Wednesday, August 15, 2012

And Then...

After three and a half years on the road it's not so easy to just step back into our lives at home.  It's a rollercoaster ride seeing family and friends, returning to our home in Hebden Bridge, looking for jobs, getting on with 'normal' life.  What is normal life?  We want to travel again, with bikes. July 2012 we set off again.  You can read about this journey on our new blog here:

Sunday, July 11, 2010


Our flight takes us to Frankfurt from where we plan to cycle to the Hague, take a ferry to Harwich and cycle to our families in Manchester and the Wirral. In Mainz we are hosted by Judith and Korbinian through Warm Showers.  They're a lovely couple who have ridden their recumbents through the Alps to Judith's home country of Hungary.

Our reason for coming to Germany is essentially a sad one.  Whilst planning our journey home back in Chengdu we received an e-mail form Reinhard, a traveller we met in Bishkek, a fellow inmate at Nomad's Home back in 2008 where he celebrated his 62nd birthday.  We got on well with him and stayed in touch with occasional e-mail.  He wrote telling us that he had been diagnosed with cancer and did not have long to live.  He would be very pleased if we could visit him.  And we said yes.  And so we arrive at his home in Duren, where we stay a few days and spend time with him and his family.  It's a strange experience for us - Reinhard, his wife and children and their families are going through a very painful and difficult time - but at the same time it is also a very special experience and we are treated with such kindness and hospitality by everyone.  

Life suddenly seems all too short and yet it is clear Reinhard has lived a very full and happy life.  He tells us that he wrote to an old school friend living abroad who had come to visit.  We said we thought it was quite unusual to receive his request that we visit and with a smile and a gleam in his eye he replied how unusual it was that we had agreed to come.  

After saying goodbye to Marie-Luisa and Reinhard everything else seems inconsequential.  We had planned a slow return home but suddenly want to see our families.  On our way we make fleeting stops to visit Jeff and Else in Antwerp, Marthein and Eun Yung in Breda, Martine and Guy in Wuurstwezel (am I making that name up?) and Friedel and Andrew in Den Haag.  It's good to see these friends that we have made on this journey and we hope they don't mind us passing through so briefly.

It takes three and a half day's cycling to get from Harwich to Manchester.  The next day we cycle to Oxton. Along the way we are hosted by a friendly family in Harwich, Phil in Cambridgeshire, Chris and Anna near Loughborough and Margaret and Mike in Macclesfield, where there is a Silk Road.  As any scholar could have told us - there's more than one.............

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Taking Flight

We wake up just before the birds. While I start packing up Gayle goes outside to relieve herself behind a tree - not best campsite etiquette, admittedly, but you haven't seen the toilets. It comes as a little surprise to her when she reappears to find a dozen soldiers lined up gazing in her direction. They then prostrate themselves in her direction. What's happening? Ah-ha - it's morning prayers. As we cycle off in the wonderfully cool morning air through woodlands beside the city there seems to be rather a lot of folk around. It's about 5 am. Seems this is the best time of day if you want to avoid the heat. Eventually we emerge onto a main road and pedal fast along the hard shoulder. The main road becomes a motorway. There are signs for "Lahore, Airport". After half an hour I'm wondering if we misread the sign and are actually heading to Lahore Airport. I look back over my shoulder to consult with Gayle and spot an aeroplane taking off well away from where we are. Uh-oh. We check with a taxi driver who tells us to keep going - sure enough, there's a sign ahead directing us to the airport. When we do reach the entrance we realise that we've cycled the length of the runway and some more.

Security at the airport is like all security in Pakistan - highly visible and highly ineffective. At the entrance we get delayed by bored soldiers who just want to look at our passports. At the door into departures a man wants to inspect our ticket and passports. I push onwards and leave Gayle behind who is then held back because I've got our e-ticket and the man couldn't read our names on it. There is an inspection of the contents of our panniers. Then the x-ray machine. The soldiers gamely try and fit our bicycles through the machine. Eventually Gayle's goes through, but mine's too big and after a bit of humming and hah-ing gets wheeled around. A man is deputed to inspect it for goodness knows what. He holds it at arms length with a bemused look on his face and finally waves me on. We join the check-in queue. Islamabad airport isn't that big and we're happy to see that the baggage conveyor belt behind the five check-in desks is just rolling everything outside onto the tarmac. Surely our bicycles won't be a problem.

