Ski Afghanistan 2020 | Traveller's Journal: Annabel Illingworth

The Afghanistan ski club founders whose sights are set on the 2022 Winter Olympics

A pair of Winter Olympics hopefuls have established a ski club in the mountains of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, where it’s possible to join pioneering ski tours.
 
Fifteen centimetres of snow had fallen overnight and it was going to be a bluebird day. The conditions would spark joy in the heart of any backcountry skier but this time it felt like a true blessing. I was joining one of Afghanistan’s first ski touring expeditions. Beside my bed, the wood-burning stove was still radiating heat and the sun was rising, casting a coral glow over the mud-brick houses of Bamiyan.

It had been quite a journey to reach the dusty town sandwiched between the Hindu Kush and the Koh-e Baba mountains, 80 miles west of Kabul as the crow flies. A battered van was waiting outside, ready to carry us up the day’s choice of side valleys. We bumped along until the road ran out.

As the houses became sparser, there were no tyre tracks making their distinctive zigzag treads in the road. A few footprints headed towards us, telling of villagers commuting down to town for school or to work in the bazaar. When we parked up and attached skins to our skis, everyone paused to let a donkey past, followed by a wary cow and their chador-clad owner.
At 3,000 metres altitude, I could feel my heart pumping wildly. Two young lads were checking out an avalanche on our far right, assessing how much melt-water it would provide their farmhouses and crops.

My travel companions gracefully offered me first tracks. They were epic. So much so, we climbed twice more, seeking out a different ridgeline on the final, joyful run down. As we looped back to the village, Alishah overtook me at speed, jumping confidently over a gap in the snow.

It all seemed so normal, sharing the experience together. And yet we couldn’t have been further removed from the status quo. Our guides, Alishah Farhang and Sajjad Husaini grew up in tough times, each with stories of how Taliban forces overshadowed their young lives. Yet here they were, true pioneers of skiing in Bamiyan without the slightest hint of attitude and ever thoughtful of others.

Supported by the Aga Khan Foundation and Swiss journalist Christoph Zürcher, the pair founded the Bamiyan Ski Club in 2011 – the region’s first and only ski club – with an old caravanserai overlooking the town serving as their headquarters. For equipment, they rely on donations from big ski brands, some of whom sponsor their annual event, the Afghan Ski Challenge.

The rest of the winter, the club teaches youngsters the basics on a slope just outside town. It’s a modest but effective getup, with a drag rope powered by a motorbike engine. They dream of one day being able to cobble together a piste machine with a tractor, rather than having to stamp out an area by foot after each snowfall.

Sajjad and Alishah tried out for the South Korea Winter Olympics in 2018 and have set their eyes on Beijing in 2022, should they receive funding for their training. A documentary film, Where the Light Shines, was releaesd in 2019 about their inspirational story.

In a conservative culture, Alishah takes the responsibility of chaperoning adolescent boys and girls very seriously. He is wise beyond his years in his determination to ensure their protégées respect the club’s honour and associated freedoms at home and abroad in competitions.
From ski slopes to the Silk Road

Despite being the major draw, our Afghan ski touring became merely the icing on the cake of a wealth of cultural highpoints. Bamiyan lies on the Silk Route, its ancient royal citadel Shahr-e Gholghola once besieged by Genghis Khan. In 2001, the Taliban destroyed two giant Buddhas carved into the valley’s spectacular sandstone cliffs. Their video chronicling the explosion and dust cloud went viral.
The empty niches, one 55 metres high, can be seen from miles away. They are even more impressive up close, surrounded by thousands of small caves once inhabited by Buddhist monks before Islam rose to the fore. Oil paintings dating from the 5th or 6th century adorn the walls of the best preserved, although every face has been systematically chiselled out in the interim.

Over a plate of mantoo dumplings, the Deputy Governor explained to us that ticket sales at this Unesco World Heritage Site had been low, with about 200 foreign visitors per year, including those working in the country. Faring much better, however, was the national park of Band-e Amir. In summer, thousands of Afghans descend on the country’s monumental equivalent of the Grand Canyon, picnicking around the shores of its six deep blue lakes.

We had the park all to ourselves, startling a fox and flushing a bird of prey as we drove through the snowdrifts. Walking from the icy waterfalls out on to the frozen lake, Sajjad told us villagers often skate when it is clear of snow, while others drill holes to fish, ignoring the formal prohibition. You could hear a pin drop at the centre of the magnificent expanse.
The thrill of Buzkashi
It was a stark contrast to the whoops and hollers of the Buzkashi game we were invited to observe a couple of days later. It seemed that half the valley had also rocked up for the spectacle, with silhouettes crowding every ridge as well as the non-existent side lines. Dust plumes occasionally obscured the action, which alternated between brutal rivalry and surprisingly sedate discussion between teams.

In the closest we came to a scrape all week, three or four horsemen charged straight towards us as they vied to grab the headless calf carcass and circle round to drop it into the hole in the ground serving as a goal. Returning home unscathed was always going to be a roll of the dice, but thankfully the odds swung in our favour.

For now, few will follow in our ski tracks, but we left with a glimmer of hope that, having witnessed the first of seven days of a reduction in violence in the country, one day things might be different. Bamiyan province is relatively secure and peaceful, but getting there – when travel is again possible – remains a decision not to be taken lightly.

Plans for an international airport may eventually materialise but in the meantime Bamiyan’s relative isolation meant that we felt warmly welcomed yet blissfully ignored, humbled by the simplicity of daily life and the pervasive reminder of how lucky we are to be alive.

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