Huge congratulations to Sajjad Hussaini and Sayyed Alishah Farhang for qualifying to participate in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics as the first Afghans to participate in an Olympic skiing event. Through this historic parcipation, not only are they bringing the world’s attention to a positive image of Afghanistan unknown to the world, a story other than the dominating voice of conflict, they are also pioneering the establishment of skiing in Afghanistan, paving the way for many more generations of skiers to come from Afghanistan. Yes! Yes! Yes!
In celebrating this important milestone in Afghanistan’s young journey as a ski nation, we must honor and recognize the hard work by Sajjad and Alishah in materializing this dream despite the insurmountable amount of challenges as latecomers to the sport, living in Afghanistan, and training without proper equipment. They are the faces of the new generation in Afghanistan. Born in war, and living through it, this generation is about turning the tables, changing the existing narratives, and establishing new and exciting chapters. This generation recognizes that the story of war was written and imposed on us by outsiders, people who didn’t roam these mountains with us. This generation writes a different story, of putting up the good 'fight', of conquering vast mountains on skis, and in doing so, reclaiming beautiful landscapes lost to warheads.
Alishah and Sajjad stepped into the world of skiing after a Swiss journalist by the name of Christoph Zuercher ended up in their valley of Bamiyan, located in Central Afghanistan. While on a vacation in one of the only few places in Afghanistan safe enough for foreigners to visit, Christoph noticed the snowy hills and mountains in the valley, perfectly conditioned for skiing. The next year, he returned with some ski equipment and tried to convince the locals to try it out. Few people showed interest, and those who did faced opposition from their families who had a hard time understanding what the sport was about or the value one could get from sliding on the snow as opposed to spending that time studying or helping the family with herding the livestock.
To devise a better way to establish interest among the locals, Christoph organized a ski race, and named it the “Afghan Ski Challenge”, where contestants have to hike up a steep mountain (there are no lifts), and then go down for a quick descend. Seeing the racers stumble and fall on their way down gave the locals and the skiers something to laugh about. Everyone was having a great time, and that’s how the Afghan Ski Challenge became an annual thing. And that’s how the raw talent of Alishah and Sajjad was discovered. After winning a few of the challenges in the beginning years, they were crowned the ‘best skiers’ in Afghanistan.
Video: Afghan Ski Challenge
Now the Afghan Ski Challenge is in its 8th year, drawing racers from all corners of the world in a battle unique to the cultures, geography, and conditions of Afghanistan. Since its adoption, the challenge has resulted in the formation of several local ski clubs, the main one being Bamyan Ski Club, of which Sajjad and Alishah are a member of. The duo have also trained in St. Moritz for the past three winters. They are back there again this year to prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympics. If you want your two cents to go to a worthy cause, consider a donation to support their journey to PyeongChang. From humble beginnings to sweat, victories, and challenging moments, this is a 'Dream Come True' story most deserving your support.
The Olympics is in 90 days, and I am already counting days to watch Sajjad and Alishah’s historic participation, waving the Black, Red, and Green flag among other nations, and with it, a message of peace.
To learn more about skiing and its development in Afghanistan, check out Afghan Ski Challenge.
When I finished my first race season last year, I walked away determined to qualify for the collegiate national championships this year. It was a lofty goal; I had jumped into racing only after a year of riding mountain bikes, and the few podium finishes that gave me the temptation to even imagine going to nationals were only from racing in the beginner category. To go to nationals, I had to race in the advanced level against riders who are either on professional teams, or at least much more experienced than I was.
Was this a realistic goal? Perhaps it was achievable with hard training, but how much could I shrug off the fact that I had never been an athlete, and that my experience with mountain biking was still at the novice stage? I could barely hang on to any rides longer than two hours, let alone racing for that long. I lacked the many years of repetitive pedaling, “building the base” as they call it in cycling, that my fellow competitors benefited from. But I am not a stranger to disadvantages. In fact, it constitutes every young Afghan's identity. I grew up studying with a kerosene lamp, my textbooks were handwritten -- black and white copies carrying obsolete knowledge, and you can say in general that I grew up dealing with scarcity; of peace, comfort, and opportunity - things that people in the West take for granted.
