I first learned of Gohar Hayat on the tail end of a month-long motorcycle traverse of Nepal’s Mid-Hill Highway. Unbefitting the adventure, I had my feet kicked up poolside at a touristy resort in Pokhara. With my riding gear clumped in a dusty pile, a man in equally grungy kit approached with all the many queries travelers exchange when they cross paths.
For the next hour, we compared tales of high passes, broken bikes, and narrow roads, each of us teetering ever closer to the edge of embellishment. Then my new friend, on holiday from Islamabad, folded his hands behind his head and breathed a resigned sigh, “Well, I am no Gohar Hayat,” he said. I had no idea who he was talking about.
When I returned to the States a few weeks later I poked around the internet curious if I could locate information on the mysterious Mr. Hayat. I quickly found him on Facebook and understood instantly how he accrued nearly 9,000 followers. His page is a picture-rich chronicle of decades of exploration into the deepest reaches of Pakistan. Each image depicts the stoic Hayat equipped with little more than a wee motorcycle and a wool sweater.
I had to know more about him. A volley of curious questions and obliging answers ensued. It wasn’t the first time I made a new friend on the other side of the world through a laptop.
Born in the late 1960s, Hayat was like many young boys, which is to say he loved wheeled things. By age 12 he was the terror of the neighborhood, ripping around the outskirts of Lahore on a raspy 125cc motorbike. Unlike other kids, his eyes were fixed on the horizon. Only a few years later, with little more than a backpack full of provisions, he was off.
That was more than 150,000 miles ago. In the 37 years since, he’s traveled nearly every road in Pakistan.
For many of us, Pakistan represents a void on the map. Perpetually caught in a geopolitical maelstrom, if just by proximity, it’s not a place many westerners visit. Home to some of the most majestic mountains in the world, it sits at the nexus of the Himalaya, Karakoram, and Hindukusch. A network of primitive roads connect some of the most remote communities in Asia, tucked within the craggy peaks like discarded string. These are the regular haunts of Gohar Hayat.
When he first set out in the 1980s, youthful enthusiasm propelled his journeys far and high, well beyond the maintained roads leading to mountain passes like Deosai, Khunjerab, Shandur, Lowari, Skardu, Khaplu, Iskomen, and Hunza. He wasn’t just drawn to the challenge of his routes, and they were challenging; he sought to discover the colorful cultures of his natal Pakistan.
By 1988, one route taunted Hayat and defeated his every attempt. Babusar Pass isn’t far from Lahore, but the only way to access the 15,000-foot saddle by motorcycle required navigating a warren of crooked goat paths scratched into the barren mountainside. His first attempts were thwarted by mud, snow, and trails too rocky to traverse. Hayat turned back.
In 1992 he tried again. When thick mud slowed his progress, he wrapped bits of rope around the rear tire to improve traction. As night fell, he slept on a piece of foam under heavy wool blankets. When his bike struggled to breathe in the thin air, he removed the air filter to pipe more oxygen to the carburetor. After two days he finally reached the other side and the community of Chilas.
Hayat’s victory that day must have tasted bittersweet. By the end of the week, he was back at his desk in Lahore, counting the beans as it were, as an accountant. Any of us who’ve worn a sunburn to work in an office know the feeling of bold endeavors bookended by days of occupational drudgery. Whether you’re from Pakistan or Pittsburg, some things are universal.
It took some time for me to read between the lines of Hayat’s life story. He credits his supportive father for his frequent forays into the mountains. When he became a husband and father himself, his family accepted weekend absences and extended trips into the mountains as part of the deal. Over the years, from atop his tiny motorcycle, he watched his country change, which it continues to do today. His rides and photos measure the creep of modernity as it encroaches on his wild playground. Routes he once considered nearly impassable are now polished black with steamrolled bitumen.
“In 1992 it took two days to ride over Babasur Pass, but we eventually crossed it and reached Chilas,” he says. “The view was a total contrast to what it is now. There was only one hut which provided refuge from the elements. It nowadays takes only 4-5 hours to reach Chilas through Babasur Pass. Traffic jams are common between the shops and food stands. People get out of their heated cars spending all of their available time taking selfies and enjoying baked food before heading home. What is left behind is a pass littered with plastic packets and bottles. It’s not what it was in 1988.”
Many of us know that feeling well. Somewhere in the greater arc of adventure we stopped chasing places untamed and started running from the things that threaten them. It’s what compelled me to search out the roughest roads in the Nepalese Himalayas. It’s what keeps Gohar Hayat riding his 150cc motorbike to far-flung destinations. And make no mistake, he has yet to slow down.
In the years since I first learned of him, and through our many exchanges, it seems I only caught a shallow glimpse of Hayat’s exploits. His catalog of photos is mesmerizing and records the passing of years from bell-bottom jeans to greying hairs in a perpetual mustache.
Despite having never left his native country, the world has found its way to Hayat’s front door. An increasing number of travelers now venture to Pakistan to ride the Karakoram Highway and discover the vibrant cultures in a land kept secret. Through his growing social media community, Hayat shares the region’s rugged splendors with the world.
In two weeks I head back to the Himalaya for the fifth time in two years to ride more chunky roads and goat tracks not listed on maps. As my friend from Islamabad said, “I am no Gohar Hayat.” But I’m working on it. Give me time.
What I gleaned from Gohar Hayat isn’t profound, but important all the same. He reminded me of the most fundamental tenets of adventure. To tackle the highest mountains, you needn’t be a paid athlete, brand ambassador, or media influencer. You can be an accountant on holiday. You don’t need an expensive manifest of equipment or list of sponsors stitched to your sleeve. All you need is a motorbike, a length of rope, and the desire to make a go of it.
And extra sweaters.