A skier competes during the fourth Afghan Ski Challenge in the Chab Dare Valley of the Bamiyan province. Photo: SHEFAYEE/AFP
A skier competes during the fourth Afghan Ski Challenge in the Chab Dare Valley of the Bamiyan province. Photo: SHEFAYEE/AFP
Afghans cross-country ski on the outskirts of Bamiyan city, some 200 kilometres northwest of Kabul. Photo: WASEEM NIKZAD/AFP
Afghans cross-country ski on the outskirts of Bamiyan city, some 200 kilometres northwest of Kabul. Photo: WASEEM NIKZAD/AFP
An Afghan competitor takes part in the 5th Afghan Ski Challenge in the Chapdara Valley of the Bamiyan province. Photo: SHEFAYEE/AFP
An Afghan competitor takes part in the 5th Afghan Ski Challenge in the Chapdara Valley of the Bamiyan province. Photo: SHEFAYEE/AFP
An Afghan competitors crosses the finish line of the third annual ski challenge event for girls in the village of Lado, Bamiyan Province. Photo: SHEFAYEE/AFP
An Afghan competitors crosses the finish line of the third annual ski challenge event for girls in the village of Lado, Bamiyan Province. Photo: SHEFAYEE/AFP

These magnificent snow-capped mountains, found deep within a country very few Western tourists dare to visit, are virtually untouched.

Every year a handful of adventurous skiers are brave enough to make the long trek to Bamiyan, in Central Afghanistan, even though it’s one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

Those who make the trip are being inspired by locals, who are some of the poorest people on the planet, and joining in a grassroots effort to grow the sport in Afghanistan and develop the region into a destination for tourists.

Foreigners may picture Afghanistan as a hot, arid land thanks to images shown on television during a decade-plus war that followed the 9/11 attacks in America.

But Bamiyan, which lies on the Silk Road that cuts through Asia, is a picturesque setting in the winter thanks to the snow-covered Hindu Kush mountains, one of the least explored ranges in the world.

Organisations and companies are introducing modern equipment and training, and providing jobs to locals.

The Aga Khan Foundation launched the programme in 2008, with Swiss brand Volkl providing equipment and training for locals, and the Swiss ski resort of St Moritz raising funds and inviting two Afghan skiers to the Alps for training.

In 2011, Untamed Borders, a British tour operator, became the first company to take ski tourists to Afghanistan.

Since then it has been bringing 10 to 20 foreign skiers to the mountain range every year, taking great care with respect to safety and security, said co-founder Kausar Hussain.

From the UK, each holidaymaker pays £1 700 (R30 722) for a 10-day trip, which includes accommodation, food, local transport and instruction from an internationally qualified ski guide. They are usually joined by Afghani guides as well.

Hussain said: “The ski conditions are good. Very dry powder. Afghanistan does have a high risk of avalanches, so on many days we have to stick to low elevations.

“QIn Bamiyan, in winter it is cold, it snows. However there are many more clear days when in Europe. In the summer it has warm days and cool nights.”

It is the definition of raw skiing, as there are no ski lifts, meaning skiers must hike up the mountain.

Unlike other areas in Afghanistan, Bamiyan is not under threat from insurgent groups and is quite safe for tourists, said Hussain. “Bamiyan is one of the few places in Afghanistan where it is possible to do such type of outdoor activities. Afghanistan is a melting pot of different religious and ethnic groups.

“While this is one of the reasons for its troubled history it is also why certain areas of the country can be perfectly safe, or at least no riskier than other Asian developing countries, to visit while others would be extremely dangerous.”

The tour groups avoid dangerous areas, including unstable regions in the Pashtun heartland, and they keep a low profile and are cautious when they travel into Kabul, the capital, about 160km south-east of Bamiyan.

“If we walk in the city we will always have a car nearby, we will continually check safety reports and we will stay in discreet guest houses, not in the big hotels that are well-known targets.

“However, the cities are well covered by security personnel and are generally very calm. If we thought that there was a major risk in any particular city then we would avoid it.

“Driving between cities is also something we take a long look at with regards to security. We check reports from a service that provides security updates to NGO workers and also ask drivers we know who regularly take passengers on the roads we take. We also get calls and texts from a security service should there be problems on the road.

“The security on the road is actually currently not too bad but it has been bad in the past and it makes sense not to take any undue risk if flights are available.

“Many of our guests have some safety concerns. It is Afghanistan after all. However by the end of their trip their perception of Afghanistan has changed a lot.”

Of all the things that help to change visitors’ perceptions of Afghanistan, the locals of Bamiyan play a massive role.

Tourists have plenty of opportunities to interact with them as locals work as ski guides, drivers and tour organisers, and some sell drinks and snacks.

Another opportunity is the annual Afghan Ski Challenge, an incredible event where residents and foreign skiers compete in a race up and down the slopes.

The event, Afghanistan’s only ski race, is operated by the Bamiyan Ski Club, which also arranges training and equipment for local skiers.

Hussain said Afghanis, who strap planks of wood to their feet, usually beat the foreigners.

Last winter three professional snowboarders visited Bamiyan to record Afghanistan’s first ever snowboard film, calling it White Silk Road.

During the summer, Bamiyan is a popular stop for Afghan tourists, who visit the lakes at Band-e-Amir National Park.

The region is also a draw for those who compete in or watch buzkashi, the country’s national sport. It is a fierce competition where athletes on horseback drag the carcass of a goat or calf, instead of a ball, and attempt to throw it into a scoring circle.

Emirates flies to Kabul Khwaja Rawash from Johannesburg from around R9 000. The flight can be between 12 and 20 hours.

Chris Kitching, Daily Mail