But I no longer wanted these images to define who I am. After all, they are the reason behind Afghanistan's depressing image in the world. For once, I wanted to be out there... at the forefront with everyone else... for something that the world didn’t know me for. I wanted to be a cyclist. And more importantly, I wanted to be a cyclist from Afghanistan.
This past weekend, I stood at the start line of the 2017 Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships. The year that passed was full of challenges and, at the same time, fulfilling moments. It contained back injuries, near-broke situations, long hours on an indoor trainer, winning some races, and feeling inadequate in others. But I kept on pedaling. I spent the summer living alone near Kingdom Trails where I rode day after day to improve my skills and fitness. I drove to plenty of races, with constant fear that my $800 Subaru will die during the trips.
Qualifying for nationals was a nightmare. After I upgraded to the advanced level by week three of collegiate season, my bike kept on having mechanical problems that wouldn't let me finish some of my races. It had slowly deteriorated over the two years, serving me well on the rocky trails of Colorado and the wet rooty trails in the North East. There was barely any teeth left on my chain ring causing my chain to fall repetitively during races, and making me stop frequently to put it back on. One afternoon during a fun ride with my friend Ted, I was stopped from going off a cliff by a tree. Ted immediately took me to the local bike shop, appalled that I had been racing with those brakes… or no brakes. With the help of a friend, I fixed my bike just in time for nationals.
Going to nationals was the epitome of my journey so far trying to make it as an Afghan cyclist. It was a reward for my hard work, and the promises I had made to myself. Nationals was an important milestone, an achievement on which I can build my still very young experience with mountain biking. It was a test of how far I have come in cycling, and how much further I need to go. It was an opportunity to put Afghanistan’s name on the start line -- for the first time in a U.S. mountain bike national championship.
It was also one of the hardest races I have done. Although I was not expecting myself to be among the top finishers - not anywhere close, I was ready to give it my all in a field of fast racers, on a course with grueling climbs and sketchy descends, and a snowy day that made for a fun and memorable race. But I was also there for the full experience, of what it takes to race at that level, and to learn everything about racing, from tiny logistical details to staying calm, energized and present. I ended up finishing 45th out of 55 starters - not so strong a result, but I was happy with how I did. As one of my friends once told me, “it’s not only about the destination, it is more about the journey.” And the journey is not over yet. This is just the beginning. If one thing the nationals gave me is more motivation and energy to continue working hard for next year.
Kudus to my teammate Anika Heilweil for grabbing 3rd and 5th in women’s, and Katie Aman for strong finishes. Our combined points put Middlebury at number 5 nationally in Club Division II.
As I wrap this chapter of my cycling journey, I would like to extend my deepest gratitudes to my family (who supports me non-stop despite sometimes not understanding why I do the things that I do), friends (special shout out to Kai Wiggins, Ted Grace, Roberto Barbier, Mairin Wilson, Whitney Ericson, George Valentine, and Cole Ellison), Andrew Johnson for giving valuable lessons and tips for training, Middlebury College for sponsoring our trip to the Nationals Championship, Maine Huts & Trails, Louis Garneau for donated gear, and everyone else for all kinds of material and moral support.
Until next blog. Hope everyone enjoys this beautiful fall weather. I am off to some rest, and super excited to learn some cross country skiing this winter.
Last week, I visited Maine Huts & Trails in the beautiful Carrabassett Valley in Western Maine. I left the place smiling, stoked with a couple of new possibilities for exciting future projects, and a pair of really sore legs from too much fun riding.
I learned about Maine Huts & Trails this summer at a bike festival in Kingdom Trails. As people from across New England and Quebec Province flooded the small town of Burke, I found myself to be the only Afghan, which is kind of crazy, but also not, because the situation was really just an archetype of the real world: outdoor sports are almost exclusively a Western thing (which makes my work all the more exciting because there are so many untapped opportunities). So there I stood, looking at the microcosm of a world insanely abundant with resources, and at the same time, carrying in the folder under my arm tales of people from back home riding without a helmet. My goal: to connect the two worlds. I walked into the vendor area, trafficked by big-name bike manufacturing, nutrition, apparel, and gear companies. To each, I pitched and distributed my black & white pamphlets. Maine Huts & Trails got the idea, and gracefully invited me to visit them, a true hidden gem in the North East region.
