Another tale from our journey around Pakistan so many years ago…
It sounded like a good idea at the time. Well no, I should say it sounded like a good idea to my traveling companion. To me it sounded like an awful idea. Biking 400 kilometers on a nasty dirt road over a 12,500 foot pass was not my idea of fun. But to John it was the pinnacle of adventure. I wanted to go around and meet him at the other end, but he pleaded with me to join him. In the end he won out and I hesitatingly embarked upon the journey from hell.
The plan was to leave Chitral, in the northwestern corner of Pakistan and bike eastward toward Gilgit, a city on the Karakoram Highway. If all went well we would both emerge unscathed at the other end in a week or so. We all know the Indian Subcontinent has an uncanny knack for screwing up even the most well-laid plans, and our plans were not exactly what I would call ‘well-laid’. Our map was sketchy. We had no tent or stove, and we had only lightweight sweaters to protect us from the cold. But none of that mattered at the time, and we set off.
It wasn’t too bad at first. The road, while gravel, was relatively flat and in good condition. We made it a grand total of thirty kilometers before straggling into a ‘hotel’, eating greasy rice, eggs, and potatoes, and collapsing into beds whose sheets most certainly had been washed a month or so ago.
After six days we managed to crest the top of Shandur Pass (12,500 feet). Decent food was only a distant memory by then, as were muscles that didn’t ache as though they had been smashed beneath a Mac truck. The gods looked favorably upon us that day, and provided a German tour group complete with a tour guide who took pity on us and gave us food (real food, I might add) and even allowed us to cram into his bitty tent to escape the pouring rain that night.
The next day is when this story gets bad. The road quickly deteriorated into a barely discernible track strewn with bowling-ball-sized rocks. Meandering between the rocks were gullies a foot deep which threatened to swallow our tires if we made even a minor mistake in the control of our bicycles.
The days blended into one another, each day resembling the one before it. The valley narrowed and became dry and barren. The road along which we pedaled was merely a track cut into the rock wall sometimes near the river, other times hundreds of feet above the crashing waters. Once, or occasionally twice, a day we would encounter a small village, green due to irrigation, with apricots by the hundreds hanging on trees or drying in the sun atop rocks, logs, or whatever else could be found to spread them upon.
The hotels we stayed in each night varied little. At times we would have a bare room filled with two small cots, at other times we slept in cots unceremoniously spread by the side of the road. The common denominator in them all was that they were, invariably, the gathering places of all the locals. Where there were foreigners, there would be curious onlookers. Countless times we arrived at a hotel at day’s end, weary and sore, desiring only to be left alone to rest but inevitably, privacy was impossible.
Eleven long, torturous days after leaving Chitral I made my decision. I was bumping along the ‘road’ and realized that I was not enjoying myself. This was not my idea of fun. I wanted out. I wanted to be back on paved road. I was done. I could go no further. My back hurt, my hands hurt, my arms hurt, and my head was throbbing. In short, I was miserable. Every part of my body cried out, “I’ve had enough! I’ve managed to get you this far. I’ve taken you over the pass and to within eighty kilometers of your destination. I’ve been jiggled and jostled enough. I’ve been pushed to my limits. I can do no more.”
I had no choice but to listen to my body. The problem was that there was a definite shortage of vehicles traversing that road and those that did pass were stuffed to overflowing with human bodies. How was I to transport my bicycle to the other end of the road?
Determined to do it even if I had to tie the cycle to the hood of an overfilled Jeep, I stood by the side of the road to check out my limited options. John, determined as ever to ride every inch of the way, took off and left me to my own devices. I hadn’t been waiting long when two tractors approached, each pulling an empty trailer.
I flagged them down, explained my predicament with gestures and very broken Urdu, and they eagerly volunteered to help me. They were on their way to Gilgit and were only too happy to give me a lift. We placed the bicycle in the back of the first tractor and I climbed into the second tractor with a smile of smug satisfaction on my face. This, I decided, was a great idea!
Contented as could be, I rode beside the driver knowing that in a few hours I would be safely in Gilgit. I only wish that it had, in fact, turned out that way.
We soared along the road bumping violently over every pothole and boulder encountered. My bike bounced like a rubber ball around the bed of the trailer. The driver seemed determined to reach his destination as quickly as possible, accelerating as fast as the tractor could possibly go, lurching forward, then braking just as quickly.
I quickly felt the impact of every bump or jolt as my stomach muscles attempted to hold my body steady. I marveled at the ‘Abs of Steel’ the drivers had to have in order to do this trip.
By noon, my body ached even more than it had on the bicycle. My stomach muscles burned intensely from bracing myself over every bump and jolt. I tried using my arms more and more but still my stomach cried out. This, I decided, was definitely not a good idea.
