Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Riding the Mysterious KKH

Chris Writes

Beware the Boys on the Road
Entering Pakistan, I had been warned of the children; particularly the
boys who at times enjoy throwing rocks at cyclists as they roll by.
Cycling into the village of Passu, we encountered two boys sitting
atop a wall several meters above the road. The boys waved and yelled
”Hello!” though, as we passed them, we heard the unquestionable sound of
small stones hitting the pavement behind our wheels. The both of us
immediately turned around, rode back and yelled at the boys. Once
Sage picked up a softball sized rock and asked how they would like to
be the target, the two young lads realized we ment business and
quickly left their lofty post and ran for the cover of trees.

The following day, as we cycled through a small village, four young
boys who were dilligently working beside the road sprinted ahead of us
and to our horror picked up large sticks. We quickly assumed our
positions but to our surprise, two boys started beating the trees while
the other two collected the apples mid-air as they fell. Enthusiastic
and hardly able to contain their eagerness, the boys ran to the road’s
edge, and with outstretched hands offered us more apples than we had
space for.

Several days later, while riding through the tight, stone wall lined
streets of Minapin we encountered 10 or 12 boys playing a game of
cricket. Once we were spotted, the boys came running, shouting any
English word that came to mind. We were soon besieged. With their
bright eyes transfixed on our dust covered bicycles and their questions
being asked with so much enthusiasm, we were afraid that a few of them
might explode from excitement. After a lightning round of questioning
the boys then dug deep into their pockets and pulled out handfuls of
uncracked walnuts, insisting we take every last one.

Then there was the afternoon when, as we slowly climbed a small hill
before another village, some young men in a white car sped by yelling
something inaudible out the window. Once I got to the top of the hill
and started coasting down, the same car, now parked on the side of the
road, waited for me to pass and slowly drove next to me. Not sure what
to expect, I tried to keep my distance but with a rock wall on one
side and the car on my other there was not much room to negctiate.
After a long minute, the passenger stuck his head and
offered a polite greeting followed by an enormous handful of ripe
grapes. As quickly as the car had sped by several minutes ago, it
took off and was gone again. Again several kms down the road we
encountered the car and its occupants, on the side of the road and
again more grapes were thrust in our faces. This time the passenger
needed another to help with the load of grapes. With smiles and
profuse "thank you's" we moved on.
The warnings we had received before entering Pakistan about the boys
on the roadside rang true, except we never expected to run out of
storage space for the gifts that were given so freely and with so much

Modes of Transportation
Shortly after entering Pakistan you begin to see several types of
transportation typically used. For one, the motorbikes that scream
by, blearing their horns and carrying three grown men make any tourist
look twice and wince. The mass appeal of the small motorcycle can
only be understood once one travels through the country, with its
hellacious dirt roads, narrow alleys or roads so rutted that even four
wheel drive vehicles find it hard to pass, the motorcycle fills a
special nitch. Following the motorcycle, large 10 passenger jeeps or
mini-busses dot the landscape. These vehicles almost always are jam
packed with passengers on the inside and whom ever could not fit
inside is now sitting, hanging or somehow magically attached to the
outside. At times, 4 or 5 grown men sit on top of an over loaded
jeep's roof rack while another 6 hang off its rear bumper and for the
completely desperate, the front bumper is usually free and quite
available. Moving up the scale of motor vehicles one sees the large
and always highly decorated Pakistani trucks. With intricate, hand
painted decorations costing upwards of $15,000, these truck drivers are
serious about their 6 wheeled, rolling beasts. These trucks usually
sport not only beautiful landscape and flower designs but also have
hanging reflectors high above the cab and what seems like thousands of
small bells hanging from chains below the bumpers. The drivers are
usually curteous and always proud to show off their rides. These
trucks are usually grossly overloaded with burlap sacks full of
potatoes, wheat or what ever agricultural crop is in season, heading
south for richer markets.

