Khunjrab Pass – Inshallah – do

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Part Do (2) of Mr. Seck’s adventure to the highest border crossing in the world along the Karakoram Highway.

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Words & Photography: Richard Seck (unless otherwise indicated) Title Image: designed by Syed Mashad Ali Jafri (SMAJ)

Missed part 1? Don’t despair, just go here.

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My thought that there seemed to be a parallel between this first PBC “Mega Tour” and the inaugural CMG Mad Bastard Rally was reinforced upon discovering the PBC group turnout in Passu.

Judging by the banter on pakwheels.com before the trip, I was expecting a minimum of 20-plus bikes to be parked outside their hotel. Much to my surprise, there were only three bikes, piloted by three Mad Bastards, err, Mega Tourers.

A very CMG-like turnout for a most excellent idea.

Indeed, there was a much larger group that managed to make the leisurely cruise up to the vacation areas of Naran and Kaghan north of Islamabad. But news of snow at the Babusar Pass seemed to have caused a severe thinning of the pack.

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Coalition of the willing, from L to R: Dr. Omar, Muhammad Tahir & Dr. Yaqub

Only three braved the crossing of Babusar: Dr. Omar, an amicable physician from Lahore, who was the inspiration for the push north (BTW, he’s a ringer for Burl Ives; anyone old enough to remember him?), Muhammad Tahir, a government worker from Islamabad, and finally the maddest member of the group, Dr. Yaqub, a dentist who had made the trek all the way up from Karachi in the sweltering summer heat, on his new Suzuki GS150.

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The Mega Tour group gets boosted to four for the final leg.

The bike line-up, then, amounted to two GS150s (the doctors’ choice) and two CG125s, Tahir’s and mine.

After a meet-and-greet, the gang started to load up as the plan was to make the run up to the Khunjrab Pass and back down to Passu all in one day! An overly ambitious endeavour, as we would soon discover.

The final challenge

The ride up to Sost was pleasant, as we were all used to riding on the crappy highway and managed the many diversions (see Chinese sign) with ease. In Sost, we stopped for brunch where Dr. Omar announced that due to a fall he had on the Babusar Pass, he felt it wise not to attempt the Khunjrab Pass with a bad leg.

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Thankfully the arrows pointed  in the right directlons…

A veteran of travelling in the north of Pakistan, he had made the trip many times before and was happy to let the uninitiated give it a go on their own. He’d do some shopping in the Sost’s Chinese market and gradually make his way back to Passu where, inshallah, we’d meet him later in the evening. Sounds like a plan.

With our bellies full of greasy parathas and Pakistani omelets, we were fueled and psyched for the trip’s ultimate goal!

Soon after leaving Sost, we realized that Dr. Omar had made the right decision. Not only did the grade steepen, the quality of the road worsened. This, coupled with my bike dying on any major climb and causing a 10–15 minute break as we waited for the thing to cool down and start again, made for slow progress.

Thankfully, my two riding partners were chilled about all the delays. I guess living in Pakistan, with all its challenges, must mellow one in the end. No one can really fight the amount of chaos that happens here, so one just adapts to it and accepts it as the norm.

Kind of like my time at CMG.

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The not-yet-completed all-weather tunnel.

This acceptance was aided by the fact that wherever my bike died, there was a lovely view to photograph, and snacks and cigarettes could be had. All good really, except for the constant ticking of the clock.

Riding these awesome roads that have been blasted out of the sides of mountains, one has to marvel at the engineering feat that was accomplished here.

It took 20 years for Chinese and Pakistani work crews to complete the task of building the Karakoram Highway (KKH), and during that time almost a thousand workers lost their lives, mostly due to landslides.

The pounding that this highway takes, along with the harshness of the environment, mean that 23 years after its construction, a total overhaul is required, despite ongoing repair work.

This time however, it seems that there is a desire to make the Pass passable throughout the year by blasting a tunnel through the mountain. Intrigued by this endeavour, we made our first stop that was not dictated by my asthmatic steed at the entrance of the new work-in-progress tunnel to China.

After the obligatory pics, we continued on up the existing KKH.

08_bit_dusty.jpgWhen in doubt, giv’er!

The ride from here became even more challenging as the diverslons were more frequent and in many cases we were traversing temporary sections of road that were made up of the finest powdery sand you can imagine; some spots were axle deep! It was kind of like riding through a trail covered in water, just keep some momentum and hope for the best …

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The little Honda that could, actually could.

Allah must have been with us as we all made it through without any problems. I’m not exactly sure what happened after these sections, but as we began the final ascent to the Pass on a set of switchbacks, with a grade that should have issued the little Honda its deathblow, the bike miraculously started to increase in power!

