History

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A HISTORY OF SKIING IN AFGHANISTAN

Although the earliest evidence of skiing, in the shape of rock carvings and actual skis, dates back more than 4000 years, the history of skiing in Afghanistan is a brief one.

Modern skiing was introduced to the country by European visitors in the 1960s. Some historians argue, however, that skiing may have deeper historical roots in the region. In parts of ancient Siberia, to the north of Afghanistan, people may have used skis covered in animal skins to move around in the deep snow of winter.

There is no record (known to the authors) of anyone actually skiing in Afghanistan before the 1960s. That decade was the first time when substantial numbers of foreign visitors began coming to Afghanistan so it was perhaps only a matter of time before someone spotted that in a land of mountains and snow, there must be good skiing somewhere.

One account of early skiing in Afghanistan comes from a Kabul family who has maintained the memory of Afghan skiing through the subsequent three decades of conflict when snow sports became all but impossible to pursue in the country. Yusuf Kargar – now the coach of Afghanistan’s national football team – and members of his family have managed to continue skiing when political and security conditions allowed, in the Kabul hills and the Hindu Kush. Using the skis they acquired in the 1970s, they have kept alive the idea that skiing in Afghanistan is possible.

One day in the winter of 1965, when Zahir Shah still sat on the Afghan throne, a heavy snowfall had blanketed Kabul. The Kargar family lived at the bottom of Tapa Maranjan, a low hill on the edge of Kabul where Zahir Shah’s father, Nadir Shah, lay buried under his domed mausoleum. Three of the Kargar boys were out sliding on the hill – Yusuf’s father, Sher Mohammed, and two of his uncles. Like most Afghan young people they had no sleds so they hurled themselves down the slope on serving trays and inner tubes. On this particular day, the Kargar brothers were sharing their slope with a German called Mr Hammer who had come to ski on the hill. The Kargar boys asked if they could try out his wooden skis – thus sparking an interest which was to make them Afghanistan’s most prominent skiing family. They later managed to find one or two pairs of old skis in the bazaar, probably discarded by an embassy, to continue their interest.

About this time the Afghan tourism organization established Afghanistan’s first ski area at Chowk-e-Arghande, near a low pass known for its heavy snowfalls just outside Kabul on the road leading southwest to Wardak. With the help of another German ski enthusiast, Afghanistan’s only ski tow rope was installed in 1967. A few years later a second rope tow was installed to take skiers to a higher, steeper slope. Together the two lifts enabled a descent about 700 meters long.

A day’s ski pass then cost 50 afghanis (later 100 afghanis) – a hefty price for most Afghans at the time. Most of the skiers were expatriates living in Kabul, but the Kargar boys became regular visitors and they were among the first Afghans to take up skiing. Within a few years, Yusuf Kargar, then aged seven or eight, began skiing at Chowk-e-Arghande, coached by another uncle, Amin. Amin was studying in Kabul University at the time. He and his skiing brother, Arif, with the backing of the Ministry of Education, encouraged other university students to take up skiing as well. Since skis could not normally be bought in Afghanistan, Yusuf’s father went to Iran and bought a large number of skis and boots to be used by the new recruits.

In 1970, the Kargars helped to organize the first Afghan ski races. University students made up one team while education officials made up another. Expatriate skiers and the Kargars themselves sometimes made up two further teams. The Kargars helped to train Afghan skiers and to promote the sport throughout the 1970s. The family, who ran a furniture business in Kabul, already helped to support a number of sports clubs in Kabul, including clubs for football, volleyball and table tennis. Now they added a skiing club to the list.

In 1975, the king, Zahir Shah, was ousted by his cousin, the prime minister Mohammed Daoud Khan, who declared himself president while the king was abroad on a visit to Italy. Afghan politics, particularly in the cities, had become increasingly polarised between social conservatives and progressive leftists, the latter strongly influenced by the Soviet Union. The political situation grew more unstable in April, 1978, when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) overthrew and killed President Daoud in what became known as the Saur Revolution, and installed Nur Mohammed Taraki as president. When this leftist revolution seemed in danger of collapse the following year, the Soviet Union invaded in December, 1979, to ensure this new Central Asian client state did not slip out of its sphere of influence. These events marked the beginning of three decades of violent political conflict in Afghanistan. In the coming years, millions of Afghans would be killed or forced to flee their country.

These events also put an abrupt end to the country’s fledgling ski industry. The last ski races were held at Chowk-e-Arghande in the winter of 1978, just before the Saur Revolution. The following winter, after a heavy snowfall, the Kargar boys tried to go to Chowk-e-Arghande to ski as usual, but they were turned back by a security guard who told them the area beyond the city limits was no longer safe. The hillside where Kabul’s ski aficionados had practiced their sport fell out of use. So it remains today, awaiting the day when its slopes will be revived for winter sports once more.

