Thursday, June 3, 2010

Surfing the Karakoram Highway

Karimabad is a wonderful place to spend a few days relaxing. It's a big village set high up on the steep valley side. You get great views of the surrounding mountains and an overview of all the other villages in this part of the Hunza valley. At a certain point where the irrigation channels begin the mountains turn green and lush in a series of terraced fields and row upon row of plane trees and fruit trees. The cherries are in season and they're good. The locals here are mainly Ismailis, which is a kind of laid-back and relaxed branch of Islam, and they're spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, has used his foundation to build schools and clinics across the region. As a result the kids here are all very well educated and quite confident. Hunza is also renowned for having a large proportion of centenarians. There must be something in the water. In fact, there is: it looks like mica. The water off the mountains is full of silvery floaty bits.

But attention is currently only focussed on the water that has started to overflow the landslide dam up the valley. One of the big hotels, that normally stands empty due to the drop in tourism post 9/11, is now crowded with TV news teams and their vehicles. After 6 months of little action the country is now awake to the potential disaster about to happen should the dam collapse and the lake burst through the valley. There are nightly bulletins on all the main channels. This is a critical time now the water is overflowing and suddenly everyone is talking in cusecs. Y'know, the cubic metre per second flow of water. Figures are bandied about indicating how much water is entering the lake and leaving the lake.

Unsurprisingly there are very few tourists around. The road between here and Gilgit, the main town, has been closed to traffic. We get chatting to a group of Koreans who have been here a while and are now contemplating a helicopter ride to Gilgit. One of them is making his own cherry liquer and passing it around the cafe to anyone who walks in. But then we hear the road has been re-opened. It seems the dam is holding fast for now. We go down to the helicopter landing ground in Aliabad to ask about onward travel. We are directed to the A-C's Office. When we find it there is the usual collection of men sitting around doing nothing. Everyone is in shalwar kameez so it's hard to tell if they are staff or general public. Apart from that guy sat in front of a typewriter the size of a piano. He ignores me completely, but then a young man in western style clothes asks if he can help me. He might just be the A-C himself, but he doesn't even know that the road has re-opened. In fact he knows nothing. Doesn't know his A-C from his elbow. And what the hell is an A-C anyway?

Probably against our better judgement we decide to cycle to Gilgit. It's about 110km, but with only a few sections of the road exposed to what could be a 40 metre-high wave coming through if the dam collapses. The news is that if the dam is going to break, it will be in the next 48 hours. We pedal fast. The road is in a state from all the widening works and there's not too much tarmac left, but critically it feels like we're going downhill and we're confident our bikes can withstand the rough sections. Along the way there are small boys selling bowls of cherries. We stop in one village and are surrounded by a gang of them. They want 100 rupees for a bowl. We laugh and offer 20. Fifty, they ask. We start to ride off. Okay, 20. These boys are so young, are we just heartless tourists taking advantage of them?

Below one of Rakaposhi's glaciers there's a restaurant/ teashop stop where we pull up. There are three other cyclists, Julie, Chris and Ed who are heading in the opposite direction. They scoff at the talk of a 60 metre-high wave coming down the valley. We chat with them over lunch and after a long break continue down the road. We were warned that there was no tarmac on the stretch to Chalt, but in fact there is enough for quick and fairly smooth cycling down the valley. It's late afternoon when we reach Chalt, but we're feeling good, the cycling's been easy and neither of us fancies staying in Chalt. We're about halfway to Gilgit and we decide to carry on. The valley has narrowed and there are few settlements here. Some of them have been evacuated and we see clutches of tents pitched high up on the valley walls. In the back of our minds we start to think about the possibility of an 80 metre-high wall of water thundering down behind us. The road turns to shale and gets tougher. There's a low bridge to cross over the Hunza river which we do so at about 6 o'clock. Only 20 km or so to Gilgit and the tarmac is back. We motor on and into a very strong headwind. The road drops down to the valley bottom where there is a full-fledged sandstorm.

We are so tired now and this is the last thing we need. It's hard to pedal and we're right by the river and now the light is fading and our mouths are full of grit. Out of nowhere a man appears waving to us. He has a truck full of rocks and is going to Gilgit. Do we want a ride? Is the Mullah a Muslim? Of course we do. In the swirling sand we load up our bikes and panniers and cram into the cab with the driver and his mate. Just as we turn the corner into the Giligit valley the truck breaks down. It's dark now, but we're out of the dreadful sandstorm and also beyond the reaches of the impending 100 metre-high wall of water. The driver is very apologetic, but we thank him for his kindness and pedal off with our headtorches lighting the way. We can see Gilgit town not so far away and it's with great relief that we finally roll up to the Madina Guesthouse at about 8 o'clock.

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