"Excuse me sir, but your bicycles will be a problem." Two of the PIA staff are at our side shaking their heads at our bikes. But they're not heavy, we protest. It's not the weight - but their bulk, they explain. They'll have to go as freight. But it's too late for freight and we've no money. Why can't they just go as part of our normal baggage allowance? Is the flight full? The two men consult and then ask us to wait at the desk for a supervisor. Meanwhile our other bags are checked in and we get two labels for the bikes. We wait around for about an hour as many more people check in. Airport trolleys laden head high with suitcases and boxes trundle up and are off loaded without anyone batting an eyelid. No problem with bulk for some, it seems. We continue to wait. Our flight is about to close and the woman at the check-in desk is telling us that we have only five minutes more. "But what can we do?" we ask. She points over at the Cling-film Men, who are doing a roaring business wrapping anything plonked in front of them. We need to get the bikes wrapped if they are to go on board. All of a sudden the problem has vanished. What fun this is. The cling film men quote us a ridiculous price to wrap the bikes and then set to with gusto after we agree. Fifteen quid seems like a bargain after all the doubts and head-shaking. And then our prized posessions are carried off by a baggage-handler and disappear out onto the tarmac. Will we ever see them again?

Our flight is being called. We have to dash through all the controls. No time to linger in Departures, we are soon walking up the steps and onto our plane. Buckled up and still feeling pleased with ourselves about the bikes, we slowly begin to realise that we are about to leave Asia. After all this time. We are on our way home, albeit indirectly, and this will be our last flight. It all seems too much to comprehend. I wonder what there is for breakfast?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hotting Up (Doing the Dew)

We've only been in the internet cafe for 10 minutes when the power goes off and we find ourselves in darkness. Load-shedding. The three young guys in the cafe start chatting to us and the load-shedding becomes an off-loading session. Pakistan is stuffed, essentially. With corrupt politicians, an over-powerful military and high unemployment, what are they to do? One of them has two masters degrees and can't get a job. Another has worked in Australia - he enjoyed it there but returned to Pakistan when his daughter died. Their list of woes is long and we can feel their frustration.

In the bazaar we notice many of the barrow boys and traders look different - they're Afghans. And out on the streets we finally get to see lots more women - students and shoppers - their faces are not covered as they have been in most of the towns we've been through since we left the Hunza Valley. Abbottabad's main advantage is the climate - whilst the heat is building up on the plains to the south, the town enjoys fresh coolish air. It's not too hot to wander about and it's perfect when the sunsets. And hey, there's footie on the telly. What's on this evening? Mmmm, Chile versus Honduras. If it does get too hot around mid-afternoon we retreat to our room, sit under the fan and drink a big bottle of Mountain Dew, Pakistan's best pop drink. We are sub-consciously counting the days down to our flight and return journey and thinking about being home more than about where we are right now. It seems inevitable I suppose.

The last leg of our journey is on to Islamabad. Do we take the busy main road or a quiter road that involves a big climb? I don't want to do the former and Gayle's reluctant to do the latter, so instead we take a minibus up to Murree, avoiding the climb, and then free-wheel for 50km all the way into Islamabad. Along the way we stop for chai. We get chatting to a traffic cop, Imran, who is sat reading a book in English - it's a bodice ripper judging by the cover - he's ridden up here from Rawalpindi, the old city that sprawls next to prim and proper Islamabad, in between shifts to escape the heat. He tells us he has an MBA - but this is the best job he can find. He studied accountancy - now all he counts are the cars. He loves reading though - if the traffic is not too heavy he can read. This might explain the traffic flow in 'Pindi. "Are the police respected in the UK?" he asks. Good question. "Mm, yes." "Because here the police have no respect." Political interference, corruption, he explains. Aren't they a bit lazy and incompetent? I want to ask. I remember on my first visit to Pakistan being in a taxi that got pulled over by the traffic police. The driver handed over his licence with a folded rupee note sticking out of it, ready for such an occasion. But Imran is another charming man, and I don't want to offend him. Needless to say we are unable to pay for our tea - he insists.

