No mountain biker can look at pictures of Afghanistan’s rugged and beautiful terrain and not help wonder “Hmmm…Could I?”
Yet that is exactly what Shannon Galpin, founder and leader of the non-profit Mountain2Mountain, and former Minneapolis resident-now-living-in-Breckenridge, CO, thought on an eight-hour road trip from Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif in 2008. The following year, in 2009, she packed her “Tangerine Dream” Niner One 9 single speed with the goal of answering the “Could I?” question.
Bike culture in Afghanistan
Given the culture and nature of Afghanistan as we know it, I asked Shannon the question that I had been obsessing over since I first read about her and Mountain2Mountain in Women’s Adventure (then stalked her online for an interview): “Do you have a death wish?”
In the United States, trail hazards include things like rocks, boulder gardens, steep drops, log piles and the occasional bear. In Afghanistan, you have landmines and Taliban bullets, both stray and targeted.
“No death wish,” Shannon laughed, “but on that road trip from Kabul, I saw all these rolling hills blooming in red flowers and thought, ‘Man, this is too beautiful to not explore.’”
She posed the “Could I?” question to Hamid, her interpreter, who said that women in Afghanistan don’t ride bikes, and if they did, they would meet a brutal punishment, or even death. When she told him that she wanted to ride her bike, he told her she was crazy but then laughed and said that it was doable.
That was all she needed to hear.
While Afghanistan lacks local trail advocacy groups that build and maintain singletrack to IMBA standards, riding there certainly is a unique and memorable experience. (Click here to view a few of Shannon’s riding pictures from ‘stan.)
“The majority of trails are game trails that don’t end up anywhere,” Shannon says. “You’re just riding along rolling trails of dirt and rock and then boom. You run out of trail. A lot of places you are following a dirt/jeep road that crosses rivers and goes down through valleys. Some trails are so narrow alongside a mountain that if you fall, it might be into landmines. Other trails are very steep with loose, crushed up slate and you really need a geared bike to get up it. Obviously, you have to be very careful where you try to ride.”
So what was the reaction from Afghan men who saw her riding in a country where women don’t ride bikes?
“I was a curiosity. I would ask the men who gathered after my ride what they thought of women riding bikes and not one of them had anything negative to say.”
On the threat scale of zero to ten, the men placed her at zero. She was an unarmed Western woman riding a “Tangerine Dream” Niner single speed, and much like the way mountain bikers worldwide will chat at trailheads after a ride, that is what happened in Afghanistan. Only the post-ride conversations centered more on goat herding techniques and educational programs to benefit girls and women, not why the Pivot Mach 429 spanks the Santa Cruz Tall Boy or how the Gates Carbon Drive paired with the Ventana El Comandante is the ride of the future, yo.
“The bike allowed me to have more of an open connection with the locals and that’s key to effecting change in Afghanistan. Baby steps have more impact and that’s what I see the bike as being: a baby step to change.”
The issue of connecting the many trails into a large system, so that people can ride on their own, is still years away from coming to fruition both in terms of logistics, money and cultural barriers.
“I’d love to ride in the northern territories. Incredibly green rolling hills in pastureland with lower elevation and more dirt trails that connect but it’s become unstable.”
But let me back up, mostly for safety’s sake.
Biking logistics in Afghanistan
Shannon just didn’t book herself a ticket from Breckenridge to Kabul to shred the single track of the Panjshir Valley because she thought it would be sick. It was through her work with Mountain2Mountain that enabled her to develop trusting relationships with the local Afghanis and learn the nuances of the culture before she could gently push a few boundaries.
Her idea to bring her bike on her 2009 trip was both to satisfy her own curiosity and to plant a new kind of seed. One of Mountain2Mountain’s projects is teaching rural midwifery skills to Afghan women to help reduce Afghanistan’s abysmally high maternal death rates.
“Would it not make sense to equip these midwives with bikes so that they can get to their jobs faster?” Shannon says. “In the remote villages of Afghanistan, a fifteen-minute difference could save the life of a woman in labor.”
Her idea was met with opposition because midwives on bikes could be easy targets from extremists. Sure, okay, that sounds reasonable. But what didn’t sound reasonable, to Shannon, was the issue that no woman in Afghanistan is allowed to ride a bike.
