Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers, and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Peter This week, we’re talking to James Willcox, travel expert extraordinary. James’s company, Untamed Borders, sets out to satisfy the hunger of that rare breed of traveller who’s already been to the far corners of the earth, got the T-shirt but still wants more. James organises holidays to the world’s strangest destinations. They can even be in – or near – recent war zones. On paper, these are the kind of places you might want to get away from rather than go to, and incredibly, they also include ski resorts.
Now we’ve skied in what we imagined – what was until today – some of the most exotic and unusual resorts in the world. I’ve personally been to over 550 of them, but now realise that I’ve barely begun the journey. In this two part series, we take a look at a couple of the most extraordinary experiences that James can offer. Firstly, skiing – so James, you specialise in taking tourists to the world’s most wild and unexplored countries, be it for hiking, sightseeing or anything else. But you also take people skiing to these amazing places. Skiing is a subject very close to our hearts, as you know. Your travel company is called Untamed Borders. Tell us about it?
James Yes, we take people skiing in a number of places. We mean we work as a company across the Middle East, Central Asia and North and East Africa. As you said, we guide people to places that are hard for people to organise independently and often don’t have much of a tourism infrastructure. And so we got into skiing in Afghanistan, which when we got there, had pretty much a zero ski community or ski history. And the reason we got involved was we fairly recently begun as a company, we were guiding some trekking trips and some cultural trips in Afghanistan. And when I was in the Wakhan Corridor, which is this thin strip of land in the far north east of the country between Tajikistan and Pakistan, on a trekking trip, I met a British guy and he was working for development organisation in Kabul and he and his mates went skiing every winter in the Salang Pass north of Kabul. And he said, If I was serious about being an adventure travel operator, I should advertise a ski trip to Afghanistan, and if I got enough people booked he’d take a week off work and he’d guide them on the slopes because he’d been a ski instructor in Europe in a previous life. So I said yes, and so we advertised it in 2011. We brought two ski tourists to Afghanistan.
We skied in the Salang Pass, but also unbeknown to us, at the same time in a central province called Bamiyan, there were two other ski things going on. One was a chap called Christoph, a journalist from Switzerland. He had been stuck in Bamiyan the winter before and there were no Swiss, so of course the first thing he wanted to do was to find a pair of skis and go skiing, but he couldn’t find any. So he promised himself if he ever came back to Afghanistan, he’d bring some skis and he’d organise a ski race. So he did that in 2011 and at the same time a development organisation called the Aga Khan Foundation was asked to implement a tourism development programme in the province, and part of that programme was a winter tourism programme and part of that was to try and develop ski tourism, backcountry skiing.
So these three, Christoph, ourselves and the development organisation started developing a sort of ski programme in Bamiyan – so we brought along ski tourists, there was a ski race every year, a backcountry ski race, and that developed for a number of years. Two of the Afghan skiers who were part of that ski programme competed at FIS races in Europe; they tried to qualify for the Olympics in Korea in 2018. And so this is now 15 years of skiing in Afghanistan. Things have changed quite a lot with the Taliban taking over. But that is the sort of beginning of our skiing in Afghanistan in a way, going arm in arm with the with the beginning of skiing in Afghanistan as a nation.
Felice Are there any facilities at all? How do you get up the mountain?
James There are no lifts in Afghanistan, so all of the skiing is ski-touring. I’m not entirely sure how familiar your listeners are, but ski-touring involves…you have the bindings have two settings. One is a loose heel which allows you to sort of cross-country ski and one is a fixed heel which allows you to ski down you. Additionally, you put something called skins on the bottom of the skis. They used to be seal skins, but now they’re synthetic, which allows you to slide. As you go forward it slides and as you it doesn’t allow you to go back because it grips on the snow. So essentially you walk up the mountains and you ski down. If you’re comparing it to going up on a lift and skiing down, it’s terrible because you have to walk up for every run. But if you’re considering it hiking in the mountains in winter, but instead of having to hike down you get to ski down, it’s a lot of fun.
So all of the skiing in Bamiyan is ski-touring. