In August 2005. reeling from the shock of a personal tragedy, graphic artist Simon Roberts set off from the UK on his BMW R100GS heading east to Kathmandu, Nepal. Pushing the bike off the ferry at Calais, due to starter motor failure, he knew from day one that the trip was going to be anything but uneventful…
Simon Roberts, 53, is a graphic artist, adventure biker, raconteur and bare-handed wrestler of snow leopards. A keen touring cyclist for many years, Simon saw the light in 1981, halfway up a mountain in former Yugoslavia. “Two loaded motorcycles passed me, gave me the thumbs up and leaned into the next hairpin,” he says. “Like Toad in Wind in the Willows, I pulled over and thought, That’s the way to do it!”Trading in his push bike for a Honda 750KZ , he’s never looked back and has toured Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Austria, Switzerland, Morocco and France, which he now calls home and counts among the best motorcycling roads in the world. He describes his solo overland effort to Kathmandu as ‘characterbuilding’. His advice to would-be adventurers? “Go for it; go further if you can afford it.”
Since that fateful day in Calais, Simon travelled eastwards through the motorcycle workshops of Europe, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India, before finally reaching Nepal after seven months, to be met by the Maoist uprising. He encountered wild dogs, wild men and wild women along the way. From the joys of a decent coffee in Delhi to the desperation of a failed driveshaft in Pakistan, euphoria, despair and maniacal rickshaw drivers were his daily companions. We join our gritty biker in the Baluchistan desert, Pakistan, close to the Afghan border…
At 8.00am, the sun was already hot as I headed south on the road to Sukkur over the legendary Bolan Pass, a route which, according to guidebooks, ‘isn’t recommended if you’re travelling independently.’
The tarmac shimmered. It was deserted. Quiet. Quiet that is, except for a nagging rumble coming through my pegs. I’d felt it in third gear over the previous days but now I was picking it up in all gears, and it was getting louder. I stopped. Checked the oil, started the engine, engaged first gear and… KKERRUNCHH! Was it the gearbox? The shaft-drive? That was it. I slumped to the ground and lit a cigarette. It should have been a Hamlet cigar. Was this the end of the road?
As the bike cooled down, the silence grew. The desert road seemed… deserted. It was. Almost. A speck on the horizon grew and two armed men pulled up – on amoped. Baluchistan frontier police. I was saved! Or was I? ‘They’ll call a pick-up truck,’ I thought, ‘and I’ll be in a garage within the hour’. But no. An hour passed as they tried on my helmet and sunglasses, read my magazines and took photos of each other. We eventually got our act together and flagged down an empty flatbed truck, which slid to a halt in front of us.
Now the only problem was how to get the bike up onto the truck. “No problem, Salmon!” they cried. (This became my name for the next few days.) Resourcefully, the truck was backed down into the scrub allowing us to ease the bike across a plank on to the flatbed.
We headed south into the night to Sukkur, 350km away, and I experienced some of the scariest overtaking manoeuvres of my life. “Don’t worry Salmon, Allah is with us!” I was assured. Unfortunately, it seemed every other on-coming truck-driver also thought Allah was with him.
What I hadn’t realised was that I’d just signed up for Pakistan’s favourite driving game – Chicken Run. Overtaking. This meant more points the longer you stayed out on the other side of the road while overtaking; double points if you could run them off the road too.
The only thing in our favour was that we were the biggest truck on the road. I then found out I was down for the advanced version of this game: Nighttime Chicken Run.
These guys were going straight through to Lahore – literally. With horns constantly blasting, it was nightmarish. I questioned one of the overtaking moves and the driver, Sedaq, looked at me, threw back his head and howled with laughter. I crouched behind the seats and braced myself for the inevitable head-on collision.
To cut a l-o-n-g story short, I spent four l-o-n-g sleepless days and nights with these crazy guys (doing around 30mph, due to a weighty load of rice picked up en-route), who got me all the way to Pakistan’s only ‘heavy’ bike mechanic in Lahore. The journey involved switching vehicles so we could get the bike into the congested streets of Lahore, finally arriving at 4 o’clock in the morning. Try arranging this kind of ‘hospitality’ in a European country.
Mr Waheed’s bikeshop on the Grand Trunk Road is a remarkable establishment with a distinctly Dickensian flavor, full of small spanner-wielding urchins. Go there if you get the chance. It should be included on a tour of Lahore. I was given one by Usman, Mr Waheed’s nephew whose white-knuckle driving style certainly foreshortened my life expectancy. Oh, how I laughed as we drove into a busy unlit underpass – the wrong way – and then, realising his mistake, Usman promptly does a three-point turn in the pitch dark. What joy!
