When one thinks of Afghanistan, one usually does not think of skiing.
There are several reasons for this.
Afghanistan has been war-ravaged for decades.
- Afghanistan,” “leisure sports,” and “fun, relaxing time” are not things ever associated with one another in many peoples’ minds.
- There are no ski lifts in Afghanistan.
There are people in Afghanistan, right this very second,actively trying to kill/maim/torture anyone with a Western passport. To make it worse, those very same people really don’t like people who have the audacity to have been born with female genitalia.
The country doesn’t exactly scream, “Hey, people, come hang out and spend some of those lucrative tourist dollars!
The altitude up there can exceed 11,000 feet, making it very hard to breathe properly when there is not a lot of oxygen floating around. Not ideal when you have to scale a mountain on foot with skis strapped to your back in order to shuss down it.
- There are no ski shops within 5,000 miles. Not super convenient if you forgot your long underwear.
- There are no female ski instructors (there are a few men who have been trained), and women are not allowed to be alone with men in any situation.
I could go on, but you get the gist.
Trekking up the mountain range. (Photo: Paula Froelich)
But yet, when Swiss journalist Christoph Zurcher, now a features editor at the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, visited Bamiyan in northern Afghanistan in 2009 on a break from his assignment in Kabul he sat on the roof top of his hotel, looked out over the caves of the Buddhas (destroyed by the Taliban in 2001) and the snow capped peaks of the Koh-e-Baba mountain range and thought, “skiing!” Because, apparently, Swiss people see snow and mountains and have a Pavlovian response that compels them to hurtle down the mountain. It’s genetic. And odd. So odd.
Local boys craft the skis. (Photo: Paula Froelich)
Zurcher started the Afghan Ski Challenge in 2010 and four years later, it had grown to attract over 50 western competitors, including a few women.
I thought about entering myself. After just one day of practice I could barely stay on my feet and once got stuck (face first) in a five foot snow drift.
The race is absurdity of the highest order, which is why I was drawn to it. If things don’t immediately make sense to me, or something makes me emit a “what – that’s so crazy it can’t be true” uncomfortable giggle, unlike a normal person who may shrug, shake their head and walk away, I’m all like “LET’S GO CHECK THIS SHIZZ OUT!” (Side note, both my parents have anxiety issues.)
But while the main race is interesting, the two side races are better. Held immediately after the main race is a wooden ski race. This is where local boys who’ve made their own skis from wood planks and metal cans, slide down… and the women’s race, held on another pass that is unfortunately named Prison Valley.
The female winners of the 4th Afghan Ski Challenge. (Photo: Paula Froelich)
The ladies competition is kept on the down low.
This year, in total, eight women competed, and only 30 locals, mostly their family members, came to watch them.
Given the difficulty, not to mention the danger, why do the women it? The simple answer is that it is fun.
Women aren’t allowed to do almost anything else in Afghanistan. They can’t ride bikes. They can’t wear what they want, and most times they can’t even choose the man they marry. This race, that hurtles them down a mountain at speeds that are completely out of control, ironically gives them a sense of a control and a freedom over their own lives.
In exciting news, Ali Shah Farhang, who won the main race and Sajjad Husaini, who won in 2013, are now in Islamabad, waiting on their Swiss visas. They are traveling to St.Moritz to be trained professionally and train for the next winter olympics.
Check out the Afghan Ski Challenge’s Facebook page for more pictures and stories of the people in Bamiyan who are trying to make a difference.
[Ed Note: To all the people out there who are now simmering in outrage, screaming internally “IS SHE TELLING US ALL TO GO SKIING IN AFGHANISTAN? How dare she! That’s so irresponsible!” Please note: I am not telling you to go. I am simply recounting a story from one of my travels that highlights interesting people doing interesting things… and a few insanely brave ones that inspired me. Because that’s what travel is supposed to do: teach, inspire and possibly broaden our horizons.]