A few years ago, Brenton Earl, a 29-year-old construction worker from Port Macquarie, NSW, found himself atop a snow-capped mountain in one of the least-visited skiing destinations in the world, with acres of pristine powder before him. “It was a feeling of complete isolation,” he tells me. “There were very few skiers there, no one other than our small group. Every descent made fresh tracks on fresh, powdery snow.” Earl was skiing in the Bamiyan Valley, in Afghanistan, a country more known for its civil unrest and armed conflict than the potential for an exhilarating ski run.
Afghans typically use primitive skis fashioned from planks of wood to ascend and descend the mountains. Westerners coming to Afghanistan to hit the slopes, though – that’s relatively new. In the past eight years, a certain type of skier has been drawn to the scenic slopes of Afghanistan in the Bamiyan and Panjshir valleys, in Badakhshan province, and at the Salang Pass, which peaks at 3878 metres above sea level. With no ski lifts or tourist traffic – indeed, no infrastructure to speak of – skiers make their own trails and find their own runs. It’s the epitome of off-piste.
Afghanistan may seem a curious choice, not just as an emerging hotspot for back country skiing, but as a destination for holidaymakers and sightseers. At the time of writing, the advice from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade relating to Afghanistan was an unambiguous “Do Not Travel”, citing a “very high threat of terrorist attack”. The 2007 Lonely Planet guide to Afghanistan, the first written on the country since the 1970s, lists its omnipresent risks as other guides might catalogue the native wildlife or local cuisine, among them kidnapping, highway robbery, improvised explosive devices, suicide bombings, landmines and disease.
But aside from the skiers, an increasing number of travellers are discovering there’s more to countries like Afghanistan than what makes news headlines, or even travel advisories.
Read the full story on the Sydney Morning Herald.