Afghanistan is perhaps not the first place that springs to mind when thinking of a winter sports holiday, but when I stumbled across the opportunity to go skiing in the Hindu Kush I knew it was something I had to do.
Bamyan, in the centre of the country, is Afghanistan’s skiing base. Situated several hours’ drive from Kabul, the town is perhaps best known for being the site of the two huge Buddha statues blown up by the Taliban in 2001 shortly before the fall of their regime. Ironically, the area was one of the last to come under Taliban control.
Once an important crossroads on the Silk Road, Bamyan lies in a valley at over 2500m, surrounded by snowy peaks. The people here are mostly Hazara and look more Central Asian than some of the country’s other ethnic groups.
The Buddha statues used to stand in giant alcoves, hewn into towering cliffs from where they used to look out over the town. Today, they are reduced to rubble stored in sheds at the bottom of the cliffs.
You can still visit the alcoves, though, as well as the maze of tunnels, stairways and rooms cut into the rock. Here you will find traces of Buddhist art on the walls, including the world’s oldest oil paintings.
Click on the photos below to enlarge them and see the captions:
Skiing began to take off in Afghanistan back in the 1960s and 1970s. The turbulent times that followed put an end to all that, but in 2011 a group of Swiss sportsmen, supported by the Aga Khan Foundation, decided to try to redevelop the country’s potential as a place to ski. The idea was to bring much needed jobs and income to an area facing many economic challenges.
What the place lacks in infrastructure, it more than makes up for in spectacular scenery, the luxury of having a ski slope all to oneself, and a delightfully warm welcome from the locals.
There were no ski lifts so we had to attach ‘seal skins’ to our skis and slowly zigzag our way to the top of the slopes. We spread out in case there was an avalanche – the year before a nearby village had been buried under seven metres of snow – and regularly tested for signs of possible danger.
Likewise, we only skied in the morning as the slightly higher (a very relative term!) afternoon temperatures could cause the snow to melt.
Before going, I had imagined that the skiing uphill would be the real killer, but it was a doddle compared to the challenge of getting back down again! I kept crashing through the crust on top into the thick layer of snow beneath.
The slopes we were skiing on went up to about 3300m.
In Bamyan I had the pleasure to meet Ali Shah, the 2011 winner of the Afghan Ski Challenge. Like his fellow competitors, Ali was new to skiing, but with hard work and determination he and his compatriots trained tirelessly for the competition, some of them practising on home-made skis. Most of them had never been on skis before, but with the help of their Swiss instructors learnt very quickly.
When not on the slopes, we discovered central Afghanistan has plenty to interest the visitor, including horse riding and hiking across the rugged terrain.
We also went on a day trip to the Band e Amir National Park with its six lakes, covered by a thick layer of ice when we were there, but a spectacularly deep blue in summer.
My trip to Afghanistan was great fun and one of the most interesting I have done. The skiing was only one reason I chose to go: I wanted to see for myself what this country that had dominated the news for so long was really like.
The visit gave me a very different perspective from that formed on the basis of what I had seen and read in the media: this, for me, is one of the great things about travel!
Thanks go to the guys at Untamed Borders for organising my unforgettable Afghanistan experience.RETURN