Multi-Sport Paradise Afghan Style

Central Afghanistan.  The Hindu Kush.  Bamiyan.  The Buddhas.

A more stunning region of Afghanistan would be hard to find, and it took me 6 years of working in Afghanistan to finally make a trip here.  Bamiyan is one of the safest regions of the country, although it is surrounded by provinces with Taliban control which makes getting there harder than it used to be.  Road side bombs, checkpoints, and eruptions of violence along the main road into Bamiyan have become more commonplace unfortunately.  The most common way in and out for internationals is by helicopter, but luckily for internationals and Afghans alike, the airstrip was enlarged so that they could start to take small commercial flights.

I finally arrived in Bamiyan, on a dodgy flight with Eastern Horizon airlines.  I say dodgy, and I mean it.  I had heard horror stories from friends of the plane coming in swinging side to side, nearly clipping the hillside of the City of Screams on its landing.  Stories of flights taking off hours before their scheduled time without warning and without all the passengers, and flights leaving days late.  The airline simply had a general feeling of unpredictability.  Still, its the only flight going and they give you a juice box and an Iranian sponge cake for the 30 minute flight out of Kabul so how bad can it be, right?  Other than my seat belt not working, and the entire row ahead of me not bolted into the floor very tight, it was a fairly uneventful flight, except for the landing where I swear something bounced off the plane when we touched down.

But how can you complain when this is your welcoming view?

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Drop the bags at the guesthouse, and its time to walk.  The joy of walking is amplified after the self-confinement of Kabul in the wake of pre and post election violence.  Fresh air, quiet countryside, and a safe environment for foreigners, and a world famous UNESCO heritage site all to myself?  Heaven. A 10 minute walk brings us to the large buddha niche and the caves that surround it.  A steep hike up the side paths through the system of caves that have been inhabited like the nearby Foladi Caves until only recently, brings us to the open plateau behind the large buddha. Dotted throughout the landscape are smaller buddha niches as well – remnants from smaller statue niches carved into the rock.

While it is an area officially cleared of land mines, every springtime, the rains unearth the occasional landmine, so its important to stay on the path, although at times that was difficult to follow, or even see.  But the views?  Mind blowing.

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After a long hike, and some scrambling through a ravine, we emerged near the small buddha niche.  This niche is more stable than the large niche and you are still allowed to climb the stairs that Buddhist followers used to climb that leads up to the top where you can look out across the entire valley and descend the stairs on the other side of the niche.  Lots of side caverns with remnants of the mosaic tiles can explored, but the piles of stones that are stacked and labeled at the bottom of each of the niches is a sobering reminder of what has been lost here.

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Next up? Road biking with the Afghan National Cycling Team as part of the training weekend I had brought them here for.  The chance to ride newly paved, empty, peaceful roads was an opportunity I wanted to share with the team who is forced to train on the busy trucking highways that lead out of Kabul.  First we did a test ride through town to make sure all the bikes we had brought, new racing bikes donated by Liv/giant, were assembled correctly and the girls all felt comfortable on them.  As I was the bike mechanic, I was most concerned that the brakes worked, and I hadn’t put the derailleurs on backwards!

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All systems go.  The next morning we were up early and riding as a team on the paved road that leads to Afghanistan’s first national park, Band e Amir.

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We had hoped to take the team to the famous turquoise blue lakes after the training ride, but the road down to the lakes was still snow covered and the minibus’s tires were completely bald.  There was no way we would make it.  So we took the girls to visit the Buddha’s instead since none of them had ever been to Bamiyan before.

The next day we rented a LandRover and drove back to Band e Amir to try again.  As its early springtime we had the lakes and the swan boats to ourselves.

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We followed up the trip to Band e Amir with a short trip to visit the Red City – Share e Zohak.  I had heard about this place and figured it would be interesting enough in terms of history, I’d seen a few photos and it looked like ruins on a mountain like anywhere else.  When we pulled up to a field and look up at the mountain in front of us, my jaw dropped.  Like something out of time of Genghis Khan (and in fact his grandson fought and died here) the city is literally built into the side of the mountain and an amazing amount of the original structures are preserved with ornate details carved into rock.  The path leads from the base of the mountain and winds its way through what was once a city, and up to the tippy top of a look out fort that you can survey the entire valley in all directions.  An old Soviet gun turret still rests at the top,  with bullet cases surrounding it.  The path is literally surrounded by white rocks and some red ones, marking land mine clearance, but as with the plateau above the Buddhas, springtime rains and erosion uncover and move UXO’s every season, so focus on staying on trail, and being aware of what was on said trail, were a high priority.

