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Cycling Plus

Cycling Plus #20:
Karakorum Chronicles Part 2: Hunza to the Chinese Border

Our panniers are stocked with local supplies; a string of dried figs, bags of mixed nuts and a bottle of fresh apricot juice. So begins the second chapter of our Karakoram Chronicles as jagged peaks rise above a featureless grey valley, kindling an air of expectation. Easing away from this blackened furnace, the 'Throneroom of the Gods' awaits us.

Scale soon wreaks havoc on our sense of perspective. Within a day's ride we crane our necks towards ranges heavy with chunks of fresh thick snow. Colossal glaciers gently bulldoze their way down to the road side, squeezing through corridors of rock in a frozen wave. Forgotten suspension bridges lie strung across the Indus, ropes frayed, planks missing, swaying in the wind like sets from a Spielberg film.

Legend knows Hunza Valley as the lost Shangri-la, rich in tradition and woven with mysticism. Tales are told of a realm forgotten by the course of time, of spells cast by lovelorn suitors over locks of hair. But the tentacles of commercial tourism are fast encroaching. Now, four wheel drives and American Express herald the arrival of the 21st Century. 'How long are you travelling for?' I ask a Swiss recumbent cyclist. 'Oh, maybe 5, 10 or 20 years,' he replies, twirling his Daliesque moustache nonchalantly. 'Time is not a problem.' Perhaps the magic of the old Hunzakuts still tinges the air today.

The road winds on once more, delving in and out of the shadows of 7,000 peaks, rising like a set of kitchen knives up and over the valley walls around us. Spring water filters through the rockface, which we drink abundantly in defiance of the heat of the day. 'Relax, you're out of a landslide area,' a sign post informs us, as we pass gnarled electricity pylons misshapened by random rockfall. Slabs of granite loom like citadels lost in a swirl of cloud; solid yet precarious, restrained power in this world of extremes.

At the border town of Sust, groups of men wander the main street, chadois camiz flapping in the wind. There are no women to be seen. Tucking into oily dahl in a local restaurant, the television is flicked on and the room soon bustles with Pakistani men. Skullcaps, topis, fist-length beards, young and old. In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, it's World Wrestling Federation night. Live by satellite, two semi-naked and glistening hulks battle before a crowd engrossed in this slice of Western culture. 'Your country!' says a traditionally clad bystander with a jubilant smile. 'No!' we reply as one. 'America!'

Continuing our climb, we reach the army post of Koksil, 4,200m, where we're invited for tea by the friendly security forces. We contemplate this bleak and lonely landscape, where mountains loom like forlorn giants in the surrounding solitude. A series of switchbacks twist and turn until we finally crest Khunjerab Pass, 4730m. Reflected in the mirrored shades of Pakistani border guards, the sky is indigo blue, the snow bleached white and rounded hills, polished like marble tops, gently rise and roll into the distance.

A tiny red flag flutters on the other side of Zero Point, just 200m away. China, our next destination on the road to Central Asia.



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