SKIING: THE RETURN OF MALAM JABBA

Published February 19, 2017
Olympion Mohammad Abbas, one of Pakistan’s leading skiers, hails from Naltar
Olympion Mohammad Abbas, one of Pakistan’s leading skiers, hails from Naltar

The bazaars of Swat are bustling once again. The food shops have returned as have the open spaces for tea. There is music and there is harmony. And there are tales of war and peace, of destruction and development, and indeed, of how skiing has made a return to the Swat Valley.

“We were told that there is unrest and the law and order situation is not comfortable. But everything which we saw and felt here is entirely opposite to the picture painted for us,” says Moroccon skier Yasine Aouich.

Aouich’s surprise is understandable. For many international skiers like him, the lore and lure of Swat Valley is founded in its pristine beauty. But when it came to skiing, there were only tales of woe and what-was — the velvety slope, the powdery snow, and the hospitable locals. The tide is now changing and men such as Aouich or Gull Baizada, the secretary general of the Afghanistan Ski Federation, are witness to the transformation of Swat.


The Taliban destroyed the Swat resort but skiing is building it up again


Everything had changed 11 years ago when the Taliban temporarily took control of the Swat Valley. During their brief but brutal reign in the shadow of the snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush, the Islamist militant group beheaded those they saw as opponents, burned down schools and forbade girls from attending school.

Malam Jabba too became victim of this rage: the militants, who regarded skiing as ‘un-Islamic’, set fire to the resort’s 52-room hotel and destroyed its Austrian-built chairlift, snowmaking machine and ski rental shops. All sporting activity and the tourism it generated ground to a halt. Although the government regained control of the valley in 2009, Malam Jabba remained virtually dormant — a symbol of Pakistan’s floundering attempts to bring tourism back to Swat’s velvet-green mountainsides and purling streams.

“We had lost every hope. We were sure that national or international ski activities would never be restarted here,” says Rehmat Ali. “Back then, our governments were not taking any interest in the revival of Malam Jabba’s ski resort or its skiing activities. What were we to think?”

Rehmat Ali and his brother Zaffar Ali and are among those locals who, 11 years ago and as teenagers, found their passion suspended all of a sudden as the Taliban unleashed their rage. Before that, they’d wear their tattered coats to go skiing down Malam Jabba’s powdery slopes on homemade pine skis. Galoshes nailed to planks sufficed as ski boots while bamboo sticks would serve as their poles. Although Malam Jabba drew moneyed businessmen and European diplomats to its winter resorts, boys such as Rehmat and Zaffar would practice day and night on the slope in the hopes of becoming professional skiers themselves.

“Over time and countless hours of practice, we had learnt how to become versatile skiers. We were sure that in the next few years, we would be counted among the top-ranked skiers of the country,” says Zaffar.

Exceeding pre-tournament predictions, the Ukranians swept the medals in both competitions. Pictured above (from right to left) are Ivan Kovbasnyuk, Anastasiia Gorbunova, Vasyl Telychuk and Tetyana Tikun
Exceeding pre-tournament predictions, the Ukranians swept the medals in both competitions. Pictured above (from right to left) are Ivan Kovbasnyuk, Anastasiia Gorbunova, Vasyl Telychuk and Tetyana Tikun

But Swat Valley changed and skiing was left in the doldrums. With security on top of governmental concerns, nobody was interested in reviving Malam Jabba, not until the Taliban had been decisively pushed out of the valley. Government inaction subsequently prompted aspiring skiers to move away from Malam Jabba.

“Along with a few others, we shifted our attention to Naltar’s ski slope and started skiing there. But of course, we missed our home slope a lot,” adds Zaffar.

Naltar’s ski resort is run by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). Like Zaffar and Rehmat Ali, many other young skiers also headed to the relative safety afforded in Naltar.

With no infrastructure to talk about, the government being disinterested in investing, and with locals also heading away, Malam Jabba began wearing a deserted look. Every subsequent KP government, despite the 8th Amendment, could not revive the ski resort. Some small-scale domestic activities were started a few years ago with the help of the Army to build a ‘soft image’ of the Swat Valley but these efforts also went in vain.

Even though Pakistan approached the Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS) to help out back then, the international ski federation remained reluctant to hold any competitions as no country was ready or willing to send their skiers or coaches to Pakistan. The Ski Federation of Pakistan (SFP) was arguing at the time that millions of dollars had to be spent by the SFP to get national skiers trained outside Pakistani slopes every year since there was no internationally approved and recognised ski slope in the country.