Central Maine is where I first came to the U.S. as a 16-year-old exchange student. Small, densely wooded hills surrounding rusty industrial towns with a disappearing population and economy was pinned in my memory. So to think that there was a network of some of the best trails in New England was just too good to be true. So I was really impatient to check it out. Good memories flooded as I drove through the same small towns, and recognized the ice-cream shop my host parents and I occasionally went to, the tennis court I had played tennis for the first time in my life, and the auditorium where I had watched my first ever co-ed choir concert--the angelic voices sending tears to my eyes. Maine is where it had all began; modest, and hospitable people, especially my host parents, welcoming a young Afghan in a freezing January. Maine gave me perspective; of what I had missed my whole life growing up in a conflict region, and what I could achieve and become. Was this a homecoming?
The more North I went, the dense forests started to transform into wide-open meadows, and hills to big, even rocky, mountains. I was discovering a beautiful part of Maine that I had no idea existed. I started to see why there would be a vast network of mountain bike trails snaking through river valleys, forests, near waterfalls, and up rocky hills.
Maine Huts & Trails is implementing a simple idea: build huts along these beautiful places, and connect them with hiking, biking, and skiing trails that are open year-round. The non-profit's mission is to create a community dedicated to preserving the beautiful wilderness, and at the same time open it up for recreational and educational use. Each hut is built next to a few attractions like waterfalls, swimming holes, and nearby vistas.
When I saw Grand Falls Hut, where I stayed the first night, I immediately thought “why they call this a hut?”, because it looks like lodge from the outside. Unlike 'traditional' huts which are often shacks, Maine Huts are equipped with solar panels that make them completely off-the-grid, a cozy living area, library, kitchen, composting toilets, and bunk beds, all of which loudly scream “home!” And the food is otherworldly. Served every dinner and breakfast, everything on the table is from local farms, which reflects the organization's commitment to growing local economy. There are so many awesome things about the huts that it will take another blog to explain, but I will let you check it out for yourselves!
As the week advanced, I got closer to Carrabassett Valley, where the trails transform from wild to smooth, fun, and playful. It's the stuff most bike parks have these days, but more technical as the region is very rocky. The trails here are different, and they expose the unique taste of a small group of passionate trail builders. Some trails zigzag next to the Carrabassett River, which is blessed with so many swimming holes (I mean one after the other), and the rest runs through the mountains near Sugarloaf Ski Mountain. Using Poplar Hut as a base camp, I spent a day having a blast on these trails with Jamie Walter, a super-talented self-taught photographer. I also spent a day volunteering with the trail crew fixing some washed out parts of a trail. It was a wonderful learning opportunity as there is so much knowledge and hard work that goes into trail-building, that as riders we often fail to appreciate. It was humbling to watch the crew putting in many hours for a few feet of trail, doing everything with a passion to provide, so we can all enjoy.
The end of my visit was concurrent with the annual Sugarloaf Mountain Bike Festival, now in its second year. There were group rides, skills clinics, kids race, outdoor concerts, and a hilarious sausage championship race where after every short lap, contestants had to eat a sausage. The winner ate 9. Matt, my new friend, came second with 8 sausages. I made things worse for him by asking to go on a ride with me after he had almost puked.
The coolest part of the festival was connecting with Kate Boehmer, and the rest of the Maine Huts & Trails crew. They are a passionate bunch who have turned an idea into a thriving organization, turning the Carrabassett region into an upcoming hot destination for all things adventure. Thank you Maine Huts & Trails for the amazing hospitality, friendship, and giving me the chance to explore, learn, and unlock future possibilities. I look forward to working on some exciting projects together in the future! Until next time.
Finally, an everyday feeling I experienced during the trip. On my hut to hut adventures, I would get very impatient in the last 2 miles, not because I was tired or anything, but simply because I was so curious about the next hut; where would it be, how would it look like, who works there, who else is staying tonight… The huts have attractive characters. So do the trails. And the people who work there. If you love spending time outside; hiking, biking, skiing, paddling, walking, or just relaxing in a hut, Maine Huts & Trails is definitely worth your visit.
I am writing this from a cozy cafe in the peaceful town of East Burke, Vermont as another explosion rocks Kabul, this time in front of the English center my father goes every morning to learn English. By pure fate, he happened not to be there. Here in Burke, a soft rain outside mixes with the ambiance of the Indie Folk song, as steam from freshly brewed coffee circulates among friendly chatters of Quebecois visitors. There in Kabul, the sound of vest bombs amplifies throughout the city, and in a few seconds when silence vibrates back, 29 people are dead — among them my father's friend.
