The next thing I knew I was tearing my hair out trying to communicate with the Consulate in Glasgow to get a Visa, stressing about getting my bike on a flight and generally struggling to make any Pakistanis do anything in Ramadan. It all worked out though and I got my flights booked and picked my visa up two days before travel. The previous day my PIA Islamabad - Manchester  flight had to land in Turkey due to a bomb threat. Oh well - there was no bomb and now security would be on high alert.

What could go wrong?

The Travel

Arriving  at Manc airport I was slightly anxious and then I ended up on a full plane with only one other "White English". Generally though the plane was full of British Pakistanis visiting family and most of them were encouraging and enthusiastic about my trip. I relaxed a bit and only tensed up when the old guy next to me kept spitting chewing baccy on the floor of the plane...That’s not cricket!

Landing in Islamabad the plane taxied up the runway and a helmetless guy rode the opposite way to the plane on a moped. A tractor was driving around in the grass by the runway and people were camped out with animals inside the airport grounds.

The airport eventually spat me out from the crowds and I got shepherded to a Toyota people carrier. About 10 guys tried to help me with my bag and then asked for money. Eventually the door shut - relax.

Relax…. for about 10seconds. The next culture shock was the roads. Jesus Christ. Mohammed. Allah. This deserves some blasphemies. If a gap opens on the motorway 10 vehicles go for it with their horns going, no indicators. The motorway traffic includes Donkeys towing trailers, small motorbikes with whole families on them no helmets, pedestrians and cattle. There was even the odd car, van and lorry. It started to rain we ground to a halt. All the helmetless motorbike riders were sheltering under a bridge blocking the road.

Poverty was evident everywhere, until we drove up to the race organiser’s pad. There were several wings to the mansion, big ponds with coy carp, air con, and free food. Luxury away from the madness.

Soon we were on the road again though as we would be for much of the trip. Travelling up the Karakoram highway wasn't so congested but more like Mario Kart. Our driver liked to race and thought nothing of overtaking blind, 3 a breast….. straight into traffic overtaking blind 3 a breast. If there was no room for this, overtake on the pavement with your horn on. He stopped to pray 3 times. At least Allah was on our side which was all very well because I had no seatbelt. Pakistani towns were a busy hustle and bustle. People and animals darted everywhere. During the race transfers we could relax a bit because the police escort was blasting us through the towns with a manned machine gun and sirens going with 6 toyota’s and 3 4x4's in pursuit.

The only time we slowed down was driving up to the hotel on a "road" which made an exciting mtb descent. Crazy place.

On route up the highway we stopped off for a break in Abbotabad. Exactly where William Hague was advising not to go.


Sorry about this but it needs a mention. As we went to Abbotabad it seemed right to question the whole Bin Laden topic….can of worms. Here's the local opinion:

  • Osama Bin Laden was not captured in Abbotabad
  • Osama Bin Laden died in a cave from kidney failure years ago and the Americans can’t find him
  • The Americans need to find Osama Bin Laden to withdraw from Afghanistan with pride and improve Barrack's dwindling popularity
  • The Americans bribed the Pakistani Government to turn a blind eye to them flying a load of Black hawk helicopters into Abbotabad
  • The Pakistani govt explained the Americans secretly flying 3 helicopters over a military town by the fact that they have to turn off their radars on the west every night because of the countries energy crisis
  • This is not true - and if it was they just announced that their defence is down every night on the border of war torn Afghanistan to the world.
  • This is also not true because you do not need a radar to locate 3 helicopters in a town, and the military ignored them
  • Barrack Obama announced Bin Ladens death exactly 7 hours after his death live on tv in which time the helicopters flew him 300 miles to the US base, DNA tested him and got results, flew him to a warship and buried him at sea with no video evidence, then Barrack put his suit on and announced it to the world? (Impossible)
  • The Americans paraded Saddam around on air, yet they buried Bin Laden with only a pic of a bloodied body? (Hollywood)
  • In conclusion - the bastard Americans bribed the corrupt Pakistani govt to announce Bin Ladens death. Now no-one wants to go to Pakistan, no-one wants to invest in Pakistan, Pakistanis dont really like Americans and now the US are accusing Pakistan of being involved in the Kabul blasts last week. Remember Pakistan is a nuclear power.

The above is a worrying report about the situation of world affairs according to a respectable Pakistani gent, and not the BBC. Who knows?

Kaghan Memorial Trust

Slightly more positive politics following one of the worst natural disasters in my lifetime. The 2005 earthquake ripped apart valleys of the Himalaya’s. The scale of this is hard to describe. I am guilty of seeing this sort of stuff on the news and thinking that ‘this is awful, but it’s not my world, I can't do anything’. When you go to the Himalayas and see this it makes things real. For 4 hours we drove up a valley and every mile there was evidence of a landslide the size of a Munro. They had ripped through villages and towns and killed 200 000+. The Himalayas had been rocked. There was still evidence of the destruction. The Kaghan trust was set up to rebuild a school for the kids of the valley. We were lucky enough to go to the school and be involved in their sports day. They treated us like celebrity footballers. I won the tug of war competition of course.

