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China Pakistan border lies and a fantastic bus journey

Karimabad and the Hunza Valley

Karimabad and the Hunza Valley (Wikipedia)

Karimabad, Pakistan and the first hot shower for 5 days clean clothes and great food. It is times like this that you really appreciate when you are on the road. What an adventure I have had. Sunday morning in Kashi and I immediately went to the international bus station. After a while 8 people from Thailand turned up all heading for the China Pakistan border. They also had no visas so I was kind of happy that I was not going to be the only one. They were great as were my fellow Pakistani travellers… big smiles, big handshakes. They were all very gentle and kind people.

Snow capped mountains outside Karimabad

Snow capped mountains outside Karimabad

The bus finally left after an hours delay for the paper work to be sorted. We spent the ride gazing out of the window. What great views. It was all perfect and wonderful- getting to know the Thai group, while admiring the view. Our bus driver pulled over for some lunch and we got a good feed of rice and lentils and then a quick passport check at the security post on the out skirts of town and back on our way. Everything running perfectly smoothly and being a pleasure of an experience. Over a massive plateau…… snow capped mountains and then breaking onto wide plains. Then suddenly we would wind down into a tight gorge just the road and the river. It was so incredible that words simply cannot describe the emotion that stirs when looking at spectacles like this. Epic journeys and changing scenery like this is the best in the world. At 6 pm we pulled in to Tashkurgan and I shared a room with a Pakistani guy. I slept great despite the fact that we were at 3600m. The morning was freezing and getting out of bed was a real challenge.

I met up with all the others that had left Kashi on the Friday. They would have left but the border had not opened on the Saturday. We waited for 2 hours while they “found” the departure cards and then the bus was packed and repacked yet still we left with a load of bags still on the ground. Whose bags they were no one will ever know. We had picked up many new passengers. A Chinese soldier was on board but he was just hitching a ride up to the border… he slept mostly, but woke up when we went up to the front of the bus to take pictures and told us to sit down. He even took control when we stopped for pee breaks, which is quite amazing seeing as we were in Pakistan and he had no right to do so. The Chinese are really growing their sense of self importance. Motioning that we should go to the left not the right and not stand in the road. what an idiot. suddenly we were at the top… 4737m high on the Karakoram Highway (KKH). THE KUNJERAB PASS, but we did not stop!

The Khunjerab pass

The Khunjerab pass

GRRRRRRR…then we picked up the KSF (Khunjerab Security Forces) guy, with big smiles, taking photos, every one was happy. Then down the other side and all the scenic environment changed. Everything became all dirt and dust.. lots of it, with steep gradients running down into narrow valleys. On the Chinese side it was all paved, while the other side displayed wide valleys, cattle grazing. Yet despite the contrast the views on both sides were spectacular. The road went on for ages. We made slow progress, choking dust coming in through the window clouding everyone up in a thin layer. Finally and none too soon we were in Sost….. and then at the China Pakistan border the fun and games really began!

Sost on the China Pakistan border

Sost on the China Pakistan border is not a place to hang out and have fun.

Firstly the immigration boss controlling and making the decisions on the China Pakistan border was not there. and then the tour leader for the 8 from Thailand who had met his group as we got off the bus informed us that the Visa on Arrival (VOA) was not available since today but they would let us through with a letter of invitation that he so conveniently could give us but of course for a nice fee of 50 US$. This was a shock and knocked us back a bit. He further explained to us that every thing had changed and that a the VOA was a transit visa for 30 days and was non extendable. Some tourists had gone to Islamabad for an extension we were told and that this situation had just begun due to changes in legislation. Great. Whatever the problem we all said “no” and 3 of our westerners group of 13 went to negotiate the deal. They spoke of deportation back to China which they knew was impossible as we needed visas. They of course said that to scare us. However we had “safety in numbers”. The immigration officials took our passports off of us. The Thai group just left, as the tour leader was sure he was wasting his time with us, even if he would have made a small fortune had we all paid up. A dutch guy with “contacts” was phoning like crazy and getting info from those with more powers than jumped up little shits at some border post at the back of beyond. Finally and annoyingly, as these situations seem to go when everything breaks down, we were told to return in the morning!  Remembering the planning stage to this journey and which way to take the China Pakistan border, it makes you realise yet again that however much you plan you cannot account for the things that have the greatest impact on the outcome.