I came here to write about exactly a year ago when my father and 14-year-old cousin found themselves among a crowd of peaceful protesters that got hit with two large explosions. I was in Colorado, and found the news trending on social media; 86 lives gone, and more than 400 injured. My father and cousin had miraculously survived. Those who died were friends, and friends of friends. I curled in my bed like a fish pulled out of freshwater. Without self-control, I needled together that flag in the picture above from pieces of black, red, and green cloth - that symbol of a nation long drowned in familiar pain. But how can I let go of this flag? Of a place I have called home, and loved, and eaten its delicious fruit?
In my state of traumatic fear, and disconnect from home by thousands of miles, the only thing that could give me calm was the mountains. And the thing that could take me there was my bike. I pedaled, and frequently fell on hard rocks as my mind switched from the technical trail to images of before and after the explosion; of beautiful smiling faces that soon became unrecognizable flesh. Struggling to stay focused, I finally made it to the top of the mountain. There, I rested my bike against a tree and sat on a bench looking out to a plateau of Rocky Mountains nestling tiny villages, adorned with juniper trees. There, I once again saw what a peaceful world could look like. There, I could take a deep fresh air, and recollect my strength to face the tragedies of our world, and strive towards creating a better one, just as I was seeing it.
Today, once again, I will have to ride for the same reason. But I will move on, for there is exciting work to be done -- on and off the bike.
But cycling has become more than just a therapeutic activity for me. Through riding, I want to connect with Afghanistan's nature and mountains the way I was able to in Colorado. In cycling, I see the potential to introduce Afghanistan's beauty to the world. I am tired of hearing my country repetitively getting described as a sand desert, when in fact, it is one of the most mountainous regions in the world. I strongly believe that there is a direct correlation between a country’s global image, and the well-being of its people. A bad reputation like war can have discouraging effects on citizens of a country while good reputation can boost people's confidence towards progress. As people of the world, we must recognize positive aspects of struggling nations, and foster those images instead of the ones that can hinder progress. I want Afghanistan to be known for what it has always meant for me; a beautiful country with lots of jaw-dropping beauty. Mountain biking and other outdoor activities not only have the potential to change Afghanistan’s global image, but they will also bring a lot of prosperity, both economically and culturally. Hopefully one day, when you Google Afghanistan, images of the Hindukush range, valleys, and rivers will replace war, destruction, and gore.
I ride because if my country was peaceful and prosperous, I would’ve picked up mountain biking from an early age. Right now, the sport is dominated by Europeans and North Americans. It gives me joy to see Columbian riders do so well in the Tour de France. The sport has so much more potential to become global. Provided the resources, Afghans can be very well-conditioned for the athletic demands of the sport. I was born at 8,000 ft. above sea level in a very mountainous region. This is true for most Afghans who still live in villages, often roaming the mountains on foot for pastimes, or as the primary mode of transportation. Long story short, we have the lungs. Why shouldn’t we be racing against the Swiss and the French? One of my long-term goals is to help establish an Olympic cycling team in Afghanistan. That's a fight worth riding for.
But above everything, I ride because the day I realized my friend was no longer holding the bike, and I was pedaling forward on my own, was one of the most joyful moments of my life. Riding brings me pure joy, and there can never be enough of it.
It's been over a month since I started living in the North East Kingdom region of Vermont. People give off wild looks when I mention that fancy name, telling me "it sounds like a mysterious peasant society with a King and lords.” I haven’t found his majesty yet, but there are plenty of cows, horses, sheep, and an Alex Parker and Dad maple syrup sugar house. I did ride with Ted King, who ruled over long big climbs on a couple bike rides I was able to join – thanks to TourXNewEngland. Realistically though, it’s the beauty of the region that does justice to that otherwise medieval name. Though, iPhones, and Subaru Outbacks away, it is actually very medieval looking. If you are close to the area this summer, I encourage you to make a visit, and see it all for yourselves.
