Gul-i-Afshan Tariq has become the first woman to have toured Khyber-Pakthunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan on a bike for 22 consecutive days. She covered 3,823 kilometres between Islamabad and Chitral from May 6 to May 25. Her main destinations were Peshawar, Batkhela, Chitral, Mastooj, Shandur, Boni, Bumburet, Swat, Kalam, Basham, Balakot, Naran, Haripur, DI Khan, and Kohat.
She didn’t just want to explore Pakistan’s mountains: she wanted to give a message of goodwill to tourists, and encourage Pakistani women to get out and travel across the country.
Born and raised in a rural background in district Sargodha in central Punjab, Tariq believes travel is in her blood. Her father, a retired army officer, was also fond of travelling, she says recalling the time that her father took her mother on Haj by car via Iran, Iraq in the 1980s.
“I have inherited a love for travel and adventure. I was interested in sports since childhood and started travelling later on,” she says.
Tariq graduated with a major in computer engineering in 2015 and is working at a multinational software company these days.
She started participating in sports in 2009 with climbing, and, later on, athletics. In 2011, when she started university in Islamabad, she participated in national climbing events and learned mixed martial arts and paragliding. In 2015, during her brief stay in Dubai, she learned parasailing.
In addition to this, she continued to cycle setting up a national record by riding a bicycle from Islamabad to Khunjerab. During the last two years, she returned her focus back to academics until the last quarter of 2016.
It was during her stay in Lahore at the end of 2016 that she learned how to ride a motorbike.
She explains how the idea of the trip came about. “I am leaving for Qatar for a new job in a software company and that is why I decided to do something different before I left Pakistan: Biking across the northern parts of Pakistan,” she says.
But before she headed north on a YDRG motorbike, she rode it around Lahore for three months for practice and planned out her adventure trip.
She considers this journey to be one of the most memorable events in her life.
Her favourite spot during the trip was Chitral where she attended Chilamjoshi, a festival of colours, traditional dresses and food. On the way, it was very difficult to ride the bike at a very slow speed of 10 to 20 kilometres per hour. It took 16 hours from Batkhela to Chitral through the Lowari Pass, she recalls.
Against her expectations and fears, people in KP and the northern areas were forthcoming and showed a great degree of openness and respect. “I was taunted, hooted at, and embarrassed in Punjab, where I thought I would be more secure,” she says. People in KP, on the other hand, welcomed her and in many parts including Dera Ismail Khan, many gave her gifts too, which came as a surprise to her.
Her family was not fully convinced by her idea of adventure at first but gradually began to accept it.
“My mother was always concerned about my sports activities but she knows I cannot live without travelling,” she says.
“My message is to the entire world that Pakistan is a country where a woman can travel all alone on a motorbike without any fear,” she emphasises.
She narrates that the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) provided her accommodation in its motels, and gave her food and a vehicle for logistical help. Some private companies also offered her a limited level of support.
“My travel is a message to Pakistani girls to be confident and take initiative,” she says, adding, “I also faced a lot of discouragement in the beginning but I was not afraid at any moment.”
In her view, local, provincial and federal governments should take steps to encourage and support those women who want to do something positive for Pakistan.
“I tried to approach the KP government to own this initiative but there was no encouraging response,” she maintains, adding that she was unable to get sponsorship and had to eventually go on her own.