We arrive in Islamabad as the mid-afternoon heat is wearing off. There's a Tourist Campsite here, unsigned, where we can pitch our tent for about 80 pence a night. The facilities are value for money. Next to the toilet block, some very brave soldiers are camped. They have a sandbagged gun emplacement with a clear line on the entrance gate. Surely they're not here to protect us? Carl, a young Aussie on a bike going to China, is the only other camper. There are a few trees providing some shade, but by 7.30 in the morning we have to get out of the tent. It is much too hot, as they say in these parts. Thank goodness we fly out on Sunday. The heat puts us off doing too much. One thing we plan to do is post home some surplus baggage - but when we turn up at the Post Office on Saturday morning it is closed. We are planning to cycle to the airport and hope the airline takes our bikes without them being boxed. Fingers crossed.

Having a bike in Islamabad is quite liberating. The city is built in a grid system and the distances seem so great. But so many of the roads just end in dead ends. Sometimes it feels like we're in a huge maze. There's a languid air about it all. What's most striking about the city is how green it is - trees everywhere - but ultimately it's a dull place by South Asian standards. Perhaps it'll help us acclimatise to the Western World?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Football Daze

You learn many things on a journey like this. At our hotel in Mansehra where we had a TV showing World Cup football, I learnt that you should not leap into the air, arms aloft in celebration, in a room with a low ceiling and a ceiling fan. Gayle shakes her head and a tut is audible as I writhe in agony on the floor like a... well, like a World Cup footballer. Luckily no appendages are lost. "It's only South Korea", Gayle remarks. Later the same day, as I'm returning to the room with a bag of fresh samosas I fall down a drain. I have already learnt that you should always keep an eye out for the pavement that suddenly disappears, but I had forgotten this valuable lesson. Only one samosa is lost - disappeared down a black hole.

Our ride to Mansehra is not too long and very pleasant as it's mainly downhill. Traffic has picked up though, and as well as the painted trucks there are now tons of minivans and the much-loved Suzuki Maruti. The drivers are uniformly moronic, or at least that's what I tell them when they buzz past close enough to tickle me. I'm not in a laughing mood and practice some new hand signals. We stop at a chaishop for the obligatory tea and get chatting to a young man called Kamran. When we set off again he insists on paying for the drinks. The air is fresh with the scent of pine as we descend through forest. Now and again we pass some dreadful-looking chicken factory farms. I vow never to eat chicken again - a vow that is broken once we arrive Mansehra.

Outside the little restaurant some women stop us to say hello. The younger one is from England, and she invites Gayle/us to her house. In a nice turnaround I am completely ignored by everyone. We're sweaty and starved so we pass on the invite and hurry inside, where we are then 'captured' by Idrees, a young graduate looking for a job. He wants to talk, practice his quaint English, and asks us a few questions while we stuff our faces. At some point he points out how much a pleasure it is for him to talk with a foreign woman for the first time. In true South Asian style he has lost interest in me once he learns I have no university education. Obviously I'm an idiot. Gayle garners all the attention with her masters degree in demography. At first I found this annoying, but ultimately I'm rather relieved. When I am asked what my educational background is (this is usually Question Number Three) I tend to wave dismissively, and say "Nothing. But my wife has a master's degree......" thus getting out of Questions Four to Ten. Idrees turns out to be a very charming young man, if a little serious. I have to hurry off to catch Algeria versus Slovenia.

Abbottabad is only a short ride down the road, but we still manage to squeeze in a tea stop along the way. Another traveller, a tea trader riding on his motorbike with his small son and a large sack of tea, pays for our drinks. The town is becoming a city - with a huge approach road full of new shops and snazzy restaurants, private schools and colleges. After riding into the centre for half an hour we stop for a mango milkshake. A young student pays for these before we can stop him. These kindnesses to strangers are embarrassing. Would an Englisman buy a foreigner a cup of coffee in England like this?? We're still in the hills here, north of Islamabad, and the climate remains fresh. Down on the Punjab plains it's a different story - pre-monsoon heat is cranking up. So we decide to take a few days rest here - the days we saved by taking a minibus through Kohistan. Besides the hotel has TV and look, it's New Zealand versus Slovakia tonight...........

