Imagine following narrow dirt paths cutting through fields. Imagine the knobby tree roots encroaching upon the paths. Now imagine cycling over those bumpy paths. Must be quite an adrenaline-boosting test of balancing skills, right? Right. And that is exactly what off-road cyclists traversing through Pakistan’s north will tell you.
Trekking is so last year, it seems. Browse through online travel forums dedicated to Pakistan, and posts about biking through Gilgit-Baltistan jump out at you. Some biking trips refer to motorcycle trips but quite a fair number are about cycling through Pakistan’s picturesque northern areas. Videos of biking through Swat will make you want to get hold of a mountain bike and ride off into the mountains. A few intrepid cyclists have shared videos of riding all the way up to the 4,693-metres-high Khunjerab Pass.
Off-road cycling is everything that cycling on city roads is not. First of all, it is a win-win situation for everyone: the cyclist gets a healthy amount of exercise outdoors and the environment gets to breathe a sigh of relief in the absence of toxic fumes. Impatient, road-rage fuelled cars will not bother you; neither will their obnoxious horns. You will get to hear the chirping birds, inhale cleaner air, and be able to enjoy the best of nature at your own pace.
But before the allure of adventure carries us away, let’s keep in mind some safety tips from those who do off-road cycling regularly. Hamza Butt, who participates frequently in long distance off-road rides, advises beginners to take it easy, “Anyone who would like to do off-road biking needs to build up stamina by cycling within the cities first. Cycling along natural paths is a lot of fun but it also requires a fair amount of practice and knowledge about your bike.”
He suggests participating in group-rides, such as those organised by the Critical Mass groups in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad. Another tip is to gradually learn how to ride downhill, as while going downhill might appear to require less stamina, it definitely requires a higher skill level.
Self-reliance is at the heart of any cycling expedition, and knowing how to make quick repairs when in a cinch is of the utmost importance if you do not want to be stranded on a lonely path. And while motorcyclists in Pakistan can sometimes get away with riding without a proper helmet, off-road cycling without proper headgear is simply a big no.
Ladies and foreigners need not feel that the experience of mountain biking in Pakistan is out of bounds for them. According to female cyclists, biking in the country has been a safe and enjoyable experience so far, and free of any untoward incidents. Foreigners share similar views. Gerald Pfitzmann, an Australian tourist biking through Pakistan with his wife, says, “It has been a very pleasant experience to bike through Pakistan’s northern areas. We were treated very warmly everywhere that we travelled. In fact, people on the road have told us how happy they are to see foreigners biking through their country.”
Meeting and greeting the locals is one of the best parts about cycling for Hamza as well. “Everywhere that we go, the locals are very encouraging and appreciate our mode of seeing the country’s beauty. Some come forward to shake hands. The children are always very intrigued by our bikes and want to know more about them.”
Kamran Hashmi, who is affiliated with the group Mountain Biking Islamabad, reiterates that recreational biking is perfectly safe in Pakistan. His group tries to arrange a ‘mega ride’ every month that takes the cyclists off the beaten track. Their longest outing so far has been a 70km ride to Mahodand Lake in Swat. A 40km ride from Monal to Haro River, the
source that feeds Khanpur Dam, is one of the more popular day rides.
He acknowledges the role of social media in creating awareness and increasing interest in off-road biking in the country, “Social media has definitely helped in creating a hype around cycling tours. Many people first find out about an off-road biking plan through their contacts on Facebook. A lot of people from Islamabad engage in recreational cycling regularly but now the trend is catching on in other cities as well.”
Pakistan’s northern areas are poised to host a record number of domestic and international tourists this summer. With the right tourism policies, the variety of awe-inspiring vistas in Pakistan has the potential to turn the country into off-road bikers’ dream destination.
For those with the stamina for off-road biking but no bike, Neela Gumbad near Old Anarkali in Lahore and Bikestan in Karachi have the answer to your bike shopping needs.
So if you are looking to stay clear of the crowds heading to Hunza and Skardu during this summer holiday, get in touch with the biking enthusiasts in your town and go off-roading!