The familiar routine of stepping into skis and reaching for my poles is reassuring to nerves frayed by a long journey. The smooth glide of skis on fresh snow soon lifts the mood. With skins attached to the bases of our skis, we steadily move uphill, the exertion bringing a sweat to my brow.
After an hour I stop to take in the view. I follow the snowline down until it meets the parched earth, and stare across the valley to a line of copper-coloured sandstone cliffs opposite. Looking closely, I’m just able to make out two darkened niches — once home to the giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban. For years now, a diaspora of back-country skiers have been trying to escape the crowds, seeking virgin snow in increasingly far-flung locations, but this must be the most unlikely view in the skiing world.
Yet, security concerns aside, Afghanistan is not an entirely improbable ski destination. “We have really good mountains here,” my guide and Olympic hopeful Sajjad Husaini tells me. “The area could be really good for a ski resort.” Bamyan, 80 miles to the west of Kabul, sits at the foot of the Koh-e-Baba range, which is part of the Central Highlands of Afghanistan, the most westerly extension of the Himalayas. There are 40 peaks over 4,500 metres, the highest being the 5,050-metre Shah Fuladi.
For adventurous ski-tourers seeking wild mountain terrain, the area offers much potential. The tour company Untamed Borders runs guided group and bespoke trips and there’s even a ski-touring guidebook to the region. “It’s certainly not Chamonix but the skiing can be very good,” one of its authors, Ian MacWilliam, told me before I set off.
But as well as an exotic alternative for experienced foreign skiers, there are also hopes that Bamyan could develop as the centre of Afghanistan’s domestic ski industry. Along with his friend Sayed Alishah Farhang, my guide Husaini runs the Bamyan Ski Club, which operates for a month between February and March every year teaching local boys and, since 2013, girls to ski — and whose sponsors now include ski maker Völkl and, improbably, the glitzy Swiss resort of St Moritz. In 2010 the Aga Khan Foundation initiated a programme to encourage locals to take up the sport, while the following year a race, the Afghan Ski Challenge, was founded by Christoph Zürcher, a Swiss journalist.
Getting here involves a certain amount of stress. Few cities have the power to evoke such lively imaginings in the mind as Kabul — with good reason. The British Foreign Office advises against “all but essential” travel (what would they make of a visit for a ski holiday?).
The flight itself couldn’t be easier; there’s a daily Emirates flight from Dubai that takes you from air-conditioned order to dust and dysfunction in less than three hours. On board it’s easy to spot the military contractors — all bulging biceps beneath tight-fitting T-shirts and battered baseball caps pulled low. From Kabul it’s only a 30-minute onward flight to Bamyan but the schedules necessitate a night in town, and thus a nerve-racking drive to my hotel downtown. Stuck in a traffic jam at one of several checkpoints I feel powerless and vulnerable. It’s a relief to fly out the following day.
As we come into land at Bamyan, we pass the 13th-century hilltop citadel of Shahr-e-Gholghola, sacked by Genghis Khan, another reminder of this nation’s violent past. The residents of Bamyan are largely from the Hazara and Tajik ethnic groups rather than Pashtun, the group from which most Taliban are drawn, and the city has been relatively untroubled in recent years. “It’s completely safe,” Farhang assured me via email beforehand. I wasn’t entirely persuaded but, compared to Kabul, the more relaxed atmosphere is palpable.
In winter, there’s only really one hotel option, the Gholghola, a £3.5m property built by the brother of Afghanistan’s former vice-president. Its style is strongman kitsch — all marble, chandeliers and gold-patterned wallpaper. But it provides hot water, electricity and WiFi, sometimes all on the same day.
After breakfast I wander over to the base of the Bamyan Ski Club at a caravanserai, a traditional Silk Road inn directly in front of the larger of the two Buddha niches. The hollow is almost 53 metres high, the void supported by scaffolding to prevent it from collapsing, but it is still awe-inspiring to see.
I step through the old wooden doors into a bustling scene familiar to anyone with teenagers. Kids from their teens to early twenties are squeezing feet into boots, putting skins on skis and generally behaving the way teenagers do — frantically running round in circles trying to find mislaid goggles, gloves and sun cream.
Then skis are loaded on to the roof of a 4×4 minibus and we’re off, bouncing down dirt roads along one of the valleys leading south to the mountains — and back in time. We pass villages of mud and straw houses, with neat piles of the manure patties used for fuel stacked outside. A boy trots down the road marshalling a herd of goats, donkeys pass laden with wood while the women turn away, veils drawn tight. The only concession to the modern age is the ubiquitous satellite dish.
At the snowline we disembark, step into skis and start the climb, always a wonderful feeling, although at 3,000m the altitude soon silences the chatter. I look around and size up the endless possibilities of untracked powder and begin to feel giddy with excitement.
For Farhang, however, these mountains evoke memories of terror. He tells me how during the Taliban wars he and his family would hide up here, often holed up for weeks on end.
