Strangely for the start of a race, there was no gun. Of course, that the race was being started in Afghanistan made this fact even stranger. Instead, after a confusing series of translations on the layout of the course and much pointing and shouting, the founder of the Afghan Ski Challenge, Christoph Zurcher, simply yelled, "Three! Two! One! Go!"
There was a clatter of skis and poles as around 30 Afghan and international competitors jumped off the line and dashed uphill, across nearly 1,000 feet (300 meters) of snowfield. The Afghan racers, most of them farm boys from nearby villages with only a few weeks of skiing experience, quickly outpaced the foreigners—who were huffing at the 10,500-foot (3,200-meter) elevation.
Gripping into the pristine snow with their skins and borrowed skis and poles, the Afghans blasted up the first climb on an unnamed mountain in Afghanistan's Hindu Kush for the third annual challenge.
Passing the first flag, the competitors traversed a thousand-foot ridgeline covered in perfect, waist-deep powder and then slalomed down a shallow 7,900-foot (2,410-meter) descent and across a broad saddle. On the final drop toward the jury-rigged finish, they zoomed and crashed over a small jump and careened across the finish line, sending spectators from the nearby village of Ladu Bala scattering, falling, and laughing.
"The Afghans were just dominating," said racer Brenton Earl of Australia. "I think most of the foreigners sprinted for the first 200 meters [660 feet] and then it was all over. It was the wheat from the chaff from then on, mate. They're real good."
"They are monsters. I mean, you know, sometimes you're racing against someone, maybe cycling or running, and you think, 'oh yeah, maybe he's getting tired, I have him now,' but with these guys, you never get that sense. You always get the feeling that they're getting further and further away," said Earl, a player with the Australian Football League.
And it was Sajjad Hussaini, a young man from the nearby village of Shahidan, who got further and further away the fastest. He finished the race in just under 30 minutes, while the last racer crossed the line after around 90 minutes—with all of the Afghans finishing ahead of the foreigners.
Promoting Tourism in Afghanistan
Earl and around 14 others flew in from Kabul, the U.S., the U.K., Australia, France, Slovenia, Spain, New Zealand, and Finland for the race, part of an effort to promote tourism in Bamyan—a remote mountain valley in Afghanistan's Central Highlands that was renowned for the giant Buddhas carved into a cliff face, before Taliban forces blew them up in 2001.
After more than three decades of war, promoting tourism could seem like a tougher challenge than getting up that first rise on Friday's race with only ten days of ski training, but that is exactly what Habiba Sarobi, Bamyan's provincial governor, and the Aga Khan Foundation are trying to do.
"We want to introduce Bamyan as a tourist destination to the world," said Sarobi, Afghanistan's only female governor. The valley, she said, "has a lot of potential for tourism because Bamyan is on the list of [UNESCO] World Heritage sites. [...] And it's not only because of historical heritage, but the nature of Bamyan is also very beautiful."
"We want to introduce Bamyan as a four-season tourist destination. Afghanistan is not only bomb explosions, not only killing and this type of negative news. We also have a lot of good opportunities and nice places like Bamyan where tourists can come." (Download a rough country ski guide here.)
Though fears abound that the country will descend into civil war after the withdrawal of the majority of American and NATO troops at the end of 2014, many hope that Bamyan will remain a pocket of stability—though fighting ravaged the area as the Taliban took power in 1996.
"You know, some of these crazy people, they are saying that security is not very good, but right now we cannot hear the sound of any gunfire since the Taliban left Bamyan," said Sayeed Alishah Farhang, Bamyan's first fully trained ski guide. "I think the people have learned in the past ten years. Most of the educated people have said that they have had enough of fighting."
And, without a doubt, the province has a lot to offer. Besides niches that once held some of the tallest Buddhas in the world, the area also boasts Band-e Amir, a complex of six aquamarine lakes formed by travertine dams that could soon become a second World Heritage site, and which makes up Afghanistan's first national park.
Above the main valley sits Shahr-e Gholghola, or the City of Screams, which was destroyed by Genghis Khan in a massive siege; Darya-e Adjahar, or Dragon Valley, which is said to be where Imam Ali killed a dragon; and Shahr-e Zuhak, or the Red City, a citadel protecting the main valley.
"Perfect" Skies and "Very Good" Snow
Back at the race, Ivana Odic of Slovenia, said, "The view from the other side of the mountain was simply amazing. There were just mountains and mountain chains and more mountains. There's so much material to ski! Its wonderful here."
Down at the finish line after the race, Simon Shelton of New Zealand looked pleased with the results after having spent the last two months training some of the racers to be ski guides for foreign tourists visiting the area.
"The snow here is some of the best in the world. You don't get as much as other places, but the quality is very good. It's a continental climate, so it stays nice and dry for a long time. And you have your storm, and then two weeks of bright blue skies. It's perfect," said Shelton, who has been skiing since he was four years old and has worked as a backcountry ski guide and skied in Iran and Kashmir.
But, regardless of the great snow, natural beauty, and history, the "challenge" in Afghan Ski Challenge is no joke.
"Experience-wise this place is untraveled. You're coming to an area that doesn't have a huge amount of tourism. So when you come here it's an adventure, you're not just checking the checklist off the Lonely Planet book," said Shelton. "Everything is an adventure, even having a shower. It takes about three hours to get the water from the well, put the kettle in the fire, boil up the water, add cool water to the bucket and finally have a wash. And, you know, the power and the Internet are always breaking down."
But the kind of tourist that the governor hopes to draw here may revel in these sorts of hardships—hardships that include a dirt runway that will hopefully be paved this year or the next, a lack of well-appointed lodgings, difficulty getting tourist visas, and neither mountain rescue services nor avalanche warning systems.
"I think as long as they can get that reputation out there, that it's not such a bad place to visit, then, yeah, there is just too much potential here. So many mountains, so much untouched powder," said Earl, the Australian footballer.
"We like to say, amongst ourselves, that there are four types of fun," said Earl. "Type two fun is just horrible at the time, but when you tell people about it later, it sounds like it was a lot of fun. This is type two fun. You work really hard, you don't live with much luxury, but in the end you're really happy you did it. So yeah, we're here in Afghanistan in the pursuit of type two fun."