– The adventures of a solo round the world cyclist –

TV INTERVIEW!

Here is the TV interview I mentioned in my diary a couple of weeks ago. It was such a fun experience. One interesting thing is that everything behind the couches (except my bike) wasn’t actually there – it was just a green screen!

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Day 787 (Pakistan Day 26)

The Khunjerab Pass is the gateway between China and Pakistan. At 4,693m, it comprises the highest paved international border crossing in the world. Getting there involved the biggest day I have ever had on my bike. It took me 8.5 hours to cycle the 84km to the Pass. This included seven hours of pedalling and 1.5 hours of resting/eating/photo-taking. I was unprepared for the cold at the top, which was covered in snow. Wearing only my bike shorts and packing only a light rain jacket, I couldn’t help shivering uncontrollably. A policeman manning the border gate lent me a pair of gloves as I shot a video and took some photos. Some Pakistani tourists wanted to record a video interview with me, but I was simply too exhausted and feeling sick from the altitude to comply. At first I said okay, but then their first question was, ‘How do you feel about being in Pakistan?’ As maybe the thousandth time I have been asked that question, I couldn’t help but close up and say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do this’. As I finished filming my own little video, I was called over to the border gate by the Pakistani policeman. A Chinese border guard on the other side was demanding to see my passport. With my mind not working clearly, I handed my passport to the Pakistani policeman. Fortunately, he had the sense not to hand it through the gate and into the Chinese guy’s hands. By this time my mind had caught up with the situation and when the Chinese guy said, ‘Give me passport’, I answered with ‘Why? I’m in Pakistan and not entering China’. I took my passport and walked away, immediately beginning to worry about what my reception would be like when I try to enter China tomorrow. I finished my video, then rode back the short distance to the Pakistani police’s building, where I asked if I could sit inside and get warm for a few minutes. I was welcomed into a room where two policeman were sitting next to a little furnace to keep warm. I settled in front of the furnace too and enjoyed a friendly chat with the police. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay long. It was 4.30pm and I still faced an 84km ride back to Sost. I bid my farewell and gritted my teeth against the cold as I started the long descent home. It was just on dark by the time I rolled into town, about 12.5 hours after leaving. I couldn’t face having a cold shower, so I wiped myself down with wet wipes, then ventured out for dinner. I revisited my little restaurant, but was told they don’t have proper food to offer as it’s the first day of Ramadan. I was directed to a place down the road that was making dinnertime fare, filling myself with daal fry and chapatti. All I could do then was stumble back to my room and pass out for the night. There are very few times in my life when I have been as exhausted as I was at the end of this day.

Nearing the top

Accommodation $ Hotel
Distance ridden today 168.44km
Average cycling speed 16.6kph
Total distance ridden 19,164km
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Day 786 (Pakistan Day 25)

I got up as the sun started warming my tent. I planned on having a slice of Apricot Cake as part of my breakfast but my shrunken stomach only accepted one paratha and a couple of boiled eggs. The ride to Sost (the last town before the border with China) was fairly short, but nice. I can now say with certainty that Passu is my favourite place I have seen in Pakistan. I also really liked the look and feel of Morkhun, which I passed today. Everyone here was cheery and I received enthusiastic greetings from men, women and children alike. Even the girls made eye contact and offered hellos before I had a chance to say anything. In comparison, Sost is a very ordinary last stop and I have found little special about the place except for the hills from which it’s carved, which are pretty spectacular, albeit less so than the scenery of the last few days.

On arrival in Sost I went straight to the NATCO office to secure a seat on Monday’s bus into China, given that China does not let you cycle over the border. The ticket price was 2,800r for me plus 800r for the bike. I was unwillingly accompanied to the bus office by a guy who wanted me to see his hotel. I followed him and looked at a couple of rooms. I decided the guy was nice and decided to stay, choosing the cheaper room (500r, AU$6.25) as my own. After getting clean, I walked into town for food, choosing a little roadside restaurant where I got biryani for 150r (AU$1.85). On my way back to the hotel I bought a coke and some chocolate bars. Once in my room, I settled myself on the bed, put in some ear phones and proceeded to drink my coke and munch on my chocolate bars while listening to music and dozing peacefully.

In the evening I went for a walk to hilltop that overlooks Sost before returning to the same little restaurant for dinner, where I got chicken curry and chapatti. The chapatti was the best I have had in all of Pakistan: thin and crispy in the centre and thick and soft around the edges. As I ate I got to know Abbas, who runs the café and hopes to open his own travel agency one day. After dinner, I bought some snacks to get me through tomorrow. I’m planning to cycle to Khunjerab Pass and back!

