Samar Khan is the first woman to have cycled on the 4,500 metre Biafo Glacier in the Karakoram Range in Gilgit-Baltistan. She set off for Biafo from Islamabad, cycling over 1000 kilometres in 15 days. In 2016, Samar and fellow cyclist Gule Afshan Tariq cycled from Islamabad to Khunjerab, travelling a distance of 1,098km. The 26 year old is also a trained mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter, blogger and motivational speaker. Dawn spoke to Samar about her experience long-distance cycling in Pakistan.
Q: How did you first become interested in long-distance cycling and what took you to Biafo Glacier?
A: I became a cyclist almost accidentally. Growing up in Rawalpindi, I never had many chances of playing sports beyond my teenage years. But in my final year of university I went through a difficult emotional experience. I was in a bad relationship and I felt rejected. In those days I came across a paragliding course. The course made me interested in adventure sports and I also made friends who were interested in adventure sports. Together, we decided to cycle from Islamabad to Abbottabad.
Later some friends from Hunza and Gilgit suggested that I cycle in the northern areas where people are more open-minded and used to seeing women tourists. So, for my next trip I decided to cycle from Islamabad to Khunjerab with my friend Gule Afshan Tariq.
Cycling along the Karakoram Highway over 10 days helped me overcome my fear of road cycling and once I had conquered my fears I was ready for a new challenge. After many months of research, I decided to cycle on the Biafo Glacier because I wanted to draw attention to Pakistan’s glaciers, which are threatened by climate change.
Q: Not many women can be seen riding bicycles in Pakistan. How did people react when they saw you riding your bike?
A: I almost always face harassment on roads. When I was cycling from Islamabad to Abbottabad, trucks would honk at me and drivers and pedestrians alike were catcalling. Verbal harassment has almost become routine and I am no longer affected by it. But some people have even attempted to hit me with their cars. It helps that I look a bit Chinese. When I cycled to Khunjerab, a lot of people confused me for a Chinese woman, which is somehow more acceptable for them than a Pakistani woman cycling. People would say ‘Long Live Pak-China Friendship’ wherever I went.
However, generally people in the North are very hospitable. We were offered fruit and water by people along the Karakoram Highway. And when my bicycle chain broke near a village, locals helped me repair it.
Q: What were some of the greatest challenges you faced and what has your experience taught you?
A: Picking up cycling at a time in my life when I was feeling rejected and hopeless helped me realise my true strength. Most of us don’t realise what we are capable of and cycling from Islamabad to Khunjerab and later on Biafo Glacier made me see that I was capable of more than I allowed myself to believe.
I overcame numerous challenges on my trips. In the beginning I was afraid of cycling on the road and would get intimidated by oncoming traffic, but later I was able to cycle on a highway. Extremities of weather posed yet another challenge. In some places such as Passu, the sun beat down very hard and made cycling very exhausting but only a few hours away was Sost, where it was freezing cold.
Camping on the glacier was not easy either. On my first night I was so cold that I couldn’t sleep and later slept with the porters in a cramped space. But all of these experiences have made me a more courageous and confident person. Never again will I allow anyone else to dictate the course of my life. Even now there are people who criticise my choices in life, but I no longer care.
Q: Do you think there are enough opportunities for women to play sports in Pakistan? How can more women be encouraged to take up outdoor activities?
A: There are hardly any opportunities for women to play sports in Pakistan. Parents also do not see the importance of physical activity for women and do not allow their daughters to participate in sporting events.
All of my long-distance cycling trips have been public events where I have invited other women to join me but hardly any get permission from their parents. Parents are concerned about safety but also about social backlash. Being from Lower Dir, a conservative part of Pakistan, I also did not expect my relatives to react positively to my decision to become a cyclist. However, I was surprised to find them very encouraging and supportive.
Moreover, corporations, government and non-government organisations have a role to play. There are a lot of costs involved with sports, especially adventure sports, and by sponsoring such activities more women can be encouraged to participate.
Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2017