Day 151: 17/08/19
Location: Chutran, Pakistan
Miles Driven: 58
After a week at the Madina Guesthouse we were packing the car ready to leave. Yaqoob (the manager) came over to say good morning and was disappointed to discover that we were leaving. We had told him the previous evening but he had misunderstood and thought we were leaving the following day. “I would have made you a goodbye meal! Please at least have some tea with me before you go”. Our intention was to get going early as we had a long drive ahead of us, but the wonderful thing about being on such a long trip is that delays of a couple of hours, half a day, or even a week, do not really matter in the grand scheme of things. We sat down for some tea, and two hours later we were still there chatting away and putting the world to rights.
A few days previously (the 14th) had been Pakistan independence day. During our stay in Pakistan we had taken an interest in learning about the different thoughts and opinions of locals on India and the partition, over 70 years ago but still very much a relevant topic. At the start of the month there had been movement of Indian troops into Kashmir, closing the area off completely for tourists due to the potential dangers there.
For Yaqoob, independence day was not one of celebration – what is there to celebrate, he asked. He explained that prior to independence, the people of Pakistan were free to travel, and could easily work in many countries across the world. Now, he told us, Pakistan is free but I cannot leave, with the exception of Afghanistan, I cannot travel to neighbouring countries, so I am a prisoner within my own country.
Fully refreshed with numerous cups of tea, it really was time to go. It was a shame to be saying goodbye, Yaqoob is probably one of the most genuine and deserving people I have ever met; who simply wants to do good and make his country a better place – for both residents and visitors. Before we left he showed us his collection of letters from previous guests, Lonely Planet authors, Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, the Prime Minister of Pakistan; clearly we are not the first people he has made such an impact on.
It was early afternoon by the time we set off for Skardu. At just under 2500 metres, the city is the gateway to the ‘eight-thousander’ peaks – K2, the Gasherbrums, Broad Peak, and the Trango Towers. Busy, and touristy, it is a popular starting point for multiple mountain treks. We did not have enough time left in Pakistan for a trek, but wanted to drive there (and then back to Gilgit via Deosai National Park) purely to enjoy the journey and the scenery.
Day 152: 18/08/19
Location: Hussain Abad, Pakistan
Miles Driven: 85
Rising early (for us), we were back on the road by 9am. It was slow going, from the point of leaving the Karakorum Highway, the 100 mile road to Skardu seems to be permanently under construction, and we rarely drove faster than 20mph the whole way. Every now and then we would get to an area of active road works. Queues would form on either side waiting for the workers to stop working and move their vehicles from the middle of the road to let all the cars through. When this happened, chaos ensued; all of the cars tried to go at once causing a bottle neck and delaying everyone even more.
We had spent today and the previous day leap-frogging two large trucks that were each transporting a Land Cruiser. We were driving faster than they were but we also made more stops than they did – every time we stopped for food, to take down the tyre pressure even further, or for our overnight stop they would overtake us.
Turning off the engine on our arrival at yet another long queue of traffic waiting for the road workers to move aside, we found ourselves faced with three grinning men knocking at the window. The men were the drivers of the two large trucks and the owners of the two Toyotas. They had come to find out where we were from, and of course, to take a selfie with us. “Our Land Cruisers are bullet proof” they proudly told us, questioning if our car was also bullet proof: “No…. Should it be?!” They assured us that we are perfectly safe and did not need bullet proof cars, but couldn’t really give us a straight answer when we then asked why they needed it. Our best guess was that rather than being an essential requirement when driving around Pakistan, it is more a symbol of higher status. We got out to have a look – Chris to look at the cars, and I went to take photos of the lavishly decorated trucks, a speciality in Pakistan. Again with pride, they told us they were driving British trucks, and sure enough, hidden underneath the layers of decorations were Bedford logos. They showed us the inside of the cab, which was also decorated to the extreme – how on earth they could see out of the minuscule non-decorated section of the windscreen was a mystery to me. I called Chris over to have a look, and before we knew it, they pushed him up into the cab to get a closer look.
The day went on, long and slow, but enjoyable nonetheless. We arrived into Skardu around 5pm, and then drove further into the mountains to our chosen wild camping spot for the night. Parking up just over an hour later, we had driven 85 miles in 9 hours – an average speed of 9.5 miles per hour! We were back where we are happiest – sleeping in the roof tent in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by amazing scenery and some of the tallest mountains in the world.
Day 154: 20/08/19
Location: Deosai National Park, Pakistan
Miles Driven: 65
The second half of our ‘Skardu loop’ took us back to Gilgit through the Deosai National Park. The scenery on our way up to Skardu had been largely rocky and mountainous. Contrastingly, Deosai National Park was luscious green. Unlike the rapid brown river that we had been following on our way up, our way down followed a crystal clear gently flowing stream. Both journeys were magnificent, but we felt that we had gone around the loop the right way – saving the best till last. Again, it was slow going, and we were driving the entire day. We passed several small campsites, all looking quite ramshackle and set up right next to the road. We wanted to find our own little piece of paradise to camp in, but every time we thought we found a perfect place, there was another campsite who had got there first. Eventually we spotted faint tyre tracks in the grass that led to a hiding behind a hill. Marmots fled in all directions as we turned off of the road, and followed the track to a perfectly hidden spot.
It wasn’t until we got out of our cosy car that we realised how cold it was and subsequently checked the altitude – 4015 metres. It was just starting to get dark and we were already wrapped up in most of our layers – we were in for a chilly night! In an attempt to warm ourselves up, I started chopping some veg for a nice hot dinner. Chris went to put on the stove and discovered that our trusty lighter had broken. It was not igniting at all and no matter how much we clicked, shook and bashed it, it would not work.
Up until about a month previously, we had been carrying a box of matches that I had insisted we needed in the case of this exact situation. Before I flew home in July we completely emptied the car and I took back some of the items that we decided we didn’t actually need in order to reduce weight. Chris decided that the matches were an unnecessary item as our trusty lighter had not, and would not ever fail us. So, we had no lighter, no matches, and no hot dinner.
Unfortunately, the satisfaction of “I told you so” did not do much to relinquish my hunger or coldness. We had a quick (cold) dinner of cereal and were both in bed, wrapped up in multiple layers before 8pm.
Day 155: 21/08/19
Location: Gilgit, Pakistan
Miles Driven: 107
We awoke very grateful that we had brought good quality sleeping bags with us on the trip. Despite temperatures dropping below zero overnight, we had been very snug and cosy in our tent and not felt the cold at all. We got dressed in the tent, still in several layers, as it was still very cold outside. Natalie had not been so warm overnight, and (we think) a combination of the cold temperature and high altitude meant that it took a couple of attempts to get her started, but once she was up and running, we had no further issues.
A week or so later, we shared this story with our Lahore home stay host who ran motorbike tours in the Karakorum mountains. He was not surprised to hear our difficulties. He explained that our type of lighter would not work at high altitude, and that local 4×4 guides light fires under their fuel tanks each morning to help warm the fuel before they start. Even if we had known this at the time, it was a good job Natalie started up on the second run, as we had no means to light a fire!
We left Deosai National Park and drove back to Gilgit, and, of course, back to Yaqoob at Madina. He was delighted to see us, and very pleased that he could put on a farewell meal for us after all. Knowing how much we had enjoyed the chapatis, we had a strange but delicious meal of veggie spaghetti with chapati. Yaqoob presented us with gifts: a traditional hat for Chris, and a necklace for me. After yet another evening of delicious food and interesting conversation with Yaqoob, we retired to bed.