It was sad to think what these kids have been through, and the fact it is normal for them to turn up at school and walk past the guards armed with a semi automatic machine guns. The kids were colourful and fun. It was a day to remember and just makes you think that Pakistan, the US, and the Taliban can sort their differences. A kid is a kid. They don't care. They just liked pressing on our freckles.

The race was put on to help this fund, and also to try and open the eyes of the world to the Pakistani Himalayas incredible potential as an adventure sport destination. The organiser Kurram has visions of Lanzarote style training camps at altitude, skiing, mtb’s, kayaks, rafting and climbing. Kurram is a local hero who gets things done.

He managed to organise the Tour which was represented by 11 nations, more than any other Pakistani event. We were being followed by TV, press and internet. The media only had permission to announce the race the day before though so the militants on the Afghan border didn't have time to plan any attacks.

The Race

The race was three stages run out of Shogran and Naran in the Kaghan valley. We were fed all meals in pleasant hotels on the side of some of the world’s most impressive mountains. We had armed guards in the hotel and on course. It became normal to walk past the barrel of a loaded AK47.

Countries represented were GB, Slovakia, Denmark, Holland, Pakistan, a World Team, a Eurasia mixed team, and 2 local teams.

Other nations represented included Mongolians, Austrians, Kiwis, South Africans, Canadians, Germans and there were Aussie volunteers and Malaysian supporters. International...... continental.

Stage 1

60km. Climbing from 3100m to 4300m over 28km, then a singletrack loop and back down the rough road to the start. It was cold and had rained, only it was snow at the top so this turned into a 56km out and back monster, starting higher than the highest passes of the Tour De France.

I set off well, spinning "gently" up the rocky road. We were passed by vans with machine guns as the norm. Found myself in a group probably gunning for 5th place. My favourites for the day,  Iryan the flying Dutchman who top 50s at world cups and the Slovak who also races world cups were long gone with the 2 Mongolians who live at altitude. Hot on their heels was the old war horse Nathan who had ridden the tour with Lemond, Delgado, Sean Yates and Malcolm Elliot. After about 3500m I fell apart like a cheap watch. I was in the granny ring, and climbing as slow as possible. My legs felt good but I was breathing like a threshold effort and couldn't get a drink in without going into the red.

I dropped to 12th on the road by the top. The views were hard to describe. Mind blowing. The descent was old school. I got into an aero tuck. It was a bit like the Kamikaze JMC vs Rockwell for 28km except with a couple of flats/rises on route. I overtook the first Dutch casualty who’d crashed his full rigid v-braked steed. Then I caught a couple of the Pakistanis who were obviously used to the altitude but not so great at descending a mtb. The next pass was a van with 6 armed guards who were filming me on their mobiles. Crazy. Ended up 9th on the stage, blown, hungry and cold. The other brits all struggled with altitude on route and we were 4th team after the stage.

Stage 2

This was an 8 lap race of a flat 6km route around a lake supposedly enchanted by fairies at 3100m.

There were some big rocks on route. It was still hard to breath and the small rise took it out of me. The rocks though were like Derwent Edges or Scotland. I was in my element, rode smoothly and floated around the course. The flying Dutchman crashed jumping over a river and then his guts exploded. I finished 6mins behind the Slovak WC rider and second on the stage. Matt was third and Mel won the women’s.

We were now 44 mins ahead in the team comp after a proper tech mtb race. I sat 3rd in the General Classification. The world’s best race course in the world’s best destination?

Stage 3

The hill climb. Not the highest. Not the most tech but 5500feet vertical in 14km up to just over 3000m with 2 small meadow loops at the top. I had to stay within 16mins of the Mongolian to keep my position. Easy? - he took nearly 20 from me day one.

I spun and spun up the hill. It was 30 degrees at the bottom and I was chucking water over my head. It was granny bashing the whole way. I was slowing near the top and in 8th place. I caught a Pakistani on the techy climbing at the top, then the German. Just 2km from the top the Himalayas reminded us who was boss and opened a shower of Hail onto us. It felt like an AK47 had let loose on us. We were getting bruised and quickly freezing. I caught the 2nd Slovak about 300m before the line for 5th place and held my 3rd overall by 8 mins. We huddled in the tents with stoves, coats and hot drinks. Some of the girls arrived up to an hour later, bruised, hypothermic, shivering and having panic attacks. Rikkie Cotter, hard as you like won the race in a sprint for the line. Matt came soon after me and GB won the overall. Epic.

What a race. Still digesting it all. The finishing ceremony involved a load of trophies, some dancing to crazy local music on Pakistani TV and an awesome Pakistani style BBQ.

I left in a state of shock following the physical and cultural experience that had just happened, and went to my sisters for a much needed cup of you know what.