My time in Lahore flew by and within a few days I was bidding farewell to Mr Waheed and his young mechanics who, amazingly, had found the necessary spares to get me back on the road. I asked no questions; I was just glad to be back on my way to the Karakoram Highway. Thanks be to Allah. Thanks be to Visa.
It was with some trepidation that I turned off the Grand Trunk Road and began heading north up the Karakoram Highway (KKH), leaving the autumnal warmth of the plains behind me. I’d bought the KKH guidebook in 1995 and now I was finally swinging on to this epic route, desperate to get to the Chinese border before the winter snows closed the pass.
As I climbed higher it began to rain and the temperature dropped. I became aware of relief camps on either side of the road; people wrapped in blankets, some squatting around fires, others queuing for supplies. Men picked through the debris of collapsed buildings, saving what they could, living in makeshift shelters. An earthquake had hit Pakistan some weeks before but I hadn’t expected the destruction to have spread so far west. I shuddered as I rode through these scenes of devastation. Despite their predicament, people were genuinely friendly and inquisitive. It was a truly humbling experience.
As darkness fell, I made it to Besham on the banks of the River Indus. Due to power cuts the Hotel Paris was unable to offer hot water, heating or electricity. That night I longed, somewhat selfishly, for the comfort of my own bed.
A loud rumbling woke me from my fitful sleep. I was relieved when I realised it was only thunder. This area had also suffered in the earthquake – the hotel- owner had lost a sister and her children in the disaster. That makes you sit up. I thought of landslides and secondary earth tremors; after the rain these things happen, don’t they? The rain had eased but the sky was still threatening. ‘If it’s raining here,’ I thought, ‘what’s it like at higher altitudes?’
The next day, after several hours of riding up this truly spectacular highway, I was flagged down by a police officer. Another passport check… or so I thought. “Do you want to see a snow leopard?” they asked. ‘Er, Why not?’ I thought. The officer waved me into a walled compound and closed the metal gates behind me, which was odd. I realised then that he wasn’t wearing police uniform… and was therefore probably not a police officer. Four other men stood around. One of the men was cleaning out a white van. I imagined he was washing out the evidence of the last biker they’d sliced up and fed to the ‘snow leopard’. It suddenly hit me: I’m going to be robbed! How stupid can you get?
At that moment, a man came from behind the building, followed closely by an unchained snow leopard. Just a cub, they said, but it was huge. He put it on the seat of the bike then thrust it into my arms. Although only a cub, it felt strong. Someone took a hasty photograph and the leopard wrestled itself out of my nervous grip, bounding across the dirt. I breathed a sigh of relief as the men gathered it up and took it back to its pen. Much later, a BBC documentary made me aware how rare these creatures are. Holding one was a truly unique experience.
I pressed on through worsening weather along deteriorating roads towards Sost, the last town before the road wound up to the Khunjerab pass and the Chinese border. As usual, I’d envisaged a mountain village with welcoming hostelries and wood-burning stoves but the reality was very different. I was met by a bleak frontier town with one main road and low concrete buildings on either side. Men stood around heavily loaded trucks and gathered around fires in the street.
“Come. Drink tea with me. I am Bin Laden’s brother!” shouted a man from his shop front. Not wanting to trigger an international incident, I joined him. I spread my maps out on the floor pointing out my route so far and told him of my plans to ride up to the Chinese border. “Road is good”, he assured me, “No problem!”
I found a room at the Hotel Sky Bridge; 30 cold rooms, one bathroom and no wood-burning stoves. That night, I ate alone in the restaurant which was closing the next day. “No business. Snow will be here soon,” said the cook. Ominous. I just needed one more day of reasonable weather for my attempt on the summit. I planned to ride up to the border without luggage and return before sunset the next day.
The Khunjerab Pass is at an altitude of 4,750m and I was about 85km away from it. ‘Easy,’ I thought, ‘as long as there’s no snow above 3,000m’. I paid myNational Park entrance fee and, waving confifidently, rounded the next corner on to a huge patch of ice. The entire section of road that was in the shadow of thesurrounding peaks was a single lane-width of solid ice; lethal on two wheels. This was going to be a long day.