Luckily, the guys in the tractor stopped frequently for chai which gave my body a temporary break from the tormenting jolts. But as we traveled hour after hour, I began to view the tractor as a torture machine even worse than the first one. I thought back romantically to a nice relaxing bicycle ride along this road.
I had no idea how many miles remain to Gilgit when the tractor drivers stopped by the side of the road around dusk. John was ahead of us as I watched, in horror, as they began loading sand into the trailer. Down along a river bed they got out shovels and began scooping mounds of sand into the trailer. Their idea was to put my bike right on top of the sand and continue on. I knew that was most definitely a bad idea.
Knowing that sand embedded in my chain and derailleurs would destroy them, there was nothing left for me to do but start riding and pray that Gilgit wasn’t too far away.
The drivers tried in vain to convince me I couldn’t ride and I needed to go with them. A passing car informed me that John was at least ten kilometers ahead and that it was still twenty-five kilometers to town.
Having no other option that I could see, I mounted my bicycle and began pedaling in the growing darkness. Pedaling frantically, as if my very life depended upon it, I tried to go as far as possible before the darkness was complete.
It didn’t take long for the light to disappear. It was a very dark, moonless night and I could just barely discern the road as a faint ribbon of gray banded on both sides by total blackness. Potholes and boulders had vanished into the darkness. I pressed on, determined to reach Gilgit that night.
Directly ahead of me I made out the dim form of a man walking along the road. Suddenly my heart was filled with intense, all-consuming fear. I was stuck in the middle of Pakistan, a western woman alone, and not dressed in appropriate attire. After all my experiences with Pakistani men and the stories I had heard, I had a grave mistrust of them.
Not knowing if I should cry out for help or if that would be opening myself up to possible rape, I rode by in silence. Perhaps if I passed by without saying anything he would think I was a man, but I knew in the back of my head that I couldn’t possibly make it to Gilgit alone. Already I had nearly fallen numerous times after hitting boulders unseen in the blackness.
Panic-stricken, I was nearly paralyzed with fear. Tears streamed down my face as I cried out into the night. “John, please stop! Wait for me! Oh, please wait for me…” I cried out as though I could somehow communicate with him if I willed it strongly enough.
“I just want to get to Gilgit… I want Gilgit… Dear God, please help me. Tell John to stop and wait… Oh, please God! I’m scared…What should I do? Gilgit, where, oh where are you?”
I rode until I couldn’t make out even the faint ribbon of road due to the tears flowing from my eyes. When I finally crashed into a boulder and tumbled down, I decided I had better stop. Walking my bike, feeling each step with my foot to see if I was indeed on the road or if I had left it, confusion reigned unchecked in my mind.
I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I needed help. If ever I had needed help, this was the time. But the question was, “Can I safely ask for it? What will happen to me if I fling myself helplessly upon a passing Pakistani man?”
In the distance behind me I made out the headlight of an oncoming tractor. “Shall I flag him down and pray that he won’t attack me or shall I let him pass, thinking I am simply an ignorant, foreign man out there on a bicycle.”
The tractor loomed closer as still I vacillated in indecision. At the last moment, just as the tractor was about to pass by, I flung myself out in the middle of the road, waving my arms, begging him to stop and help me.
This tractor, like the one I had been in all day, also pulled a trailer. This trailer, however, was stuffed with barrels of rice, bags of potatoes, goats, chickens, and people. A kindly gentleman took me under his wing, helped me cram my cycle in with all the stuff, and protected me until we arrived in Gilgit thirty minutes later.
Relief beyond description flooded over me as I dismounted the tractor and unloaded my bicycle. I looked around as if in a daze, trying to figure out how to get to the hotel where I was to meet John. Another tractor pulled up before me.
“You come with us! We take you to hotel!” I looked up and saw the smiling faces of the crew I had ridden with all day. They had passed us a few kilometers out of Gilgit, had hurriedly emptied their sand, and returned for me.
Wearily, I loaded my bicycle into yet another trailer and set off for the short trip to the hotel. Such was not to be. Leaving the city, we wound around a curving dirt road by the river, further and further from the safety afforded by population. Already freaked out, my mind began to invent all kinds of terrible scenes. Sure that they were taking me out there to rape and kill me, I once again panicked.
To my surprise the tractor pulled up and stopped in front of a popular tourist camp.
“No!” I cried, tears once again flowing from my eyes. “I don’t want the tourist camp, I want the hotel!”
At last, the longest day of my life ended as we approached the hotel, John came running up, and I collapsed into his arms. It was ten o’clock pm. John had arrived only minutes before.
It took hours for my heart to slow down and my mind to comprehend that I had, indeed, survived and was safely inside the protective walls of a hotel.
You can see photos of our journey here.