Raikot to Besham, Pakistan

Distance: 168 miles
Time on bikes: 8.5 hours

A long day today. We’re all up and get ready to go by 7 am. Our camping ground on the grass of the closed hotel was very comfortable and we’ve managed to get a good nights sleep. Breakfast is a very simple few biscuits before we get rolling.

The reason for the early start is to give and us the best chance of getting down and over the Babusar Pass and to Naryn. There’s been some debate over whether to do this pass as it goes to over 4,000 metres and we’ve heard the condition is quite bad, with as much as 30 miles of pure mud, up to knee deep, to get through. It’s not going to be easy, but the scenery is apparently spectacular.

Up until a couple of days ago however we had no option, as the lower part of the Karakoram Highway has been closed for months due to several bridges being destroyed and landslides closing large sections of the road. But now we’ve been told this section of the KKH is open, but it passes through the tribal areas of Pakistan which are no-go areas at night as the Police don’t control any of the areas and it’s apparently very dangerous to pass through and certainly not to stay in.

We know of a few people, including Donato, who’ve recently been across the Babusar Pass and it’s a bit of the ‘better the devil you know’ in our thinking. It has been very hard going, but we know of nobody who’s passed through the KKH going the other way.

We leave the campsite and get on our way. The police are insisting on giving us an escort which we must strictly stay behind. It’s difficult to understand why we’d need this, but they are absolutely insistent that it is necessary. We feel slightly comforted when we see that every single bus, truck and vehicle also has an armed police escort. Hopefully we’ll not see why these guys must keep a strong presence to protect people passing through the area.

We stop to fill up with fuel and get told that the Babusar Pass is now closed. On one side, snow has closed the road and on the other side a landslide has also closed the road. That means our route has been decided – rather than attempting the difficult pass, we’ll instead ride down the KKH and through the tribal areas. Hopefully we’ll not bump into any Taliban or such like.

As we get to each checkpoint along the highway, we’re passed from one escort vehicle to another. When we get to the third, we decide to ride off, half expecting the police car to catch up but it doesn’t. We’ve not seen or felt anything that could possibly be a threat to us, but we tend to ride as a group. When riding alone however, there is a feeling of vulnerability if this is a lawless area. Guns are prevalent and it’s difficult to negotiate your way out of a situation if someone is pointing one towards you in a menacing fashion. Fingers are crossed that it won’t happen.

The day is very long with the pace being decided by the speed of the police escort or the top speed of Fabian’s Honda 125cc. We were expecting this to be quite nippy, but Honda appear to have set the gearing so that it’s capable of carrying a family of six around city streets. Still, it bounces along and has an air of absolute invincibility about it.

Towards the late afternoon it looks like we’re going to struggle to make it out of the tribal areas like we’d been advised to, however we have been told we should be able to make it to Besham before nightfall. At one photo stop, Carl gets chatting to a group of guys riding from Islamabad on Honda 125’s. They thought their ride was quite adventurous, but they are really excited when they hear about our trip. We chat way, but again they reinforce to us that we must get clear of the tribal areas before nightfall and actually insist that we don’t stop until we’ve cleared at least another sixty miles – well beyond Besham which we’re aiming for.

­As we keep riding, we stick with Fabian as he’s bringing up the rear. It seems safer to stick as a group as it’s starting to get towards dusk and the advice that several people had given us is ringing in our ears. His vertigo is also really getting to him as the trucks approach and we’re forced to the edge of the road, which has no barriers and often looks ready to just crumble as we approach. When we stop for a breather, Fabian also demonstrates that his front brake is completely useless as the lever goes all the way to the grip and doesn’t offer much resistance. Carl gives it a few winds on the adjuster, so at least it has some bite.

The road is however really nice as it follows the route of a valley, but is running a tight line along the mountain side and has no side rail protection for most of the time. It’s also interesting to see loads of wild cannabis and also farms producing the stuff all over the place.

Progress continues to be slow and we’re still about twenty miles from Besham, now in the pitch black. Maybe we’re completely fine, but because everyone has told us we shouldn’t be here at night we feel as if the Taliban are about to jump out in front of us at any moment. Carl rides ahead to make sure the road ahead is clear, but ready to do an about turn at any moment if it looks like the road ahead is blocked. Then the lights behind him fade out and he pulls over in the darkness and waits. The stars are incredibly clear and it would seem to be very bad luck to pull over next to some dodgy fellow, so an opportunity is taken to turn off the bike and just stare upwards while the others catch up.

