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WINTER SPORTS

Climbing high for victory

A skier from abroad falls at the final obstacle as he participates in the Afghan Ski Challenge 2014.

A skier from abroad falls at the final obstacle as he participates in the Afghan Ski Challenge 2014.

Afghan village men watch as foreign and local skiers participate in the backcountry open ski race.

Afghan village men watch as foreign and local skiers participate in the backcountry open ski race.

The open ski race in Bamiyan province, a relatively safe region in the central highlands of Afghanistan.

The open ski race in Bamiyan province, a relatively safe region in the central highlands of Afghanistan.

Villagers ogle spills during the Afghan ski tournament in a remote mountain area

Afghan spectators stare in astonishment as skiing enthusiasts blast down a remote mountain slope, occasionally taking a tumble in the deep snow.

The Bamiyan Ski Challenge has provided an annual opportunity since 2011 for Afghan ski aces to test their mettle in a nation that has no sophisticated winter-sports industry.

For this year's event, competitors ascended to an altitude of 3,400 metres on a mountainside with no name in the Koh-e-Baba mountain range for the back-country open ski race.

It is staged every March in Bamiyan province, a relatively safe region in the central highlands of Afghanistan.

More than 1,000 people showed up to watch. Most were Afghans, but some were tourists and foreign aid workers from Kabul.

For many local villagers, the sight was extraordinary.

"This is the first time we have seen so many people on this mountain slope. And this is the first time I have seen so many foreigners," says Ali Nazari, a local farmer.

"This game is very funny. People keep falling down on the snow. We are all having a very good time," adds the farmer, who came with seven members of his family.

There was an up-and-down cross-country course of some 3 kilometres.

For a downhill run, participants first had to walk around 600 metres to the top of the chosen slope near Chapdhara district.

"The aim is to promote skiing and tourism in the region," says Christoph Zuercher, the founder of the ski challenge.

"I am an ambitious hobbyist when it comes to skiing," the 48-year-old Swiss says. He first visited Bamiyan in 2010 as a journalist.

"When a Swiss man sees snow, it does not take him much time to think about skiing," quips Zuercher.

A couple of months later, he came back with 15 pairs of used skis and a couple of boots and set up a ski-training workshop for locals.

"We trained 10 locals. Of course, having a race motivates skiers. So in 2011 we organised the first ski challenge in which the same 10 participated," Zuercher says.

This year, there were 50 participants, including 20 foreigners, competing in the challenge.

Sayed Ali Shah Farhang, a 23-year-old local ski guide, finished first, the second straight year he has topped the slate. He won a Tissot watch. He was one of the first ski guides to be trained by Zuercher in 2011.

"This kind of competition is good for Afghanistan and helps promote tourism in Bamiyan. I started skiing in 2011 and there were far fewer tourists. Now tourism is getting bigger and bigger," says Farhang, who has so far guided 14 tourists on ski expeditions in Bamiyan.

Semi-professional Swiss skier Arnaud Cottet came second in the challenge.

Earlier this month, he arrived in Bamiyan with two of his friends "to discover the back mountains of Afghanistan". For more than a week they skied with the locals.

"We want to look with our own eyes, not with the eyes of the media. We think it's good and safe enough for tourists to come and make ski trips in Bamiyan. This is a great place for tourism and people are very friendly," Cottet says.

Zeurcher says he sees a huge potential "for the growth of mid-scale tourism in Bamiyan, if only the situation and certain circumstances were different."

"Still, we could attract so many ski tourists. Because of the 30 years of war, it is totally untouched. There aren't many places in the world that haven't been explored already for skiing."

"The landscape is fabulous and perfect for skiing. You have wonderful snow because of the dry climate. You have mountains going higher than 5,000 metres.

"Obviously something that's missing here is the transport. You have to walk yourself up. But more and more people in Europe like that very much."

Because of the ski challenge, three of the four big hotels in Bamiyan were booked out for two weeks. The fourth had closed due to winter.

"In the past, during winter, there was not a single tourist here," says Abdullah Mahmoodi, the head of Bamiyan Tourism Association.

"When you organise an event like this, that is the obvious effect. Guides get work. You bring in money, through souvenir sellers, restaurants and hotels and car drivers."

James Willcox, the director and tour leader for Untamed Borders, an adventure travel agency, brought 12 skiers from the United Kingdom to participate in the challenge.

"The ski challenge this year was excellent. Every year it works better," he says.

"My favourite thing is that everyone is competing. Some of the Swiss skiers today are professionals, but they did not win. To go up in the mountains of Koh-e-Baba is very hard. So the Afghans and the foreigners were competing on a level field."

"I think this will only continue to grow," Zuercher says.

"I hope that we can probably get one or two Afghans to the Olympics in the next four years. We have some partners in Switzerland who could host them for training."

Farhang, the winner of the challenge, wants to be that first person.

He says even though he could not watch Sochi Olympics, because he did not own a television, he wants to participate in the next Games.

"I grew up in the mountains. This is in my blood," he says. "I am looking forward for an opportunity to go train and participate in the Winter Olympics one day."














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