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brad’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 19 Jul 2007

Location: Karakoram Highway, Pakistan

MapPre-impressions of the Karakoram highway (KKH) conjour images of a grand road carving its way through some of the most amazing scenery and difficult terrain the world has to offer. A 4000km paved masterpiece created by a joint venture between the Pakistan and Chinese governments that has brought modernisation to an ancient trade route from Islamabad to Kashgar and allowing access to a once isolated part of the world for even not-so intrepid travellers.
Pete and I are on our way to Gilgit, gateway to the Karakoram mountains and a 560km bus ride. We're dissapointed the only availability is on a night bus for want of view and loathing of bus seat sleep. Informed that it's 18hrs to Gilgit the rusty cogs of my math brain churn and calculate we'll be averaging just over 30kmph. Quite the snails pace for an alleged highway. Perhaps the KKH is not the paved masterpiece I envisaged. We head out of the city to the bus station and enter a haze of dust and diesel smoke, people and packages, last minute mechanical repairs and overloaded buses northward bound. Waiting for our ride to be burdened with cargo I scan the multiplicity of stalls selling chewing tobacco, snuff, artificial flavour laiden snacks, biscuits, smokes, lighters, Pepsi and Mountain Dew (Arabian Dew in these parts). I pluck a bottle of water from amongst the usual suspects and dart for the bus, its horn sounding and wheels in motion. Taking my seat next to Pete we settle in for the long haul. Both of us big water drinkers we discuss the importance of timing consumption and subsequent kidney processing in line with rest stops, also the difficulty posed in shitty bus non-english speaking countries figuring out exactly when those rest stops take place. Not one person on this journey speaks a word of English or by now we would have been engaged in conversation and told "Ah Australia, cricket number 1!" I glance at Pete's Nalgene water bottle and generous wide-mouth, recalling a story he told me about a bus journey in Turkey. He was on a long haul coach across the country seated window side, an old Turkish lady beside him. With no rest stop in sight and a bladder bordering rupture every pot hole Pete casually placed his jacket over his lap and positioned an empty Gatorade bottle between his legs, skillfully filling the bottle, securing the lid, but disappointingly not offering the old lady some luke warm 'original thirst quencher'. I make a mental note not to drink from his Nalgene bottle during the night. For the next few hours I attempt to imbed Urdu phrases and numbers into my head while Pete has a date with John Grisham (The Grish as he shall be known). The drivers' assistant stands on the steps of the bus by an open window sucking down more cigarette smoke than oxygen, joined occasionally by a passenger and fellow addict. Head down in the phrase book my attention's drawn forward as the bus veers right, rounding an old Bedford truck, overloaded, stranded mid journey, its rear axle lingering 50m behind. We pull back left narrowly avoiding what I deemed an iminent death with an oncoming Bedford. Caring not for undue stress I decide its healthier to hold my gaze to the book and pray for the approaching night. The night comes but I find it of no assistance. Sleep becons and the road has become a course of tight turns, potholes and kamakazi passes. Paki pop music blairs from the tape deck and nicotine addicts who earlier had the courtesy to blow their carcenogens out the window have decided balls to that and sit in their seats sucking down darts, fully aware that the chain smoking driver and assistant side with them. Every few hours the bus stops at military check posts where either a camerman paces the bus filming the faces of bleary eyed passengers or Pete and I are ushered off to fill out the foreigners registration book. For the whole night and half the next morning we endure this wretched journey of insomnolence, or as Pete succinctly put it "f--k the bus" and arrive in Gilgit feeling hung over without the hazy memory of a good night.