Anthony Mitchell a friend and skipartner during my JaPow Season 2012 went to a unusal place and wrote one of my all time favorite stories about it - enjoy and start planning your next trip :-)
I flew into Kabul 48 hrs after a seriously unhinged US soldier went postal and killed 17
innocent Afghan civilians, the majority being women and children. This was hot on the heels of the infamous Koran burnings, and the video of US soldiers urinating on dead Taliban soldiers. It would be fair to say that any Westerners flying in weren’t exactly going to get a tickertape parade or showered in Moet from giant oversized bottles.
Soldiers at the Darulaman Palace, Kabul
As I sat on the plane from Dubai trying to remember if I actually had a will, I thought about how easy it was to get here. Just like any other holiday, I applied for a visa, bought a plane ticket, and flew in. Surely it couldn’t be that simple? Where was the siren that went off with flashing lights, and a dude on a megaphone saying “WARNING, WARNING, YOU ARE A COMPLETE IDIOT, LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER AND CANCEL YOUR TICKET”. The normalcy was itself surreal. But looking around on the flight in, I realised it wasn’t so normal. I began to think of the Sesame Street song “One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others”. I had dreadlocks and ski boots. All the other passengers had buzz cuts, and were built like brick supermarkets. Hmm, private security workers, most probably ex-military. Then upon landing when I picked my skis up, I had people taking photos of me, mumbling things like “mad”, “crazy”, and “wait til I show the guys back at the base, they’ll never believe this”. I tried to look like I did this thing all the time and had it all under control. The reality was I felt like a spawning salmon at a Grizzly Bear Conference.
I passed the huge “Turn Off Your Jammer” sign at the airport gate and was disgorged into Kabul. To the freshly arrived traveller the things that stand out are the absolutely chaotic traffic, the dusty streets, the sheer volume of concrete barrier walls with razor wire on top, and a really heavy security presence. Every major intersection had Hummers or Police Landcruisers with very large weapons mounted on the back, and everyone in uniform had an AK47. And in the middle of this, life for the locals was normal – people going to work, going shopping, eating in restaurants, hawkers selling their wares, taxi drivers honking their horns. It wasn’t the war zone I was expecting it to be, people weren’t burning American flags, it wasn’t the streets of Mogadishu in Black Hawk Down. In a pleasingly chaotic, dusty, Middle Eastern way, it was...normal.
Our time in Kabul was limited though, as our destination was Bamian, a days drive to the west. Bamian is on the old Silk Road and sits in the middle of the Hindu Kush mountain range. Whilst it is the most peaceful province in Afghanistan, the trick is getting there, which involves driving past Bagram Air Force base (site of the Koran Burnings) and through the Gorbhand Valley over the Shibar Pass. No foreign worker I met was allowed to do this trip due to security concerns. I started to wonder why I hadn’t travelled somewhere more mellow, like Canada. Or Bredbo.
Remains of the larger Buddha
Disguised in the local clothing of pakol hat, scarf and salwar kameez, we blended in beautifully as we headed north in our Toyota Super Extra. I didn’t realise how much we blended in until we got to the military checkpoint at the head of the Gorbhand Valley. The guard (his head entirely wrapped in a scarf, somehow in my head making his AK47 more likely to be discharged) stuck his head in the van and started yelling at me. I thought it was pretty obvious that I didn’t speak Pashto or Dari, but his frustrations continued until I pulled out my passport. That calmed him down, and once I got my passport back and my heart rate had come back down below 5 billion bpm, I asked our guide Kausar what that had been all about. He explained that Angry Scarf Man hadn’t realised I was a foreigner, and was simply wanting me to remove my pakol so he could see my face more clearly. Fair enough, but it made me think the world would be a better place if angry people had sock puppets instead of AK47s.
Climbing up over the Shibar Pass and descending into Bamian, we realised we had arrived at Shangri La. The locals were stupendously friendly, and a walk through the market was full of smiles, handshakes and greetings of “salaam aleykum” (peace be upon you). The blacksmiths showed us their handiwork, the breadmakers gave me some fresh bread for free, the kids selling snuff thought it was hilarious when I retched at their foul green powder (I have no idea if the ensuing buzz was opium-induced but for the purposes of this story we’ll assume so) and everybody wanted their photo taken. It was as far as you could imagine from the war torn footage shown on newsreels back home.
The people are one part of the Bamian magic. The second part is the scenery. The valley is immediately surrounded by rugged, spectacular cliffs that have caves carved in them from centuries previous, behind which stand tall the huge snow capped mountains of the Koh e Baba (“old man mountains”), extending to 5000m. Mountains that you have all to yourself.
The “road” to Band e Amir
The final thing that makes Bamian amazing is the history. Right next to our lodge was a hill upon which sat the Shah e Golghola, or City of Screams. Built by the Ghorids in the 5th Century, it was trashed by Genghis Khan in the 13th Century. Nobody has inhabited it since, and the ruins still stand, looking out over the valley as a testament to the folly of all those who have ever tried to conquer anything in Afghanistan. Silly people.
Not all the history is old though – some of it is so recent it still hurts. The thing that Bamian is most famous for, the 2 largest standing Buddhas in the world, stood for 1500 years. One was 55m high, the other 37m, and they stood carved out of solid rock, giant sentinels over the valley. They saw Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, they watched over countless Silk Road traders, stood during numerous earthquakes, they witnessed the rise and fall of empires, and the British and Russian invasions. And they were destroyed in moments when the Taliban, in an act that was as least 12 types of stupid, wrapped them in explosives in 2001. Needless to say they didn’t get many “likes” on their Facebook page after that.
