Ant and Rach headed out to the Himalayas in search of adventure and ended up with much more than they bargained for
Even though the cancellation of this year’s 24 hours of Adrenaline World Championships vindicated our decision not to race, after a big start to the season we both found ourselves without a suitable end to our racing year. So, when the opportunity came to race for the England team in the KMT Tour of the Himalayas we both leapt at the chance.
The competition is run to raise money for the Kaghan Memorial Trust in Pakistan. The Trust was established in January 2006 in the aftermath of the earthquake in the area and provides education for local children at the Kaghan Memorial School. International teams are invited to race alongside teams from Pakistan in a three-day stage race. None of the stages are big in terms of miles but they all start up high and involve lots of climbing. Day one starts at 1600m and climbs to 3200m in just 14km, and day two tops out at a heady 4200m with 1600m of climbing. Only day three promised to be a little kinder with minimal climbing, but all at above 3000m.
In an attempt to get used to the altitude and make the most of the opportunity to experience more of Pakistan, we headed out 10 days ahead of the race. Following an overnight flight and an 8 hour journey by road from Islamabad we arrived in the Kaghan Valley. According to Google this journey should take 3 hours. Google obviously does not account for landslides, broken roads, bridge-less river crossings and fallen boulders the size of houses.
Up in the valley we joined Martin and Zuanna, two Slovakians running the training camp, seven riders from Pakistan and one Aussie. The week was filled with lots of big riding. Most of the riding was limited to jeep tracks which on the surface seems fairly mundane, however with the gradients and altitudes involved mundane it certainly was not. Although climbs were measured in hours not minutes, it often didn’t really sink in how big the climbs were until you realised that it took you over an hour to come back down. The scenery was stunning and we were lucky to have great weather all week. Over the next few days we had the opportunity to ride all the stages of the race. Although this was great to get a feel for what they were like and we were both pleased that we coped reasonably well with the altitude, it highlighted just how hard it would be trying to race on this terrain at these heights.
|Half way up the Babusar Pass|
Aside from the riding we were putting in some serious training in curry eating, chai drinking and white-knuckled jeep riding and by the end of our first week out there we were exhausted. In 7 days we’d ridden 350km and climbed over 8000m. Realising that this wasn’t perhaps the best way to prepare for a stage race it was with great relief that there was a torrential thunderstorm that lasted all of the following day, (ashamedly) a fine excuse not to ride.
With the race due to start on the Friday, on Tuesday morning we headed back up the valley close to the school to meet the rest of the riders who had arrived overnight after an eventful journey from Islamabad in the storms. After being out for a while there felt a real change in the atmosphere with the arrival of the other competitors, from biking holiday to international event. The following day was sports day at the school which captured this new atmosphere. We all headed down the hill to the school where we spent a day watching the races and, having been assigned to one of the four school houses, taking part in tug-of-wars and games of football with the kids. The day was fantastic and brought home to us what the whole event was about. Ant took his house allegiance very seriously and despite the obvious physical handicap put his heart and soul into the tug-of-war.
|Ant and his Wolf head gear|
On the Thursday evening, with bikes and bottles prepped ahead of the race’s start the next morning, all the racers and organisers enjoyed another great curry together. After dinner we gathered together for the rider briefing and pre-race ceremonies. As Khurram, the race organiser, handed over to the Minister for Tourism and Sport it was obvious something was amiss. With just 12 hours to go to the start of the race we were told that the organisers and Ministers had made the difficult decision to cancel the entire event. Across Pakistan there had been a rise in demonstrations in support of Islam and against the West following the recent release of an anti-Islam amateur film. Although demonstrations and anti-West feelings are not uncommon in Pakistan, the government had taken the unusual step to announce the Friday as a public holiday in order that people could peacefully show their love for the Prophet Mohammed. It was because of this public holiday that the organisers could not guarantee our safety in the race. Everyone was shocked and disappointed. We had all come a long way and the organisers had worked so hard to bring the event together we couldn’t believe it had been cancelled so close to its start. We were all unsure of what the actual risk to us actually was, after all we were miles away from anywhere half way up a mountain. However, the race is a big deal in Pakistan, attracting much media interest, and so our presence in the country was no secret.
We sat and mused this over for a couple of hours whilst the organisers discussed the situation further. Then, at one in the morning, we were told to get our bags as we were being evacuated in the middle of the night back to the city. There were fears that the violence would escalate after midday prayers on Friday so it was a case of leaving the valley now or never. We quickly packed our bags and bikes and all left the valley in an armed police convoy an hour later with little idea of what the next few hours would bring. The severity of the situation was brought home to us all when we stopped mid-journey for fuel and a loo break when the police shut down the whole road and secured the service station as we pulled over. The journey back to Islamabad took just five hours compared to the eight on the way up, with every traffic light turned to green and traffic stopped for our convoy. At 7am we pulled up into a secured area of Islamabad, into the Marriott hotel and stepped bleary eyed from the buses into a plush, air-conditioned reception area. A massive contrast from the valley that we had left a few hours earlier, furthermore highlighting the importance of the work of the Kaghan Memorial Trust and the school.
We stayed at the Marriott for the next couple of days in a complete bubble from what was going on outside. Although there was indeed violence across Pakistan on the Friday, including just down the road from the hotel, the situation seemed to have settled by the weekend. There was a surreal moment for us all whilst relaxing by the pool we could hear the sound of gunfire and see helicopters skimming the rooftops and the irony of staying in a American-owned hotel instead of riding to raise money for the Trust was not lost on us. The event organisers pulled out all the stops and we flew home a few days earlier than planned and landed in Manchester just 72 hours after leaving the valley, the most surreal three days we think we’ll ever have.
|The Brits in Islamabad|
Although there is the obvious disappointment of not getting to race we both had the most amazing time in Pakistan. We rode in some of the most phenomenal scenery that either of us have ever seen, experienced a country of such contrasts in terms of wealth and opportunity, and were incredibly well looked after by the organisers throughout our stay. It wasn’t the adventure that either of us thought we would have and it’s not one that either of us are likely ever to repeat. Thanks to all who shared it with us.
|The Kaghan Valley|