A little something I wrote that was published in my Cycling Club Magazine
Warning this post contains more words than pictures!
Islamabad-Muree ride October 2013.
5am alarm, call to prayer drifts in through the window, gulp down porridge, hop on bike, out the door, avoid the local pack of wild dogs lusting after my cycling shoes, pedal through the checkpoint chicanes, nod at the policemen with the magnificent facial topiary. Navigate the deserted zero point intersection.
Haroon, A local roadie is waiting by the side of the Kashmir Highway with his brilliant blue steed. We ride together out of Islamabad, northeast through the sleeping streets of Bhara Kahu reaching the gateway to the mountains in about 45 minutes.
Here standing by the expressway toll plaza are Kazim and Ziyab two more local skinny tyre fanatics I’ve met through a local cycling group. The usual amount of pre-ride faffing ensues as is customary with all groups of cyclists but with final checks completed, tyres pumped up and last minute wardrobe alterations made we’re on our way.
Today’s destination is the hill station of Murree. Once a regional summer capital of the British Raj now a bustling tourist destination perched precariously atop a ridge looking back down towards the plains of Punjab on one side and up to the mountains of Kashmir on the other.
Initially there’s not much doing. The morning mist obscures the blue pine peaks ahead. Roadside stalls selling everything from Pepsi to life size fibreglass dinosaurs dot the road intermittently. It’s not long though until out of the murk we spot the dark shadows of leviathans. The foothills of the Himalayas. The image alone creates the feeling of great adventure. Maybe I should have bought more bananas!
Almost in reaction to this sight the road rears up. Our pedals rotations slow, struggling to find a rhythm. I spin away at high cadence trying to remember all those Cycling Weekly articles about how to go up the lumpy stuff. The gradient isn’t that steep just a monotonous drag that slowly turns your legs to jelly. Kazim proves that raw power is also a viable technique as he churns away in the big ring.
There’s a gorge on our left, small farmsteads nestle in the awakening valley floor. We rise, passing Heaven (aptly named rest stop) with its white robbed men beckoning us in for a hearty Pakistani breakfast. Further up in the clouds a slogan painted on the side of the road reads ‘Trees cool the breeze’ and sure enough the air here is definitely chilled. Pine fresh.
The kilometers tick by slowly, not that I mind, I’m enjoying every minute. At one point a group of kids from a small hillside village run alongside us in there brightly patterned Shalwar kameezes, giggling and high fiving but not seeming to understand my breathless requests for a push!
The Murree expressway in its entirety is a smooth two-lane highway, at this time of day it’s almost deserted. The odd car passes us sometimes letting out a loud blast of the horn just as it comes alongside, providing a useful if not entirely consensual adrenaline burst.
We reach the outskirts of Murree in good time. A leaking water main celebrates our accomplishment showering is in a fine spray. Kazim is still on the big plate. Chapeau! Catching our breath we discuss following the road further, to Muzafferabad? Kashmir? China? It feels like a great adventure has just begun. Although rumbling stomachs snap us back into reality and we head back down the hill. In search of sustenance.
The descent is immense we fly the 30k back to the foot of the climb flat out, the road is still quiet and we can carve perfect lines through the alpine bends bunny hopping speed bumps overtaking motorbikes and buses crammed with workers heading to the city.
The final slog back into Islamabad is tough it’s hot down here, no mountain top freshness. Bhara Kahu is back to its busy self, cars, trucks, donkeys, goats, cattle, motorcycles, and pedestrians all vying for the same small strip of tarmac. A stark contrast that has me pining for my mountaintop sanctuary.
Back in Islamabad sitting outside a neighborhood cafe drinking coffee and tucking into a well-earned breakfast we discuss the next ride. Inspired by the foothills we set our sights higher towards snow-capped peaks.