I was even able to take the lead as my fellow riders’ bikes seemed to suffer from altitude sickness. The obvious answer for this change in character was that my bike may have been rejetted for these altitudes, or that the jets were so gummed up that it had the same effect. It was such a dramatic change in character it did not seem possible that this was the only answer.

As we crested the plateau that leads to the Chinese border, the CG strongly pulled to our final destination where we celebrated our achievement with more photos.

Standing at 15,000-plus feet for the first time was an experience. One has to be impressed by the fact that vehicles can actually function at this altitude. Especially when what should have been a five-minute walk to the new border station took more than twice the time due to multiple rest stops because of the thinness of the air.

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Success is a high altitude biscuit break with friends.

Celebrations continued there in fine style with a pack of biscuits that we had brought with us. I don’t know what it is about amazing adventures; the taste of food, no matter what it is, is amplified to hyper-real proportions.

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Exploring (slowly) the area around the pass.

On that day, with a panorama of peaks covered in snow, with a foreground medley of earth tones, ice and snow that would have taken my breath away (if I had any left), it seemed like those cookies were the most amazing things I had eaten in my life!

All downhill from here?

Knowing that our goal was to get back to Passu before dark, we could only savour the moment for so long before getting back on the bikes. Of course, it was mostly downhill from here and with our spirits soaring we made great time winding back down the mountains, with me taking the lead on my now fire-breathing CG125!

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Stunning, but where are my riding buddies?

All was going well until somewhere near the powder sections when I looked in the mirror and no longer saw my riding buddies. I pulled over to stop and wait, and took some pics of the now warming light of late afternoon that was playing on the variety of textures and colours on the mountains.

“Hmmh, this is a long wait …”

Many things went through my head as I backtracked to find out what had happened. Riding on the side of a mountain with no guardrails or safety margin at all can spell disaster at any turn; my concern heightened with every corner that I did not see the guys.

Finally, to my great relief, I found them with the front wheel off on Tahir’s bike. Thank God, it was just a flat!

Dr. Yaqub was performing the operation, assisted by Tahir. Yaqub was quite well-prepared for adventure touring, packing extra tubes, and a compact pump.

The only thing that was a bit of a concern was the fact that he was using two big screwdrivers to remount the tire. The whole procedure took time and the Chinese-made pump lost a nut, which made the reinflating operation a bit of an ordeal.

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Thankfully, the only drama was created by the setting…

With the sun sinking quickly, we were glad to have Tahir’s bike functional again … for about 10 minutes, when he pulled over and pointed at the re-deflated front tire.

“Oy, that sun is getting quite low, and these headlights provide about two candle power,” I thought quietly to myself as we pumped the tire hoping for a miracle cure.

No luck. In another five minutes, it was near flat again and we were taking the front wheel off for the second time. I thought for sure the tube was pinched after using the screwdrivers to mount it (I would have certainly pinched it), but surprisingly it turned out to be a faulty tube, which split at the valve flap seam.

A second tube was mounted but by this time there was no hope of making it back to Passu before dark, so we opted for a hotel in Sost. I was totally exhausted after what ended up being a 13-hour day on a bike with a shagged suspension, on a shagged road. But we had made it to the top of the world and had lived to tell the tale!

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A whole team arrives for the second roadside surgery.

The adventure had taken its toll on my aging body, though. I awoke at 6 a.m. the next morning in pain, popped an ibuprophen and tried to go back to sleep. When I finally managed to pry myself from the bed I admitted that my body, and likely the bike, could not handle any more abuse.

Mercifully, Dr. Yaqub let me ride his ultra plush (by comparison) Suzuki GS150 for the first part of the ride, and I realized that this would be the bike that I would buy and transform into the ultimate Pakistani adventure-touring machine!

I think the CG took umbrage with my appreciation for the Suzuki and performed brilliantly after I switched back onto it. A thought ran through my mind that all motorcycles, however modest, must have a soul born of passion. This bike’s soul had been reignited on that mountain, as had mine. This re-energized bike was now inspiring me again.

And with respect, I caned it for the rest of the trip back to Karimabad and she didn’t miss a beat!

Epilogue

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The adventure continues with Mr.Seck’s purchase of a new GS150. Pic
taken on his ill-fated trip to Fort Munroe, but that’s another story…

Surprisingly, Mr. Seck eventually made it back to Multan, Pakistan, where he continues to teach at the Multan College of Arts. He now owns a Suzuki GS150 that he is slowly adapting into the ultimate Pakistani adventure touring machine, but he still thinks fondly of the moments spent on board the born-again CG 125.


