Hope on the Slopes

Afghanistan’s slice of heaven

Southasia - - Contents - By Manam Iqbal Manam Iqbal is a com­mu­ni­ca­tions grad­u­ate and holds a spe­cial in­ter­est in so­cio-eco­nomic is­sues in the re­gion.

Young Afghan boys slid­ing around on the slopes of Bamiyan in homemade ski­ing gear are bound to be a strange site for any­one vis­it­ing the prov­ince for the first time.

The pris­tine moun­tains of Bamiyan - the cen­tral Afghanistan prov­ince - has started gain­ing the at­ten­tion of ski­ing en­thu­si­asts from across the world, af­ter a pro­gram was launched in the area by the Geneva-based, Aga Khan Foun­da­tion (AKF). Once a for­eign con­cept, ski­ing has be­come an in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar sport with the lo­cals.

“There’s still this im­age of Afghanistan as a coun­try at war, but you can get quite a fa­vor­able im­pres­sion by see­ing the peace­ful and se­cure na­ture of Bamiyan, and by see­ing peo­ple hav­ing fun — ski­ing of all things,” said Robert The­len, the re­gional di­rec­tor of the AKF.

Al­though one of Afghanistan’s poor­est re­gions, Bamiyan is also one of its safest, as its mostly Shia Hazara com­mu­nity do not sup­port the Tal­iban who mas­sa­cred the eth­nic mi­nor- ity some eleven years ago af­ter they gained con­trol of the prov­ince.

Whether the idea of set­ting up a ski­ing in­dus­try is vi­able or not, is an­other story. “As far as the cur­rent setup is con­cerned, the idea of set­ting up a

re­sort is good and might at­tract a larger num­ber of tourists as well but noth­ing can be said about the sit­u­a­tion af­ter for­eign troops with­draw. It will all de­pend on the new po­lit­i­cal setup,” said Saleem Safi, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and renowned Pak­istani jour­nal­ist.

For now, de­spite the scenic beauty of the place, only the most intrepid of ad­ven­tur­ers de­cide to visit a war-torn Afghanistan. Travel to Bamiyan it­self is per­ilous and dan­ger­ous, and there are no com­mer­cial flights to the prov­ince from Kabul. Trav­el­ers who take any of the two routes by road, run the risk of kid­nap­ping or rob­bery by in­sur­gents; the safest way to reach the place is by catch­ing a hu­man­i­tar­ian or diplo­matic flight to the area.

But as a skier put it, once you get there, you are over­come by a feel­ing of se­cu­rity and tran­quil­ity. Bamiyan is one of the first prov­inces where a se­cu­rity tran­si­tion took place.

“Right now is the best time for cre- at­ing a ski re­sort, as you can’t wait for peace to be fully re­stored. The project it­self will cre­ate job op­por­tu­ni­ties for many peo­ple,” said Rahimul­lah Yusufzai, res­i­dent edi­tor of The News.

Al­though Bamiyan lacks the usual trap­pings of a ski re­sort – a proper in­fra­struc­ture, chair­lifts, cable cars or even pass­able roads and the après-ski of its guest­houses are lim­ited to a bed, wood-burn­ing stove and lit­tle more than ke­babs and par­lor games – it does have the per­fect slopes, with noth­ing but the swish­ing of the wind. Largely un­known, the area has an at­mos­phere of soli­tude – a far cry from the ski­ing re­sorts of Europe or Amer­ica where tens of thou­sands of peo­ple as­sem­ble at the same spot. How­ever, a climb up a moun­tain is usu­ally lung-burst­ing and ex­haus­tive, but some sug­gest a ‘don­key lift,’ where you hire a lo­cal’s don­key for the as­cent, is the best al­ter­na­tive.

There is also much more to Bamiyan than just the fas­ci­nat­ing Koh-iBaba moun­tain range. The prov­ince has mul­ti­ple at­trac­tions, in­clud­ing the largest sit­ting Bud­dha stat­ues, which were carved into cliffs over­look­ing the Bamiyan town. Al­though the Tal­iban blew them up in 2001, their ru­ins are still listed in UNESCO’s World Her­itage site. Nu­mer­ous ru­ined pre-Is­lamic forts also dot the prov­ince.

But at the end of the day, it all comes down to se­cu­rity -- the big- gest chal­lenge for ev­ery­one try­ing to re­build and start afresh. “Tourism is def­i­nitely the eas­i­est way to make a liveli­hood, but if the Tal­iban threat re­mains, there will al­ways be se­cu­rity prob­lems,” said Iqbal Khat­tak, bureau chief of the Daily Times.

Jawad Wafa, who owns a guest­house at the foot of the moun­tains, thinks se­cu­rity is es­sen­tial for tourism to flour­ish. His lit­tle shop is stocked with sec­ond-hand, homemade ski­ing gear. “If se­cu­rity im­proves, ski tourism will work, if se­cu­rity gets worse, it won’t.”

Mean­while, a few months back in Pak­istan, the army held a week­long ski­ing fes­ti­val in Malam Jabba – for the first time af­ter the area was cleared of mil­i­tants. The Pak­istani Tal­iban don’t phys­i­cally oc­cupy any part of Swat any­more. They have been pushed back into Afghanistan af­ter op­er­a­tion Rah e Ni­jat was launched by the forces. “Malam Jabba al­ready had a ski­ing in­fra­struc­ture in place, but it suf­fered dam­ages af­ter the ex­trem­ists gained con­trol of the area,” said Yusufzai.

The most im­por­tant el­e­ment com­pul­sory for a flour­ish­ing tourist econ­omy is se­cu­rity. It is only when a sense of se­cu­rity is achieved, that trav­el­ers will feel safe enough to visit a coun­try. Gen­er­ally, tourism as an in­dus­try is one that re­vives rel­a­tively eas­ily, even if tem­po­rar­ily dam­aged ow­ing to civil un­rest or po­lit­i­cal tur­bu­lence. A source of liveli­hood for many, it is usu­ally a sim­ple so­lu­tion for dis­mal lo­cal con­di­tions.

Both Afghanistan and Pak­istan have much to of­fer in terms of tourism ow­ing to their var­ied and beau­ti­ful to­pog­ra­phy. With tremen­dous ge­o­graph­i­cal and hu­man po­ten­tial, it is only a mat­ter of time be­fore such spots can at­tract mass rev­enue and coun­tries in South Asia can serve as safe, tourist des­ti­na­tions. Though there cer­tainly is a mas­sive de­cline in tourism in both coun­tries, if the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion is ad­dressed, much can be reaped from nat­u­ral in­her­i­tance. It will cer­tainly take time and com­mit­ment, but with con­certed ef­forts, per­haps the world can soon dis­cover a lit­tle piece of heaven tucked away in Af-Pak.

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