Throughout the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, most violent conflict took place in the provinces well beyond Kabul, where the Mujahidin were fighting the Soviets and the PDPA government in the countryside. The capital remained relatively safe, although travel by road beyond the city was impossible. The Kargars kept the feeble skiing flame alive by continuing to ski on hillsides within the city, on Tapa Maranjan, on Asamai Hill (“TV Mountain”) and at the nearby Bagh-e-Bala, an old royal garden to the west of the city.

In 1988, the Afghan Olympic Committee received an invitation to send a skier to the Asian Winter Games in Japan. Yusuf Kargar was chosen as the Afghan representative, but a coup attempt in Kabul that year delayed his flight by two days, preventing him from competing.

Then in 1989, with the Soviet Union in political turmoil at home, the occupying Soviet forces pulled out of Afghanistan. The opposition Mujahidin continued to fight against the PDPA regime of President Najibullah, which was still receiving money and arms from Moscow.

With the Afghan government balanced on a knife edge, in 1991 Yusuf and his uncle, Nuraqa Kargar, were invited to the preliminary rounds of the Winter Olympics qualifying competition in Albertville, France. The slalom course in Albertville was particularly difficult. Yusuf watched as his uncle and many other skiers missed gates or fell on one section of the course. When his turn came, he was careful to moderate his speed through the tricky section; he managed to stay on his feet, hit all the gates and secured a place to become the first Afghan selected to ski in the Winter Olympics.

The Soviet Union imploded and vanished in 1991. Moscow ended its support for President Najibullah’s tottering regime; in 1992 the Kabul government collapsed and the Mujahidin marched into town. The argumentative Mujahidin factions all tried to grab a share of power in the capital. The result was the devastating civil war of the mid-1990s when Kabul was pulverised by factional fighting and the indiscriminate rocketing of residential areas. The war cancelled Yusuf’s hoped-for trip to compete in the 1992 Winter Olympics.

Thousands of Kabulis were forced to flee the war-torn city. In 1993, the Kargars, like many other families, went to Pakistan. Unlike other refugees, they took their skis with them. “We carried our skis like a cat carries her kittens in her teeth,” explained one member of the family. When asked by baffled fellow refugees what these strange items were, they replied that the skis were an electronic version of a mashin-e-nadafi, an instrument rather like a longbow used by local farming families to clean cotton fibres.

The Kargars returned to Kabul (with their skis) after a year in Pakistan. The skis, however, would not see snow for more than a decade. The Taliban movement emerged in Kandahar as an attempt to end the destructive feuding between Mujahidin factions there. The movement spread rapidly in the south, and in 1996 the Taliban took power in Kabul itself, beginning an oppressive five-year rule in which they enforced an ultra-conservative version of Islamic government. Meanwhile a severe drought set in and for the rest of the decade little or no snow fell in Kabul. Skiing in Afghanistan became a distant memory.

In 2001, came the shocking attacks of September 11 on New York and Washington, planned in part in Afghanistan by Al Qaeda militants being harboured by the Taliban. The Taliban were toppled soon after by a combination of American aerial bombing and a ground advance by fighters of the Taliban’s chief foe, the Northern Alliance. Peace seemed to have come to Afghanistan at last and a massive international effort began to build a new national government for the country.

The drought had also ended and snow returned to Kabul in the winter of early 2002. In the heady and optimistic atmosphere of the time, it seemed only right to begin the revival of skiing as well. Some foreign journalists had come across Yusuf Kargar trying out his skis once more on the Kabul hills. In 2003, the Kargars decided to organise a publicity event to film skiing in Afghanistan for the first time in over a decade. Nuraqa Kargar was about to try out his turns for the cameras. His battered ski boots had visibly served their time. Bought in the 1970s, skied in throughout the 80s, kept in storage for much of the 90s, as he stepped into them, the boots fell apart in front of the cameras. Rather like the country itself, they had had as much as they could take.

In 2006, with partial sponsorship from China, three Kargars (Arif, Harun and Haji Daoud) competed in the Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China. Yusuf went as coach and Nuraqa as a sports official. Arif had been living in Colorado, USA, and skied regularly there, but the others had skied only intermittently since 2003 and were using borrowed and less-than-professional equipment. Arif managed to qualify and took part in the competition, but Harun and Daoud were both disqualified for missing gates. It wasn’t glorious but Afghans were at least taking part in international ski competitions at last.

