So the Olympic snowboarding is as good as over for another four year, and now the news coverage can get back to the war in Afghanistan and that’s exactly what we are going to do. This week illicit takes a look at a snowboarding destination that’s not on most snowboarder’s travel plans due to the constant danger of war-induced death.
Last Resort No. 3 - Snowboarding Afghanistan
People have been warring in Afghanistan since the duel inventions of Afghanistan and people. There are very few places on earth that have seen so many and such varied people, come to practice the art of running amok. Just a few of the notable exponents, so far, include; Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British (4 times and counting), the Russian Empire, the USSR and most recent bandwagon jumpers - the USA.
Some of the less deadly recent invaders have been US snowboarders. Danny Kass and professional snowboarding clown - Nate Holland, visited on a moral-boosting tour in 2008. Kass has a pretty good write-up about the trip on the Grenade blog and Nate ‘Miss World Acceptance Speech’ Holland summed his experience up nicely with this quote… “Experiences like these reassure my thoughts and wishes to have peace on earth.”
Nate Holland - Clearly a big fan of peace on earth
Holland’s fellow US Olympic boardercross teammate Graham Watanabe, made a similar trip in 2009 and wrote about it in his gothic looking blog, which includes the excellent quote... “At one point I looked over to see the gusts assist a nugget of boogs in freeing themselves from Dane's left nostril only to re-plaster themselves to his left cheek. Those little guys definitely had military training, because the stealth with which they crawled at least five inches across Dane's face was professional caliber!”
Oddly Afghanistan’s history of fighting has had a strange effect on our sport. Have you ever noticed that the Afghan city of Kandahar is a name synonymous with winter sport? Here are just a few examples where the name of the desert town appears in ski resorts around the world:
- Kandahar Condominiums - Taos, USA
- Hotel Kandahar - Val d’Isere, France
- Kandahar Express ski-lift - Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
- Kandahar Lodge - Mount Buller, Australia.
- Kandahar Luxury Apartments - Bankso, Bulgaria
- Kandahar Bar - St Anton, Austria
- Hotel Kandahar - Pas de la Casa, Andorra
- Kandahar Ski Club - United Kingdom
And the reason? Well it’s due to the filling of the British Empire’s three war sandwich - The Second Afghan War (1878-1880), and a bloke called Bobs...
This was the second time within forty years that the British had attacked Afghanistan and it looked like things were going spectacularly wrong again. A rapid British invasion was quickly followed by the locals getting mobbed up and massacring the invaders at the battle of Maiwand (Dr Watson, him off the Sherlock Holmes stories, was there apparently). But the British Empire didn’t take that sort of insolence lying down and they staged a fight-back led by the soon to be monikered Lord Frederick Sleigh Roberts of Kandahar. As you can probably tell from that name he did pretty well in the resulting Battle of Kandahar. This was especially convenient timing for Roberts (or Bobs for short) because it neatly distracted everyone from his very dubious decision to hang 80 Afghans a few months before. Roberts ended up with bag loads of medals, honours and money and went on to become one of Britain’s best known Victorian war heroes.
Then in 1911 Bobs pops up again, this time as the sponsor of the first ever downhill ski race. It was organised by a couple of British guys and called the Roberts of Kandahar Cup and a version of that race is still on the FIS calendar today. It’s form that race that the name Kandahar and the celebration of the deaths of 3,000 Afghans, became associated with ski resorts all over the world.
Welcome to Hotel Kandahar mother fuckers!
So that’s the strange historical context but can you actually snowboard in Afghanistan? Well you can’t in Kandahar because it’s a bit flat and deserty, but you might be able to elsewhere, as long as you can avoid the warfare. That is if you can find time to stop playing Buzkashi for long enough...