Like always, time passes with a blink of an eye. My friend's calf is a full-grown cow now, the forests are more lush and green, and we are almost mid-summer; although at times, the chilly rain has made the days feel like early spring, or late fall. But looking back at the last month, it's been full of highlights I have been aiming to hit over the summer. The journey is not over, and I am happy to be finding myself in the middle of progress.
Settling in here has been easy. Through a friend’s help, I could find a very generous offer for housing. The only hard part is cooking for myself, and making sure I get proper nutrition, and delicious meals. Many times, I have appreciated Middlebury’s cafeteria. But with good tips from my brother and his wife – things are improving. Pancakes are the best. Pasta and canned chili is a rescue mission. For protein, Tacos (you are so easy to make). Though, the only thing I do better than the dining hall is fruits. And that’s the Afghan in me; we eat fruits in bulk, I mean bucket loads kind of bulk. Ever tried eating a whole watermelon by yourself? That’s your Afghan Challenge right there.
I spend my days riding my bike – alternating between road and mountain as best as I can, and at the same time, trying to start a program to support cyclists back home in Afghanistan. I have exciting news on that, so stay tuned for a separate blog for more details.
Here is a short version. About three weekends ago, I went to the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA) fest, the largest annual bike fest in the area, where aside from a ginormous crowd of families and riders flooding the small town of East Burke, many bike and bike gear companies – a lot of them industry leaders, had showed up to demo and sale their products. Seeing this world of insanely abundant resources made me think about back home, where there is almost zero percent of what was available in the tents that day. So, I went to talk to a lot of these vendors, telling them stories of cyclists in Afghanistan. I met some incredible people, a lot of them surprised to know that there were people in Afghanistan who rode bicycles for a sport, and most of them welcoming the opportunity to channel resources down there. So that’s become the subject of my thinking every day; figuring out ways we can set up a program to build a two-way relationship between the U.S. and Afghan cycling communities.
The rest of July, I will continue to do long road rides to build my base, as well as hone my skills in mountain biking. Riding on Kingdom Trails is incredible. There is nothing like it. It has so much trail variety that I can do my cross-country training there, or a super fun loop with a group of awesome people. I have been very lucky to live so close to this place, and being able to ride it every other day, while getting to know more people in the community.
I have four more races left before school starts again, and I am thrilled for another season of collegiate mountain biking. Until then, long days on the saddle for me, and more Northeast Kingdom scenery to enjoy. Hit me up if you wanna visit.
Recently, I skyped with Rahman Fatrat, a young cyclist from Bamiyan, Afghanistan who participated in the country's first national road race of the year - Jame Arghawan. The course started inside Kabul city, and ended 82 kilometers North of the capital on a relatively safe highway, despite increasing security threats throughout the country. Participants were mostly from Kabul, Bamiyan, and Balkh provinces, where relative peace has allowed enthusiastic cyclists to ride, and train on somewhat regular basis. In much of the rest of the country, getting outside, especially on a bike is not a good idea. Unfortunately, this leaves cycling a sports option only for a limited few. For women, it's more restrictive, even unacceptable in many places. Those who dare, do it with huge risks towards themselves, and their families.
Bamiyan, a mountainous region in Central Afghanistan, where Rahman lives, is arguable the safest of all of these places. The calm in there, and the locals' open mind towards progress, and new ideas have allowed for a web of new, and exciting activities to start and grow. There has been an overflowing support for skiing, which began seven years ago. You can read more about how skiing is starting in Afghanistan in an earlier blog post I did. Here, girls ride without a lot of opposition normal in the rest of the country. Some of the girls are members of the national cycling team. Still, to get to race events in other cities and provinces, these riders have to travel on dangerous roads, each time fearing they will be captured by the Taliban, or other insurgent groups.
Rahman showed up to the race with a heavy steel frame bike he borrowed from a friend. In Bamiyan, he trains on a mountain bike that his local bike club, Salsal & Shahmama, gave him. Though as a road cyclist, his dream is to one day have his own proper road bike. At the start line, he saw other riders with more race-appropriate gear: advanced road bikes, jerseys, shoes, helmets, sunglasses, and some even with small GPS computers (commonly Garmin). But none of these stopped him from trying to race with some of the country's best. He also noticed some racers who kicked it off without a helmet. In his own club, he says, "there are forty members, and only eight helmets. It's so hard to find bicycles and its equipment in Afghanistan."