Mr. Seck would like to thank:

The Pakistan Bikers’ Club for initiating this Mega Tour
idea, and Dr. Omar, Dr. Yaqub, and Mohammad Tahir, who
graciously allowed him to join in on their adventure.

For those interested in seeing more of the locations Mr.
Seck was traveling in, click here for a few additional pics (click on thumb for large with captions).

27 COMMENTS

  1. hi Richard,
    Thanks again for the advice, I will ask the Suzuki mechanic to look into the high alt carb setting and shall look into the pak wheel post too,

    Shall be looking to leave soon.
    Regards

    Ali

  2. Hi again Ali,

    Don’t worry so much about the engine oil. Whatever the standard Suzuki recommendation is will be fine (10W40). 20W50 will also work in the summer months. As for spinning the engine before turning the key on, I don’t think that will be necessary, but it won’t hurt either.

    Bike wise, the only issue I see you having on this trip is high altitude carburetor jetting, although we all made it to the highest point of the trip with whatever jets were in our carbs. Some bikes worked better than others as you will note in the story.

    As for zero degrees, when are you planning on doing this trip? I’m assuming during the summer and if so, I don’t see the temperature dropping this low.

    As I did not go into China on my trip to the Khunjrab Pass, I don’t know what paperwork is required for the bike. I suggest you contact the Chinese consulate and inquire there.

    You may want to put a post on the motorcycle section of pakwheels.com and ask about others experiences in doing this trip. There are many knowledgeable people who are part of this forum:

    http://www.pakwheels.com/forums/bikes-3-wheelers/

    Best of luck and I’m looking forward to hear how the trip turns out!

    Cheers, Richard

  3. Thanks for the advice Richard,

    I am taking the spares. I am a little confused on the engine oil: the Suzuki Genuine Oil is a 10w40 (synthetic I believe), but I an concerned that the upper rating of 40 might not be enough given the long 1st and 2nd gear inclines and declines. I cant currently locate a 10w50 oil, and even I could it would be fairly expensive. so I am opting for Liqui Moly 20w50 to cater for the heated engine, and hoping that the temperatures wont fall below the 0deg mark that is likely to deteriorate this oil. I am advised I can compensate for colder start ups through a 10sec depress of the starting button, with the key on but the engine button set at off – to rotate the oil around in the engine a little. any advice?

    also can you recall any successful entries into China with a motor bike…….the embassy tells me it may not be possible, I have an intl license from Pak and a Chinese visa but no registration/permission for the bike to enter…..do you think this may be a problem?

  4. Hey Ali,

    Stone stock is just fine, but take spares: tubes, clutch and brake levers, and a clutch cable, along with your basic tools and a tire pump. Also, if you look carefully at Dr. Yaqub’s bike, you’ll note that he put his back tire on the front and a more aggressive tire on the rear, in order to give him more traction on the rougher roads. He brought his original front tire along as well, just in case.

    Have fun! It is the trip of a lifetime.

    Cheers, Richard

  5. Hi Richard,

    Don’t know if you will still check this or not but I’ll ask away:

    I have bought a gs150, and plan to ride the kkh to Kashgar if I get enough time or the pass and back. in your opinion what modifications would you recommend as essential before I leave Isl? I have the 2014 model with no extras.

  6. Hi Christopher,
    Many apologies for the lag in responding. For some reason the link to your latest post went into my spam folder… Anyway, here’s a direct link to the pakwheels bike forum: http://www.pakwheels.com/forums/bikes-3-wheelers/
    Another option that I suggest is to fly into Skardu and rent a bike there. The road to the KKH from this part of Gilgit-Baltistan is awesome! It’s also easier to get a flight from Islamabad to Skardu.
    Good luck!
    Cheers, Richard

  7. Thanks for the reply Richard – if all goes as planned my work may take me to Gilgit so the “Hidden Paradise” lead is much appreciated. I couldn’t figure out a way to post on PackWheels but through The Hubb I managed to contact some folks in PK so we’ll see what pans out. Any other info. pics. comments you can send my way would be appreciated.

    Thanks again for the lead.
    Christopher

  8. Hi Christopher,

    It turns out that the place where I rented my slightly dicey CG125 has an outlet in Gilgit. You can fly directly from Islamabad to Gilgit and take it from there. The place is called “Hidden Paradise Tours”. It’s definitely hidden as I couldn’t find it in Gilgit… You can also put a post on the pakwheels.com website and see if you can get some help from the locals. Good luck and have fun!
    Cheers, Richard

  9. Hey Richard – I’m a Canadian from WPG. and I hope to be heading to Pakistan for 14 days of work in mid-Sept. . Afterwards I’d love to rent and/or purchase a bike to do the KKH. I was wondering if you could hook me up (or make some suggestions) with some contacts to make that happen.