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Tired, hungry, and dusty we had another big day ahead of us, so it was back to the guesthouse to eat, shower, and crash for an early morning wake up to go mountain biking through town and to the City of Scream.  The City of Screams, or Share e Gholghola, was conquered by Genghis Khan and the noise from the violence that ensued earned the citadel the City of Screams.  It once held another Buddha, and today is a visually fascinating hike through a period of history few get to experience due to Afghanistan’s insecurity and ongoing conflict.

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At the entrance to the City of Screams, the security guards took a spin on our bikes, proving once again that bikes make the best conversation starters.  Everyone loves to ride a bike.

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Breakfast time and a ride back into town, which was waking up and the even the market was already bustling.

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We spent the afternoon climbing back up the mountain behind the buddhas to play on the bikes on the plateau we had hiked to take in the breathtaking views one more time.

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The following day was a 5am wake up in search of snow with two of the newest female skiers.  We had to hike up to the snow line, but it was worth it spend time with the girls and watch them learn to turn.  On the way back down I talked with the girls about skiing and sports, and school.  As it turned out, one of them knew how to ride bikes, too.  So we made plans to have her join our evening bike ride by the Buddhas with Zahra, a young woman who was teaching girls to ride bikes in Bamiyan and who I was working with to start the first women’s team in Bamiyan.

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We met up by the Buddhas and rode for an hour or so, collecting quite the crowd as we did.  All young boys, who immediately joined our gang of three and a series of impromptu races kicked up dust as our motley crew sprinted from one end of the field to the other.

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As dusk fell, one of the younger boys said to me that since he rode with us, he was going to go home to teach his sister to ride.  That is progress.  One step at a time.  In a country that is just starting to see girls ride bikes for the first time, that still considers bike riding culturally offensive, Zahra will continue to lead the charge, teaching girls to ride, riding herself, and setting an example that Afghan girls can do anything they choose to, even ride a bike.  And I will continue to support them anyway I can.

 

photos by Deni Bechard. You can follow him on Instagram at @denibechard

 

Mountain to Mountain – A Memoir Launches

Holy shit I wrote a book!

That’s the phrase running through my head as I saw my book listed on Amazon, IndieBound, and Barnes and Noble websites yesterday.  Available for pre-order.  Releases September 16.

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The book hits bookstores nationwide with St. Martin’s Press in one month, but my publisher sent me the link yesterday that the pre sales had started and a sneak peek of Chapter One was available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  After two years of writing, editing, and working through the final publishing process with my editor at St. Martin’s Press, there is a book and soon it will be in hand of family and friends, colleagues and strangers.  Its a strange feeling.

Made more so by the fact that this is a deeply personal memoir.  This is not a story about my work, or Afghanistan’s history, its a story about my call to activism, my journey as a survivor of gender violence, and the other side of Afghanistan and it’s people beyond the war most Americans see on the news.   It’s road trips and prisons, motorcycles and mountain bikes, kindness and terror, adventure and activism.

Amazed to have the vocal support and blurb for the book cover by  New York Times bestselling author and perhaps the most famous Afghan in America, Khalid Hosseini, author of the Kite Runner and The Mountains Echoed.

“Shannon Galpin’s lovely cycling saga is an inspiring and illuminating window into the lives of modern day Afghan women and their continuing struggle to ride their own path to freedom, recognition, and equality.”

Washington Post Journalist, Anand Gopal who authored No Good Men Among the Living generously took time to read the book and wrote:

“Mountain to Mountain reads like one of Shannon Galpin’s bike rides, fast-paced and unpredictable. It traces her intimate journey as a survivor and her travels across a rugged terrain, in the process bringing alive a vital and poignant message: Equality for Afghan women means more than just voting rights or access to parliament—it means having the same basic freedoms as men.”

