In Gilgit, we promptly assembled the bikes and went off for a familiarisation spin to the nearby town of Nomal, which we nostalgically remembered having passed by nearly four decades earlier, while on a tough route march during a survival course as cadets.
Riding the rather dazzling bikes – what, with Darth Vader helmets and chic Polaroids® to complete the striking figures – we must have looked like creatures from Pluto, as we swished past the curious bystanders. After returning from the test run, we rigged the bikes with pannier bags, tents and sleeping bags and, carefully calibrated the bike computers to help us keep track of speeds and distances during the expedition.
Finally, on 30th April, we set course for our first destination, Chalt. The Karakoram Highway (KKH) was in good shape and pedalling seemed like a breeze. The resplendent Common Magpies (Pica pica) in their black, white and iridescent green feathers were to become a common sight throughout our trip. Said to be the most intelligent of all birds – being from the clever crow family – they cackled and quacked delightfully as if welcoming us to their garden localities. A more hearty welcome came from the village children who would run alongside our bikes, chanting, “Hello, one penny please.” We’d respond with salaams and good wishes in Urdu, but some of the kids would insist that we were angrez and, would keep on pestering for pennies!
After a tough 50-km leg, we approached Chalt by a suspension bridge and, to get our legs in normal working order, walked some distance to an old PWD rest house that had been booked in advance. The facility had seen better times during the Raj – “comfortable bungalow,” according to the 19th century explorer Sir Aurel Stein – but even now, it wasn’t too bad for a night’s stay. A hot bath before sleep and, a hearty open air breakfast at the nearby River View Hotel put us in top gear for the next leg.
Hunza evokes thoughts of a fabled land where everyone lives long, and happiness seems to be a gentle breeze that blows the year round. We had been to Hunza previously in hurried affairs, but never as merrily as this time, on bikes. Leaving Chalt, which also marks the northern limit of Gilgit District, we had to negotiate a steep climb over a highway that suddenly was no more. The KKH was under major repair from Chalt onwards, and we found ourselves huffing and puffing over gravel and shingle, an ordeal that was to last till our final destination, all of the remaining 200 kms.
As we approached Hunza’s main commercial town ofAliabad after a very steep 50-km leg, which took us nine long hours to cover, courteous adults and cheerful children made us feel quite welcome. Following the unfortunate spate of sectarian killings a few weeks earlier, tourism had come to a complete standstill in the region; now, we seemed harbingers of better times to the locals.
Having no energy left to climb yet another 2,000-ft to the Eagle’s Nest Hotel perched atop a sheer cliff beyond Duikar village, we hired a pick-up to haul our bikes. Just in time to catch the ginger and orange glow of the setting sun bouncing off the snow clad mountains, we enjoyed the dazzling spectacle from the hotel terrace. Not too far in the sky, the crow-like Red-billed Choughs (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) in their glossy black plumage could be seen performing some spectacular aerobatics in the mountain updrafts.
While climbing up, we had noticed scores of youngsters returning to their homes in the nearby towns after a day-long picnic at Duikar. Interestingly, there was no segregation, much like the rest of Hunza and, one wondered if this might be one of the possible reasons for bliss in the happy valley! Later at the hotel, a short dinner for two turned out to be a huge serving for four; though not quite a master of Burushaski, I suspected that the order for alto (two) was conveyed as walto (four) by the waiters to the cooks! Well fed and tired to the bones, we were almost sleep-walking back to our rooms.
Part three (03) will be posted on Monday, 18th June. Keep visiting.
Click to read Part One.