A micro adventure around Shigar Valley, Pakistan
I’m running late when I’m finally leaving the outskirts of Skardu behind me. My motorbike, a Suzuki GS 150 I rented from Gilgit-based motorcycle enthusiasts group Karakoram Bikers, smoothly buzzes underneath me, seemingly happy to get its gears turning again after a while without a renter. As settlements disappear so do the exhaust gases and the children walking home from school. My backpack is securely fastened on the back of the saddle, filled with only the stuff I might need for 2 or 3 days on the road. I’m making a road trip, all by myself. Before me the desert starts, surrounded by mountains that look down on me seducingly. The entrance to Shigar Valley appears before me, a tiny dent in two giant walls of rock. I am in northern Pakistan, and I am on an adventure.
That same morning I was planning on leaving early, straight after breakfast. Just buy a few supplies, find a working atm and fill the tank with gas, I figured. My quick shopping spree across town took a little longer than expected. Among other things I got stuck in morning bazaar traffic with the motorbike, parked somewhere to ask a police officer on the street for directions to Allied Bank, which locals told me should work with my card. He promptly stopped in his tracks, gave me a hug and halted the first car that passed, shouted a few words in Urdu to the driver and gestured me to get in the passenger seat. A hundred meter further down the road the driver pointed out Allied bank to me and that was that. ‘Welcome to Pakistan sir!’, and he was off again. After rejections in 7 different banks I finally managed to withdraw some cash. Having stocked up on dry apricots, a bag of cashew nuts, 3 litres of bottled water and a roll of naan bread and with a full tank I finally set off on my road trip, hours later then planned. The guys from my hotel had warned me it was quite a drive to Askole, the last inhabited village before the ‘real’ mountains started, 120km from Skardu. Real mountains meaning several 8000+ peaks. I hoped to make it in time before nightfall, but this is Pakistan. Anything is possible here.
After about 20 minutes on the main road I took a left, followed a new road across a bridge and was halted by a police checkpoint. The guys demanded a copy of my visa and passport which I happily gave them. I came prepared to this country you know, armed with 50 passport copies. My research has definitely paid off already! After checking everything carefully the man smiled, asked me where I was from despite literally having my passport in his hand and opened the barrier. ‘When will you be back here,’ he asked. ‘Tomorrow or the day after,’ I shouted back while gearing up. He smiled and a threw a thumbs up in the direction of my rear view mirror. Friendly guys these Pakistani soldiers.
The landscape soon became very arid, and trees disappeared as I drove following hairpin bends up into the mountains. The sky was full of ear-deafening freedom roaring along to the sound of the Japanese engine underneath me. My heartbeat raised as I felt a liberating and primeval roar well up inside me, like a boy on a motorbike with the world at his feet. ‘Welcome to Pakistan indeed!’, I screamed to the mountain.
I quickly reached the top of the pass and parked on the side of the road for a moment to take in the magnificent view. Minivans, jeeps and tractors passed by at an alarming speed and people shouted, waved and smiled from behind the wheel, from the roof or hanging from the back. I was quite a sight to them, a white guy all by himself on a motorbike which, according to the jealous stares people threw my way, had to be a fairly decent one, equipped with a backpack tied to the back. I jumped back into the saddle, failed to start, embarrassed waved back to the teenager that almost rolled on the floor laughing, put the engine in neutral and got the motor going again at the second try. Back down into the valley I drove through Shigar, the biggest village around here. More children on their way home from school. People farming the fertile land next to the Indus River. Shopkeepers smoking outside of their roadside stalls. Construction workers building simple structures without power tools. After about an hour the asphalt stopped and I continued on a wide gravel road. Speed was not of any importance to me, I was simply enjoying the ride and the mountains. Nothing else seems to matter these days.
During a drinking break a guy who was also on a motorbike stopped for a chat. He introduced himself as Ali Ali and sat down next to me, curiously watching how I cleaned the dust off the sensor of my camera. ‘You very beautiful boy. Very smart,’ he said. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘I’m going to Askole,’ I answered. ‘Oooh Askole very far! Too much far!’ ‘I’ll still try to get there, and if it’s too far I’ll just camp by the side of the road,’ I explained. The conversation continued for some time and as I got up to get back on the bike Ali Ali got up as well. ‘I go with you, ok?’ ‘Sure, lead the way man’. We drove together for some time and Ali Ali helped me whenever I got stuck in a particularly sandy patch of the road, these places being still beyond my rookie driving skills. After about an hour Ali Ali pulled up beside me, said that he was turning back now and with a last ‘beautiful boy! Smartly shameful!’ disappeared out of sight.
