The Afghan government hopes tourists will return to the dazzling mountain
scapes of the northern Hindu Kush region [AP]

Afiyat Khan, a former mujahideen soldier, survived numerous gun battles and the US invasion of his country, but nothing had prepared him for the challenge of climbing the Italian Alps in 2005.

"I didn't know there was something called equipment and mountaineering gear. It was also very expensive," said the 28-year-old amateur mountaineer from the village of Qazideh in Afghanistan's Badakshan province.

Khan was one of a handful of Afghans selected by Mountain Wilderness, a Rome-based organisation, for the first mountaineering training course in Europe for Afghans.

Headed by Carlo Alberto Pinelli, the well-known Italian mountaineer, Mountain Wilderness has for the past few years offered environment-friendly mountaineering courses for Afghan youngsters in the hope that they will work as guides in the mountain areas.

Soon after the fall of the Taliban, Mountain Wilderness organised the Oxus Mission: Mountains for Peace, with the aim of reopening some of Afghanistan's mountains to tourism.

Isolated region

In the 1970's, the stunningly beautiful wilderness of the Badakshan province, along the Wakhan land corridor in the Hindu Kush bordering the Oxus River, was a big draw for mountaineers from all over the world.  
 
"I had heard many tales from my father, the headman of our village, who would accompany foreign tourists into the mountains," Khan told Al Jazeera.

Morning sets across the Badakshan mountain
range [Anne Feenstra]
But in 1979, Soviet troops crossed the Oxus River bordering the Wakhan Corridor, from Tajikistan, bringing regional tourism to an end.

Three decades of war put an end to adventure travel in this exotic land, making climbing, trekking, hiking and other outdoor sports a hazardous activity even now. 

The area was so inaccessible that Badakshan became the only province in the country where the Taliban could not gain a foothold during their rule of the country; the terrain was a natural barrier against the movement of mechanised infantry and material.

The province paid a price for this. As the only "opposition" stronghold it was also completely cut off from the Taliban "government".

The international borders - the Tajik north and Pakistan to the west - were sealed even to the normal traffic of goods and locals that comprised the economy.

This pushed the region into severe economic deprivation, forcing it to rely completely on an agro-pastoral economy and humanitarian aid from international agencies.

Mountaineering

But Afiyat Khan is one of a growing number of Afghans hoping to resuscitate the country's defunct mountaineering tourism industry.

The Hindu Kush Wakhan Corridor in
northern Afghanistan.
He is currently working as a master mason on a visitor's centre and gate house project financed by the Asian Development Bank in coordination with the ministry of agriculture for the proposed Wakhan Pamir national park in the village of Qala-e-Panja.

The project is expected to reap the benefits of safety and security not found elsewhere in Afghanistan and become a big draw for the more adventurous tourists.

Expatriate workers in Afghanistan have already been making their way inwards during the short season that lasts from late June to mid-September, before temperatures plummet.

Plans to designate the Wakhan Pamir area and the spectacular lakes of Band-i-Amir in central Afghanistan as natural reserves are also currently under consideration by officials in Kabul for the first time since the 1979 Soviet invasion.

Dad Mohammad Baheer, the deputy executive director general of the National Environment Protection Agency, said the Wakhan Pamir is one of four top priority areas for the government's environment conservation projects.

He said: "Plans to declare the area a natural reserve were interrupted by the war but currently, the Wildlife Conservation Society, an international organisation, is mapping its bio-diversity."

International aid

The Aga Khan Foundation, in coordination with the Norwegian Action Committee, has also been working with the local population to train guides and help set up simple guest houses along the roads leading to Wakhan.

The two agencies have also pursued eco-tourism initiatives for the Wakhan corridor.

Mehboob Aziz, a coordinator for eco-tourism projects in the town of Ishkashim at the beginning of the Wakhan corridor, recently returned from "an exposure trip" of Afghans to the adjoining region of the Wakhan in Pakistan.

"We are trying to encourage tourists to cross the borders as opposed to the terrorists," he said referring to the influx of insurgents across Afghanistan's southern border.

The group he supervised was taught "food preparation and basic hygiene for tourists", concepts he says the people of Wakhan are not familiar with.

Arts and music festival

Aziz says 115 tourists visited the Wakhan mountain passes in 2006. That figure rose to more than 145 in 2007.

Aziz hopes that the first Wakhan Pamir arts and music festival, held last November, and the construction of new guest houses, will encourage more tourists to visit the area.

Afiyat Khan is himself toying with the idea of either opening a guest house or a shop to sell local handicrafts to tourists.

He said: "When the tourists come I would like to work full time as a tourist guide. I want to be there to travel with them into the heart of my area." 

"Hopefully, one day, I will also be able to climb Afghanistan's highest peak, Noshaq."

Source: Al Jazeera