Islamabad, Haripur Havelian (official starting point of Karakoram Highway), Salhas pas, Abbottabad (1853), Bandi, Mansera (trading center, Asoka’s Rock Edicts), Batgram, Thakot, , Besham (site of Chinese pilgrim Fa-Hien’s crossing of Indus in 413 ad. )
Distance: Odometer: 128084, 1st July 2000
Route: To reach the beginning of the KKH, one has to travel west from Islamabad on the Peshawar bound Grand Trunk Road. Having passed through the Margalla Pass, it is possible to turn north at Taxila 31 kilometers through Wah to Haripur (34 kilometers).
A further 20 kilometers on is Havelian, the terminus for the narrow gauge railway from Taxila, and the official starting point of the Karakoram highway. Beyond the town the road crosses the Dor River, and then rapidly climbs through denuded hills before dropping down into Abbottabad. North of Abbottabad the road travels through the gentle hills of Hazara. The road passes through emerald green rice paddies, fields of corn, fruit trees, and pines. After Batagram the land begins to change. The road twists downward into a drier canyon en route to its rendezvous with the mighty Indus.
The Kohistan section of the journey along the KKH begins as you cross the Thakot Bridge. Having crossed the Indus, the highway passes through the village of Dandai (1 kilometer), before continuing to Besham, another 22 kilometers ahead.
Saturday morning, it was time to leave for Besham. The guesthouse was buzzing with activity like a beehive, everyone getting ready and packing their belongings. The driveway was littered with all sorts of camping gear and supplies as the vehicles were quickly loaded up. The tarps we had bought from the Pindi army surplus market yesterday came in handy as it had been drizzling off and on. Everybody’s luggage racks were covered to keep things dry. We were now seven vehicles as Najeeb and Kabir had joined us too. Najeeb was in his 5-door Pajero turbowagon that had been through a major overhaul especially for this trip, and Kabir in the red Khyber, which would prove seemingly invincible, following the 4×4s nearly everywhere.
The first stop was the petrol pump at the Jinnah Supermarket. As the vehicles were refueled, the women descended upon the store for snacks and supplies. The attendant was baffled by the amount of people that had suddenly invaded his store; he had probably never had this many customers at one time. There were far too many people in the store and the poor attendant was unable to keep up. The mad rush and the confusion caused Biba’s bill to get muddled up and the manager had to sort it out item by item, much to his annoyance.
We were finally ready to leave Islamabad at 12:30 in the afternoon. The Prado’s odometer crossed the 2000 km mark as we headed out on the main road towards Abbottabad. We had come a long way without any major problems. I hoped this good fortune would keep up with us throughout the trip.
The GT road to Peshawar is a single track with on coming traffic being mostly trucks. Just past the memorial of a British officer on top of the hill, the road turns towards the heavy mechanical complex of Taxilla. We took this turn to Haripur and then on to Havelian. The road is a single track, and winds its way through some very picturesque countryside replete with hills and fields of wheat. In the absence of construction and diversions along the way, we did well to reach Abbotabad by 4:30 PM.
The drive out of Abbottabad to Mansehra is through lovely green fields of tobacco and all sorts of vegetables. The road starts to climb towards Mansehra through pine forests, that particular smell of pine lending a pleasant fragrance to the air. We made a pit stop at an old derelict mine, which seemed to have been closed for many years. There was an old Dodge truck in the compound, which had run itself to the ground. The markings on it suggested that it had been used during the road construction period. While there, we bought some roasted corn on the cob, which the locals sell on the stalls by the roadside. It was a delicious treat seasoned with salt, chili pepper, and lemon.
The climb up the mountains was a relaxing and entertaining drive. The forested scenery in the mountains here was a far cry from what we had been seeing in the deserts of Balochistan and the plains of Punjab. We were excited that the ‘adventure’ had finally begun. Our popping ears let us know we were ascending quite rapidly, the 4×4s pulling up the inclines effortlessly. We were enjoying the cool wind in our hair, when a madman in a Suzuki Hi-roof descended upon us out of nowhere. This fellow was driving like he had lost his way in the Indy 500. We had to jump on the brakes to avoid crushing him as he darted in and out of our convoy, getting dangerously close to oncoming traffic. Although we would have liked to deal with him in our own special way, he was gone as quickly as he had arrived.
Next we drove through the Thakot area. The terrain here is quite treacherous, known for frequent landslides. Moreover, the road was in very poor condition, its surface uneven and broken, increasing the difficulty level.
We had underestimated the time needed to reach Besham, especially given the poor road conditions in certain areas. I dread driving on these roads at night, and as darkness fell, we had to be extra careful, watching out for gaping potholes and washed out sections of the road, which were all too common. A slight lapse in concentration could land us at the bottom of the gorge in pile of twisted metal. Some of us had never driven here before and took longer than usual. We finally reached Besham at about 10 PM and were soon out for the night. The weather was unusually pleasant and cool as it is normally very hot here during July. We hadn’t been rained on yet either, but we weren’t complaining. The weather can make or break a journey in these areas.