I had been driving almost 4 hours when I reached the village of Dassu, where another roadblock announced a military checkpoint. A soldier in camouflage uniform gestured me to follow him to one of the barracks nearby. There a stern and annoyed looking man dressed in a local salwar kameez, which looks a bit like a pyjama, promptly asked to see my passport and route permit. His name was Mohammed and apparently he was the officer in charge. I gave him a passport copy and the foreigner’s registration card they had given me at another checkpoint on my way north from Islamabad when my bus entered the Gilgit-Baltistan area. ‘This no route permit! Where is route permit?’ He told me to get inside the barrack which turned out to be his bedroom / foreigner cross-examination room. He saw my camera and demanded to be shown all the pictures on it. I gave him the camera and as he started scrolling through nine hundred pictures of mountains and valleys his tone softened. ‘You like landscape photography sir!’ After about 200 pictures he had seen enough and explained me that in order to be allowed past the checkpoint and on the road for the last 40km to Askole foreigners needed a special permit. Askole is the starting point of an 18-day trek to K2 and Baltoro glacier, at 8600m the world’s second largest mountain and longest non polar glacier. He showed me an example of the permit, used by a group of 8 French mountaineers who passed by here 40 days earlier en route to K2. They were the last people he had seen. Another officer joined and offered us all tea while showing me pictures of his young daughters he was eager to see again after his 3 month shift here at the checkpoint ended. We all took some selfies together and an hour after arriving at the checkpoint I turned around the motorbike and started the journey back to Shigar, a bit more confident on the bike and slightly faster this time. It was 4.30pm already, and sunset happens around 6.15 here in the mountains. I needed to find a place to camp and remembered the desert area and viewpoint just before entering Shigar. That would be a perfect spot, I decided.
At 6.15pm on the dot I sat in front of my tent in one of the most scenic camping spots I have ever stumbled upon, right out of a fairy tale. The place looked like a small clearing on a mountain ridge above the road that shepherds might have used years ago to spend the night. Listening to some Coldplay while taking in the sunset across the valley I felt at peace, both with myself and with the world. I didn’t really mind not making it to Askole. I had ridden a bike all day, had had tea with two military officers and saw the length of Shigar Valley. Mission accomplished. To me Askole was just a yardstick, an anonymous name on the map that marked the farthest point of the valley. Getting there was more of a general idea rather than an actual goal. And I had already promised myself to come back here one day and do the K2 basecamp trek when the season was right, most of the snow had melted and I had the money to actually pay for it. I munched on the naan and cashews, and ate a few dried apricots for dessert, a simple dinner for a simple day. Before crawling in my brand new sleeping bag (thanks North Face) I gazed up at the stars. It was a beautiful night indeed.
The following day I watched the sunlight and warmth return to the valley, high up from my shepherd’s stakeout overlooking the Indus River. This is the essence of a good old fashioned adventure, I thought to myself. A simple trip, one that anyone could do, wether by bike, hitchhiking or just walking. Without too many variables or need of planning, just with the curiosity to get out and see what would happen. After breakfast I jumped back on the bike, drove once more through Shigar and this time took another turn leading me across a bridge over the Indus River. Another police checkpoint and thus another tea invitation later I started the loop back to Skardu on the other side of the river. The guys on this post were part of the police force and not the army, but they looked all the same to me. Guys in pyjama’s guarding empty roads where, on a good day, maybe a dozen people pass by. Some of the policemen were much younger than me. It was a very simple life, I thought to myself. Guarding empty roads somewhere on a mountain for 3 months, then go home for 1 to spend time with family. At least the environment they are in is incredibly scenic.
The landscape changed to desert again and fewer villages crossed my path. I drove for hours until my bum hurt. Took a break in an abandoned hut in the middle of nowhere, where I stupidly fell off the bike while driving 2kph on an extremely sandy part of the road. I fell sideways and broke off the left rear view mirror in my fall. There was no other bodily or mechanic damage though, luckily. Bewildered I looked at the broken mirror in my hand. ‘Oh well… shit happens. Nothing to do about it. I’ll have to pay for that I guess.’ I continued on my way, hiked up to Kachura lake and eventually doubled back into Skardu just in time for lunch. Very dusty, satisfied and with only one rear view mirror I arrived back to my hotel exactly 24 hours after departing. The guys there seemed happy enough to see their only guest back.
- Karakoram Bikers is a travel company based in Gilgit and Lahore. They rent out motorbikes for 2000PKR / day, no license needed. Get in touch through their website or social media. www.karakorambikers.com
- The trek to K2 basecamp takes between 14 and 18 days and can be arranged online. Permits are necessary, so inform yourself well beforehand. In my opinion it would be better to arrange the trek starting from Skardu instead of Islamabad. Prices vary, I’ve read everything between 1000 and 3000$.
- If you do get a permit, which you can request in Skardu, you can drive from Dassu to Askole. I’ve been told the 40km take 3 hours by motorbike, so time your trip well if you don’t want to get stuck in the dark. Askole has a camping ground mostly used by mountaineers as the starting point of their trek but I’m fairly certain you can camp there for a night before returning back to Dassu as well.
- To do this trip I needed 3 passport copies, one for each of the police / army checkpoints along the way.