On Monday 4th September we blasted our way out of Lahore without incident - aside from the dent caused by me hitting a rickshaw (I maintain he reversed into me). Heading up the motorway to Islamabad we again suffered from an intermittent ignition problem which had been plaguing us since arriving in Pakistan. The problem manifests itself in suddenly having misfiring and sometimes stalling and usually rectifies itself after turning the engine off for a few minutes. Soldering on we made our way into the city on a quest for the Islamabad Tourist Camping Ground. After getting lost several times we stopped at a posh looking hotel to ask the way. We were quickly accosted by a frightfully cheery old Pakistani man who rambled on in a most tangential manner and ended up introducing us to the winner of the Karakorum mountain bike race that had just taken place (http://www.kmt.org.pk/tok.asp). The poor lad was as confused as we were and we were luckily saved from having to make any further explanation by him being dragged off to a celebratory dinner. We made a hasty departure and found the campsite by sheer determination and endurance – it was around the corner. Checking in for 100 PKR (less than a quid) a night we thought things were alright. How wrong we were.
The next day we visited the ActionAid office to introduce ourselves and see what projects we could go and see. This done we went to the address of the Land Rover garage. Unfortunately, it was difficult to find because A) it wasn’t a garage, it was a house and B) it wasn’t actually at the address it said on the Land Rover website. Eventually we got there and were directed to the actual workshop which was 6 miles away. When we got there we explained the engine issue and the strange banging noise that occasionally came from the front axles when the steering was on full lock. However, it was getting late and we agreed to bring it back in the morning for a thorough check.
Wednesday we were back bright and early, determined to find out what these problems were. After some testing it was revealed that the differential lock was permanently on and couldn’t be released by the lever. This is what was causing the banging noise. The transfer gearbox was removed and opened up revealing several broken cogs. This was going to be expensive! Leaving the Landy there, we took the tent back to the campsite which had a few other overlanders staying there – mostly Swiss and Germans in VW campers.
On Thursday we explored the city while waiting for the Land Rover to have the transfer box replaced. Islamabad is different from all the other cities in Pakistan in that it’s a modern, planned city in a grid formation. Because of this, it is refreshingly calm compared to Lahore or Rawalpindi. However, it is also pretty boring being home mostly to government buildings. A German couple who had been travelling for a year were having a BBQ at the campsite in celebration so we set off to find some booze. Luckily, up market hotels in Pakistan know they have to stock some to keep the non-believer foreigners happy so we managed to pick up two bottles of vodka to drown our sorrows. We weren’t to know then that our troubles were far from over.
On Friday morning, the gearbox was ready though there was still no explanation for the ignition problem. The theory was that it was related to the ignition coil heating up too much and we were advised to put a cold towel on it the next time it happened.
The plan was to travel up the legendary Karakorum highway to the Northern Areas which contain some of the worlds highest peaks (including K2) and to see some of the ActionAid projects on the way. The initial journey was plain sailing and having driven for 4 hours to get to Abbotabad, I let Richard take over. This proved foolish. An ill-judged piece of overtaking resulted in us coming face-to-face with a large bus. Having no other option, we pulled to the right and off the road. The bus however, slammed on the brakes and went into a long slide that resulted in it crashing into the truck we had been overtaking. Luckily no one was hurt as it was a low speed collision and the damage was minor – truck door bent and front section of bus crumpled. Unfortunately, some opportunists smelled a great chance to milk some foreigners so we spent the next four hours arguing and refusing to pay the 1.5 lakh (£1300) that they were claiming was needed to fix the damage. The police proved to be less than useless, saying we had to come to an agreement ourselves. The hours were ticking by though and it was plainly going nowhere so we went to the station to make a statement. In the end, when they realised we weren’t going to be browbeaten into a ridiculous payment we came to the agreement of 8000 PKR (£75). It was late now and we needed to get ourselves back together. Luckily, one of Rich’s mates in London had family in the area so a call to them resulted in us being put up for the night in a lovely house in Abbotabad.
A good nights sleep was not going to be possible for me though as I was coming down with some illness and spent most of the night alternating between shivering and sweating.
The next morning we went into town to get some money as the previous night had wiped out most of our cash. This done, we set off again up the Karakorum and drove for long hours to reach a truck stop near Dasu. The Karakorum is an amazing road which winds and climbs through the steep mountains and valleys of the Northern Areas of Pakistan. The going is rough in places due to regular rockfalls and mudslides which are continually being cleared. The locals at the truck stop were friendly and we managed to have a conversation in broken English – well, Richard did. My illness had developed into a throat infection so I couldn’t speak very much and was pretty unintelligible when I did.
Sunday we were up early and determined to break the back of the KKH. All day driving (in between sections of engine trouble) got us to the Hunza valley after dark and we camped by the roadside. The Hunza valley is the highlight of the Northern Areas and we were looking forward to seeing it in the morning.