We set off to find a hotel that could accommodate 13 passport-less travelers. Luckily we met so many nice people in the village, ate great dahl and rice mopped up with beautiful chapatis and washed down with sweet tea! This life was good even if we had no visas or passports, nor knew what the situation would do next. The little things really do sort you out. The dutch guy finally received a call at 10 am to say that the “problem” had been resolved and that we could go and get our visas. as a Brit I had to pay 90$, but that was life and we were made to promise that we would not try to extend our visas. I knew it was a scam, but who knows if the VOA has now finished. Half of the things we were told were lies. A classic was “the fax machine broke down so they could not fax the Chinese to warn them that they were not to let us out of China” and that a call had been made 1 hour before…..etc etc….. However they really made song and dance about the non extendable part of the whole story. So, I guess that if no other travelers came through China to this China Pakistan border with pre-visas then we shall learn the truth.

Either way we were then free to roam around Pakistan for 30 days. Fingers crossed!

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan.  We have so many miss conceptions about this place.  People think we will be rapped, attacked for being western, shot at, dumped in a ditch or kidnapped by the Taliban within minutes of arriving.  The reality is that the people are the friendliest ever. They love to shake hands, welcome us to their land, the views are vast and breathtaking. 7700m of snow capped peaks, lovely, simple and yet delicious food of dahl, rice and veggies. WOW…….

My trip has been great. 17 months and so many adventures but this was the “icing on the cake”. I have seen so may fascinating and welcoming beautiful places and people. Yet Pakistan stood out and was just magical.  Everything about it.  We need to start looking at such a fantastic country for what it is not with blinded eyes that are shaped by skewed news articles and what is happening in such a small area of such a large country.  Here the trip had become everything I had wanted it to be.

Naltar-Gilgit Pakistan

Naltar-Gilgit Pakistan

On to Gilgit and then a horrendous bus trip across the mountains.  A London born Pakistani guy I met had come up from Rawalpindi and the bus stopped at a blockade set up by tribal leaders and blocked all traffic….. his bus driver told everyone to get out and walk through the blockade, passed all the guys with guns at the ready and evil stares.  There was no bus waiting on the other side as they had been told.  Instead they were forced to find onward transport at 5am in the morning.  He was scared shitless. I went to the bus station and was told that the president was visiting Gilgit so for 2 days there would be no buses so I had no option than to travel after just one night in Gilgit and due to the blockade we went on a slight detour. Of course… why would it be easy!?  18 hours took 26.  We stopped for prayer twice and incurred 2 punctures. We ended up spending the whole night on dirt roads in convoy. It was painfully slow progress but without any other serious dramas, which was a welcome relief.  From Rawalpindi I went out to the Faisal Mosque in the neighbouring Islamabad and then rested as much as I could before going to the airport for the very unhealthy departure hour (04:35) and the flight to Istanbul.

I was happy that i had done the adventure in to Pakistan and was some what relieved to have left the country with no dramas. It ended up in a way that I felt it could have gone wrong a few times.  The Visa on arrival (VOA), I have since heard from a friend is indeed now no longer available.  In more serious cases travellers ended up not even being allowed to leave Tashkurgan in China so the “stories” were actually true.  It also seems that we had got in at the last moment…. the road could have easily been destroyed in one of the many rockfalls and had I not gone to the bus station the day before I had wanted to go could well have been left in Sost while my flight left without me… all that is nothing…. could have been on the bus that did not make it thru the blockade…. the KKH does carry a health warning and specially the Gilgit Rawalpindi stretch…. they recommend that foreigners fly.

Jeeps in Gilgit are the best way to travel

Jeeps in Gilgit are the best way to travel

That said, the Hunza valley is one of the nicest places I have ever been to… the scenery is jaw dropping…. the locals.. wow… all they wanna do is come and talk to you, shake your hand and welcome you. In Karimabad I met the same jeep driver who took me for part of the trip a few days later.  He stopped his jeep…. ” Mr Trevor!!!! how are you liking Hunza?” That summarises the people…. what a trip!

and now? 6 weeks to get to HOME!  I am not sure how I feel about that now…

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