Meanwhile, in Kabul foreigners were once more reviving the idea of skiing in Afghanistan. The logical location for the first ski ventures was the Salang Pass, high in the Hindu Kush where the mountain peaks rise to 4500m. The Salang tunnel near the top of the pass, which had been blocked by rubble and landmines for the past four or five years, was reopened to vehicle traffic early in 2002 by the French development agency, ACTED, and the British demining organization, the Halo Trust.

The reopening of this strategic road connection between northern and southern Afghanistan across the Hindu Kush also opened up access for skiing in the snowfields of the Salang, only a few hours’ drive north of Kabul. The sides of the road through the Salang Pass had been heavily mined by the Soviets. The area has been progressively cleared of mines – but even so, skiing many of the slopes above the Salang highway is still a risky proposition.

One wide valley at the top of the pass, however, just to the west of the road as it enters the southern mouth of the Salang tunnel at a place called Gawarasang, had never been mined. This became the favoured ski area for a group of pioneering French skiers and their Afghan friends, who called themselves the Salang Ski Club. From February, 2002, they became regular visitors to the area with their touring skis, well known to the Afghan police in their highway post at Gawarasang. One or two of the local police have also taken to doing some occasional turns with skis from the Alps donated by the French visitors.

The skiing valley at Gawarasang meets the Salang highway at about 3200m. From there, with touring skis and skins, it is possible to ski up to the high central ridge of the Hindu Kush at about 4100m. This ridge marks the watershed between rivers flowing south down the Indus to the Indian Ocean, and those flowing north to the Amu Darya (Oxus River) and Central Asia’s dying Aral Sea. The main skiing valley is divided into two smaller valleys by a central peak. This peak (4376m) was first climbed, and skied down, in 2006 by a group of French and British skiers. Inevitably, the peak and the route were christened the Entente Cordiale (after the Franco-British diplomatic agreement of 1904). From 2008 a second group of expat skiers, loosely called the Kabul Kohistanis, also began regular weekend visits to ski (and snowboard) in the Salang. In the winter of 2010, a few groups of Afghan snowboarders from Kabul’s pioneering skateboarding club, Skateistan, also put on their winter kit and turned up to try out the snow version of their sport.

Apart from skiing in Salang, after big snowfalls in Kabul enthusiasts have occasionally tried out less orthodox skiing locations in the city itself. In 2005 some Salang Ski Clubbers took a late-night ski tour around the snowy streets of Shahr-eNau, towed at top speed behind two Town Ace minivans. They finished off with a ski descent of the west face of Bibi Maru hill (“Swimming Pool Hill”) at 2am, before adjourning for après-ski cognac.

After one spectacular snowfall in February 2009, two skiers were spotted making turns down the upper slopes of Kabul’s Sher Darwaza mountain, starting from the ancient city walls on the high ridgeline and carving down to the rocky crags which overlook the Old City. (Observers noted the elegance of one of the skier’s telemark turns.) This venerable mountain, the backdrop to centuries of trade and turmoil in high Asia, has known shepherds, soldiers, warriors and brigands, but surely this was the first time in history it had been skied.

The rolling hills above the Qargha reservoir on the northwest edge of Kabul are another place where it is possible to ski after a good snowfall. Beyond Qargha, the winter slopes of Paghman (4710m), the highest peak near the capital and Kabul’s former mountain playground, beckon to the adventurous skier – but kidnapping of visitors is still something of a local tradition around Paghman, so exploring there is not advised just yet.

Elsewhere, Afghanistan, a land of snow and mountains, is still virtually unskied. In the far northeast, in the peaceful Wakhan Corridor, where snow lingers on the mountains well into June, the possibilities of ski-touring are yet to be explored. Two European women (Italian and British) who took their skis to the Wakhan in the spring of 2010, reported good skiing in the remote east of the corridor.

But perhaps the best prospects for the future of Afghan skiing lie in the Central Highlands, in Bamyan’s Koh-e-Baba mountains. A few French aid workers working in the province in the years after 2001 made some ski outings in the mountains there. There are tales of a Scandinavian couple based in Yakawlang who went to work on cross-country skis, and a New Zealand soldier based in Bamyan has also tried out his cross-country skis there.

A skier who made a prospective venture on skis near Borghasun early in 2009 reported mile upon mile of eminently skiable snowy ridges. In the winter of early 2010, the exploratory ski tours for this guidebook were undertaken, and Bamyan’s first ever winter sports days were held for local people above Ali Beg village. After giving a ski demonstration on the local hill, the Kargars handed out prizes to ski competition winners.

Following up on these pioneering efforts, the great potential of skiing in Afghanistan awaits further exploration.

reference:

Authors: Laurie Ashley & Chad Dear, 2011, Ski Afghanistan (A Back country Guide to Bamyan & Band-e-Amir), Afghanistan, Agha Khan Foundation