Monday, June 14, 2010

Stoned Again

On our way out of Besham we come to a checkpoint beside a police station. The men are wearing tee-shirts with 'Commando' emblazoned on the front, and 'Anti-Terrorist Squad' on the back. You can probably pick these up in the bazaar. An officer with very good English asks us where we are going. We tell him and he asks us to wait. He consults with someone inside and then explains that they'd prefer us to take a bus to Thakot bridge, about 30km down the road. "Is the road dangerous?" we ask. No, no, it's perfectly safe, but it's just a precaution, he explains. We resign ourselves to wait for a ride, but I get itchy sitting outside a police station at a checkpoint. Surely this is the most dangerous place to hang around in all of Pakistan? After half an hour, and much discussion amongst the 'Anti-Terrorist Squad' it was finally decided that we would be safe to continue alone after all. The road south is much more populated and we find ourselves waving and saying hello to everyone all the time. Everyone is very friendly. The truck drivers in their brightly decorated trucks all give us a thumbs up, as they pass us in a wave of tinkling bells - each truck bears tassled skirts of tiny bells. I love the hand gestures Pakistanis use - the Push is a repeated two-handed mime to mean 'Alright'. The more common is the questioning hand twisting upturned. It means what?where?why? I reply with an improvised all-encompassing wave pointing forwards. It'll do.

We meet some policemen in a truck who insist on 'escorting' us. All of a sudden the cycling feels quite different. People look at us but I feel quite self-conscious with the police right behind us. We don't feel threatened at all. Finally we ask the police to leave us be. They look puzzled and perhaps offended, but when we stop for pop one of the policemen shoos away three little boys just hanging around - we don't want this kind of protection. A local man smiles and says the local people are good people. We have no doubt of this. But, he adds, there are some people........

At Thakot bridge we have lunch and then begin a big climb out of the Indus valley. It's too hot and we're slow climbers. From up above a rock falls onto the road between us. And then I spot another little bastard lobbing stones at us. Where does this come from? The adults seem friendly enough. We crawl up hill for about 25km to a little market town which we instantly recognise as we turn a corner. We spent about five hours in one spot here when our bus had a puncture back in 2008. We stop for numerous teas and to recover from our climb. Unfortunately there's another 16 km to climb to the pass. We plod on, through pine woods, in the afternoon's fading sun.

"Where are you going?"
"From where are you coming?"

Finally after a lot of sweat and puffing, we get to the top. There's a fairly nice hotel at the pass and we take a room there. None of the staff speak English, but Akram, a Pakistani man who has lived and worked in Norway for most of his life, translates for us. He might be the owner, we can't tell. He spends most of his time smoking spliffs on the veranda, so he probably is. We take a day's rest here to recover from the ride and do a bit of laundry and Akram acts as our host. Down in the village of Sharkul where we go for lunch we are invited to take a tea by a friendly Kohistani who is waiting for a bus. After a while he observes to me "Your wife looks old". "And you look fat", Gayle replies. Despite their hospitality, some Pakistani men can be quite rude and seem to have a prurient interest in our relationship. For the sake of this part of the journey we are now married with two daughters at university. We have now taken to blanking anyone who, after enquiring about our nationality, suddenlys asks, usually to me, "And what is your relationship to her?" or "Is she your 'friend'?" Gayle is getting fed up with being stared at in the street by all the men and then, when we are approached by a friendly man, being completely ignored. The perils of travelling in such a conservative society.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Badlands

Sad to leave, but we must say goodbye to our friends in Gilgit and continue southwards. We have a lovely sunny day to ride down the valley. There's no tarmac on the road but we're getting used to this now. Late morning we meet the confluence with the mighty Indus river which is coming from the east, cutting through the mountains from Skardu. We last saw this river in Ladakh. There's a crumbling monument indicating that at this juncture is the meeting of the Himalaya to the south-east, the Karakoram to the north and the Hindu Kush to the west. South of us stands Nanga Parbat. At 8125m it is marking the end of the Himalaya in style.

