Crossing Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley by bike
Matador Ambassador Shannon Galpin documents her attempt to mountain bike across the Panjshir Valley.
IN 2009, I BECAME THE FIRST WOMAN to mountain bike in Afghanistan, during a series of rides in Panjshir province and the hilltops of Kabul on my beloved 29’er single-speed, in an attempt to challenge gender barriers. Afghanistan is one of the few countries in the world where women are not allowed to ride bikes.
In 2010, I returned with my bike again, this time with Outside writer Nick Heil, to ride across the Panjshir Valley in a much more public and linear manner. The main road in the province runs straight through its heart, following the river, with steep mountains forming walls on either side. This road is slowly being paved, and in a year or so will become a major trucking route, forever changing the valley that encloses it.
I convinced Nick he should ride the same bike as me, and enlisted Niner to set him up on a 29’er single-speed as well. He reluctantly agreed. I also informed him he should grow a beard — to look less contractor-ish. He informed me he’d ‘try.’ He arrived in Kabul ready to ride, with both the single-speed and a decent start at a beard. A week later, we found ourselves spilling out of an over-packed Land Cruiser just inside the gates that mark the entrance to the province.
Our goal? To cross the valley and finish at the summit of the 14,000ft Anjuman Pass.
Afghanistan is not the place to pull out the lycra racing gear. Instead, I conquered the hills in long cotton pants, a calf-length dress over the top, long tunic over that, and two local scarves. I ditched the gloves and helmet 20 minutes into the ride, never to be seen again. Envious of Nick's rolled up pants, I knew that if I was going to challenge gender barriers, I'd better do it modestly. Thank you Patagonia for clothes that repel dirt, dust, diesel, and feces better than anything else on the market!
Welcome to Panjshir Valley
Just inside the guarded gates that mark the entrance to the valley, old Soviet tanks stand as a reminder of Afghanistan's tumultuous past.
Nick paused more than once to comment that if it weren't for the current state of potential landmines, the spread of the Taliban, and the ongoing fighting, this would be a serious adventure travel destination. "Some of the most beautiful mountain country I've ever seen."
Catching our breath and hydrating after a climb that Nick dubbed, Afghanistan's L'Alpe d'Huez.
Nick: "You said this ride would be flat."
Me: "No I didn't. When did I say that?"
Nick: "Panjshir Valley. Valley equals flat."
Me: "We're attempting to ride up to Anjuman Pass. Pass equals climbing."
Nick: "Gears would be nice."
Along the way we picked up several other single-speeders, mostly young boys. We exchanged pleasantries in Dari, and occasionally challenged each other to races. There was a lot of curiosity, double looks from passing cars, and desire to talk -- no one had ever seen a woman on a bike before.
Whenever we stopped, a crowd would gather, and most wanted to take our bikes for a spin.
Unfortunately, Nick's test rider took a little longer to come back. Just when we figured it was crashed or stolen, a very happy young man crested the hill and careened towards us with a huge grin, and Nick was back in the game.
Panjshir traffic can get pretty brutal. Day 2 saw very few cars, no pavement, and lots of goat herders, farmers, and nomadic Kuchi tribespeople leading camels.
The further back we got, the more incredible the riding and the scenery became. Endless rounds of shouted greetings from villagers buoyed my spirits and made it difficult to remember that we were in the middle of a war zone.
The river crossing near the approach of Anjuman Pass could have been a lot easier if I could've rolled up my pants and taken off my shoes -- but as there was a small group of men watching, I had to wade through fully clothed and squeeze out the pants on the other side.
Changing a tire along the way.
Curious looks and bike inspection from the local villagers.
Two long days in the saddle, the steep pitch of the approach to Anjuman Pass in our sights, and a quiet meadow to contemplate the beauty of Afghanistan and come to terms with our decision to turn back... Nooristani gun runners are not to be trifled with.