Samar Khan Becomes First Woman to Cycle on Biafo Glacier

Samar Khan on her bicycle (Source: Samar Khan).

In August 2016, Samar Khan, 26, became the first woman to cycle 800 kilometers to reach the Biafo Glacier in northern Pakistan, where she then rode at an elevation of 4,500 m on top of the glacier. Accomplishing one of the highest glacier rides in the world, she proved that glaciers can draw attention to some of society’s most entrenched issues, from climate change to women’s rights.

“In order to change the mindsets of our people, I chose to cycle on glaciers,” Khan told GlacierHub. “I wanted people to realize the importance of what we have, how to preserve it, and what our duties are toward these majestic landmarks.”

Khan reached Biafo Glacier after 15 days of cycling from Islamabad to Skardu, becoming the first Pakistani to accomplish the feat. She was accompanied by other cyclists at various times during her journey and was honored upon her arrival by the sports board of Gilgit-Baltistan. Prior to the Biafo trip, she had previously covered 1,000 km, cycling from Islamabad to the Pakistan-Chinese border. 

Picture of Samar Khan next to her bicycle on Biafo Glacier (Source: Samar Khan).

Biafo Glacier, the third longest glacier outside the polar regions, required Kahn to disassemble her bike and carry the parts, helped by porters, for four or five days up ice and snow to reach the remote glacier before riding it. She camped near the glacier in dangerously cold conditions, telling Images, a Pakistani magazine, “Camping on the glacier was not easy. I was so cold that I couldn’t sleep and later slept with the porters in a cramped space.”

Recognizing that climate change is impacting the glaciers, Khan plans to keep cycling. “I will be cycling on other glaciers, summiting peaks, and documenting it all to create awareness about climate change and its effect on our environment,” she said. “I am going for a peak summit of 6,250 m in Arandu (Karakoram Range), Skardu, and Gilgit-Baltistan on May 14th.” Gilgit-Baltistan is a mountainous administrative territory of Pakistan, home to five peaks of at least 8,000 m in height.

Sadaffe Abid, co-founder of CIRCLE, a Pakistan-based women’s rights group focused on improving women’s socioeconomic status, talked to GlacierHub about Ms. Khan’s achievement. “It’s not common at all. It’s very challenging. For a Pakistani women, it is very unusual, as women don’t ride bicycles or motorbikes. Their mobility is extremely constrained. So, it’s a big deal and its setting new milestones,” she said.

“I am the first Pak girl to break stereotypes and cycle to northern Pakistan,” Samar Khan told CIRCLE in an interview posted on Facebook.

Samar Khan on her journey, being assisted by a porter, who carried parts of her bicycle (Source: Samar Khan).

Khan has faced sexism and violence by going against the norms in Pakistan. She recounted a story to CIRCLE about her engagement to a man. When she met his family, they gave her a list of demands including not speaking Pashto and not using social media or her cell phone. When she refused, she was beaten and thrown out of a car. She ended up in the ICU and became depressed before eventually finding cycling.

“Steps taken like this boost the confidence of other ladies in underprivileged areas and make them aware about their basic rights,” Khan said. “It makes them realize their strengths and capabilities. The change begins when they start trusting themselves instead of listening to the patriarchal society.”

Khan told GlacierHub that she also faced criticism and disbelief of her accomplishment from other sources. “There was a trekking community who criticized my way of exploring Biafo Glacier, the most challenging and rough terrain for trekkers. I was going there on my cycle, which was really hard for them to accept,” she said. “But the mainstream media supported my efforts, and many international tourists have been attracted to the Karakoram ranges after my expedition. They have seen that Pakistan is the safest place for pursuing such activities.”

Khan plans to continue to break stereotypes on her bicycle (Source: Samar Khan).

In the future, Kahn hopes to pursue her goal of making the Pakistani cycling team and qualifying for the Olympics so she can win a gold medal for Pakistan.

“Thank you Samar Khan for your courage, creativity and determination,” added Abid. “Women are Pakistan’s most untapped resource. When women grow, families prosper and nations progress.”





