Dawn breaks brightly over the Benazir Bhutto International airfield in ‘Pindi’, the Himalayan foothills emerging through the mist to ring the northern approaches. This means the Nanga Parbat weather window is open and we’re good to go. The 0430 to Gilgit on PIA (‘Perhaps It Arrives’ sadly more accurate a nickname than on which most passengers would care to ‘do the math’) deprives me of 20 hours in a van transiting a valley frequently visited by Taliban incursion. I’m all for a bit of local culture, but that might be stretching it? That said, recent photos would suggest that my cover is developing.
The pilot seems to have forgotten he’s retired from the Air Force as we cross Babusar Pass and swing into the tight valley, Nanga Parbat high above our cruising altitude on the right hand side. I might be exaggerating, but I could only describe what comes next as a vertical dive. Stuka bombers made a more leisurely approach on Dunkirk than this jockey. We pull out of this precipitous decline with Himalayan rock little more than what seems a bus length beneath us and on both sides.
On contact with blessed ground, I lead the applause, although the locals’ joy at having made it perhaps belies the fact that a few don’t. But a step outside reveals why it was worth it – a ring of impossibly steep cliffs rising from the airfield to the snowy peak of Rakaposhi 6 kilometres and more above.
And there they are – our mighty steeds. The finest knock-off Spricks (that’s with a capital ‘P’) available in Rawalpindi’s officially unofficial illicit market. Mine even comes with one functioning brake. Everywhere in Gilgit is up. So it’s up to breakfast at the Serena, yet another genuinely shining example of the Aga Khan’s commitment to his community and insistence on excellence. And it’s up to the Kargah Buddha, a rock carving two millennia old – it would have to make it to 3 or 4 to get me to pedal up that approach again.
And then we’re back to the valley floor, zipping along next to the mighty Indus’ tributaries, the Hunza and the Gilgit. Gilgit is a tough-looking region that fashions tough-looking people – friendly as they all seem, the fact that nearly everyone bar me is sporting an assault rifle tends to dampen the warm welcome. It is heavily militarised, like Checkpoint Charlie was heavily militarised, with bands of police, Rangers, army and other paramilitaries zooming around in wagons, very busy clearly doing nothing. All sport ‘No Fear’ slogans – I’m not sure out of a sense of irony or because you don’t have any toting an AK-47?
And so we progress up the Karakoram Highway, or KKH as I now like to call it. Bands of invaders have come and gone down this valley for millennia -Macedonians, Mongols, Mughals, British and now Chinese amongst them. Against that backdrop, maybe you and I would strap on a weapon? So Checkpoint Chandra intervenes and requires to the support van and a Gilgit-Baltistan Brigade escort for 50km or so as we wend our way up the dramatic ravine carved by the Hunza River. Who says Strava stats don’t lie?
Didar and Furkan our local guides have smiles that light up Hunza and a desire to share their deep knowledge of the traditions, histories, peoples and wildlife of the region. The things Didar doesn’t know about the untimely demise of George Hayward, a British imperial adventurer, and The Murder in the Hindu Kush are not worth knowing, as we discovered an hour and a half into his tale. Seasonal apricots and grape juice were a highlight of lunch in the shadow of Rakaposhi (supposedly the spot with the greatest vertical differential in the shortest distance on earth), then it’s back on the bikes for the last pull up to Karimabad and Baltit Fort.
Day One. Done.
To read more about Dan and Ali’s bike ride, please click here. Dan Wright is raising money for The Knowledge Foundation, a social enterprise based in Pakistan. The project aims at supporting young people with education and academic development. To donate to Dan’s Virgin Money Giving page, visit this link.