Rab Wardell reports:
As reported over the weekend 42 other international cyclists and I were evacuated from Shogran in the Pakistani Himalayas over fears regarding our safety. It was one of the most extreme turn of events I’ve experienced as we all assembled in the hotel lobby for what we thought was the KMT Tour of the Himalayas press conference, where we would be presented with our team jerseys and address the assembled media.
We’d just eaten a fantastic meal under the stars and around camp fires at 2,300m in the Himalayas: mingling with riders from other nations; volunteer teachers from the Kaghan Memorial School whose sports day we had attended; members of the Trust and members of Parliament. In the days leading up to this point we had a roller coaster experience and it was also clear that event organiser Khurram was concerned about the race going ahead while tension built across the country.
Although the Government had offered support and permission for the race to go ahead, that decision was overturned last Thursday following violence across the country as well as the news that religious extremists in Balakot had threatened to engage foreigners during the Friday protest. Extremists then threatened the riders in the event, so instead of an early night preparing for the 17km hill climb stage from the Kaghan Memorial School to the summit of the mountain above, Aqil Shah the Kaghan Province Minister for Tourism had announced that our race was cancelled and we were left in limbo awaiting further news.
Leading to this point I had some of the most intense experiences of my life. Having met a number of riders in Manchester Airport on Sunday 16th September and embarking on what was to be a 40 hour journey to Shogran nestled in the mountains above the Kaghan Valley. Some of the events we faced included television interviews at Islamabad Airport; crossing a fast flowing river in the monsoon conditions; restarting the minibus with the subsequent engine flooding of said river crossing; negotiating oncoming traffic on the dual carriage way when faced with an inconvenient traffic jam on our side; waiting for another minibus to catch up with us after it had broken down; stopping for a meal in Abbottabad, the town where Osama Bin Laden was killed just over a year ago; negotiated mountain roads covered in debris from that day’s land slides with a Police escort; and finally taking in a 20% gradient, cliff edge hugging, unmade road in our Toyota Hi-Ace at 3am.
The following days were spent resting and acclimatising to altitude before visiting the Kaghan Memorial School sport day. This was a fantastic experience and it was wonderful to see so many young boys and girls giving it their all for their school houses; Eagle, Bear, Ibex and Wolf. The setting of the school is beautiful and the smiles and song of the children were a pleasure to see and hear. It was a fine reminder of why the race exists – to spread the word of the Trust and the fine work they do – supporting sustainable long-term development by establishing a school that provides free education of a high standard to children from the valley.
The next morning we were able to sample some of the mountain biking in the local area. At this point we had no idea we may have been in danger. Sure, we had police at our hotel, at the school and they also followed us up the mountain when we were riding that day. However by this time in the trip we were used to this sight and I honestly didn’t feel any danger. The riding we did was completely and utterly fantastic. We climbed around 1,000 meters to max out at 3,400m in a high mountain meadow with a panorama of snow peaked mountains and blue skies. Chatter that day was how fantastic an article we could write of the trip, riding and the area. Katy, Euan and I were planning a video edit we could make in the days after the race. To steal a quote from Richard Bord and Nico Basain from their trip to Scotland, ‘you can take a picture anywhere, not even look through the viewfinder, and you have a picture postcard’. It was stunning.
We returned to Shogran via 1,000m drop of rocky jeep track and technical walking paths, goat tracks and dreamy singletrack, rolling into the hotel grinning from ear to ear in high spirits and loving life. In less than 10 hours time we had packed all of our bags and were descending the mountain to Islamabad in a 30 vehicle convoy, police escorted by night with windows covered. The only stop we had on the six hour trip was a bathroom stop where the police shut down the roads and secured the petrol station we were at. It emerged in the following days that a helicopter evacuation was seriously considered. All we knew of our destination was that it was secure government accommodation in Islamabad; the safest place for us. This in my mind was a wooden floor and blanket in a government building. I couldn’t have been any more wrong.
On arrival in Islamabad we checked into a grand looking hotel through a guarded boundary wall and through metal detectors. This part of the city with American and French Embassies near by had been blocked off by Police and Military. We were greeted by breakfast and secure hotel rooms. We truly were contained within a bubble, and as we watched on television and read in the news of the protests going on outside, less than a mile away, it was almost impossible to believe. The seriousness and sadness of the situation became apparent as we ventured outside to the hotel swimming pool, calm and quiet initially, yet the further you ventured from the cocoon the sound of gun shots and helicopters flying over head presented themselves for around 30 minutes that day.
Some guests around the pool seemed to be blocking this out; parents played with their children, others bathed in the sun. Members of our group were more aware of the situation and as I spoke to Rob Friel the colour had drained from his face. That was one very real moment during a week devoid of reality. Later that day we heard that protesters had tried to breach the American Embassy, that over 20 people had lost their lives and over 200 people had been seriously injured. Had you not been outside for the 30 minutes of activity we heard that day you wouldn’t have known. In fact some of our group were none the wiser when discussing this later that day.
From Friday the 21st of September until the morning of Sunday the 23rd we lived in this sterile environment; secure and safe. This was the priority of the organisers of the fourth running of the Tour of the Himalayas mountain bike race. The contingency thinking, planning and organisational skills were a credit to Khurram and his team. I feel relieved to be home and as I previously mentioned we were disappointed not to race and try to win; that’s what we were there to do. I am disappointed that the opportunity for Pakistan to show what a fantastic country it is wasn’t able to be fulfilled this year. I find myself completely out of my depth in trying to talk about the situation we found ourselves in.
However I would like to firstly extend my sincere thanks to the Kaghan Memorial Trust for the way they managed the situation and secured our safety. Secondly I would like to emphasis that instead of supporting development, raising funds and awareness for the charity to provide a free education of a high standard to children from the Kaghan valley, the Trust have experienced a loss. I would urge people to visit the Kaghan Memorial Trust website to learn more of their work and view options of how to support the development in the area.
Some reports in the media have suggested that the riders on the trip had been terrified and in danger. I’m struggling to say any more, but a picture tells a thousand words. Please watch and share what I consider to be my experience of Pakistan. My thoughts are with all of those affected over the last few days.