On the move again

Accommodation $ Hotel
Distance ridden today 41.84km
Average cycling speed 14.5kph
Total distance ridden 18,995km
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Day 785 (Pakistan Day 24)

I couldn’t bear to leave the beauty of Passu so soon, so here I am again for a second night. I had pretty much decided last night that I’d stay again and the deal was sealed when I woke up lacking energy with a headache and a queasy stomach, of which I think the altitude is the cause. Unfortunately this meant I didn’t feel up to exploring the area like I’d planned. Instead, once my tent got too hot I lay out my sleeping mat outside and chased the shadow of a small tree until it was non-existent. By this time Ahmed had come to check on me. He kindly prepared some green tea to ease my headache and some rice soup to alleviate my stomach woes. I continued to lie around until about 3pm, when I moved shifted my tent to the front of the restaurant. Last night I had woken up to find my tent sitting on a shallow pool of water, a consequence of being located too close to a garden hose. I lay down for another hour or so before going for a walk through village. My love of the place only increased as I got a closer (albeit superficial) glimpse of local life here. On my return home I sat out the front of the restaurant with Ahmed and asked him questions as the sun went down.

I learned that fresh drinking water is available all year, even when the place is under a thick blanket of snow, courtesy of bores that access underground water fed from springs and snow melt. Sewage is managed via septic tanks. When one is full, it is closed and another opened nearby. The mosque and school are community centres, but all other land is privately managed. The people of Passu follow the branch of Islam called Ismailism, which is relatively open-minded and gender-equal, compared with other sects. Women work alongside the men and prayer is community-based, with both men and women gathering together at the mosque at particular times to worship and hear community news. Before the 1970s, when the first Karakoram Highway was constructed, Passu was only accessible by foot traffic (the old Silk Road being located in another valley). Construction of the Karakoram Highway has ruined the peace and natural beauty of Passu and the widening of the road as part of the CPEC plan will only further disturb the quiet little town without bringing any benefit to the local people. The government does not care for the plight of people from the Northern Areas when they are distracted by the glimmer of the money they are getting from giving the Chinese greater access to Pakistan.

How nice!

Accommodation $ Cheap camping
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 18,953km
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Day 784 (Pakistan Day 23)

I am sitting out the front of a restaurant called Glacier Breeze and the cool wind ruffling my hair tells me how it got its name. As the rocky hills across the valley from where I’m sitting lose the last streaks of gold from the setting sun, they are slowly losing their dramatic texture and dissolving into a band of mixed greys. Their spiky peaks are as clear as ever though, silhouetted against a pale blue sky. Alongside the river that runs through the valley is a humble village nestled amongst trees and small garden plots. The walls of the local homes are made from stone, while their flat rooves appear to be made from earth packed onto tree branches. I long to get a glimpse beyond the closed wooden doors, but alas, the private lives of the people that call this paradise home remain a mystery. I am in Passu, a place that has stolen a little piece of my heart.

My ride to reach here was glorious. I took my time as the beauty of my surroundings increased every kilometre. I braved a short walk along the suspension bridge at Husseini, famed for the generous spaces between its wooden planks which make for a thrilling (dangerous and unnerving) stroll. Not long after I bumped into a guy I had met at the Adventure Foundation back in Islamabad – he will be leading a group of cyclists through Gilgit-Baltistan in July and was scouting the route and accommodation options. I left my bike at a roadside café and took the chance to get a ride in his car to Borith Lake, which I was told is the highest saline lake in the world. This fact is not quite right, but it’s still fairly high (2,600m) and is a pretty sight. On arrival at Glacier Breeze, I set up my tent, had a wash and then treated myself to the restaurant’s most famous dish: Apricot Cake. I am just about to eat Apricot Chicken for dinner, after which I will crawl into my tent and listen to it sway gently in the ever-present cool wind.

Not bad eh?

Accommodation $ Cheap camping
Distance ridden today 51.5km
Average cycling speed 13.6kph
Total distance ridden 18,953km
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Day 783 (Pakistan Day 22)

