There are many things life that are a joke: the Chuckle Brothers, Peter Reid’s monkey head, and a secret finger salute. We didn’t expect this ride to add to the list. Over the previous weeks, our bottoms and legs had been treated to smooth roads and steep but consistent gradients. As we camped at the Nanga Parbat viewpoint, just before the road heads into a mountain valley road up to Astore then to Deosai National Park, we knew we had a climb but didn’t think much of it.
In good spirits we set off to Astore but, unlike Casper, this road was not so friendly: a patchwork quilt of gravel, sand and tarmac laid out with +10% gradients that come at you in irregular bursts. This means you’re regularly hitting maximum capacity, the lowest gear requiring monster effort, with the road surface creating a technical ride that required full attention: the road hugs the mountain side as tightly as Barney hugs kids. Visibly being able to see the road blasted away from the rock scarily impresses as the cliff edge is only metres away.
After the first hour, when we normally stop to stretch after warming up, I had already reached boiling point.
With the sun beaming down, it was a scorchio day and the shade provided a welcome break, but without the Costa Coffee, fast food joints and overweight lorry drivers. It was at one of these stops the joke list was added to: “this is a joke!” blurted from Luke’s disgruntled mouth as soon as his feet hit the shaded floor. The first such outburst I have heard from him. To cheer up the troops, inspiration was drawn from the best, and I retorted ‘it will be worth it when we get there’ and ‘it can’t be like this all day’. And it wasn’t, after we stopped for lunch by the river, where dreams of finding a leather sofa between the rocks by my feet filled my mind, the road got relatively easier and we soon reached Astore.
The challenge of reaching Astore was good preparation for the next three weeks of the most rewarding cycling, hiking and pushing. Astore didn’t reflect this feeling: Astore bazaar is a physically unpleasant place with a sour atmosphere created by a dodgy policeman that tried to make us stay in a particular hotel. We didn’t follow his advice and stayed in the contradictorily named ‘Dreamland’ hotel instead.
To rest after the 50km ride with 1,600m of climbing to Astore we planned a 26km hike with a 1,000m climb to Rama Lake the following day. On the hike we found a place to stay just before the lake and decided to stay for a few days to explore the surrounding areas. We grabbed a taxi ride up the next day in a car too small for our kit and us.
We had befriended the hotel owner and, on arrival, they treated us to their log burner as we sat in their lounge and watched the rain through the glass covered holes in the wall. This view stained our eyes as waited and hoped the rain would stop.
With a night’s sleep in a concrete fridge, the rain stopped and the following two days were some of our best yet. On the first, Adam came to join us after meeting Luke on a trek whilst I was in Islamabad. We headed back to Rama lake and proceeded to walk the ridge surrounding the lake. A fun hike with views of lakes, mountains, glaciers and good company.
Throughout the walk Luke was dreaming of walking up to a higher ridge with a visible trail teasing our imaginations. We both agreed it would be a good thing to do but some how agreed to go back to Astore the following day. The next day, with Adam continuing his own tour, we set off into the forest for an easy walk and lite bags: we were carrying only 24 biscuits. Through the gaps in the trees the ridge trail caught our eye and after an assessment by Luke that it is ‘one hour n half’ walk we made a beeline towards it.
This beeline required scaling over a river of boulders dumped by the glacier then scurrying up a gully on the mountain side then a steep, long hike up through grass and bushes to the ridge. Like all good estimates, one and half hours was closer to three hours. My legs were burning, each step compounding the pain from the previous days. The pain in my legs sank away when my eyes could finally scan the horizon. To see the mountains from a crow’s nest puts its majestic properties in perspective. There feels something incredibly innate about the desire to gain a vantage point to see beyond the arm length physical world to fill your mind with the infinite horizon of possibilities. A similar feeling you get when standing at the ocean’s edge; clouds form like waves on top of a sea of mountains that continue as far as the eye can see.
The 360 views of the sea of mountains, with Nanga Parbat greeting us head on to the south, was fantastic. I didn’t have a favourite mountain before I came, or cared to much about them, but Nanga Parbat is now my favourite.
We enjoyed the views, posed for photos, ate our last biscuits and I scratched my initials on a rock and added it to the pinnacle stack at the top to check for if I ever return.
In the time this guff about horizons and possibilities has come from my hand I can’t help wonder where these ideals of exploration, documenting and understanding the world come from, perhaps folklore of Christopher Columbus, Vikings and Captain Pugwash have something to do with it.
The impromptu decision to stop and explore the Rama area was well worth it. With a day’s rest back down in Astore we were back on our bikes to Chilm, the town just before Deosai National Park. The road was in better condition than the section to Astore but still provided some tough climbing that required me to start creating my own switch backs to add more recovery time between the irregular steep sections. The steep sections sapped our moral. To cheer me up Luke selflessly fell off his bike in a Top Gun style stunt as he tried to hold onto the back of a tractor trailer. All I could manage were some top Chilm pun jokes: ‘Mum, what should I do with these cans of coke?’ ‘Chill-m’. The mountains had suppressed Luke’s laughter, but I assured myself he was laughing inside.
This section of the ride provided a view into the most isolated and tough areas of Pakistan: small villages dotted along the valley path, the onset of snow not far away, women and children were busy collecting crops to store for the winter. Chilm is more developed but is more army barracks than town as it is on the road to Kashmir. This strategic position in the war with India meant the army guards at the checkpoint were on full alert and didn’t miss the opportunity to grab a selfie with some Westerners.
The previous days of riding and hiking meant we needed to rest a further day before the final 700m climb into Deosai National Park. My legs were still in bed from the rest day as we tackled the final ascent but we made it.
Deosai National Park is a plateau over 4,000m elevation. Nirvana educated me about plateaus so I was expecting to find a bucket and mop and illustrated book about birds. There was none of this, Kurt lied to me, but the plateau did provide an atmosphere which I’ve not experienced before.
As the mountains fall away you are treated to a big window into the sky. At over 4,000m elevation the weather and cloud formations are raw with rapid atmospheric changes providing quite the spectacle. So much so that one morning I laid, looking out of my tent from 5am to 8am, just watching clouds come and go. Unfortunately the window is not double glazed creating the coldest night I’ve experienced with temperatures falling to -4 Celsius. Truly Baltic.
Lots of Pakistani tourists visit Deosai to grab a glimpse of the brown bears that live there. There are three campsites dotted through the park in which people camp with hope of seeing them at night. Camping culture is not quite like it is Britain: one night groups of Pakistani men up turned up, shouting, playing loud music and throwing fried chicken bones all over the place. Fortunately we arrived at the end of the main season, the cold keeping most casual Pakistani tourists away for our other two nights of camping. I was not fussed to see a bear: the knowledge of being in the same habitat as them provided me with a big enough sense of excitement, and some nervy moments when hearing noises outside your tent at night.
With three nights camping, and plenty of pushing across the plateau, we reached the descent to Skardu, the biggest town in the area. My memories of Skardu reflect how my body felt: my favourite thing about Skardu was a restaurant we found that did big tasty portions and a dairy milk binge.
From Skardu, we had one last section to ride back to Karakorum Highway. This road is famed for its pass through a deep gorge. Whilst predominantly downhill, the road is under construction, and in general poor condition, it provided a challenging but pleasurable ride for four days.
We arrived back at the Nanga Parbat viewpoint, where the trip started, after 21 days: 12 days cycling, 4 days hiking and 5 days of rest. These 21 days are the highlight of Pakistan and reflected every reason why I undertook the trip.