The race started slow. The peloton was heavily accompanied by police trucks. For safety reasons, a breakaway wasn't allowed until the last 5 kilometers of the race. On the same highway, a mix of Taliban, other insurgent groups, and bandits often stop, kidnap, and murder travelers. So race organizers didn't want to take any unnecessary risks. The seventy or so racers were instructed to stay together, and only race in the last 5 kilometers. This is very unusual in the cycling world, and perhaps it doesn't happen anywhere else. But where there are factors like serious life threats to the racers, rules have to be bent, and people will do anything they can to make an event happen. It can obviously complicate race dynamics, as it may be advantageous to cyclists who are strong sprinters, and costly to those who do better over longer distances. But safety first. And that leaves no room for complaints.
Hauling his heavy steel frame, Rahman crossed the line in 8th position - a phenomenal result for him at his first at the national level. When I talked to him, he was very happy about the results, and more fired to continue training for better results in the future. When I asked him what his plans were for improving his talent, he said, "the priority is to get a road bike first. A good one." To make that happen, he told me he, "need[ed] to get a job as a waiter or security guard at the local hotel", where they would pay him around $120 per month. Rahman's plan is to invest six months worth of salary into a relatively nice road bike. From there, he has bigger dreams, like joining the national cycling team, and to even race in the Tour de France one day.
His teammates who participated in the mountain bike race had even more glorified results. Five of them, all from Bamiyan and members of the Salsal & Shahmama Bike Club secured the top five positions on the podium. Unlike mountain bike races in other parts of the world where the course is off-road, and often on single-track and technical trails, the race in Afghanistan was held on the road, together and at the same time with the road racers. This is because there are no bike trails in the country, and perhaps due to the lack of resources to plan two different events at the same time. But whatever the circumstances, for Rahman and his friends, it was a victorious day.
It's 'humble beginnings'. So much inadequacy, and yet so much hype, energy, and optimism. Rahman represents the state of cycling in Afghanistan. He is young, poorly-equipped, but full of enthusiasm to move forward. True, there are fewer roads for him to train on. But he makes sure to take advantage of whatever is available. It's very unfortunate that the obstacles they have to do deal with as cyclists are very different and far more challenging than what cyclists in other, and often peaceful corners of the world face. But their commitment and hard-work will eventually grow the culture of cycling and bike racing in Afghanistan.
Rahman, and his ambitions speak for a country on a tipping point. The recent attacks on Kabul has once again reminded people of the dangers of living in Afghanistan, and the seemingly unending conflicts, making the future look bleak, and hopeless. In these dark times, it is important to remember that our strengths lie in what gives us hope; that image of ourselves, our friends, community, and nation we now and then see that jumps our hearts, and brings a smile to our faces. The bike race in Afghanistan gave me joy. It once again showed me that the young generation do not want war. They want peace. And in seeking peace, they are finding new ways to improve their lives, and communities. Let us recognize these sources of hope, and nurture them. Who knows, the small bike shop Rahman and his friends have set up in Bamiyan will one day become a meeting point for riders, business owners, community leaders, and foreign visitors. The important thing is when and how, and we can all be a part of that.
Bonus: Rahman got the job he wanted. He is now working towards achieving his dreams.
A huge thank you to everyone who contributed to my online crowdfunding page! Even though I only raised a fraction of what I was going for, your help is still huge, and without it, my training plans would've been very difficult. I am super excited to take part in plenty of races over the summer, and work under a long-term training regimen. On that note, I have a few exciting updates to share.
First, a slightly unpleasant change of plans: I can't go to Colorado anymore because it costs a lot more than I have managed to raise. Instead, I will be staying in Vermont this summer. But I am I am equally pumped and grateful for this opportunity because I will be living, and training near the infamous Kingdom Trails in the North East Kingdom, a very beautiful and mountainous part of Vermont. I was there last summer for about ten days, and I had a blast. Such friendly people, and the trails are amazing. There is everything from easy and flowy single-track to very steep and technical trails. What makes the KT so special is the strong community it has grown over the couple of decades since its existence. Most of the trails are built on people's private lands, which has resulted to this great relationship between the local community, and people who use and maintain the trails. I can't wait to ride there more, make friends in the community, and share with them my passion to grow mountain biking in Afghanistan.
