An invitation to a ski race in Afghanistan sends a photographer off on a journey that defies many commonly held ideas of that ancient land
Story and photography by Neil Silverwood
Afghanistan is a destination many travellers would consider off limits – and for good reason. Its drawn-out civil war has led to a worldwide perception that it’s an impossibly dangerous country to visit. There are, however, small stable pockets across the north that remain fairly safe for intrepid travellers wanting to get well and truly off the beaten track. Just don’t tell your mother you’re going.
Late in 2014 I got a call from a friend asking if I wanted to visit Bamyan, a province of Afghanistan, northwest of Kabul, home to the Hazara people. The provincial capital is a town of the same name, also known as Bamiyan, the site of the statues of Buddha dynamited by the Taliban in 2001.
My friend, Heidi Godfrey, a qualified mountain guide, had been offered a job as a ski guide for a month and didn’t want to travel there alone. I studied the bleak New Zealand travel advisory and weighed up the risks. I read several reports on the fighting in the country and the situation in Kabul – all were negative and highlighted violent attacks against woman and suicide bombings. In Afghanistan, it seems violence overshadows many aspects of life. I measured this against the chance to go to a place few travellers ever get to visit and one I’d always dreamed of seeing; it really seemed a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
Besides, Bamyan is now considered one of the country’s safest areas for foreigners and also one of its most beautiful. When people think of Afghanistan they often imagine a desolate, arid countryside. Most, including me before I visited, are unaware that the tail of the great Himalayan mountain range trails through Northern Afghanistan helping to make it one of the most mountainous countries in the world. Accepting the risk, I decided I had to go and two months later I found myself in Kabul.
I found it an overwhelming place, completely militarised with government buildings surrounded by barbed wire and piles of sandbags. Soldiers, their fingers poised on triggers, stood behind large-calibre machine guns. The roads were bumper-to-bumper with UN vehicles and bulletproof SUVs ferrying VIPs around the city.
Against this backdrop, ordinary people went about their business. Labourers sweated under sacks and boxes of goods, woman draped in burkas haggled at markets, kids begged in the streets – here joined by soldiers and police missing limbs from one phase or other of the conflict that has enveloped this nation for decades. I admired their resolve but also couldn’t help but be glad I was born in quiet little New Zealand!
After three days in Kabul, we drove to Bamyan on the Kabul-Behsud Highway, one of the most beautiful and dangerous roads in Northern Afghanistan. It has been nicknamed ‘death road’ by journalists and has become a symbol of the systemic problems that the Afghan government faces. There are regular attacks against road users, with foreigners prime targets. Our best chance of a safe trip was simply to keep a low profile and blend in so I had adopted the local shalwar kameez, a traditional long dress-like shirt and headscarf, to hide my western skin.
Even dressed in local clothes and crammed into a battered old Toyota Corolla among locals, I couldn’t help but feel anxious. My overactive imagination saw Taliban lurking everywhere; I wondered if every slightly dodgy-looking character was a spotter for them. My mind conjured up terrifying scenarios – I could be kidnapped, to be ransomed or simply summarily killed. It was an immense relief therefore when, after five nervy hours, we made it to Bamyan, unscathed.
Perhaps I was more susceptible after such a nerve-jangling ride, but I fell in love with the place instantly. Our guesthouse was every traveller’s dream. Built among the ruins of an old fortress, it was overshadowed by sandstone cliffs pitted with a network of ancient manmade caves. At the opposing ends of the bluffs were two enormous cut-outs, niches that once housed statues including the world’s largest standing Buddha. Historically, these brought visitors from around the world. The Taliban, believing these idols to be an affront to Islam, destroyed the statues while they held power here in 2001. At gunpoint, they lowered local villagers down the cliff-side on ropes and forced them to place dynamite into the crumbling ruins. Those explosions that lasted mere fractions of seconds, cost the world one of its most prized pieces of historic architecture, and Bamyan its crown jewels.
Stepping outside my guesthouse felt like stepping into the pages of a National Geographic magazine article. Life in Bamyan – the town itself at least – seemingly hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. Old men still ride donkeys down the main street and life goes on at a frustratingly slow pace. People still inhabit many of the caves in the hills surrounding the town, dark smoke from their horse dung fires pouring out of makeshift chimneys. It remains a poor region, the economy underpinned by sporadic influxes of funds from aid organisations.
I had flown halfway around the world to go skiing but once there, I was at first reluctant to go to the mountains. Most days I preferred to soak in the atmosphere of Bamyan town, explore ruins and old caves, and photograph the people. I loved the simplicity of life there. In one of the most violent countries in the world, I had found contentment, freedom and peace.
