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Shannon Galpin – Cycling in Afghanistan


Shannon Galpin
Photography by Shannon Galpin & Deni Bechard

Afghanistan is a place that conjures a multitude of images – mujahideen warriors, the Silk Road, stone Buddhas and exquisitely blue tiled mosques, and maybe even pomegranates. Unfortunately now, the Taliban, poverty and violence are indelibly etched on our perceptions of the country too. It is a corner of the world I have been fortunate to visit many times over the last six years; exploring on foot and on snowshoes, by horseback, motorcycle, bicycle, and in the back of an endless array of ubiquitous white Toyota Corollas. I have fished in the Panjshir River, I have traveled to Kandahar under a burqa, I have ridden buzkashi horses on the Shomali Plain, and I have explored the mountains around the country hiking, biking, and skiing. It is an adventure travel paradise, if only the violence and instability could fade into the past like the visions of camel trains across the Silk Road.

In spring last year, I visited Bamiyan – the safest part of Afghanistan. It is an area of the country high up in the Hindu Kush best known for the destruction of the enormous Buddhas that overlooked the valley; blown up by the Taliban in 2001 to destroy evidence of Buddhist influence and further entrench Afghanistan as an Islamic state. The niches that housed the Buddhas are instantly recognisable when on arrival in Bamiyan, surrounded by the caves that pockmark the hillside, marking the region with a visible juxtaposition of the country’s four decades of conflict and centuries of history.

The upside of exploring Afghanistan is the lack of crowds. The only times I have felt the uncomfortable crush of crowds in Afghanistan are at the Blue Mosque in Mazar i Sharif, and in the markets of Kabul. As I walked through the village to purchase a ticket to visit the niches, I realised that I was the only person visiting the remains of the Buddhas that morning. You can still walk up the stairwells built around the small Buddha and look out across the valley at the spot where the head once was. Piles of rubble from the large Buddha are housed inside a cave at the base of the niche, while the piles of stones from the small Buddha are inside a protected box near the entrance. No decision has been made what to do with these, rebuild the Buddhas to their former glory, or leave the niches empty as a reminder of the destruction. So for now, you can walk amongst the piles of stones and marvel at how easily one blast of dynamite destroyed centuries of history and culture.

After visiting both Buddhas, I walked up the steep path that leads to the left of the large niche, winding past now empty cave dwellings, many with beautiful etchings still inside. Continuing up the narrow path, I found myself on the high plateau above the large niche with the most incredible view of any mountain range I have ever seen in Afghanistan, or anywhere in fact. At the far end of the plateau is a series of mujahideen trenches built into the landscape that overlook the entire valley. Old bullets litter the area, and as do sporadic land-mines. While this area is technically clear of land-mines, I learned firsthand the next day that thanks to the heavy snowfall that covers the area every winter, there is still unexploded ordinance (UXO) that emerges as the snow recedes each the spring. I hiked back up to the plateau with my mountain bike to explore a little further the following day, and at one point I unclipped my right foot to step off and saw something shiny. Instinct developed from working in Afghanistan means you avoid anything shiny on the ground, so I rode past, looked down and gingerly stepped off my bike onto a pile of rocks. I leaned over with my iPhone and took a photo before riding off. The email response to the photo from a friend in the military that has dealt with UXOs, and with the injured Afghan children that unfortunately pick them up thinking they are something to play with, was: “Yeah, that’s a land-mine. Looks unstable. Probably enough ‘boom’ to take a foot off.”

Afghanistan is an adventure travel paradise, if only the violence and instability could fade into the past like the visions of camel trains across the Silk Road.
Shannon Galpin – Cycling in Afghanistan

Swan paddle boats on a lake in Bamiyan

Afghanistan is an adventure travel paradise, if only the violence and instability could fade into the past like the visions of camel trains across the Silk Road.
My habitual, self-imposed “stay on trail” rule was firmly back in place, despite the clearance maps I’d seen of the area and assurances of Afghans that the area was safe, as I made plans to meet up with a young local woman named Zahra that I had heard about from mutual friends. Zahra was a university student that was teaching young girls to ride bikes so that they had transportation to and from school and the women’s university. What made this so unusual was that girls riding bikes is a deep-seated taboo, it’s simply not allowed here. In the six years I had been working and mountain biking in various areas of Afghanistan, not once did I meet a family that would allow their girls to ride a bike. Until recently, when I had met and started working with the first women to publicly ride bikes as part of the Afghan National Cycling Team in Kabul. Young women that are risking their honour and their lives riding a bike, by breaking this social taboo. I had heard rumours Zahra, riding bikes in Bamiyan, which was what had brought me to Bamiyan in the first place.

