Jugaar on the Karakoram Highway
Anybody who has crossed a land border into western China knows that it’s a long-winded and tense affair. Body scans, searches, questions, and lots of waiting. After four hours I was relieved to hear the echo around the empty arrivals area of the final stamp being punched into my passport and see a soldier gesturing me towards the exit.
After crossing the Pamir mountains, this was my start of the Karakoram Highway – the section of my London to Hong Kong cycle I had been most looking forward to. Countless hours daydreaming about how sheer the cliffs of Northern Pakistan really were, how sharp and ragged the ridgelines, had led me to this spot. The highway actually starts in Kashgar and runs through the mountain range of the same name to Islamabad in Pakistan. It’s been called a marvel of modern engineering and it’s easy to see why as you slalom between 7,000 and 8,000m peaks with the young Indus River raging metres from the road.
In 2010 a huge landslide blocked the river, creating a 20-mile-long lake that submerged both the road and local villages. For five years, until tunnels could be burrowed through the mountainsides, a two-hour boat journey was the only way to link the southern section of highway and the northern communities. These are the forces that this road and its engineers have to contend with.
I’m not sure how many times in my life I have so clearly benefited from South Asian foreign policy, but here was a clear example. After the horror show of the roads in Tajikistan’s Wakhan Valley, I found the fabled Karakoram Highway in pretty good shape – aside from the occasional scar courtesy of the massive boulders that career down the slopes. Eventually the road will link Western China to Southern Pakistan and the trade routes of the Indian Ocean, making it key to the region’s future plans. However, for the time being it serves, amongst other things, to provide cyclists with a wonderful route through some of the world’s most imposing peaks.
I headed due south and began to roll downhill towards the last Chinese town, Tashkurgan. There were snow-capped mountains draped in glaciers to the left, and views of the Tajik mountains I had camped amongst the previous evening to the right. After the stress of crossing the border I began to relax and appreciate the scale of the place. My mind wandered to the kind of lives its people led.
It was during one of these moments of being lost in appreciation for my surroundings that I noticed the gentle rubbing of my rear wheel. ‘Probably nothing,’ I thought and carried on, but 200m later the rubbing had become more of a grind – a telltale sign that things had taken a turn for the worse. ‘I’ll stop in the next patch of shade,’ I decided. This was just before the tyre popped out the side of the rim and the wheel locked fast as debris caught in the frame and chain set. I managed to stay on the bike, but after getting off to assess the damage it became clear that things were less than ideal.
There should be a word for the feeling of when a problem you have been ignoring for some time suddenly barges to the front of your attention. I had first noticed the rim getting thin months earlier in the Caucasus and had put off having a new one sent out. Now here I was on the side of the road in China – 40km from a town, and hundreds of kilometres from anywhere that may have a spare wheel – with nobody to blame but my own lack of forward thinking.
There were snow-capped mountains draped in glaciers to the left, and views of the Tajik mountains I had camped amongst the previous evening to the right. After the stress of crossing the border I began to relax and appreciate the scale of the place.
I figured at this point that my best hope lay in the eternal friend of the make-do mechanic – the trusty cable tie. If I could just stop the rest of the rim from splitting, and tuck the tyre back in, it may get me to town.
Obviously, my idiot fix lasted less than a kilometre before the cable ties erupted in all directions, the rim peeled further apart, and I was forced to accept my fate. I began walking and trying to flag down cars for a lift. After about 5km I was eventually picked up by a local salesman whose chosen business interests were the age-old combination of cigarettes and bananas. We crammed my bike in the back, trying not to crush the soft fruit. This strange mixture of crew and cargo raised a few eyebrows at Xinjiang’s checkpoints further down the road.
In the shadow of these mountains sit small, traditional villages made of stone and mud, squeezed onto any piece of available flat land not plagued by either flooding from below or landslides from above. Apricot orchards and golden wheat fields add colour to a landscape dominated by grey rock and white ice.
I had my stroke of luck on arriving in Tashkurgan. Without any sort of bike shop in town I was feeling pretty sorry for myself and my situation in general – and this was supposed to be the highlight of the trip. My only real option was to get a new wheel in Gilgit or Islamabad, either of which would mean missing most of the KKH. I checked in to a hostel and there, under the stairs, I found a very old, very worn child’s mountain bike wheel.
