It’s a long climb to the top of Jula Sang Zari—some 16,000 feet—but it will give you a view of a world few Westerners have seen.
In February, you can look across Afghanistan’s Bamyan Valley and see snow outlining the stone niches where giant sixth-century Buddhas stood until 2001, when the Taliban blew them up. Then it’s a long, powder-thick trip back down the mountain. Chances are you’ll be alone up high, but be prepared for a crowd of Afghan kids at the bottom. They never saw anyone ski until two years ago. Now they’re sliding around the gentler slopes with homemade skis and bindings.
“The kids here love to go sledding, often on the trays their families use to serve tea,” says Laurie Ashley, who with her husband, Chad Dear, brought skiing to Bamyan in 2009. “So skiing is not a completely foreign notion to them. They’re used to having fun in the snow.”
Is this a vision from the future, when the war is over? Nope, this is contemporary Bamyan, an amazingly mellow province in north-central Afghanistan. Centuries ago, it was a Buddhist enclave and an important stopover on the ancient Silk Road. Forty years ago, it became a storied destination on the hippie trail, as Western youth trekked in to gape at the Buddhas and splash in the turquoise lakes of nearby Band-e-Amir. During the Soviet invasion, tourism trickled to handfuls of Afghans who came to view the many other ancient sites and the surrounding Koh-i-Baba Mountains, a spur off the Hindu Kush range.
A few years ago, Bamyan’s government decided to end the region’s isolation, hoping another influx of tourism would bring in some much-needed cash. It enlisted the Aga Khan Foundation, which does development work in many parts of Afghanistan, to help build a year-round ecotourism program.
That’s where Ashley and Dear entered the picture. Experienced backcountry skiers from Montana, they’re also natural-resource management professionals who were working on another Bamyan project. They enthusiastically took on the task of assessing the area’s backcountry skiing opportunities, training some locals to be ski guides, and helping establish a network of villagers willing to provide weary ski trekkers with room and board.
Their first step was introducing themselves—and their skis—to the people who live at the base of the mountains. The Koh-i-Baba range is important to the locals: They once fled the Taliban over its passes and now hunt, graze their sheep, and forage for medicinal herbs there. Initially skeptical, the villagers were won over when the couple explained the benefits of ecotourism and offered ski lessons.
“Everyone was incredibly gracious the whole time we were there,” Ashley says. “One mullah even told us to be sure and teach the girls, too.”
For nearly five months, Ashley and Dear made a series of first descents—even though there is skiing elsewhere in Afghanistan, no one had ever skied in Bamyan. With each outing, they jotted terrain notes and GPS coordinates so they could create a guidebook to Bam-yan’s backcountry skiing (see “If You Go,” at right). Besides those descents, they notched other personal firsts—like skiing past the ruins of a pre-Muslim castle and, more than once, through a flock of sheep. Though a basic ski area opened for business in 2010, the region remains a ski-touring paradise of untracked faces and steep couloirs.
Although Ashley and Dear have since moved on to Kyrgyzstan, where they ski in the Tien Shan Mountains, their legacy remains a source of hope. The Bamyan tourism office helped one of the guides trained by Ashley and Dear open a lodge, and the citizens are eager to see more skiers visit their guest houses, cafés, and stores in 2012.
And Ashley and Dear remain keen on Bamyan’s allure for adventure-minded backcountry skiers. “I had some of the best descents in my life there,” Dear says. “I had some of the best skiing in my life there, period.” They just had their first child and, he adds, “We’re excited for the day we can take our little girl skiing in Bamyan.”
IF YOU GO
February and March are the snowiest months. Rah-e-Abrisham, a local tourism company, will help with travel and skiing details firstname.lastname@example.org. Untamed Borders began guiding ski trips there last winter (untamedborders.com).
At press time, copies of Ski Afghanistan: A Backcountry Guide to Bamyan & Band-e-Amir were stuck in Kabul, and Ashley and Dear were trying to get them to America.
Experienced Guides Wanted: If you’ve got the credentials and you’re interested in ski guiding during the 2012 season, contact Amir Foladi at email@example.com.