I still want to go to Colorado, but I will leave that for the future, perhaps next year. The Rocky Mountains have so many more and technically different trails, the high altitude results to better fitness, and the biking community is very strong. It also reminds me of Afghanistan because of its tall mountains and drier sunny weather. I haven't been home for two years now, and Colorado strangely gives me the feeling of home. Riding in New England's frequent rains is what I have to get used to this summer, but other than that, I am pumped to spend nearly 4 months in the North East Kingdom.
During these months, I will be participating in plenty of mountain bike races all over New England. These are mostly USA Cycling sanctioned events, so that I can hopefully use race points to upgrade to higher competitive categories.. These races will be a good preparation ahead of the collegiate season beginning in September, which are the races I prioritize the most in terms of results.
I am only hoping my car which has close to 250K of mileage will keep running as smoothly as it has so far. Without it, I will have a hard time getting myself to the races. If you happen to pray, please send a few good vibes its way too!
If you will be in the area, and wanna ride together, talk about bikes, and their potential to create change in disadvantaged and unequal communities (think girls not allowed to ride in Afghanistan), definitely hit me up!
Here is a video by Bike Magazine about the Kingdom Trails. It's becoming a must stop place for those who love mountain biking.
I am thrilled to race more, explore New England through cycling, and meet more folks in the greater cycling community. I will post frequent updates on my races here on the blog, and on my Instagram account. (Find Instagram icon to the right of the page to track my progress).
This is my first blog, and I can't think of a better way to set the tone for the kinds of content I will be sharing than to pay a tribute to the incredible hard work of two people who inspire me the most: Sajjad Hussaini and Alishah Farhang. They are the first skiers from Afghanistan to reach an athletic and skill level high enough to participate in a world championship. It's amazing what they have achieved only in a few years, and with limited resources.
Afghanistan has never been a skiing nation. This is no Switzerland, or France. There are no resorts, and ski lifts. Nor the money for such expensive sports. There is an ongoing war that has lasted more than 40 years. However, there are plenty of beautiful mountains with perfect conditions for skiing, and a lot of enthusiasm. In 2009, when Christoph Zuercher, a Swiss journalist, discovered the perfectly-sloped Koh-e Baba Mountains in Bamiyan, a peaceful province in Central Afghanistan, he imagined people skiing on those hills. Fast forward eight years, and you see hundreds of local skiers, an annual international ski competition (The Afghan Ski Challenge), and Sajjad and Alishah eyeing to earn a spot in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. This will go down in history. It already has.
The two Bamiyan natives grew up in farming families, often grazing their sheep around the Koh-e Baba mountains, and attending school at the same time. When the first Afghan Ski Challenge was organized in 2010, they borrowed old equipment from expats and race organizers. After three times winning the championships, they were crowned the best skiers of Afghanistan, and given a chance to train in St. Moritz, Switzerland for three winters in a row. This year, they participated in their first FIS world championship in St. Moritz, representing Afghanistan for the first time as a ski nation in the international stage.
Their success so far hasn't come easy. It is a result of hard work and dedication against so many odds. Despite not having proper equipment, a proper place to train, and living in a corrupt country engulfed by terrorism and violence, they have achieved beyond what is possible. More importantly, they have motivated more Afghans to take part in skiing, and inspired younger ones to dream of racing. This is just the beginning of their journey, and we can only imagine the exciting future of skiing in Afghanistan.
Alishah and Sajjad are exactly the kind of people Afghanistan needs. They are the faces of resilience, hope, and an emerging young population who is tired of wars, and ready to bring new ideas to Afghanistan. Their dedication to the growth of skiing is changing the image of the country from a war-torn nation to one with huge potential for tourism and sports. Often times, foreigners think of Afghanistan as a desert, unaware of the insanely beautiful mountains towering at 25,000 feet surrounding green meadows, and crystal clear rivers running through deep valleys. It won't be long before these images become a well-known fact.
For the world, and particularly skiing, Alishah and Sajjad are introducing a new adventure destination. The are also changing the demographics of the sport from being a heavily Western sport to one in more disadvantaged communities. At the same time, they are having a blast exploring Afghanistan's untouched and beautiful wilderness.
Follow them on social media (Alishah & Sajjad) to keep an eye on their exciting progress.
Check out the Afghan Ski Challenge website for more info, pictures, and videos!