Then last night, I was sent a shot of Bicycling Magazine’s latest issue, which starts hitting mailboxes and newsstands this week , and this review is inside!  Its real.  Its out there.  Holy shit.

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Even bigger, the support from the legendary multiple world champion cyclist, Marianne Vos – who sent me her blurb for the book two days before she won La Course at Le Tour in Paris.  Making history on the final day of the Le Tour de France.

“Read this touching story from Shannon Galpin, who utilizes her unique position as a western woman to immerse herself in Afghan culture. She had the courage to leave everything behind and use the bike to as a tool to lead a physical and political movement – a way towards freedom for the women of Afghanistan.”

4 time World Ironman Champion, and one of the women behind the push to get La Course at Le Tour this year, Chrissie Wellington wrote:

Mountain to Mountain is nothing short of phenomenal. This captivating, inspiring, and heart-warming memoir shows us all that, with unbounded and unwavering passion, determination and courage, change can happen and mountains can be moved, one pedal stroke at a time. Shannon Galpin, and the women of Afghanistan, I salute you and your illimitable strength.

Holy shit indeed.  Yeah, I’m getting all the swears out now, because my editor edited most of my swears out of the memoir!   Having the support of these amazing men and women makes it a little less daunting to have my very personal life become very public.

Book tour starts in New York City on September 16th and here’s the tour list – I hope to see many familiar faces there!!

New York – TBA September 16-20

Frisco, CO – Next Page Bookstore – September 27

Portland, OR – Powell’s – October 3

Denver, CO – Tattered Cover – October 6

Boulder, CO – Boulder Bookstore – October 8

Chicago, IL – TBA – October 15

Los Angeles – TBA – October 18

Austin, TX – Austin Book Festival – October 25

Edwards, CO – Bookworm – October 29

Moab, UT – Back of Beyond – November 1

Durango, CO – Maria’s Bookstore – November 13

 

Full Circle to Pedal a Revolution

I spent over a decade as a sports trainer.

When I turned 32 I left that career behind me to start a non profit that fought for the rights of women in conflict zones, and started my work in Afghanistan.

I never thought my career in sports and conditioning would play a role in my current work as an activist and humanitarian.  Yet, yesterday, after a long meeting with the Coach of the Afghan Men’s and Women’s National Cycling Team, my old profession became my new job description: Coach of Afghan Cycling Teams at the upcoming Asia Games this September in South Korea.

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The last two months I have been working with the Afghan National Women’s Team to develop some basic development and training.  I join them on training rides and work on small steps to add into their training, sometimes as simply as a lesson in shifting.  In April I brought the team to the mountains of central Afghanistan in Bamiyan province for a long training ride, and scouted as a potential location for a future women’s race.  I delivered brand new racing bikes, clothing, tools, and helmets for the national team thanks to our partnership with sponsor Liv/giant.

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The men’s national team is much more developed than the women’s, in large part because boys grow up here riding bikes while girls are forbidden to ride.  They are stronger, have better handling skills, and look like cyclists in their lycra and their clip less pedals.  But, cycling as as sport is new in Afghanistan and over the last two visits I have brought used road bikes, new mountain bikes, gear, and clothing to support their development and the development of cycling into other provinces.  Beyond equipment, both the teams need training and coaching development.  Right now, both teams need the basics: Nutrition, hydration, training plans are needed before we even really discuss racing techniques.

Ironically that’s my background.  I am a mountain biker, not a road cyclist. I do not know how to corner downhill on a road bike at speed, or how to draft, or slingshot a sprinter through the finish line ala Mark Cavendish, but I know how to build a foundation of conditioning, how to develop strength and speed, and how to teach a cyclist nutrition and hydration principles.

And I have a few aces in my pocket with my Board of Directors and Advisory Council of Mountain2Mountain.

Dr. Allen Lim, founder of Skratch Labs.  He’s worked at the Tour de France level with pro cyclists, he worked with Taylor Phinney through the London Olympics, and created a revolution in how athletes fuel and hydrate.

Chrissie Wellington, 4 x World Ironman Champion and major voice in women’s sports.

Dotsie Bausch, Olympic medalist and founder and coach of Empower Coaching Systems.

