The 4th Annual Afghan Ski Challenge in Bamiyan Province, Afghanistan represents an audacious bid to build a vibrant ski tourism industry in central Afghanistan. The region is, quite literally, in the eye of a storm and much of the country is still a designated war zone. In fact, on the day I confirmed my trip to Bamiyan, the U.S. State Department issued a warning to American citizens to avoid travel to all Afghan provinces due to ongoing military combat and insurgent attacks.Such warnings, however, have been commonplace in my five months in Afghanistan as a volunteer at the School of Leadership. While I believe it is important to be aware of the risks, the opportunity to get out of Kabul and ski in one of the world’s most remote ski towns was too exciting to pass up.
Despite the violence that erupts regularly in places like Wardak on the southeast border, Bamiyan remains safe and stable. The Hazara people who populate the region have led a peaceful existence since the fall of the Taliban. This is in stark contrast to my life as a teacher in Kabul, where I’ve seen police corruption and had close calls with insurgent attacks.
Being in Bamiyan released the tension from my shoulders. There, I could wander through the bazaar, alone and without fear, and hike to the Buddha niches that were destroyed by the Taliban just months before the U.S. invasion in 2001. In Bamiyan, skiing accidents, not bombs, are the greatest safety concern.Afghanistan encompasses some of the world’s largest, unexplored swaths of skiable terrain. Unfortunately, Bamiyan is one of few places where security allows for free exploration. The snow-coated Koh-e-Baba range to the south looms large; its jagged, 5,000-meter peaks are adorned with steep chutes. The lower shoulders and foothills, which reach up to 4,000 meters, are a wide-open playground of steep-yet-rounded slopes that few have toured on.
Afghanistan’s first and only ski shop opened in Bamiyan five years ago and, with the help of the Aga Khan Foundation, it’s now stocked with all manner of gear.
Swiss skier and journalist Christoph Zurcher and local entrepreneur Gull Hussain Baizada went a step further and organized the first Afghan Ski Challenge in 2011. The eight Afghans who participated in that first race were taught to ski just weeks before. Since then, professional skiers have worked to train locals as guides who are now true pros themselves, taking great pride in sharing their homes and slopes with foreign visitors.This year’s Ski Challenge on February 28 was the biggest yet, both in numbers and terrain. About 20 Afghan and 20 international skiers and boarders competed, and the race kicked off around 3000 meters in the Chap Dara valley, an hour’s drive from Bamiyan City up rugged, dirt tracks.
The up-and-down, five-kilometer course marked out by handmade flags was simple in design, but the altitude and incline made it a gut-punching endeavor.
My race went sour before it even began. My borrowed skis were a good 30 cm too short and the boots a half-size too big. I spent the first leg of the climb repeatedly adjusting my bindings, and by the time everything started to click, I was way off pace. The short skis didn’t help much on the descent either, making me one of the comic crashers that the locals celebrated with raucous laughter and cheering below.
The smiling governor of Bamiyan and a sea of other entertained Afghans met racers at the finish line with glee. Bamiyan’s Ali Shah finished in just 36 minutes, but most competitors struggled to clock in under an hour. Afghan guides have always won against visiting skiers, which is a huge source of local pride.
Before skiing arrived to Bamiyan, winter was a desolate time of unemployment. Now, skiing has attracted visitors and, with that, there are jobs for guides, drivers and in restaurants and hotels. Bamiyan still has a true Wild West feel with its limited amenities and helter-skelter pace, but the warmth of the Hazara people is unmatched. They exhibit the optimism essential to rebuilding this nation and their ambition will steadily develop this skiing oasis amid Afghanistan’s raging sea of complex intrigue.