Afghan ski race fuels optimism for the future

BAMIYAN (AFP) - The road to get there may not be safe and local attacks may be at a decade high, but an annual ski race in the Hindu Kush offers Afghanistan the glimpse of a better future, organisers say.

Under the beady eye of Afghan police armed with machine guns, a reminder of the country's war, local and Western skiers compete in a gruelling test of physical fitness in the mountains 180 km west of Kabul.

"Organising a ski competition seems frivolous, but it has a symbolic dimension," said Mr Christoph Zurcher, the event's Swiss founder. "People here can think that Afghanistan is going somewhere instead of going down."

There are no ski lifts in Shaidan valley, Bamiyan province, so the 30 participants in last week's "Afghan Ski Challenge" first had to clamber up a steep ascent on a course ranging in altitude from 3,200 to 3,480 m.

Afghans accustomed to mountain conditions soon stretched ahead of breathless international skiers as a cheerful crowd of several hundred supporters and children from nearby villages shouted encouragement.

The stunning setting and peaceful atmosphere was a world away from Afghanistan's violent image, and Mr Zurcher hopes that the race is one small step towards the valley becoming a proper ski resort.

"Most countries which are off-track, when they open, people rush there. Look at Cambodia or Burma. If Afghanistan opens, it will be the same."

Mr Zurcher, a journalist based in Zurich, said the idea of holding a race came to him when he was stuck in Bamiyan for four days in 2010 while on assignment.

"With all those mountains around, it doesn't take long for a Swiss person to think about skiing. Few local people had heard of the sport."

Mr Zurcher found sponsors to buy equipment from Europe and held the first race in 2011, with the event now supported by a range of commercial backers who guarantee free entry and provide prizes of luxury watches and jackets.

After completing the first arduous climb, a flat section and then another ascent, skiers completed the 2.6-km course with a well-earned cruise to the finishing line on beautiful powder snow.

"I'm very happy, we trained really hard, seven days a week as soon as snow started to fall," said Mr Sajad Hosseini, a local guide.

He won in a time of 28 minutes. The last exhausted and sun-burnt foreigners finished after more than three hours.

"It wasn't just about the race. It was also about the ski business. Tourism will develop in the future," Mr Hosseini said. "First because here it's cheap. And also because nobody did it before, so people will love to come here."

Despite the optimism, serious problems remain for the country.

The organisers issued a warning that "mountains of Afghanistan are not the Alps nor the Rocky Mountains", stressing that racers took part at their own risk, given poor access to medical care in the war-torn, poverty-stricken country.

Bamiyan province, known for its vast Buddhas destroyed by the taleban in 2001, wants to revive its tourism heyday in the 1960s when visitors thronged to its mountains, lakes and impressive historical and archaeological heritage.

Since the fall of the Taleban, the province has been one of Afghanistan's most tranquil areas despite being surrounded by more volatile provinces.

But there has been a recent rise in incidents, with the deaths of five New Zealand military last August shocking many who believed that the ethnic Hazaras who dominate Bamiyan were keeping taleban insurgents at bay.

The two roads from Kabul remain unsafe due to kidnapping and robbery, and provincial governor Habiba Sarobi admits that 18 Afghans died in attacks in Bamiyan linked to the insurgency last year, the worst record in 11 years.

On race day, armed police watched over the scene on Ms Sarobi's orders.

"This is to reassure the media and participants and to show that we protect the event," she said after watching the race. "But in Bamiyan, we don't have any problem. The Taleban do not exist here."

With Afghan forces taking over the fight against Taleban-led insurgents as Nato combat troops withdraw, the outlook for the country is uncertain and mass tourism appears a distant dream.

But Mr Gull Bayzadeh, a local travel agent who helped organise the race, saw the success of the event as a sign of Bamiyan's long-term potential.

"Skiing and tourism are symbols of peace. It will replace the war, the fighting," he said.

"I'm sure that if we continue like this, Taleban will drop their guns and come to ski," he joked.

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