Inside Pakistan's only ski school
- 5 March 2013
- From the section Magazine
With just 15 pairs of skis and two or three pairs of poles, Matee Ullah Khan runs the only civilian ski school in Pakistan. He is on a mission to bring fun back to Pakistan's Swat valley four years after militants who had taken over the area were driven out.
Many of the people he teaches use homemade skis, fashioned out of wooden planks with a pair of old shoes nailed into position.
Poles are usually sturdy branches cut from the local trees, hand-knitted woolly hats are the only nod to trendy skiwear.
His school is at Malam Jabba, in the Swat Valley, where in 2007, after Taliban fighters took control, life suddenly changed. Listening to music and dancing were banned - and so was skiing.
The militants attacked the ski school several times, bombing the hotel, smashing up equipment and dismantling the ski lift - a gift from the Austrian government in the 1980s.
"I was very upset, I thought it might not be possible to ski at Malam Jabba again. I love skiing and we grew up here, we love our area, but it was not possible to live peacefully and do our usual activities," Matee Ullah remembers.
"Initially the militants didn't attack the civilian population, but the security situation was deteriorating day by day, and there were suicide bombings and civilians were also targeted.
"It was very difficult to have a normal life, everyone was so scared, and there was a psychological effect on everyone's mind. You didn't know if you would survive or not, it's very difficult to live like that."
Swat is famed for its natural beauty. It nestles between the tail-end of the Hindukush and the Karakoram mountain range, which boasts K2 as its highest peak.
But skiing has never taken off in Pakistan. Traditionally, Swat is a place where wealthy people make for the hills in the summer months to escape the stifling heat in the cities, but in the harsh winters even locals often migrate south.
The government helped fund the development of a ski resort at Malam Jabba in the 1980s but it remained largely dormant for the best part of a decade.
Eventually, Matee Ullah Khan and a few fellow enthusiasts took matters into their own hands, by staging a skiing competition in 2000, including slalom, giant slalom and downhill.
With a handful of skiers and some makeshift equipment, the competitors had to prepare the slope themselves by trampling on it with their skis. "Frankly speaking, we were not well equipped but we wanted to make a start," he says.
Matee Ullah learned to ski as part of his survival training to become a pilot in the Pakistan Air force and soon became hooked.
"It's basically the speed that you come down a slope, it's very thrilling," he explains.
"It keeps you alive - especially the spring skiing when the temperature starts to warm, and the snow starts melting, but at night the temperature falls and frozen ice crystals form on the top layer of the snow.
"When you start sliding down it in the early morning, breaking that ice, it produces a very good sound and you can feel it down your skis. We say that having one run on this spring snow makes you young for a year."
Between 2007 and 2009, when the Taliban were in control of Swat, skiing was not an option.
But Matee Ullah Khan, who represented Pakistan in the skiing competition at the Asian Games in China in 1994, has decided it is his duty to revive the ski school. It is partly an attempt to rebuild the local economy, but also a form of resistance to the intimidation of the Taliban.
He wants to bring fun back to Swat.
"The children of the area are very happy that we are skiing again. It's a good message that peace has been restored or is being restored in Malam Jabba," he says.
"No-one can say our area is totally safe and secure from attack, we have to live with it. But we all have to do what we can to promote peace, and everyone must try to contribute."
Matee Ullah Khan's abundant enthusiasm for skiing seems to be infectious, and many children are planning to take part in a ski gala, Skiing for Peace, this week, on their homemade skis.
The school could do with some more equipment. Matee Ullah Khan admits that its 15 pairs of skis are pretty battered, and the chairlift remains in pieces courtesy of the Taliban.
An enterprising local has rigged up an improvised version with a recycled motor, but it is all very basic, and a world away from the fashionable slopes of Chamonix or Klosters.
"It's the aim of my life to develop skiing in Swat, we have a great opportunity here. Many of my pupils are showing promise, I'm very proud of them. It's my hope to get one of them into the Olympics to represent Pakistan, and one day perhaps even win a medal."