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Snowboardistan: Riding powder with Afghanistan's national Ski team

Personal Stories, Trip ReportJames HipkissComment

Flight staff:  “Are those bombproof boots and helmet?"

Me:  "No, they’re actually snowboard boots and helmet."

Flight staff (in unison):  "You can snowboard in Afghanistan?"

Me:  "Yeah, didn’t you see all the mountains as we flew in?"

Flight staff:  "Oh no - we figured you were a security guy and the helmet and boots would protect you from bombs and bullets”

A brief exchange with the Turkish Airways flight staff on the way into Kabul when asked about the snowboard gear strapped to my backpack.

We stop a few miles outside the town and load up on biscuits, crisps and energy drinks. This practice has become second nature to me now – having worked in many similar environments, it’s always the only option for eating ‘on the hoof’. I’m not a massive fan of it, but have come to accept it as part of the cost you pay for these unique experiences.

My film-maker friend Sandro and I are in Bamiyan, a province 240km West of Kabul. It’s safe here; people walk around with little security concerns – even through the Taliban are in the next province.

Bamiyan town is (unsurprisingly) the capital town of Bamiyan province, where the regional airport nestles comfortably between the Hindu Kush and Koh-i-baba mountain ranges. At 2500 metres, It’s not quite the same as Lukla airport in Nepal, however you’ve got quite a precise strip of tarmac you’ve got to land on, otherwise you’ll find yourself buried in some poor Afghan family’s compound!

We’ve come to the province to meet and ride with Afghanistan’s national ski team – both of them.

Sajjad and Alishah, are two twenty something guys who’ve grown up in the mountains for most of their lives. When the Taliban raided their villages in the late 90’s, they fled but returned when the coalition arrived, bringing security to the region with it.

‘We had the New Zealand Army here for many years. They got on really well with the residents and became part of our community, walking freely around the town. I think they lost one person during their stay, when the Taliban started attacking from the neighbouring province.’.

They tell us about the regions history as we drive through the snowy mountains, passing burnt out tank hulks that serve to visually illustrate the story. As if we needed any more convincing, our guesthouse looks over the site that a 40 metre Buddha statue once stood. It once stood there, until the Taliban used anti-aircraft missiles to destroy them (because conventional explosives wouldn’t work on the sandstone effigies).

After driving for an hour, we leave the highway and join a frozen mud track – the recent snowfall stacked high on either side like a giant white crust. It’s bumpy and the tyres struggles to find grip up a minor slope – I’m starting to think this may not be a good be route when the 2 reassure me they’ve travelled it many times like this. We continue to creep up the slight hill. 

An hour later we’re unloading skis, poles and a snowboard. Despite being able to ski, I choose to rent one of the snowboards – a Burton no less.  I’ve gotten used to the familiar comment that people make when I say this:

“You can rent a snowboard in Afghanistan?”

Indeed you can, is my usual response. Sometimes I also add that you can rent a splitboard there also, but that usually invites more questions that take the story completely off topic, explaining what a splitboard is.

The snow is fresh and powdery. It’s my first ride of the year and I’m feeling rusty, partly because of the unfamiliar board.  Our first ride down the virgin slope is brilliant, we’re all excited to be out on the snow – like children we’re trying to race each other to the bottom; it’s funny how no matter where or who you’re with – competiveness is the same the world over, in any culture.

We reach the bottom and walk to the road to the meet the 4 x 4. There are no lifts here, you rent a car and driver, and then ride to the bottom – old school but beats queuing! We’ve heard rumours of an NGO looking to build lifts in the area but not seen anything to indicate this has started.

Each run starts with a 5-minute walk to the peak overlooking the village of ‘Band-e-Amir’. The combination of sandstone peaks and snow is like something from a film, the snow reflects bight sun and I feel the tingle of an impending ‘panda-eyes’ suntan. But I don’t care, the feeling of carving through inches of powder in this place is distracting from the security issues we’d been experiencing in the days beforehand – almost driving into a suicide bomb in the capital, Kabul a week earlier.

After a few runs, we stop and drop into the snow to relax our tired legs. The pair tells us more about the history of the region – about how the Taliban forced them to flee from their homes in 1999. They were able to return in the mid-2000s, once the area had become secure. We sit around smoking, eating biscuits and drinking soda relaxing. This last minutes before a flick of snow turns into a snowball fight! Again, I catch myself thinking about how similar we all are once you strip away background, culture and race; ultimately we’re human and we like having fun.

We ride for another few hours, breaking intermittently for banter and refreshment before making our way down to the village centre. We cross a frozen lake and see a beautiful mosque next to 2 dozen duck boats frozen into the ice - like a theme park stuck in time. We walk for a few hundred metres to a house, where Sajjad speaks in Urdu to an older man. The man disappears and returns 5 minutes later with the familiar sight of a green tea and biscuits.  This is what I love about Afghani culture, everyone looks out for each other.

Words by Chris Shirley.