Buzkashi - The goal of a player is to grab the carcass of a headless goat or calf and then get it clear of the other players and pitch it across a goal line or into a target circle or vat. Anthropologist G. Whitney Azoy described it as being a metaphor for Afghan life: "brutal, chaotic, a continual fight for control"
Some of the locals are trying to re-establish winter sports. Mohammed Yusuf Kargar, whose family set up Afghanistan’s first ski resort and who was the national ski champion in 1978 at the age of 16, is hoping to grow the sport single-handedly with just the four sets of skis and two pairs of boots he managed to salvage.
“No one knows skiing in Afghanistan any more but before the Russian invasion we had a resort with a ski-lift and world-class skiers. I had been taking part in world championships in France and Japan and was hoping to compete in the Winter Olympics, then the following year the Russians came. After that I did not dare go out with my skis and sticks because I feared the troops would think they were a rifle and shoot me.”
Currently he is forced to ski on a small hill within the Kabul city limits. The makeshift piste is so short that it takes just 20 seconds for him to reach the bottom. “The problem is landmines,” he explained. “There are very good mountains all around Kabul but you have no idea what you are skiing over. This is one of the few slopes we know has been cleared.” And apart from landmines, Kargar worries about becoming a target for US forces. “They might think I’m Al-Qaeda, this man all alone high in the mountains above the city.”
Kabul's ironically named Darul Aman Palace (Abode of Peace)
And former warlord Izatullah Atif Rooz is hoping to build a $100m Swiss-style resort, complete with ski slope and alpine chalets, in mountains that were a killing ground just a few years ago. "His 2,000-strong private army has been disbanded, 700 weapons, eight tanks and 20 cannon handed over to UN disarmers, and he has embarked on a new life as a venture capitalist. Instead of forging alliances with warlords, he is now seeking partners among Swiss investment firms. An expansive sweep of his arm takes in the unappealingly green Lake Qargha behind him, with a muddy shore where the new city is to be built, and a rocky, sun-bleached mountain to the right that is expected, one day, to have a ski-run and snow machine."
Landmines, friendly-fire and a muggy lake - sounds promising? But don’t get too excited yet, because not all the locals are as welcoming. This is the only example I can think of where someone has actually gone to war against our sport…
In June 2008 Taliban militants from Afghanistan torched neighbouring Pakistan’s Malam Jabba resort.
A very understated Usman Shafi, general manager of the corporation that runs the hotel, described the attack as "Miscreants set the resort on fire last night."
How common is warfare in your country if the people who blow up entire ski resorts are just labelled ‘miscreants’?
How common? – Very…
A few expats have already had a go at skiing but I can’t find evidence that there have been any snowboarders. I guess that the tile of ‘First Snowboarder in Afghanistan’ is still up for grabs.
Duncan DJ on his blog says, “The Salang pass is fairly accessible and I hear Rory Stewart, who set up Turquoise Mountain used to get his driver to drop him at the top and then pick him up 3 hours later at the edge of the snowline. The mines are only an issue if the snow is shallow or you’re going too slow.”
Afghanistan's piste map
And the Natives site also has some anecdotal evidence of people’s liaises-faire attitude to explosion-related limb amputations: The Pakistan News Service has reported that some of Kabul's expat aid workers have experimented with off-piste skiing and snowboarding near the Salang Pass north of Kabul. In the 1970s this was the site of Afghanistan's only ski resort. British telecommunications worker James Howlett said, "It's a fantastic way to blow off some steam after a hard week of working in Kabul.”
Sound like a fantastic way to blow your legs off too.
"We're on areas that have hopefully been cleared of landmines. But the powder is several feet thick so you should be OK if you skim over the top of one."
So too sum up snowboarding in Afghanistan. If you can avoid the endless warfare, death by friendly fire and the gun-toting locals, and if you are quick enough to avoid the landmines, you should be able to snowboard there and make a rare piece of snowboarding history. Tell you what, you go first and let me know what it was like.
This is our third Last Resorts article. We’ve also covered Lesotho and Hawaii as you can see from our still quite Spartan map…
View illicit Snowboarding's Last Resorts in a larger map