Zenith Irfan’s father used to dream of leaving his home in Pakistan to travel around the world on a motorbike.
His early death meant he never fulfilled his wish.
As his eldest child, Irfan decided to take up the challenge – and along the way smash stereotypes in Pakistan as a female biker.
The 21-year-old student from Lahore, northeast Pakistan has become a fearless rider in the past two years, traveling through regions of the conservative country where it’s taboo for women to venture out unaccompanied, let alone on two wheels.
But the transformation didn’t come easy to her.
The first trip
In 2013, when her younger brother bought a simple bike with a small 70cc engine, her mother urged him to teach Irfan how to ride and encouraged her to finish her late father’s ambition.
“At the beginning it was a big struggle for me,” says Irhan. “I was so confused about how to manage the gear, the clutch, the brakes.
“It was very confusing and frustrating but then I got the hang of it.” She began using the bike to run errands around Lahore.
In June last summer, she decided to venture further afield with a six-day solo trip through the Azad Kashmir region, a disputed region in northeastern Pakistan that borders India and China.
“I want to go to Kashmir because I’ve heard so much about it,” she adds.
“They say ‘Kashmir, Jannat E Nazir,’ meaning it’s a paradise on earth.
“I don’t want to be that person who just sees it in pictures – I want to go and experience it for myself on my motorcycle,” says Irfan.
She traveled first to Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, then rode against stunning backdrops of mountains, rivers and lush landscapes to Murree – a suburb located on the southern slopes of the western Himalayan foothills.
From there she rode on to Pakistan-administered Kashmir’s capital Muzaffarabad. Then she continued through the region’s forested Neelam Valley with picturesque towns and villages like Sharda and Kel.
Irfan: ‘I felt free’
“When I was on the road, it was like a coming together of my mind, body and soul,” she says of being out of the congested cities. “I felt free.
“I could meditate properly. I really felt different, very emotional and liberated.”
Buoyed by the success of her first long distance trip, in August 2015 she decided to go even further, biking 3,200 kilometers from Lahore through North Pakistan up to the Khunjerab Pass on the border with China.
On arrival, she was pleased to be told that while foreign female riders had previously traveled there, she was the first Pakistani motorcyclist the locals had met.
Over the course of 20 days, she had traveled to places including Deosai Plains – one of the highest plateaus in the world – and Chilas, a very conservative small village where residents hostile to outsiders threatened her with rocks. Her main concerns were about road accidents as she motored alongside trucks on treacherous roads.
The ever-present danger wasn’t enough to stop her.
“I’m not so fearful because I know that if death has to come, it’ll come anyway even if I’m at home,” says Irfan.
“I can’t avoid it. I can’t obstruct my dreams because of a fear of death and accidents.”
‘Girls don’t ride motorcycles’
She adds that her chief concern was being a woman rider in a places where this can cause outrage.
“There aren’t many female bikers here, it’s a very small segment of society,” Irfan says.
She combated this by ditching feminine clothes and concealing herself beneath helmet, boots and jacket.
“They obviously thought I was male,” she explains. “Whenever I stopped to ask directions and they realized I was female, they didn’t know what to do.
“They just stood there with their mouth open and didn’t know how to respond.
“I went away so quickly, didn’t give them time to digest the fact that I was a woman asking them directions.”
But while she was nervous of people’s reactions, she says she only received one negative comment from a man who told her “girls don’t ride motorcycles.”
Irfan found tremendous support and encouragement along the way – from other tourists, soldiers at security checkpoints and some of the few women she encountered. Among them, she recalls, one woman in Misgar – a tiny village near China – left a lasting impression.
“We couldn’t understand each other as she was talking in her own language. She told me through a local translator, ‘What you’re doing is unbelievable.’
“She was very happy to see me there,” says Irfan.
While her ride was physically demanding, she says the positive memories of her trip outlast the discomforts.
“I’d never seen snow before, so I think the best part was when I saw snow on the mountains,” she says.
“It was something I usually see on the Internet or TV, and when I saw it in real life – so clear and white and very beautiful – I can’t express how it made me feel,” she says. “It got me emotional.”
Her second favorite moment was reaching the Khunjerab Pass.
“The journey there took me so many days and I was struggling with my motorcycle.
“It wasn’t very powerful and I had to take it up the mountain, so when I finally reached the destination, it was a huge achievement,” says Irfan.
For now, Irfan’s focusing on her studies, but she’s making plans for more trips.
On her list are journeys to Mithi, a small town in southern Sindh province where both Hindus and Muslims live together, the Swat valley – known as the Switzerland of Pakistan for its stunning scenery – and even all the way to Dubai, where she was born.
No doubt, her father would be proud.
She now keeps a blog Zenith Irfan: 1 Girl 2 Wheels to document her journeys.
Halima Ali is a London-based freelance journalist and editor. She tweets @Halima_Ali