Five minutes pass and it would appear that something is wrong. There’s little else to do, but retrace the track and find the others. It only takes a couple of minutes to find Béné with Juan and Fabian by the side of the road. Fabian has a flat rear tyre and we try to offer assistance, but Juan is a mechanic so he’s happy to work by himself. We give them our puncture repair kit and a torch, but after waiting for twenty minutes it makes sense for us to head down into Besham to try and find the rest of the group as we’d last seen them about two hours ago.

As we ride into town, we see them by a fuel station and it would appear they’ve received a very warm welcome from the locals. Far from being a place which should be avoided at all costs, we were made to feel very welcome. We discuss what to do while sipping on a drink that one of the locals has provided and decide that as it’s now 9 pm, it would be a good idea for Carl and James to ride into town to try and find a hotel and sort out some dinner for when Juan and Fabian make it down.

It’s a twenty minute ride to the other side of town and there’s a slight sense of apprehension as we ride through. There are a number of armed police, including a couple of jeeps with large machine guns mounted on them. These guys look ready for business.

With the hotel found and a good rate negotiated for the rooms, we order food for everyone for 10 pm and head back to meet with Béné, Emily and Stefano who are still waiting at the petrol station. We get chatting to one of the local guys who gives us a fascinating insight into local life as we swap explanations of how life is lived in our respective countries. We’re a bit aghast when he explains that girls here don’t receive any education growing up, and just rely on the men for income and are simply married off and move into the home with the husband and the rest of his entire family. The workings of the household income is also explained – with the total household income being put into a single pot with no family member having their own savings or spending ability.

After our discussion, we’re a bit concerned that there’s still no sight of Fabian and Juan. When we left them about an hour earlier they had removed the rear wheel and we’re just fixing the puncture. Surely it couldn’t take this long to finish the job and get here. Carl volunteers with Stefano to ride back into the hills to find out where they are. It takes about ten minutes of quickish riding to find them coming the other way. Apparently they’ve not been able to get the patches to stick to the inner tube so are instead just riding the bike down slowly with a flat rear tyre.

We stick with them as we ride back down into Besham and again meet up with the others. Carl stays with Fabian, Stefano and Juan to guide them to the hotel and it’s great to eventually get into the room and get a shower and head for something to eat. It’s been a long day and thankfully we’ve not had any guns pointed at us.

Jour 148 – Lundi 13 Septembre 2010. De Raikot a Besham, Pakistan

Distance: 269 km – Temps a moto: 8.5 heures

C’est une longue journée aujourd’hui et nous arrivons a partir a 7 heures. Le policier qui était de garde a l’hôtel a organise une escorte, nous somme dans une région ou il y a des gens du Taliban, et nous remarquons que la presence de la police est bien plus importante, il y a des controles reguliers et des barrieres ou nous devons nous arretrer remplir des papiers pour donner nos numeros de visas, d’immatriculation de moto et notre destination. C’est un peu impressionnant, mais comme les policiers sont très amicaux ca nous rassure un peu.

La route est en bien meilleur etat ici, et nous avancons un peu plus vite. La vallée est superbe :la route est au bord de la montagne avec une vue superbe sur la rivière qui est bien plus bas que nous, ca ne facilite pas les chauses pour Fabian qui a le vertige et dont la petite mot qu’il a loue n’a presque plus de freins, mais il avance bien. Pour nous c’est une journée très agréable comme nous avancons doucement en attendant Fabian régulièrement, mais pour lui c’est une journée très dure : la petite moto n’est pas confortable et toutes les bosses se font sentir.

Nous avancons bien et en fin d’après-midi nous pensons réussir a atteindre Besham juste avant la nuit, mais pas de bol, a 11 km de Besham Fabian a une creuvaisons. Juan l’aide a essayer de la réparer, et après avoir attendu un long moment avec eux, comme les autres ne savent pas ou nous sommes, avec Carl nous les y laissons pour aller les prevenir. Ca fait plus d’une heure qu’ils nous attendent a une station d’essence a l’entree de Besham et ils sont contents de nous voir arriver. Les locaux sont très sympas et nous offerent de quoi boire et grignotter tout en discutant. Après un moment d’attendt, Carl et James vont voir si ils trouvent un hôtel, et quand ils reviennent il est déjà 9 heures, comme Juan et Fabian ne sont pas encore la, je vais avec James et Emily a l’hôtel alors que Stefano et Carl vont voir ou Fabian et Juan en sont.

Ils n’ont pas reussi a réparer la creuvaison mais ils arrivent a besham vers 10 heures et laissent la moto a un garage dans Besham, nous sommes contents de nous pauser a l’hôtel et de profiter d’un bon repas avant de nous coucher.