Having packed a bag last night in readiness, I got away quickly in the morning and began my hike before the sun’s heat made me think twice, but for the life of me I couldn’t find the path on which Roshaan had taking me the day before yesterday. I could see where I needed to end up however, and I slowly made my way there on a circuitous route. Eventually I came across a spot I recognised. When Roshaan and I had hiked out there, we’d stopped at a point where a torrent of water divides the two opposing cliff faces along which the hiking trail runs. The rushing water appeared to create an un-crossable barrier, but I was determined to get across. It was a little hair-raising, involving one flying leap between slippery boulders, but I managed to find a way to the other side. I had a vague idea that the trail leads around the mountainside to Eagle’s Nest, but I wasn’t certain. Whether or not I made to Eagle’s Nest, I knew I would have a nice hike nonetheless (the incredible views in every direction making certain of that), so I pushed on. In the end I came across Eagle’s Nest without knowing it. I was dodging the settlement when I happened to see a little sign mentioning the lookout. I had until then assumed the lookout was at the top of a massive hill to my left, which was the highest peak in the area and which I didn’t have the time or energy to climb. The view from Eagle’s Nest was very nice and I shot a video before wondering how to get back home: do I walk the very long way back along the road, or do I backtrack the way I’d come? I decided to backtrack and brave another flying leap across the dangerous waterway.

I had only taken a few little snacks with me so I was starving by the time I got home. As I was having lunch at Rainbow Hotel, I got chatting to three other diners who turned out to be two brothers and a sister. Long story short, they invited me to join them on a drive into Hoper Valley, where yesterday I’d been too lazy to visit. Described as the most beautiful in the Nagar district, the valley was a beautiful sight. I joined my new friends for dinner, meeting their mum in the process. With her kids translating, she asked me all sorts of questions about life in Australia and I in turn learned a lot more about life in Pakistan. She was particularly interested in understanding how I could live a life that was so independent of my family. Aren’t I neglecting my family, particularly my parents, by being away from them for so long? The questions stem from the fact that in Pakistan (and generally speaking) parents work hard to support their children well into adulthood, even providing land and houses, and in return they are cared for by their children as they get older. Families are much tighter as a result, with many generations living under one roof. It was a while before I satisfied her concerns – the effective point of my explanation being that in Australia, we work hard to create a secure future for ourselves so that our kids are free to live independent lives, relieved of the burden of caring financially for our parents. This system is also buoyed by our relatively good health care system and other forms of government assistance.

Seeing my first every glacier

Accommodation Guesthouse
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 18,902km
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Day 782 (Pakistan Day 21)

I had grand plans to sleep in, find some WIFI, catch up on diary entries and explore Hoper Valley by bicycle. Having completed the first three of these, I slowly realised I really didn’t want to do anything physical, lest I completely destroy my legs. It was nice to choose relaxation over adventure for once and I really got the feeling that I was on a holiday. To aid the relaxation process, I indulged in a good amount of medicinal herb through the afternoon while sitting under the thick foliage of fruit trees. It proved to me good thinking time and my body appreciated its lack of movement.

One astonishing thing happened while sitting back gazing at the tree branches above and I promise this isn’t a drug-induced fantasy. To set the scene: I was sitting on a chair on one of several grassed terraces that extend up a hill. Each terrace is supported by a rock wall. My chair was located about three metres away from the rock wall holding up the next terrace and the top of this walk was approximately the same height as my head. Now for the action. Out of nowhere came a massive explosion from somewhere seemingly far away. About four seconds after the explosion came the sound of rustling leaves, getting closer every second. Have you ever seen The Patriot? Remember the battleground scene where a cannonball is fired and flies straight at the camera before taking off a guy’s head. As the sound of something flying through the trees continued to approach, this scene flashed through my head and I really thought a cannonball was on its way. Instead of a cannonball, it was a big rock. It crashed into the ground on the next terrace up and bounced/rolled/slid straight towards my head. I was ready to dive out of the way, but fortunately the rock came to a stop on the edge of the terrace. Actually, it came to rest right on the rock wall as if it were a part of it. I was sufficiently disturbed from my afternoon session of relaxing to decide I would be safer indoors for a while.

In the evening I dragged myself onto my feet for a walk in town, where I bumped into Piru, a Pakistani guy who I met in Gilgit. After having tea and cake at Café De Hunza (to utilise the WIFI), we were invited by one of Piru’s friends to have a tea, which turned into a delicious BBQ dinner. Back at home, I enjoyed some more of the same relaxant I’d had earlier, along with some ‘Hunza Water’, the local liquor, which I think was made from mulberries.

Not a bad place for it

Accommodation Guesthouse
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 18,902km
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Day 781 (Pakistan Day 20)

I reluctantly emerged from my tent around 6.30am, my legs showing no sign of having recovered from the strenuous activities of the last two days. As I packed up my camp and prepared my bike, my legs began to loosen up and my doubts about how I would get through another day on the bike transitioned into excitement about what lay ahead. Fuelled by a plain paratha and a fried egg, I hit the road and continued my way upstream along the Hunza River. Once I again I passed through some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen. So dramatic and mesmerising. I think could be entertained for hours just sitting still and studying the colours and contours of the land. I rode well and didn’t feel as if I struggled too much. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, from the old guys sitting on shop doorsteps to the police manning the highway’s checkpoints. Even the girls offered smiles and hellos instead of avoiding any kind of interaction like in other parts of Pakistan.