    Thanks
    Chris

  10. Hi Rene,
    Thanks for the positive response and the the well wishes. I trust all is good on your end.

    Hey Stagman,
    Sadly, there are no KLRs out here, but I welcome donations 😉

    Cheers, Richard

  11. Hey Sinc,
    Glad you liked the article, and you’re probably right about the aging body comment; the ride to and from Khunjrab likely would have had the same effect on me, even if I was ten years younger. I really should take a page out of your book and start some sort of regular exercise program…
    Cheers, Richard

  12. Hey Rich, Excellent article! What’s with the aging body thing? I’m only 6 days younger than you and feel great (physically not mentally of course). Must be the cubicle for a living thing that does that! :grin

  13. Hey LP,

    Believe me, Candi biscuits at 15,000 feet will blow your mind!… 🙂 I’ll try to smuggle some in when I come to Canada this summer.

    Glad you liked the story.

    Cheers, Richard

  14. Good one Cathy,
    Subconsciously, that must be my motto well. 🙂
    BTW, I’m currently trying to buy some police racks and hard bags for the GS, and I’m getting offers for new adventures, so more soon inshallah!
    Cheers, Richard

  15. “Just keep some momentum and hope for the best …” My new motto, I think.

    Thanks for another great writeup; look forward to hearing more about your travels on the new Suzuki.

  16. Ry, a Pakistani friend of mine jokingly said that if it was left to the Pakistanis it would never get done. 🙂

    Seriously though, the Chinese have invested heavily in the new deep sea port in Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. Seems they want to get their goods in and out of this end of China with more ease. That means shlepping the stuff across Pakistan. If the roads suck, the whole idea is not going to work very well, thus their zeal for getting the KKH in better shape. That’s my theory anyway.

    Cheers, Richard

  17. Hey lasi,

    As you know I have a new bike now so it should be smooth sailing on the next trip, inshallah. Thanks again for your patience on the way up to Khunjrab!

    Cheers, Richard

  18. Yeah, nice story. Don’t know that I’d want to give it a go, but… The overheating problem you were having really sounds to me like it was running lean to start with – maybe a main jet was clogged and at some point your bone jarring ride loosened the clog and it got sucked through, finally letting the bike run right.

    Why is there so much Chinese involvement with road building in Pakistan? I wouldn’t have thought that there was a lack of relatively cheap labour available in Pakistan to do stuff like that.

  19. Excellent write up. Looking forward to our next ride together. I hope it will be much better without breaks every two kms to cool down the bike. 🙂

    • Dear Seck

      I am running a tour operating agency Hidden Paradise Tours is based at Hunza and capable to organize various kinds of fascinating trips throughout the country. We are specialized for trekking, cultural tours, Jeep safaris, walking tours, climbing expeditions to high mountains, ski tours, geological tours and travel information of Pakistan. We also arrange climbing or skiing expeditions to Muztagh Ata and tours to China via Khunjerab pass 4733M. Hidden Paradise Tours has a well-established history of delivering quality services through our qualified and professional staff. Our guides are highly experienced and ensure a safe and enjoyable journey. They are conversant with all aspects of the trips and provide you a deeper understanding. Our staff members are mostly from Gilgit/Baltistan part of Pakistan and they have been involved for more than ten years in the field of tourism and all our guides are well acquainted with local people, culture and terrains. We arrange, Horse, Yak and Camel safaris, Cycle Tours,Motor Bike Tours and fishing tours, scientific research tours, filming tours, organize some ancient traditional festivals and any especial interest of tour. We are in the position to offer you wide scale of different programs and itineraries for the groups as well as for individuals. We have several programs of adventure and culture in the region of Himalayas, Karakorum, Hindu-Kush and Pamirs. We build the relationship, not the customer, As the hospitality is our principle, And your confidences is ours! ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERN: We respect and protect the nature and cultural environment in every region we visit. We also give awareness to the local people to protect the beautiful landscape and preserve the local culture and tradition. We work to preserve the fragile environment, culture and nature in the areas in which we operate. Deforesting and soil erosion is a major concern and pollution is also alarming in certain regions of Gilgit/Baltistan. We share this concern and are keenly aware of our responsibility towards a clean and sustainable ecosystem.

      Musa karim

      managing Director
      Hidden paradise tours

      Email: mtmkarim@hotmail.com
      Cell: +923465399471
      http://www.hiddenparadisetours.com.pk

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