The real reason we were here though was to ski. We drove up high into nearby valleys, where clusters of mud brick huts had stacks of drying donkey turds on the roof. Very homely. When we parked our van, the locals would gather around us and ogle our equipment, and laugh at the one word of Dari I had learnt – “Dewana”, which means “crazy”. I’ll admit “What is your name?” or “Do you have a bathroom?” might have been more practical phrases, but it got a lot of laughs. I always make the assumption that if people are laughing, they are less able to accurately aim a weapon. (Of course it must be stressed you do have more chance of being killed by a successful North Korean missile launch than you do encountering violence in Bamian).
Of course there are no resorts in Afghanistan, the skiing is purely backcountry. We skied at places like Qazan, Khushkhak and the Ahangeran Valley, but he biggest highlight was in the Chapdara Valley, where the kids actually had their own home made skis and came skiing with us. These skis were seriously primitive, just slabs of rough-hewn timber with tin nailed onto the bottom. The bindings were simple toe straps with some cord to tie their heels down. I highly suspected that even the tools that made their handmade skis were handmade. The only thing that wasn’t handmade were their ski boots, which had all the support and rigidity of gumboots. Because they were, er, gumboots.
We were living a Warren Miller movie, hanging out with these kids who had as much passion for skiing as we did, using equipment that would have looked dodgy even in the 1920s. Through our ski guide Ali Shah we managed to tell them how happy we were to be sharing this with them, and with grinning faces they conveyed the same back to us. Words can’t describe how surreal, fantastic, and amazing this was, having a common bond with kids that live a subsistence life in a war torn country on the other side of the world. As I skinned up the hill for another run, strange water started to leak out of my eyes. Of course I wasn’t crying, because I’m a big tough bloke who likes cars and sport and power tools and all things manly. Nope, definitely not tears. But when I thought about it, I have never been so content, never felt such an unusual bond with people, in such an amazing environment. Maybe I just had something in my eye. Or maybe that damn onion chopping ninja was stalking me again, just like he does when somebody gets voted out on The Biggest Loser.
Of course on a trip like this you can’t restrict yourself to the ski hills. A fortuitous encounter saw us spend one hour on Afghan radio, being interviewed, answering questions from the public, and having songs dedicated to us. The highlight was at the end, when the presenter asked us if we would like to choose a song to dedicate back to the Afghan public. We looked around at each other with pained indecision, and were all thinking the same thing – this was a strict Islamic country where music and dancing were banned until a few years ago. What could we choose that wouldn’t cause offence? What wouldn’t be too thrashy, too sexy, too doof doof? Hell, what songs did they even have? Our prolonged hesitation and decision making was making for such poor radio that the decision was made for us, as the announcer said “...and thanks to our foreign tourists who have just chosen a track from [big radio voice] DJ ARMAGEDDON...”. We all looked at each other – who the hell was DJ Armageddon? As the base-heavy dance beat kicked in, and the middle aged announcer got up and started dancing, and the guys in the mixing booth started dancing, we got up and joined in, laughing with joy as we realised we were doing something that would have had us punished under the Taliban only a few years earlier. Silly Taliban. No more “likes” for you.
There were many other highlights on the trip – we got invited to a NowRooz (Persian New Year) concert to watch a local band weave their magic on traditional instruments. We stumbled across a local wedding and they interrupted proceedings so the groom could have his photo taken with the “foreigners”. We visited Dragon Valley, where spring meltwater created a thunderous brown waterfall. We flew kites in Kabul, cutting down others kites with our glass-lined string (until of course we got smashed by much superior local kids). We saw the finals of Afghan Idol on telly (is there no escape?). And we took a day trip to Band e Amir, Afghanistan’s first National Park, declared only in 2009.
The journey to Band e Amir started with a phone call from our guide Kausar – “Yes I have checked, the road is open”, he triumphantly announced the night before. The obvious implication was that there was a road.
As it turned out the “road” was as useful for driving as oven mitts are for ice climbing. I swear there was bog we drove through that had never actually seen a tyre track in its life. Our avvy gear was put to good use - shovels were used to dig us out of bogs, and probes used to check river depths. We even had to drive around an avalanche which had completely buried the road.
The effort was all forgotten as we rounded a bend in the valley and saw soaring cliffs above a dazzling blue lake. It was spellbinding, and reminiscent of the Grand Canyon, but way cooler because this was a complete surprise. Plus it was Afghanistan which automatically makes everything cooler. The other 5 lakes were still frozen over, meaning a paddle in giant fibreglass swans was out, but that didn’t detract from the rugged beauty of this place, somewhere that would attract millions of visitors if it was any other country.
People often ask if it was safe. The only time I was really scared was driving our 4WD van up the Ahangeran Valley. The road was a mix of frozen mud and fresh snow, it was only a foot wider than the van, there was no guard rail, there were sharp corners, off camber sections, steep segments, a huge drop off, and we were sliding all over the place. I couldn’t look out the window. I thought of our bald tyres and asked our guide “Ali Shah, can you ask the driver if he is in 4WD?”. “No Mitch, he is in 2WD. The 4WD is frozen”. I was confused. “Didn’t he build a fire under the car before we left?”. “Yes”, Ali Shah replied, “but it was minus 16, the fire wasn’t big enough”.
That really sums up Afghanistan – it seems like it should be dangerous, but if you blindly shut your eyes and trust the locals, you’ll be right. And while you’re having the adventure of a lifetime, you’re bringing valuable tourist dollars into a country that is remembered for all the wrong reasons.
[A note on security - it was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life and I would recommend it to anyone. And whilst I generally avoid tours, Afghanistan is a tad different. You need local contacts who know what’s going on. My trip was with an English company called Untamed Borders, who use local guides. A professional mob with a low-key approach, I’d recommend them highly. Google them if you think you want to do a similar trip – you won’t regret it.]