You may not be familiar with the term jugaar, but if you have ever spent time in developing countries you will have undoubtedly seen it in action. It could be most accurately translated as ‘just making it work with whatever you have to hand’ – a bodge. Pakistan, like many of its neighbours, abounds in some mind-blowing examples of this jugaar mentality, and now my faithful bike was going to be one of them.
Judging by the fact that the outside of the tyre had the tread of a mountain bike, and the middle of it was worn smooth, I guessed this new wheel had some miles under its belt. Nevertheless, with some patches to the old tube, the removal of my rear brake pads, and some minor surgery to the derailleur I got it to fit, kind of – and I was back on the road.
The next day I travelled over the world’s highest international land border, the 4,650m Khunjerab Pass, in a chaperoned government-approved bus with the bike precariously strapped to the roof. Unfortunately this is the only way you’re allowed anywhere near the actual border. Eventually we were dropped off; I had arrived in Pakistan, and the new wheel had its first taste of tarmac in what I imagined must have been years.
The mountains of Northern Pakistan are the most dramatic in the world. I know of nowhere that even comes close. The jagged peaks of Cathedral Ridge above the village of Passu may not be the tallest in the area, but looked more like a racing heartbeat on a hospital monitor than a ridge of rock and snow.
In the shadow of these mountains sit small, traditional villages made of stone and mud, squeezed onto any piece of available flat land not plagued by either flooding from below or landslides from above. Apricot orchards and golden wheat fields add colour to a landscape dominated by grey rock and white ice. If you believe in a land of Shangri-La, you’d gamble everything you owned that it was hidden in one of these valleys.
Through all this beauty the back wheel was just about holding its own. Instead of being a frustration, a couple of punctures making their way through the paper-thin tyre each day gave me the perfect excuse to sit down under a fruit tree, enjoy the view, and meet some of the local people.
However, as the days ticked by, the idea that another major failure was just a matter of time began to grow. The wheel’s slight buckle when we left China had become large enough to encompass half the rim, and the instability that came from carrying so much weight on such a compromised wheel was unnerving to say the least. The possible consequences of only having front brakes also began to worry me as traffic increased and roads got steeper. But the miles were ticking by and Gilgit, the town where I would have to take a bus south, was getting closer.
The final day into Gilgit was long but beautiful. The road left the fabled Hunza Valley and passed right beneath the north face of Rakaposhi, which looked every inch of its 7,788m height. The traffic increased closer to Gilgit, so making use of the only bridge for miles and taking the quieter unpaved road across the river seemed like the best option. The back wheel had been trouble free enough all day for me to almost forget about it, so it was only 10km along this seldom-used road that I started to think I’d made a bad decision. Sure enough I was right. I passed an impromptu rubbish dump just outside the city of Gilgit, complete with broken glass scattered all over the road – you can see where I’m going with this. Instead of just puncturing the inner tube, this time I must have ridden over something sharp enough to slice the actual tyre wide open. Multiple punctures hissed away as the clouds that had been threatening rain all afternoon decided this was their moment.
So, 9km from town, in the rain, with the wind whipping a mixture of dust and carrier bags through the air, watched by a dozen stray dogs, the best option was to just pump the tyre, then ride as far and fast as possible for a minute before it was flat again, then repeat. Again I called on my old friends the cable ties to do their bit and stop the rest of the tube exploding out. Thankfully this tactic seemed to work better than the first time.
This was the state in which we limped into Gilgit. The bike with a shredded tyre, a plethora of cable ties to keep the inner tube from bursting out, and said tube hissing away angrily. The rider soaked to the skin and willing the kilometres away either by frantic pedalling or reluctant pushing. Stopping every minute to pump the tyre drew confused stares from the local people along with the occasional offer of help, but unfortunately some things are beyond even the ingenuity of Pakistan and this rear wheel was one of them. It was far from the victorious roll into town that I had envisaged, but as I crossed the ancient wooden bridge at least I had made it – drenched, exhausted, bloodied, but unbowed. Somehow, though, after how lucky I’d been to find the wheel and get it working in the first place, that felt the most appropriate way. Jugaar had got me there after all.
Jack is a long distance cyclist and photographer. He enjoys riding not for the feeling of spinning the pedals around, but the thrill of seeing the amazing places a bike can take you. He is a staunch believer that roughing it enhances the experience and is never happier than when sleeping outside under canvas. When at home he can often be found drinking coffee or beer around Bristol in England’s South West.