Afghan Ski Challenge in rugged mountains of Bamiyan is attracting a growing number of snowsports enthusiasts. Adam Valen Levinson reports from Shaidan
Guards, no lifts and donkeys for Afghan skiers
SHAIDAN, AFGHANISTAN // No lifts, skis delivered by donkey and a guard of armed police. The village of Shaidan 3,200 metres above sea level in Afghanistan's Bamiyan province is a world away from the resorts of the Alps or the Rockies.
Undeterred, a dedicated group of Afghan and foreign skiers met on a recent weekend high in the Koh-e Baba, a range of mountains extending from the Hindu Kush, to show what the country has to offer snowsports enthusiasts.
Bamiyan, once one of Afghanistan's safest provinces, has seen a surge in militant attack in the last year. Competitors for the third annual Afghan Ski Challenge chose to fly in rather than take the roads from Kabul, which are prone to kidnaps and robbery.
Still, with its stunning scenery, the Afghan authorities hope the mountains of Bamiyan can become a big pull for adventurous travellers.
"Organising a ski competition seems frivolous, but it has a symbolic dimension," said Christoph Zürcher, the event's Swiss founder. "People here can think that Afghanistan is going somewhere instead of going down."
Mr Zürcher, a journalist, came up with the idea of a ski contest when he was stranded in Bamiyan while reporting in the region in the summer of 2010.
He spent days looking out his window at a jagged skyline of 5,000-metre peaks.
"For a Swiss, if he sees mountains and snow, he will think of skiing," said Mr Zürcher. He returned within a year along with foreign and Afghan sponsors to found a ski school for ten students.
He decided to hold a race to motivate the students. It caught on. In 2012, five foreigners turned up for the event.
This year's challenge brought together a group of 30 from eight different countries to test their skills on a sun-baked snow slope devoid of trees and piste-bashing machines.
Some were competent skiers, others had only just learnt.
Eight Afghan women also participated in the separate race the following day. All told, there were were 38 particpants in the "ski festival".
With no lifts, the gruelling 2.5-km course began with a lung-bursting 250-metre ascent. Competitors used special flexible bindings and synthetic "skins" stuck to their bases to prevent slippage and enable them to go uphill.
The skiers then trekked along a ridge before pointing their ski tips downhill and racing through a brief slalom course.
Organisers built a ramp, launching the skiers into the air to the crowd's delight just before the finish. Hundreds of locals watched the race and when a skier fell, laughter rippled across the valley.
Afghans claimed the five top spots. With a time of 28 minutes and 20 seconds, Shaidan local Sajjad Hussaini, 21, finished first. "I dreamed last night that I would win, but I did not know if it would come true," he said.
"It wasn't just about the race. It was also about the ski business. Tourism will develop in the future," Mr Hussaini said. "First because here it's cheap. And also because nobody did it before, so people will love to come here."
The Afghan participants came mostly from Bamiyan. For three weeks before the event, they learnt to ski with two trainers from New Zealand and Norway.
The following day, seven Afghan women, including two pairs of sisters, competed in a separate challenge. In a deeply conservative country where under Taliban rule, girls were not even allowed to go to school, a female on a pair of skis is a rare event.
"Girls are not for kitchen ... They can do what they want," said Sima Haidary, 23, originally from Afghanistan's Ghazni province but who now lives in Finland.
For others taking part it was the lure of an adventurous trip that had attracted them.
Brenton Earl and his three friends did not know how to ski when they left Sydney. In their mid-twenties and itching for adventure they flew to Sweden for a few days practice and then to Afghanistan.
"It's supposed to be really dangerous, really scary - that's what you hear," said Earl, who said his gang had a blast despite finding Bamyan "almost disappointingly safe."
It is these type of travellers who could be paving the way for a return of the levels of tourism that was enjoyed in Bamiyan in the 1960s.
Tourists were drawn to Bamiyan for its mountains, lakes and impressive historical and archaeological heritage, including the vast Buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
"The ski challenge is really the icing on the cake. The first part is to develop tourism in the region," said Ian MacWilliam, former spokesman for the Aga Khan Foundation, a development agency that provided most of the funding for the ski event.
Habiba Surabi, Bamiyan's governor and the first women to head one of Afghanistan's provinces, handed out the prizes after the race.
"It was a dream for me to introduce Bamiyan as a destination to the world," she said the night before the race.
Gull Baizada, a local travel agent who helped organise the event, saw its success as a sign of Bamiyan's long-term potential.
"Skiing and tourism are symbols of peace. It will replace the war, the fighting," he said.
"I'm sure that if we continue like this, Taliban will drop their guns and come to ski," he joked.
With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse