, some with heads uncovered, were out and about. We were told this was because they are Ishmali Muslims, however in Sost, where they are the same religion, we rarely saw women and were told they stayed at home in the villages while the men come in to town.
The locals consistently told us that we were safe, and that there was no terrorism threat, however we had police escorts from Manserah almost to Gilgit. In Manserah we had 4 armed police to take us shopping. In Chilas we couldn't step outside the hotel gate without security, and even got followed walking in the grounds. But in Dasu, driving through a street full of groups of men, somehow our escort got lost, and we didn't get picked up again for several km.
There is no coordination between escorts. At times we were made to wait as we were either too early or too late, or perhaps they were having lunch. At one stage our escort was mounted on a 125cc scooter! At times we left the escorts behind, if we hadn't who knows what our 13 hour day would have become. Our final escort disappeared somewhere south of Gilgit. We were asked where our escort was at the next checkpoint, but allowed to go on unescorted. Other foreigners told us they had escorts much further. We felt safer travelling at our own speed anyway.
Then there are the checkpoints! We lost count how many times we were stopped for passport checks in Pakistan. Eventually we worked out that it was sometimes quicker to handover photocopies of passport, visa and registration number, but not always. Often we had to fill in what looked like school exercise books with our details. Yes, the internet does exist in Pakistan, but it hasn't helped improve police coordination. We also had to have official photgraphs taken, almost like going through immigration again. Our attempts to explain to police, officials and locals that this entire process was incredibly frustrating, bad for tourism and totally uncoordinated was invariably met with the same reply "but it is for your security". I guess at least it keeps people employed! In a couple of words "bureacratic nightmare"......
And finally.....misinformation. Yes the road is open, so we were told many times, but of course it wasn't! No you can't buy jackets in Gilgit or Hunza....actually you can, plenty of them! Yes there are plenty of ATM's in Sost....we only found one and luckily we carry a visa card as well as mastercard. Yes there is internet in Sost....if you are a local, as foreigners can't legally get a Sim that works in Sost, and there is no wi-fi, really helpful when you are a tourist! You can't contact your family, you have no contact with onwards tour companies, nothing. Luckily a stranger took pity on us and assisted with internet access!
All in all it is hard to recommend Pakistan as a tourist destination, not because of any security issues, and certainly not because of a lack of things to see, but purely due to the ridiculous bureaucuracy.