It was around midday when I came across the sign pointing towards Karimabad. Getting into town involved the steepest climb I’ve had for months, but fortunately it only lasted for a few kilometres. I wasn’t really sure where the centre of town was, but decided I may as well continue uphill as far as I could be bothered. Just when I started thinking of turning around and exploring some other roads, I spied a sign announcing the presence of a guesthouse down a narrow lane. I had passed many other hotels and guesthouses, but something told me this was the place for me. I parked up my bike and went to investigate. Lo and behold I found a cute little property tucked away in the shade of large trees. I enquired about camping and was told I could set up my tent in the garden for 250r per night. I returned to the road to grab my bike.

As I re-entered the property I heard my name being shouted. Out came Roshaan, with whom I’d caught the bus to Gilgit from Islamabad. Somehow, out of all the accommodation options in town, my first choice was a hidden little place in which a friend was also staying. After settling in and catching up on some clothes washing, I joined Roshaan for a walk around town. He has been here for the last few days, so was full of good information about what to do. Our walk turned into a hike as we made our way up a little-known trail leading to a glacier. My body wasn’t quite ready for another strenuous hike, but the view it provided across Karimabad and the surrounding mountains was definitely worth it. Every day I seem to be able to say I’m seeing the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. This really is paradise on earth.

Riding on

Accommodation Guesthouse
Distance ridden today 32.42km
Average cycling speed 12.3kph
Total distance ridden 18,902km
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Day 780 (Pakistan Day 19)

I didn’t ride today, but I walked a bloody long way – all the way up the hill that stands to the right of Rakaposhi. It took about four hours to hike up and two hours to hike down. The intensity of the sun at altitude has been a lesson for me and I got back home a lot redder than when I set out. It was just my legs that copped a beating though, as for the first time (despite carrying it for the last two years) I used my Frillneck hat, which offers complete protection of the face and neck. While I had some hope that the hike would loosen up my legs and lessen the pain that had built up yesterday, it only added to it and now I can hardly walk normally. On my return home I feasted on a gigantic serving of chicken biryani and salad, the day having only been fuelled by a single plain paratha and one egg. I had a refreshing (ice cold) wash, then climbed to my rooftop home and had a much-needed snooze. While being tired from the hike, I was also tired from the fact that a group of college students staying at the hotel had partied outside until 2am, the ridiculously loud music floating straight past my tent. In the evening, I joined a new friend (Zishanari, the 15 year-old son of the one of the hotel’s employees) for fresh apricot juice at one of the little cafes that are scattered alongside the creek that flows off Rakaposhi. We were joined by a few other locals and as the sky darkened, we questioned each other about life in each of our countries.

Just chillin’

Accommodation $ Camping on a hotel roof
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 18,870km
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Day 779 (Pakistan Day 18)

The cycling adventure has begun! As I left Gilgit, I crossed a bridge to the western side of the Hunza River and headed north towards Nomal. Along the way I picked up a friend by the name of Abdul, a 19-year-old soldier in training who has two days’ leave from his duties and was using the time to visit some friends in Gilgit. Today he was out to explore the area on his motorbike. It took me several hours to piece his story together, owing to our lack of a shared language. At first I was slightly annoyed that he decided to tag along with me, but in the end he proved to be good company. He waited patiently while I shot video footage, he jumped stone walls to raid mulberry and cherry orchards for delicious snacks, and we were able to share some laughs. All the while the scenery blew my mind. Rocky, barren hills loomed in the foreground while icy peaks loomed in the background. The river was lined with sprawling villages, lush green with food-producing gardens and orchards divided by sturdy stone walls. I began to ride slowly to give myself a better chance of taking it all in. I arrived at the Rakaposhi Viewpoint area around 4pm and decided it would be a great place to spend the night. Laughing off a 3000r price tag for a room at one place, I ended up setting up my tent on the rooftop of the Rakaposhi Viewpoint Hotel, which charged just 200r per night. As I settled in, I observed van load after van load of college students stop by Rakaposhi for a photo opportunity. It became apparent that it is a popular thing for groups of college students from across Pakistan to organise holiday road trips to Gilgit-Baltistan. One student came up to me and asked, ‘Are you the Australian cyclist?’ Apparently he’d read the newspaper article about me via Facebook.

Oh yeah!

Accommodation $ Camping on a hotel roof
Distance ridden today 71.19km
Average cycling speed 13.2kph
Total distance ridden 18,870km
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