“That’s why I brought my bike,” Shannon said. “Western women in Afghanistan are like a ‘third gender’. We’re not male, not female. We have more flexibility, more freedom to move around and the Afghanis will tolerate and accept things they normally wouldn’t from other Afghanis. I figured that if they see a crazy foreign woman, riding a bike, it might be a positive step in removing the stigma and fear of the unknown. The Afghanis are supportive of anyone who can work with them to better their country because they know they can’t do it alone.”
Could Afghanistan be another Moab or Fruita?
Shannon chose the Panjshir Valley for her ride because it’s a very enclosed province that follows a river valley with a checkpoint at the entry gate. It’s also ringed by mountains and is the one region of the country that never relinquished control to the Taliban. Since she had been working in the Panjshir Valley for a few years with Mountain2Mountain, she was comfortable in that province and had a close network of locals who knew her and had her as a guest in their homes.
Does Shannon see Afghanistan ever becoming a place for adventure tourism?
“Yes,” Shannon said. “There have been tourists there that had no affiliation with an NGO. But they’re cultural junkies not adrenalin junkies so they’re not so obvious and don’t attract the wrong kind of attention. For them, it’s all about the Silk Road, the architecture and the history of a region that endured decades, if not centuries, of war.”
A friend of Shannon’s has plans to start a yak train to the remote Wakhan corridor in which cultural junkies can ride yaks, camp along the way in yurts and see the most remote section of Afghanistan. So remote, in fact, that it is either unknown or forgotten by the rest of the country.
In March of this year, two people were XC skiing in Bamiyan. Last year, two Afghanis made the first Afghani ascent of Noshaq, Afghanistan’s highest peak because ‘it was there’.
The future of mountain biking in Afghanistan
“Despite what we read from print and online news sources, Afghanistan is in fact making baby steps to progressiveness,” Shannon says. “There is a burgeoning subculture in Kabul of rock bands creating their own sounds, girls playing soccer, kids learning to skateboard in the first ever skateboarding park. There is a future there that is trying to emerge.”
All well and good, and very interesting, but to satisfy my own curiosity and possibly even an entry on my own bucket list of places to ride, I asked her if she thinks it is a good idea to ride there. In other words, could I hop on a flight from Minneapolis to Kabul and shred the single track?
“Um…No,” Shannon says. “First off, I strongly suggest against it. Really. Sucks to say. You’d have to know the country well, find a solid translator that you could trust and was willing to travel and then find locals that are willing to work with you and protect you by the umbrella of being their guest. Essentially vouching for you and thus requiring that you’re treated as a guest. It’s all about creating solid connections with locals that you can trust first. Then you can make very real decisions as to what you can get away with that strays outside the lines.”
2010 Panjshir ValleyTour
For her one-year anniversary from the date of her first ride in Afghanistan, Shannon returned to ride the entire Panjshir Valley, from the gates of Panjshir that mark the entrance to the province, straight through to the imposing 14,000-foot Anjuman Pass. Keep in mind that Shannon lives in Breckenridge and is pretty well acclimatized to higher elevations.
To see the incredible beauty of Afghanistan and the reaction of those she met along the way, click here to see the video.
During her Tour de Panjshir, she rode two days, 132km, and 14 hours of steady uphill riding through breathtaking mountains and villages. Three days was the goal but security issues in the form of neighboring provincial gun runners, made it impossible to push on for the third and final day of climbing to the top of the pass.
Hardly the point, though.
Along the way, boys and men raced her on their own bikes as they shared the road with cars, motorcycles, sheep, and the occasional camel. Elderly men with large turbans stopped in every village to smile, wave, and shout greetings. There were even a few offers of tea at their home. Even road construction workers took her bike for a spin after she had walked it across a dodgy looking bridge.
On Sunday, October 3rd, eight communities in California, Colorado, Washington DC, Oregon, and New York also rode their bikes in support of Mountain 2 Mountain’s projects in Afghanistan. Dubbed the Panjshir Tour, each ride raised money through the power of the pedal to support projects with the deaf community, rural midwife training, and girls’ education.
It’s fairly well known that education is a fundamental tool to build a nation. It’s also well known that bikes can transport you from Point A to Point B. In many parts of the world, and Afghanistan is no exception, bikes are a vital cog in the wheel of progress. Bikes connect people with education and vocation and bring people together. And, as Shannon has proved, are a vehicle of peace.
To learn more about Shannon Galpin and Mountain2Mountain, visit her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.