We can pull in the big guns to start building a foundation of incredible coaching development and training for both the Afghan National Teams while at the same time I work to normalize bikes for girls and create a social revolution on bikes that will allow bikes to be ridden without dishonor or controversy throughout areas of Afghanistan, creating a revolution on two wheels.

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photos by Deni Bechard

 

 

 

 

Twitterified Citizen Security?

I use Twitter a lot in Afghanistan.  Hear a big explosion and want to find out what and where it was?  Twitter has answers first.  Expat and Afghan journalists alike send out messages and queries, and the stream of information following #afghanistan or #kabul is quite substantial.  A lot of information that I wouldn’t find on traditional media sources, I can find links to on Twitter.  Three years ago I was woken by something.  Earthquake? Explosion?  I didn’t know.  10 minutes later on Twitter, confirmation of earthquake.  15 minutes later, a map showing where the epicenter hit and where aftershocks had rippled out to.

The Taliban even have a Twitter account.

The key is the ability quickly sift through the bullshit, misinformation, and mindless prattle, and to remember that just because someone says so, doesn’t mean its true.  Citizen reporting can lead to group think and endless retweeting of information that isn’t true.  I’ve seen it first hand with photos I’ve taken that have be reposted by someone else with inaccurate information, if not outright lies.  But as with all social media, it has its flaws and also its benefits.  Especially in countries like Afghanistan, where everyone has a cell phone.

Today, this tweet came through my feed:

No plate-number. Filmed windows in black. Roaming around the city. #kabul #security #election #Afghanistan pic.twitter.com/4miRV9oCM1
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As we are 6 days out from the run off elections in Afghanistan, and yesterday’s attack on Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah reminds us that road side bombs and suicide bombers are determined to create fear and suppress voter turnout, photos and posts like this one are important tools in citizen led security.
It reminded me of old-school neighborhood watch signs I’d see posted around residential neighborhoods in North Dakota when I was growing up.  This was before entire areas of towns became covered in CCTV cameras and other big brother style surveillance.  The idea was that it was up to all of us, as community members and citizens to keep an eye out for each other.  See something disturbing?  Let someone know.
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In a country like Afghanistan, and a city like Kabul, where the ring of steel can only be partially effective if you operate on random stoppages and half hearted searches, security is even more dependent upon a strong community watch.  Twitter is one potential way to make it easier to crowd source security and share in real time unusual behavior, suspicious cars, and street violence.  Structured correctly with a strong communications platform and community outreach, twitter could also be an amazing tool for gender violence and street harassment.   Of course it only works if others are playing, and more importantly, if police and security forces are watching and are engaged.  Neighborhood watch campaigns or street harassment campaigns could find a valuable tool in Twitter if developed and used correctly.

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Bikes Races on the Afghan Campaign Trail

5:30am Friday morning in Kabul.  Already a crowd of around 50 boys on bikes has gathered in the street in front of Darul Aman Palace.  Coach, along with a few of the women’s team, Mariam, Sadaf, and Massouma, are blasting the Afghan National Anthem over a loudspeaker on the roof of Coach’s car.  More boys roll up and several older men join the group with their bikes.  Many ancient Phoenix bikes decorated in full Afghan kitsch are ready to race through the now empty streets of Kabul.  Empty because of the early hour and because the route from the palace to Kabul Stadium has been blocked.

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As often happens in Afghanistan, things get strange really quick.  Presidential candidate, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, has made this a campaign stop.  The run-off elections are one week away and the two candidates are in campaign full court press.  So that means security, in the form of heavily bright green armored jeeps full of men with guns, pull to the periphery of the gathering one after another.  Until there are at least 15 jeeps full of men with guns surrounded the event.

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A tall Afghan has been handing out white tshirts to all the cyclists, and it turns out that the shirts are emblazoned with the face of Abdullah Abdullah.  Slowly the multicolored sea of nearly hundred boys and men turns white.   Another man is handing out small flags that can attach to the bikes, also with Abdullah Abdullah’s face.  This bike race just turned into a shameless campaign rally.  Now we had a large scale campaign rally for the candidate that the Taliban were vocally against, in a very public and normally busy road, now blocked by highly visible security forces.  The irony?  The candidate and his convoy was no where near here yet.  So now we get to wait.