From Family Huts to Luxury Lodges in Nepal

Nepal is becoming more and more popular with tourists because of its majestic glaciers and towering mountain peaks. Traditionally known as a mountainous escape for adventurous trekkers, it is becoming more attractive for all types of travelers as the region modernizes to accommodate them. The recent democratization of the country, which saw the election of its first president in 2008, has also made a wider variety of travelers feel comfortable visiting. As reported by TravelBizNews, an outstanding 798,000 tourists visited Nepal in 2013. But only 13,000 of these individuals were trekkers. The majority of trekkers visit in April and October in order to avoid the monsoon and winter seasons.

A recent study, led by Dr. Izumi Morimoto and Dr. Prem Sagar Chapagain, published in the International and Regional Studies Journal asserts that people in the remote regions of Nepal are adapting their lifestyles and changing traditional practices in order to bring a new level of luxury to the region. Signs of such change can be seen in regions as remote as the Manang village, a high-altitude, isolated area landlocked by the Himalayas and famous for its pristine views of mountains and glaciers.

"Manang Annapurna3 Gangapurna" by Solundir - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Manang Annapurna3 Gangapurna” by Solundir – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Although small in number, the people of Manang have always profited from contact with the outside world. As reported by the government of Nepal, the Manang village is currently comprised of about 630 residents. Most individuals in this region are agropastorialists; yet, according to the researchers, recent years have seen a rapid abandonment of cultivated land, and other methods of income generation are gaining traction.

According to the study, “one of the most famous ethnic groups in the context of tourism in Nepal is the Sherpa”. Historically known for their trading expertise and “hardiness”, they have long driven innovation through entrepreneurial trading with other communities and fostering connectedness for the Upper Manang region. These factors, along with Manang’s legendary mountain passes such as the Annapurna Trekking route, have created a nesting ground for a growing tourism industry in this Nepali community.

The Number of Tourists in Nepal in Manang (Photo:Morimoto and Chapagain 8)
The Number of Tourists in Nepal in Manang (Photo:Morimoto and Chapagain 8)

Remote regions like Manang have to work diligently in order to attract tourists who are visiting the country for diverse purposes, other than trekking. Although the study does not cite precise numbers of individuals in Manang involved in the tourism industry, the researchers reveal the numerous adaptations individuals are executing to make this region more hospitable for tourists. These adaptations are changing the texture of everyday life for residents of Manang. For example, individuals who have begun to work in the tourist industry, primarily as hotel staff, have guaranteed work during the peaks of trekking season. However, due to the seasonal fluctuations of visitors, during the winter and monsoon seasons workers have begun migrating outbound in order to secure other opportunities in areas such as Kathmandu. This cycle of migration within Nepal related to hotel work is unprecedented.

Another change has been the accommodations offered by hotels in Manang. In prior years, although locals would convert their familial lodgings into “hotels” for trekkers, these residences would often lack bathrooms, lights, and other comforts associated with the Western lifestyle. This situation was standard for residents in the area. Additionally, these humble accommodations were logical for the locale considering their fragile ecosystem, remote location, and the fact that, even in 2014, you can only reach Manang by foot.

Glacier view from Manang Rooftops (Photo: Flickr)
Glacier view from Manang Rooftops (Photo: Flickr)

Despite these obstacles, researchers found that due to societal pressures, current hotel owners in Manang seek to provide a wide range of more modern living technologies ranging from heated water from solar power systems, Western foods from biogas stoves, private bathrooms, sunrooms, Internet connection, and telephone service. One such hotel owner, who was left unnamed in the study, is cited as one of the most successful hotel owners in Manang. Presently, his lodge has grown to a 150-guest capacity, and he is working on a project to generate electricity via a microhydropower project. On the other hand, “because of the lack of banking services in Manang, villagers say that the owner needs to pack the cash, such as dollars and euros, that he earns at his hotel, and bring the money on the back of donkeys, and a rifle on his back to protect from bandit attack, in order to deposit the money at his bank.

In this way, the contradictions of tourist driven development in small towns such as Manang are easy to spot. Yet, hotels in this community, like the Yeti Hotel, are working to ensure that individuals, who are looking to get up close and personal with the glaciers in this region, don’t have to miss out on modern comforts because of their adventurous spirits.

GlacierHub has previously written about the effects of climate change on tourism in Nepal, the beauty of Monzo, and the Annapurna circuit.