Stationary Store on Wheels
While cycling through Pakistan one always encounters children, either
on their way to school, home or working in the fields. Passing by,
children usually stop what they are doing, wave, yell hello or come
running. By our third day in Pakistan we started encountering a few
children, in the small villages, that as they ran to the edge of the
road would scream "Hello, one pen, Hello, one pen". We would always
greet them and tell them we had no pens to give. By the fourth or
fifth day the greeting of many of the children changed from "Hello,
one pen" to "One Pen", "Pen please" or even "Give me pen". One
ingenious little boy started out with "One pen" and as we rolled by
the quantity of pens he was asking for increased with every meter
traveled. The last I could hear of him he was asking for "Five pen".
In the beginging, as the one pen chant was so new to us we disregarded
it as just an unusual greeting a few kids were using. But as we rode
further south the mantra of one pen became such a common sound and
nusiance, chanted over and over, with the kids running beside us
yelling at the top of their lungs that we started to devise plans on
how to divert or end the pleading early. Finally, as one over
enthusiastic boy started screaming the daily matra louder and louder,
with ever increasing intensity we decided to try and charge a few
rupies for each pen that was asked for. The starting price hovered
around 5 rupies (about $.09) and increased marginally until the
child realized that as they screamed and pleaded the price rose. Sage
continued to say under her breath "What do I look like, a traveling
stationary store?", which always offered me a bit of comic
relief in the midst of the one pen onslaught.
At times, we wished we had pens to give out, especially to the
youngsters who, so openly gave us apples, walnuts, appricots or
grapes. In the end we neither gave out any of our limited supply of
pens nor did we receive any money for a pen

Bridges to Prosperity
While in Pakistan one never knows what to expect when it comes to the
bridges. There are as many types of bridges as there are people. The
first bridge we encountered, crossing the Hunza River was probably the
most dramatic and the only one of its type. The bridge, the shorter
of two leading to a small village across the muddy, glacier fed
river, was at least 300m long, narrow enough to grab tightly onto the
two straining cables and employing so few wooden planks that at times
the distance between each step seemed to span over a meter. Before
stepping foot on the bridge, I had to inspect the anchoring systems,
the steel braided cables and slightly unsettling sight of partially
broken hardware used to hold two sets of cables together.
Attempting to cross such a bridge was truly a mental test. Hands
holding on tight to each cable, feet testing then stepping on the
remaining, and often to skinny planks and the eyes focusing not on the
planks but the fast flowing river below. My attempt to cross the
bridge was short lived and if I had lived across the river I may have
very well starved to death. But upon my the failed attempt at
crossing, an older woman from the nearby village climbed onto the
bridge and without any effort, fear and only one hand, started
traveling across the now swaying bridge, she seemed to glide, despite
the ever increasing span between wooden planks.
The second type of bridge common to many small and often remote
villages along the Karakoram Highway is the wooden basket hanging from
a small pulley that rides on one thin, well-used wire. The
approaching trail is often carved into the cliff side, so narrow at
times that two people coming from opposite directions could not pass.
The basket itself has an often torn and tattered rope attached to each
end and to the opposing banks. The basket riders, upon climbing into
the small and bouncing basket begin to pull themselves aross the
river. The first half of the ride is rather short as the wire slopes
to the center but the second half is usually slow and requires
substantial effort. Hand over hand, the individuals pull themselves
and sometimes their occupant and/or goods from the market to the
opposite side. Typically, a youngster from the village, seeing
someone crossing, will come running and join in the effort to pull the
basket and its occupants, making the progress twice as fast but
still too long to be suspended, mid-air above a raging, rock strewned
When it comes to bridges for pedestrians and motor vehicles alike
Pakistan has some of the most entertaining ones around. The country
is big on suspension bridges, often narrow, only allowing one car from
either direction to cross and only one car at a time. Our first
encounter with this type of bridge was upon entering Gilgit, late in
the afternoon and just behind a small car packed full of occupants.
As the car ahead completed its crossing, the car just in front of us
started its journey and so did we. Once the car drove onto the bridge
we could see and hear the super structure of the bridge groan and flex
along its entire length. As the steel cables lengthened, the wood planked plantform stretched and the entire bridge seemed to drop
several inches. Cycling behind a vehicle on a bridge that sways more
than than a lobster boat in winter waters proved to be an art that
neither of us had ever mastered. We wove from side to side,
stumbled when we tried to pedal as the bridge appeared to drop out
from under our tires but were having the time of our lives. With a
long bridge platform to cross and cars waiting on the other side we
had to keep close to the car ahead. Once that car drove off the
bridge, the entire mass seemed to spring skyward, ignoring the
miniscule weight we and our bikes offered.
Finally, as the traffic flow and population increases along the KKH
the construction of new bridges is inevitable. We passed four new
bridges, all in various forms of installation. Some of the bridges’
wooden platforms lay on the banks, being pre-cut while others simply
had the stone pillar uprights errected and slack cables, drapped over
the pillars, hanging in mid air. One such bridge, still in the early
stages of construction was already being used by the villagers despite
the wooden platform missing most of its decking and any guard rails. It
was so narrow it would have even given goats pause. But as the small
and now impractical bridges become replaced, the villages on the
opposite banks have the chance to grow and prosper.


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