A few kilometres further on a Chinese earthquake supply truck had jack-knifed offff the edge into the ravine, due to thick ice on a steep downhill section. Luckily no one was hurt and recovery work had begun. The locals guided me through the worst section with my back wheel sliding out from underneath me. I was still60km from the top. ‘Surely there’s going to be worse?’ I thought.
“No Problem. Road OK to top,” an offifficer assured me. Easy for him to say, he wasn’t riding 300kg of motorcycle.
With my heart in my mouth, I eased the bike through the icy patches and climbed steadily. I was thinking of only one thing: the teahouse at the border crossing where I’d be greeted like a hero by the hardy local traders, Chinese truck drivers and Mongolian Yak herders, all amazed that I’d ridden solo to the peak. Chisel-jawed, I leaned into the icy wind as kilometre after kilometre passed slowly by. The ice was now only bad in parts and eventually the road levelled out as the border came in sight.
I’d made it. I looked around for the teahouse. There was nothing. Not one building. Just a single Pakistani guard, frozen to the spot. He took my photograph. We shared cigarettes. Then I began the tortuous descent, relieved to discover that the ice had thawed on the steepest sections. Hot tea and biscuits at the hotel were much appreciated.
The following morning, I loaded the bike among the crowd that had gathered at the Hotel Sky Bridge. Men shook my hand proudly; women tried to hold back the tears. The beautiful Miss Sost leaned forward and kissed me, pressing her mobile phone number into my hand. What a party that had been last night…
In reality, the hotel-owner didn’t even look up as I struggled out the doors with my bags. I pulled my collar up against the biting northerly wind and set off, retracing my steps to Besham where I would turn west towards Peshawar, the Khyber Pass and the
The Karakoram Highway (KKH) is the world’s highest paved international road and joins Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region with China’s Xinjiang region through the Karakoram mountain range. Work began on the road in the 1960s as part of China’s plan to strengthen relations with Pakistan, which it saw as a natural ally in its border dispute with India. The KKH wasn’t complete until 1982, however, and hundreds of Chinese workers died during its construction (approximately one for every 2km of road). At 1,200km in length and reaching altitudes of 4,750m, the KKH is now recognised alongside the pyramids as one of mankind’s greatest engineering feats.
Following landslides in January this year, part of the KKH has been rendered impassable by floods. The ‘Attabad Lake’ now lies 30km northeast of the town of Aliabd and covers a section of the KKH roughly 20km long with waters exceeding 330ft and rising. A small ferry is currently in place to take people and goods from one side to the other. Much of the area has been evacuated; the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is currently advising against unnecessary travel in his area. For more information and travel updates got to www.fco.gov.uk
Five arty necessities… for drawing while traveling the Dusty Highway
A collapsible painting set You can get some really nice kit which looks like it’s been designed for James Bond with palettes that fold out and brushes that click together like the silencer on a gun.
Biros Cheap black biros are perfect for sketching fine and thick lines which are waterproof. Just don’t let those street urchins nick them.
Travel journals Pocket-sized is good; take a few. I prefer white paper – not cream – the watercolours stand out better.
Extra squares of paint Through Iran and Pakistan you’re going to use a lot of Cobalt Blue (sky) and Yellow Ochre (sand/dust). Take small tubes of black and white gouache.
Paper Take a few A5 and A4 pads of good-quality cartridge paper – you can’t buy it on the road. I was doing a lot of caricatures as a way of thanking people for their hospitality, and they loved it. Just don’t draw cartoons of Mohammed.
Local custom: a helping hand
The left hand is considered unclean in Pakistan and should never use used for eating; it should never be raised to the mouth or dipped into communal food bowls. It’s OK to hold bread in your left and tear bite-sized pieces off with the right. Avoid offering and accepting things with your left hand. Remember: right is… er, right. Right?
Drawn to adventure
Throughout his solo seven-month trip, gritty biker-cum-graphic artist Simon documented the highs and lows of his travels with cartoons, culminating in what he calls an ‘illustrated motorcycle diary travel journal comic-strip’. Tea with Bin Laden’s Brother, the story of Simon’s epic journey from Brsitol to Nepal via Iran, Pakistan and India can be found in all its illustrated glory at www.teawithbinladensbrother.com, where you can take a look inside the book and see the route Simon took, as well as order your own signed copy (£17.50).
THE BIKE 1989 R100GS
This is the perfect bike for this kind of trip, especially if, like me, mechanics is not your strong point. You want the sort of bike that can be repaired by mechanics in the back streets of Lahore. And Delhi. And Jaipur… You get the idea.