Heidi was busy with the Bamyan Ski Club training programme, training up locals to participate in the annual Afghan Ski Race. Occasionally, she had days off and we went ski touring at the head of the valleys just a short drive from town. The snow-covered peaks stretched into the distance as far as the eye could see, and the ski touring possibilities seemed near-infinite.
After two weeks in Bamyan, the promised late February snow came. It fell, lazily at first, then steadily with flakes as big as golf balls. The intense storm delivered over half a metre of snow with drifts up to two metres. It was without question the lightest, driest snow I’d ever seen and now I couldn’t wait to head into the mountains. Heidi was guiding some western clients the day after and I eagerly hopped on their trip.
We started by touring up a ridge above the road-end at an accessible point in the Koh-E-Baba range. Our skis sunk deeply into the aerated powder. After skinning to the top, I looked down onto the basin below – the scene was every ski tourer’s dream. The slope was covered in knee- to waist-deep, feathery white goodness. Beyond were more basins and ridges covered in untouched snow. There were more powder-laden slopes than we could ski in our lifetimes. We planned to give it our best shot though.
That afternoon we toured higher up the mountain in search of more powder. Two of our team, faster than the majority of the group, skinned up a steep ramp ahead. The slope was over 30˚ and wind-loaded – a term that describes how snow accumulates on the leeward sides of hills.
Suddenly they heard a loud ‘woomf’ and the ground beneath their feet shook as though from a small earthquake. In the same second, deep fractures ripped through the snow pack. But miraculously the snow didn’t release.
One of them described it later as, “The worst noise I’ve ever heard.”
Woomfing and cracking are nature’s ways of telling you to get off the slope or change aspect, angle or elevation. After this narrow escape, we changed our plans and singled out low-angled slopes of less than 20°. Even so, while touring across another area I too heard that same bassy woomf, similar to the noise of a jet passing overhead. This time the entire slope had fractured under the weight of our six-strong group but again our luck held. Two warnings were plenty. It was time to heed nature’s advice, turn around, and go home.
Reflecting on the experience on the way back, we knew we had done everything right. We’d made observations about the snow pack, our group was always well spaced and we had the right gear and skills to cope if there was an avalanche. We’d been as conservative as possible but there is, no matter how cautious you are, a high degree of inherent risk in ski touring.
When we got back to Bamyan we heard that avalanches from the same storm cycle had struck a village in a nearby province killing over 300 people. The news was tragic but not completely surprising given the amount of snow the storm had brought to the region. I felt doubly thankful that we made it through our day out without harm.
Our second-to-last day was the culmination of the trip for Heidi, the annual Afghan Ski Race, which I had decided to enter. The event is brutal. From the start line, competitors race down a bumpy, narrow gully then put skins on and climb 400 vertical metres up a steep ridge before skiing back down through deep powder and over a jump at the finish. After a colossal, lung-burning effort I managed to come 13th out of 40 participants – not bad considering the locals were obviously better acclimatised.
The next day, I joined a handful of other foreigners to watch the women’s race with 10 local women were competing in a similar event. They had trained for two weeks for the event and many of their families stood watching with us. Several of the racers I talked to were fearful of letting their families down and they clearly gave the race everything they had. In a country where females are often treated as second-class citizens, the event felt liberating, a small step forward for equality.
The women’s programme has been going for the past five years, with Henriette Bjorge, a stout-hearted Norwegian, visiting each season to train the Afghan women. The programme is close to her heart. “The young women here are incredibly welcoming,” Henrietta says, “and they are very keen to learn new skills. While the focus is on skiing, what the programme is really about is empowering women.”
After the race I interviewed one of the female competitors, Marsia, a 19-year-old from Bamyan: “It’s important for both men and women,” she said. “Many people don’t have jobs but they do have lots of time, this gives them a focus, a meaning.” Marsia had just completed college and her supportive family were considering sending her to university. I asked her about marriage; many women her age would already be married. “No, I want to study, I want to become a doctor,” she said. I hoped the ski programme had given her the confidence to realise her dream.
If things go well, perhaps one day Bamyan could become a major tourist hub. The forward-thinking provincial government have an ambitious idea to build an international airport, meaning visitors could bypass Kabul and its violence. Attempts to rebuild the Buddhas, unsuccessful up to now, may gain more impetus with outside help.
After spending time with the peaceful Hazara, I’m quietly optimistic. The promise of the region’s skiing aside, my time among its people was one of the richest experiences of my life. I found Bamyan to be a blissful, safe haven in a chaotic country. Amid all that is uncertain, the warmth of the culture there remains sure and enduring. AA