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First Step as Liv/giant Ambassador? Bike Building in Afghanistan

The amazing company behind the delivery of 53 new racing bikes in Afghanistan are part of the Giant and Liv/giant family.  I accepted a role as their newest brand ambassador as I saw their team embrace my work and the Afghan National Women’s Cycling team in a way that spoke loudly of their commitment.  I can’t imagine another bike company involving themselves the way Liv/giant has.  Last spring I delivered 6 Avail composite racing bikes for the newly formed team in Kabul.  They watched my progress with the team development as well as the development of the documentary I am producing with Let Media and filmmaker Sarah Menzies about the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team, Afghan Cycles, and then they stepped up to the plate in full support of the team and the expansion of women’s cycling in other parts of the country.  To start, they donated 53 more road and mountain bikes, along with clothing, tools, tires, tubes, and helmets for 40 women.

In becoming their brand ambassador, they also set me up with both a road bike and a hard tail mountain bike. As a dedicated single speed rider this is my first foray into geared bikes, and the testing ground for both bikes would be Afghanistan.  A bigger test than riding in a war zone would be building up two new bikes myself, especially two with derailleurs.  Thanks to a whirlwind bike mechanic 101 lesson with my landlord, I arrived in Kabul with two bikes, tools and bike stand from Pedros, and a page full of notes to build up not just my bike, but all 53 bikes in Afghanistan.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA After a once over and a big sigh, I started the assembly process, knowing that this was one bike of 55 that I would start to assemble over the next week. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Everything was going smoothly until the dreaded derailleur and I couldn’t figure out which way was up. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA After some cursing and a few different approaches, I had the bike built up and ready for a quick test ride through the courtyard  Next stop, a much more public training ride with the Afghan National Cycling Team on the open road.  A huge thanks to Liv/giant for their incredible support of my work and their passion for women’s cycling.  #pedalarevolution OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA photos by Deni Bechard – you can follow him on instagram at @denibechard

Bishi Burro

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It took a monumental effort just to get 63 boxes of bikes, tools, clothing, and equipment to Denver Airport to fly with me to Kabul. It took an even bigger one to get them released from Kabul Airport customs house.  Apparently rules have changed since my previous arrivals with Liv/giant bikes and donated cycling equipment last spring. Instead of accepting my letter, they looked at me, one lone woman with 63 bike boxes and bags loaded onto 11 trolleys creating a Everest like line of porters, and gave me the dreaded yellow paper.  The yellow paper meant they would take the bikes into the customs house and that I would have to get a letter from the Ministry of Finance to release the bikes, ideally duty free as these were a donation and not for sale.

Najibullah was waiting outside the airport with a truck bound for central Afghanistan that I had requested.  I explained the situation and he called Coach Sedique, the head of the Cycling Federation and the coach for the women’s and men’s cycling teams and together we tromped through the halls of the Olympic Stadium offices, the Ministry of Finance, and the Kabul Airport custom house  for a total of 18 hours over two long days.  Back and forth we went from office to office, searching for signatures, given new forms to fill out, told to stamp this form here or there, endless waiting and cups of tea, and a receptive mantra of “Bishi. Burro.” Sit. Let’s Go.

My view of these two determined men became a repetition on a theme, and inconspicuous went right out the window as the tall blond foreigner dutifully followed.

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No Bike Left Behind

Originally posted on Mountain2Mountain: Field Notes:

Today 53 racing and mountain bikes showed up in a semi truck.  Thanks to the ongoing endless winter in the mountains of Colorado that meant the driver wouldn’t come down the hill to  my apartment and hilarious one-woman convoy in my Element ensued – 4 bike boxes at a time into my landlord’s garage.  Its only a temporary holding space, in two days they fly with me to Kabul, Afghanistan.


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Thanks to the incredible generosity of our partner Liv/giant – we have bikes, gear, clothing, tires, and helmets.  Along with an insane amount of donated cycling gear that has been accumulating in my home, this gear drive makes the last one look like a cake walk.  United has confirmed they will allow me show up at the passenger drop off with a 60 plus boxes, but they will not waive the extra baggage fees. We need to crowdsource the funding…

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