Gule Afshan Tariq is an athlete who recently cycled 1,098 kilometres from Islamabad to Khunjerab. Ms Tariq, who is also an amateur paragliding enthusiast and rock climber, regularly uses her bicycle to get around in Rawalpindi.

Dawn spoke to her about women’s participation in activities that are considered extreme sports and asked her about the facilities available to women athletes in Pakistan.

Q: Were you always interested in sports?

A: Growing up, my biggest inspiration was my father, who was an ardent traveller and took me with him on his trips. I have always been an avid rock climber and I took to paragliding because I found it very exciting. Cycling is another passion, and I have been lucky to find other companions as well.

I met Samar Khan – who accompanied me to Khunjerab – at the Paragliding School in Abbotabad. We went on our first cycling trek with a few other friends and cycled from Lalazar in Rawalpindi to the Margalla Hills.

I have been involved with other sports as well, but I realised I liked cycling better because of the thrill associated with it and went to Dubai in September 2015 to receive further training.

I have been participating in cycling events for over two years now and won a silver medal last year.

Q: What is it like being a woman cyclist in Pakistan?

A: People on the roads treat me like an alien; but nobody has ever said anything discouraging to me personally. I find that it is mostly women who talk disparagingly about women cyclists, because they don’t believe it’s an activity that women should be participating in.

There are a lot of women who want to cycle but are deterred by road conditions and the traffic situation. I think there should be separate tracks and routes for cyclists, especially for female cyclists.

There are also not many facilities for cyclists in Pakistan. I wanted to go to Siachen, I but could not find a sponsor. I approached several leading international brands and one even agreed to sponsor me, but then they pulled out at the last minute, saying they could not afford to bear my costs for a whole year.

When we were coming back from our trip to Khunjerab, truck and rickshaw drivers around Mansehra would not let us pass, though Gilgit and Hunza were much safer and easier to cycle through.

Q: What are your plans for the future?

A: I’m very interested in ‘underwater cycling’, which is a relatively unknown extreme sport, where cyclists ride specially designed bikes underwater. I really had my heart set on breaking the underwater cycling record, but the equipment and the facilities required are prohibitively expensive.

I have been working with the Paragliding Association to put together a team of women paragliders, who can represent Pakistan in international events. Currently, there are no teams, nor are there any proper facilities for training.

The military, which has the only equipment one can practice on, does not allow us to go out for more than three hours at a time. But professionally practicing for a sport requires hours and hours of practice.

The equipment required for paragliding is also very expensive and one needs Rs500,000 just to get started.

Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2016