KOH-E-BABA MOUNTAINS, Afghanistan — A gaggle of villagers deep in the mountains of central Afghanistan stared in wonder as a professional snowboarder from New Zealand launched himself over half a dozen young children, two of them perched atop donkeys.
It was one of the oddest interactions between foreigners and Afghans in the decade since U.S.-led forces invaded the country, and the result of a surprising tourism push in a country at war.
International aid workers and enterprising locals are trying to attract snowboarders and skiers to the untouched slopes of the Koh-e-Baba mountains to improve the fortunes of Bamiyan province — the site of towering Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, and one of Afghanistan's poorest provinces.
It's no surprise that challenges abound.
Though Bamiyan is largely peaceful, it's tough to convince any but the most adventurous travelers to come to war-torn Afghanistan. Once visitors land in the capital, Kabul, they face the tricky prospect of catching a diplomatic or humanitarian flight since no commercial airlines fly to Bamiyan. A few hardy foreigners have braved the six-hour drive despite the threat of robbery and kidnapping.
There are no ski lifts, so every ascent requires a lung-busting climb up snow-covered mountains that rise to more than 16,000 feet (5,000 meters). Skiers climb up using "skins" — pieces of rough fabric stuck on the bottom of skis for traction. Snowboarders use special boards that split down the middle and then lock back together for the downhill.
The writers of the definitive (and only) guide to skiing in Bamiyan also suggest the "donkey lift" — hiring a villager's donkey to carry you up the mountain.
The commercial guest houses open in the winter provide little more than a bed and a traditional wood-burning stove, and "apres ski" is limited to tea, kebabs and parlor games.
But the mountains are spectacular and provide seemingly endless runs down pristine slopes filled with nothing but the sound of the wind and the rush of skis against snow — a far cry from the crowded trails of American and European ski resorts.
This was the draw for a group of professional snowboarders from New Zealand and Australia who traveled to Bamiyan in late February to film a documentary. They were terrified when they arrived in Kabul, especially because of violent protests against U.S. soldiers burning Qurans that left more than 30 people dead.
"The amount of guns and razor wire that I saw on my way to the guest house from the airport only confirmed what I expected," said Alex Cameron, 22, editor of a snowboarding magazine in Sydney. "But stepping off the plane in Bamiyan, I felt completely safe."
Arriving in Bamiyan does feel a bit like being enveloped in a pastoral painting. The flight into Bamiyan city first makes a flyby of the gravel runway to make sure it is clear of animals and people. The plane lands with views on one side of the snow-covered Hindu Kush mountains, and the niches of the Buddha statues carved into sheer red cliffs on the other.
The snowboarders spent a week traveling with a local guide down Bamiyan's bumpy roads past clusters of mud brick houses looking for steep slopes to shoot down and things to jump, including cliffs, houses and, yes, donkeys — although it took some time to convince the animals' owner it was a good idea.
Once permission was secured, Clint Allan, 26, and his 24-year-old brother, Mitch, raced over a jump built in the snow and soared about 10 feet (3 meters) in the air over the animals and local children.
The two tried to ride the donkeys afterward, provoking howls of laughter. They didn't have much luck getting the stubborn animals to move until a local kid started whacking the animals with a stick.
"It was sweet!" said the elder Allan.
Bamiyan attracted thousands of foreigners every year until the Soviet invasion in 1979 plunged the country into more than three decades of war. Tourists came to trek through the mountains, to picnic at dazzlingly blue Band-e-Amir lake and marvel at the Buddhas. But tourism was mainly limited to the summer, and skiing was unknown in the area.
There was some skiing near the capital, where a few enterprising Afghan skiers built tow ropes in the hills just outside Kabul. But they were abandoned after the Soviets invaded.
The push to make Bamiyan a skiing destination started in 2010, when the Geneva-based Aga Khan Foundation sponsored two Americans to write a guidebook. It has also trained locals to ski and hired internationally certified ski guides to take tourists into the mountains.
To drum up support, a Swiss journalist started an annual race called The Afghan Ski Challenge in 2011. Race day this year in early March attracted 10 Afghan competitors, who were trained for a month beforehand, and five foreigners, including one Associated Press reporter.
The 4 mile (7-kilometer) race included a 1,600-foot (500-meter) ascent on skins and a descent through thick, wet powder. The Afghans swept the top three spots by a wide margin — less an indication of their skiing prowess than the speed with which they could climb up.
The winner, 19-year-old Khalil Reza, zipped across the finish line in 44 minutes and 12 seconds to the cheers of about 100 spectators. As people crowded around Reza to congratulate him, he said he never thought he was going to win.
"But then going up the mountain I was the first one. I got to the top first," Reza said. He won a $700 Swiss watch and a trophy, which was handed to him by the provincial governor.
Many Bamiyan residents support the ski initiative, but others have resisted. Some have complained about skiers urinating near their houses and taking pictures of Afghan women — an insult in this conservative Muslim country. Others have expressed concern their kids would get hurt trying to ski or neglect studying the Quran, Islam's holy book.
But the kids themselves love sliding across the snow on donated ski equipment. It's a welcome diversion during the bleak winter, when families spend months huddled around stoves fed by wood or dried dung, waiting for spring.
"We can't do anything during the winter. We just clean the snow off the roof over and over again," said 70-year-old Sayed Amir Shah, who lives in Jawzari village, about an hour's drive from Bamiyan city.
Just a little farther up the steep mountain road, 16-year-old Arif carried a pair of wooden skis he made out of planks and flattened-out metal from vegetable oil cans. He has to attend Quranic school during the winter but finds a way to sneak in some skiing with friends.
"We wake up and go skiing before breakfast," Arif said.
The new ski industry has had some economic benefit, although the numbers are still fairly small.
Gull Hussein, a 28-year-old entrepreneur, started a tourism company last year that offers a three-day ski package for $315. The deal includes lodging, local transport, ski rental and an international ski guide. About 70 foreigners have taken him up on the offer, most of whom traveled from Kabul.Comment on this story
Ali Shah Farhang has also benefited as Bamiyan's first local ski guide. The 20-year-old student started skiing about a year ago under the tutelage of an Italian guide brought by Aga Khan and has begun leading foreign clients into the mountains, including the professional snowboarders.
He receives $100 a month from Aga Khan and $30 per day when he is guiding clients, a significant sum in a country where a typical government bureaucrat in the capital makes $200 a month. For rural Bamiyan, it's a fortune.
"Foreign people are usually fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, but in Bamiyan they are comfortable, they are skiing," Farhang said.