“We had a place where we came to survive. The Taliban were coming to the villages and burning the houses, taking women. As a child, seeing these things happen . . . you can never imagine.”
Both Farhang and Husaini enjoy hero status among the group and spend a portion of the winter training in St Moritz. Their bid to qualify for last year’s South Korean Winter Olympics wasn’t successful, but their wider goal is to raise the profile of Afghan skiing and ultimately to build a lift back in Bamyan.
Until the lift is installed — and it could be a long wait — it’s human power that gets you up the mountain. An old-school method is then employed to make a piste. Everyone is ordered to line up and then sideslip down to flatten the snow. Duty complete, I head back up the mountain to ski the untracked fun stuff with the more advanced skiers. After ascending for about 40 minutes we come to a halt at a high point, still well below the ridge line. I click my heels down and I’m off, carving neat turns in the pristine snow. It’s magical — not especially deep or steep, but light, effortless, made all the more enjoyable with the spectacular views across the valley. At the bottom I look up to admire my handiwork, only to see it desecrated by dozens of kids tearing down in various states of control. Most have only been skiing for a couple of seasons; technique is often improvised and wipeouts are the norm.
In the afternoon some village boys join us on home-made wooden skis. They tie their feet in with bailer twine and schuss straight down, using their sticks to brake in the old French method, à la sorcière.
Back at the caravanserai, Zürcher tells me about the race. “In the beginning a lot of people thought this was something for adrenalin junkies, but that’s definitely not the case. It’s more about growing skiing for the locals.”
At first they didn’t take to it at all. “They really weren’t into skiing and didn’t see the point.” All that changed with the race, its cash prizes and the chance that it might be a stepping stone to following in Farhang and Husaini’s footsteps.
Race day dawns and I find myself on the startline with some 80 skiers who have come from across the region. Although international entries are encouraged, I feel guilty with my modern skis and race experience; many are on antique equipment. The rules stipulate “no weapons”.
The start gun fires and we charge downhill. At the first bend there’s an inevitable pile-up but I manage to stay clear of trouble. The course includes both up and downhill — the winner is the first to register at all the checkpoints then cross the finish line. A 16-year-old shepherd, Mujtaba Hajihussein, strides into the lead and is soon chased hard by boys eager for a slice of the $500 prize purse. (A women’s slalom race is held separately.)
Lungs heave, legs ache and the uphill switchbacks go on interminably. At the top, I rip my skins off, gasp for oxygen then assume the tuck. A crowd-pleasing jump just before the finish leaves Hajihussein flat on his back, but he’s up in time to claim first place. The Bamyan Ski Club boys then come thick and fast, some of them upright. I sneak over the line and promptly collapse.
Afghanistan isn’t known for its après-ski, but at the finish one of the club members offers me a glass of tea. After all the excitement and with a journey home still to face, a calming tea is just what I need.
Beyond the black run: more adventure skiing
Kyrgyzstan Nick Parks is a British mountain guide and safety adviser for TV shows including Bear Grylls’ Man vs Wild. Normally based in Zinal in the Swiss Alps, next month he is running an exploratory ski touring trip to Kyrgyzstan, spending 12 days among the Pamirs. The team of up of 10 skiers (there are two spots remaining) will stay in yurts and use ponies to help transport kit. March 16-27, from £2,000 not including flights to Osh; backcountryadventures.co.uk
Iran Mountain Heaven usually runs smart chalet holidays in the French and Swiss Alps but also has a sideline in guided trips to Iran. The trips take in three resorts in the Alborz mountains — Shemshak, Dizin and Darbandsar. Dizin, the largest, has 15 lifts rising to 3,600 metres as well as a reputation for light, dry powder. February 28-March 11, from £1,500 excluding flights to Tehran (UK and US citizens will not have time to get a visa, but the trip will run again next year); mountainheaven.co.uk
Turkey The Turkish tourism industry might be focused on Mediterranean beaches but 800 miles east are the Kackar mountains where deep powder and first descents await. Based in the village of Ayder, Turkish Heliski has a ski area of almost 2,000 sq miles and the proximity of the Black Sea ensures it gets pounded by snow. Helicopters take off from right outside the comfortable hotel, where post-skiing massages are also on offer. The season continues until March 17; from €7,250 not including flights to Trabzon (via Istanbul); eaheliskiing.com
Georgia Over the past couple of winters, word about Georgia has been spreading through the ski-bum bars of Chamonix and Jackson Hole. In the far north of the country, where the mountains rise to 5,201 metres, Norwegian-run outfit Svaneti Backcountry has been leading village-to-village ski touring trips since 2013. From €2,690, not including flights to Tbilisi; svanetibackcountry.com
Tajikistan Few skiers have ever explored the Zerafshan mountains, so first descents of 4,000-metre peaks remain up for grabs. Silk Road Adventures offers bespoke trips, led by Val d’Isère-based instructor Dave Cowell and a mountain guide, staying in family-run homestays. A 10-day trip costs from £3,400 per person, based on a group of eight, not including flights to Dushanbe; silkroad-adventures.com