We met a few hours later at my guesthouse and rode through town to the empty fields in front of the Buddhas. Young boys were playing football and dust kicked up around them. As expected, locals stared and occasionally waved, and we soon picked up a train of young boys curious about the three girls, one a tall blond foreigner, riding bikes. We all rode laps around the fields, raced each other, and when we eventually stopped to let the dust settle, I realised we were surrounded by at least twenty young boys. There were a few young girls crouched together watching, and I saw the desire on their faces to ride. So did Zahra, and she nodded at them and said to me: “Girls deserve to have the same opportunities as boys, whether that’s education, or the right to ride a bike.”

Dusk was falling fast around us, and as we made to leave, one of the young boys who had been riding with us tugged at my sleeve and said in Dari, “I’m going to go home and teach my younger sister to ride.” Mission accomplished. The more that girls ride, the more acceptable it becomes. Zakia and Zahra are just a few of the young women that are leading the way, breaking gender barriers, and showing that girls can ride, and ski just like the boys. In any other country that would be enough, but in Afghanistan? That’s everything.

The next day I visited two major historical sites on opposite sides of Bamiyan. The first stop was an hour-and-a-half drive east to visit Afghanistan’s first national park, Band e Amir. The site is a series of six turquoise blue and green lakes, separated by natural dams made up of mineral deposits, one of only a few in the world. As we turned off the highway and drove down the still snow-covered dirt road to reach the lakes, the brilliant colour of the water emerged below as a rare oasis. Afghans come here every summer to picnic, explore the lakes, and swim. Although women are not allowed, there are rumours of creating a women’s only area on one of the lakes where women could swim together in privacy.

Shannon Galpin – Cycling in Afghanistan

Working with the children of bamiyan

Life in Bamiyan

Brightly coloured swan shaped paddle-boats rest at the side of largest of the lakes, adding a 1970’s kitsch feel to the whole experience. The only thing I’ve every seen similar to this is in Kabul at Qargha Lake, where tents line the lakeside for family picnics and paddle boats dot the water. The spring snow, and the melting run off had made many of the paths too treacherous to walk, so we headed back towards Bamiyan, grabbing a lunch of lamb kebabs, naan bread, and green tea at a local teahouse, chaihanna, at one the small villages. 30 minutes down a dirt road west of Bamiyan there are several places to explore, I had heard of another Buddha statue, caves, but I was headed towards Red City, Shahr e Zuhak. This incredible city carved into the hillside was once home to 3,000 residents. Genghis Khan’s grandson attacked it in 1221, and when the fort held and the grandson was killed, Genghis Khan returned himself and laid waste to the city. Genghis Khan’s siege on the valley gave the name another historical site in Bamiyan, the Screaming City, due to the noise of violence that echoed through the valley when the citadel was overrun.

The red glow of the clay gives Shahr e Zuhak its name, and many of the walls, intricately carved, still stand. The hillside is dotted with white rocks everywhere, signs of land-mine clearance, and it is strongly advised to be careful where you step as land-mines still turn up with alarming regularity both on and off the path. My driver guided me across the filed and to the steep path that leads to the city. The hike through the old city ruins, and to the top of the hill is stunning and I had the place to myself. As I reached the small outcropping at the top, there was my driver, sitting nonchalantly on a gun turret talking on his cellphone, apparently unimpressed by the wide valley spread out below us, and the mountains that surrounded it that created an epic landscape easily rivalling any other in the world.

The last morning in Bamiyan, I woke up before sunrise to ride to Shahr-e Gholghola, a citadel conquered by Gengis Khan. The citadel is known as the City of Screams as a consequence of the cries of pain and anguish which echoed around these mountains during the massacre. At the entrance to the ruins, three security guards watched as I rode around. I offered my bike to them to ride and all three took turns. The bike has become an incredible icebreaker for me around the country. Afghan soldiers, policemen, guards, teachers, and young boys, and more recently, young women, have ridden my bike, or ridden with me. Roadside and trailside question and answer sessions add an element of ease to the usual formality of interactions between Afghan and myself. These impromptu conversations have allowed a sharing of cultures, discussions about my work, and stories about their families, and invitations to visit their home for tea or dinner, that I never would have had without the curiosity of the bike to open the door. Here in the shadow the Buddhists and Genghis Khan, I enjoyed the freedoms that this pocket of safety in Afghanistan provides to both Afghans and foreigners. As Afghans push for increased tourism, my hope is that security stabilises throughout the country in ways that would encourage others to visit and explore and discover the common humanity that ties us all together.

Shannon Galpin

Shannon Galpin is the author of Mountain to Mountain: A Journey of Activism and Adventure for the Women of Afghanistan. She founded the nonprofit Mountain2Mountain, which works to empower women and girls in conflict zones, and is a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.

Twitter: @sgalpin
Instagram: @sgalpin74