And yet, despite the barren landscape within, Pakistan participated in the Vancouver (Canada) Winter Olympics, 2012 and the Sochi (Russia) Winter Olympics, 2016.

Three years ago, Pakistan received a welcome breakthrough. The FIS was finally sending its inspectors to Pakistan to reassess the situation. After conducting a detailed survey and holding discussions with SFP and PAF officials, the FIS inspectors cleared both slopes for international competition.

“This [approval] allowed us to redouble our efforts to bring international skiers to Naltar and Malam Jabba,” explains Syed Qaswar Abbas Naqvi, the secretary general of the SFP. “Later on, the FIS gave its nod to hold two international ski races at Naltar.”


Swat Valley changed [after the Taliban] and skiing was left in the doldrums. With security on top of governmental concerns, nobody was interested in reviving Malam Jabba, not until the Taliban had been decisively pushed out of the valley. Government inaction subsequently prompted aspiring skiers to move away from Malam Jabba.


The FIS still saw some issues in Malam Jabba, however.

“The Malam Jabba slope did not meet international standards set by the FIS, so we held our first international competition at Naltar. Six top skiers from Turkey participated in the competition, which was encouraging for us,” he adds.

New chairlifts were installed as part of rebuilding and rehabilitating Malam Jabba
New chairlifts were installed as part of rebuilding and rehabilitating Malam Jabba

Meanwhile, work continued on bringing Malam Jabba at par with other ski slopes and resorts as SFP and PAF experts carried out renovations. FIS’ concerns were eventually removed and a new chair lift, a snow-pressing machine and accommodation for players were set up. Following the successful conclusion of the Chief of Air Staff International Karakorum Cup, 2016 in Naltar, the FIS received satisfactory reports from its officials about the facilities installed and how both venues were now meeting international criteria.

More good news followed soon. The FIS subsequently approved 16 international races for both slopes (Malam Jabba and Naltar). This sparked the SFP into action: some 43 top-level skiers were invited from nine countries for the 16 races, thereby heralding Pakistan’s return to the international scene as a tournament destination. Even India showed no hesitation in participating and sent its top skier, Arif Khan, to Pakistan to compete. In Malam Jabba, the tournament organised was named the Alpine Malam Jabba Cup while Naltar was to hold the Chief of Air Staff International Karakorum Cup.

“The federation extended an invitation to nearly 20 countries and each country responded positively,” explains a senior SFP official. “Due to their pledged commitments in various other winter games, however, skiers from only nine countries reached Pakistan. These included Afghanistan, India, Morocco, Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.”

But inclement weather in Naltar proved to be a killjoy, and the SFP, after the approval of the FIS, decided to hold all races in Malam Jabba, Swat. The competitions started on January 26, 2017 and attracted tremendous public attention.

Home support did not result in Pakistani skiers claiming any advantage, however. In fact, Pakistani men skiers’ performances at the two tournaments raised many an eyebrow despite Olympians Mohammad Karim, Mohammad Abbad and Mohammad Nawaz all competing. On the women’s front, Ifra Wali showed some spirit to bag one gold, one silver, and two bronze medals. She therefore became the first woman skier of the country to clinch four medals in one season. Fatima Sohail and Zainab Sohail bagged one silver medal each.

Although Ukrainian women and men dominated the 16 races, Slovakian skier Jan Jacob pushed them all the way. But eventually, the Ukrainians prevailed and won both ski cups. The Turks had been billed as the tournament favourites at the start but the inexperience of their young team told at the end and they were unable to muster a single award. “Our aim was to give our new blood some training and courage in FIS races,” argued the Turk coach.

The international contingent being accorded a warm welcome by the organisers
The international contingent being accorded a warm welcome by the organisers

The historic 16-race international ski event drew to a close on February 3 but has left an indelible impression. Locals loved seeing their beloved sport and city return to health but, crucially, those who arrived for skiing left with stories of a country rebounding from the wrath of terrorism.

“We are very happy to come here and will definitely convince other international skiers to visit Pakistan. It is a peaceful, friendly and comfortable country,” says Anastasiia Gor­bonova, Ukraine’s top woman skier. She also had a complaint that was echoed by other local and international guests: “The road leading up to Malam Jabba is in a deplorable state. Authorities must take care of the road if they want international winter games [to be held regularly] here.”

Another Slovakian skier adds: “The road from Saidu Sharif City onwards is terrible, it needs to be rebuilt as soon as possible.”

The great hope among skiing enthusiasts is that when Anastasia and her friends return next year, the infrastructure and roads will be in a much better state.

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 19th, 2017

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