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A Short Ride in the Hindu Kush

01 June 2011

by Tim Mulliner

I woke early. Having spent the past week bedridden with a raging fever, I was eager to leave Chitral's dusty streets. As I cycled through the bazaar on my way out of town, I passed the day's slaughter being brought to market. Cuts of meat lay in rusty wheelbarrows. Flies and mangy dogs followed the procession. My stomach churned at the most likely cause of my recent ill health.

Chitral is deep in the Hindu Kush in northwest Pakistan, and a mere 30km from Afghanistan. With the Taleban and Northern Alliance doing battle nearby there were plenty of reasons to be apprehensive, and this was still a few months before September 11. My idea was to cycle a little used 'road' over the infamous Shandur Pass and down to Gilgit on the Karakorum Highway. I met one other cyclist who had attempted the route - a Dutch bloke who got fed up with the road conditions and hitched a ride in a jeep. The jeep subsequently rolled down a bank landing him in the local hospital. I wasn't deterred. After all, I was planning to stay with my bike.

Chitral was soon behind me and replaced with lush green valleys, soaring scree slopes and towering snow-capped mountains. I made good initial progress on the sealed road, riding in the cool of the morning. The following day the seal abruptly stopped and the track began to carve its way along the steep walls of the valley. Early on I encountered a jeep. I hugged the cliff face to allow it to pass on the narrow road. No fewer than fifteen men were attached to it at varying degrees of impracticability; one poor sod was hanging off the front bumper. The jeep stopped, pinning me to the cliff. The occupants smiled and asked me where I was heading. "Gilgit" I replied. They roared with laughter. "That's impossible on a bicycle". I thanked them for their concern and continued with trepidation.

That night in Mastuj, I camped in the backyard of a local Ismaili family. The Ismaili sect of Islam seems much less staunch than their Sunni and Shi'ite cousins. I spent the afternoon attempting conversation with the family's teenage daughters. After a month in Pakistan I had barely seen any women, let alone talked to any. It dumped with rain overnight and low grey clouds hung over the mountains the next morning. Not far out of Mastuj the road disappeared - a raging torrent had swept across the valley taking the road with it. Locals stood about thoughtfully stroking their moustaches. The roar of a jeep caught our attention. It hurtled towards the muddy river, hit the water and promptly came to a halt. As the current started to wash it downstream the driver pumped the throttle and by some miracle the jeep lurched to the safety of the far bank. Even with appropriate prayers to Allah, I didn't fancy my chances with that approach. I started removing the panniers from my bike. Help was soon on hand and I watched in horror as my panniers were hurled to eager hands on the other side. My bike was thrown over 'discus style' and then it was my turn. I took a long run up and launched myself into the air. Like a cartoon, the world slowed, my life flashed before my eyes and I crash-landed well short of terra firma. Gasping, spluttering and arms waving wildly in distress - my sodden body was hauled from the drink by the men on the bank. Just like Baywatch!

In seven hours I covered just 36km and ended up at a small eatery at the bottom of the pass for the night. I shared a room with a British lad and his trekking guides. We wasted no time in sending the guides off to find food. They returned with an unhappy sheep and its owner. The price was agreed at 140 Rupees (around US$2). The young shepherd shed a tear as the cook slaughtered his Bo Peep then and there. We felt guilty, but the Pakistanis showed no sympathy for their compatriot's new-age sensitivity.

The 'road', now a sketchy track, snaked its way up the valley - gaining 1500 vertical metres in just 12km on its way to Shandur Pass. I fell twice in the first two hundred metres. My heavy panniers made life tricky on the rocky path. It got tougher as I gained altitude. At times I struggled just to push my bike.

Shandur Pass is an expansive grassy plateau and home to the world's highest polo ground. Every year thousands of spectators gather to watch the tournament between Chitral and Gilgit - an event that dates back to 1936. I lunched beside the empty grounds trying to conjure up images of the commotion surrounding the tournament. An alien concept in a place of such tranquillity.

It was a relief to finally begin descending the Pass. I made relatively swift progress to Gilgit although heavy rain on the second night caused several massive landslides on the road. Villagers helped ferry my panniers over the destruction, while I followed with my bike slung over my shoulder. At one slip, a construction crew was hard at work trying to clear the rubble. Twenty barefoot men sat around a pot of boiling water waiting for the tea to brew. Beside them sat an assortment of spades and pickaxes. Behind them were boulders the size of small cars. This road was going to be closed for a very long time.

I reached Gilgit tired and weary. The scenery, people and conditions ensured I would never forget this awesome stretch of road. I leant my wrecked bike against a tree. Panniers hung off it at awkward angles and the racks were held together with wire and duct tape. In my dilapidated state, my fever returned. Both my bicycle and I were in for a long break before we moved on.

Nitty Gritty

  • It's 375km from Chitral to Gilgit over the Shandur Pass (3800m). It takes 7-10 days by bike. You could hire a 'support' jeep to avoid carrying your gear but then you are totally at the mercy of the road gods. 
  • Shandur Pass is snowbound for much of the year - June to September is the best time to travel. Be prepared for extreme weather and the effects of high altitude. 
  • Gilgit has lots of good eating spots and places to stock up on supplies. Only limited supplies are available in Chitral and there is very little in between. 
  • Guesthouses cook meals on request - dahl and lamb curry of course. Water is abundant but must be treated. 
  • Post September 11? Perhaps the Taleban are hiding on Shandur Pass offering cha to tired cyclists! Officialdom would balk at the idea of travelling to this corner of the planet in the current climate of political unrest. Even when I was in Chitral there was plenty of biffo going on over the border. Yet I always felt safe in Pakistan and the locals went out of their way to help me. 
  • This Pakistani 'stage' was just part of Tim's epic cycle tour from London all the way back to New Zealand - driven by the quest to find a decent meat pie.