At our lunch stop we recognise a shopkeeper who looks like a Mexican bandit. Gayle took his photo when we stopped here in 2008. We eat our curry and nan and drink our tea with an audience of about twenty men and boys. Minibuses come and go, and so do the men, but the audience figure remains constant. Life must be quite dull here. Any women passengers are herded into a backroom and then herded back out to the bus when it's ready to leave. This must be fun for them.

There's a police checkpoint at Talechi. "Where are you from?" the policeman asks. "The UK". "Is that the UK-US?" he asks. He's either very stupid or he's got it sussed. "Where are you staying tonight?" He looks a bit confused when we say "here". There's a basic truckstop guesthouse and we cook our own noodles for tea. In the morning a truck pulls up overloaded with kids and women. It's a charabanc. They look like they're out on a picnic. The women are wearing bright colourful clothes and are noticeably showing their faces. We guess they are Gujars, nomadic herders, who move up into the mountains during the summer. They remind us of Roma. They look poor but happy together.

Back on the road it's a dusty ride. The road is often just sand. We stop for tea in one place, Mountain Dew in another. While we drink our pop we are stared out by a large group of uncommunicative boys and the shop suddenly acquires a big clientele of men, some of whom try to shoo away the boys. (Presumably so that they could have a better look.) Gayle is wearying rapidly of these gawpers. Further along we wave to some little boys up above the road. They throw stones in reply. Charming. In another village, as we pedal slowly uphill, we are swarmed by little boys. "One pen, one pen" A man roars at them to leave us alone and throws a rock at them. A little later two of them catch up with us on another hill. We ignore them and they too throw stones as a parting. We're conscious of heading to Chilas, which doesn't have a great reputation for hospitality. However, once we get there, and find a room and something to eat, we do relax a little. The young guys at the hotel all seem a bit dazed and confused but want to chat, and one of their friends speaks English. They tell us about their big families - one has 5 brothers and 2 sisters. Another has 9 brothers and 3 sisters. "Always more brothers than sisters" Gayle notes. Some of them are MQM supporters. This Karachi-based political party has been active in the Northern Areas. In the 80's and 90's it was engaged in a war in Karachi and the party boss, wanted for criminal charges, now lives in London. He speaks to political rallies by telephone.

In the morning we decide that we'll take a minibus to Besham. Otherwise it's a three-day ride through the badlands of Kohistan, a notorious district famous for banditry and hostility to outsiders. It's probably not too bad, but we're kind of wary of riding through these hicksville settlements. After a steep ride up to the bazaar we find a minibus heading that way. A man is found who can speak English. We ask the price. We are told 2,000 rupees. This is a phenomenal amount. In disgust I tell the man that they are worse than Indians. It's the best insult I can think of. We ride off in a huff and decide to continue to the next town, where we may or may not find a room. The Indus valley is fairly wide here and the river is rather flat. There aren't many settlements and we have a good ride in the hot sun until about midday, when we take a break in the shade. A minibus pulls up. It's the same one from this morning. Do we want to go to Besham? We do, how much? Two thousand, comes the reply. How about one thousand? We agree and the bikes are quickly tied onto the roof rack and we're away. It's still too much money to pay, but we feel kind of jolly anyway.

The road south gets more dramatic as the valley narrows, the walls steepen to cliffs, and the road climbs higher. It's landslide-prone for huge stretches and the road narrows where rockfall has been barely pushed aside. The driver is in a hurry - as they all are. The letters VIP adorn the minibus windows. "As long as it's not RIP" mutters Gayle. At a truckstop there's a good meal, and then we continue, passing through some grotty little places that we would have had to stay in if we'd cycled. Late afternoon we arrive in Besham, and push our bikes to the evocatively-named Hotel Paris. The rooms have dirty carpets and dirty bedding. Funnily enough, it reminds me of a hotel I once stayed in, in Paris. It's cheap, we take it. We're happy to have passed through Kohistan without mishap, even if it's by bus.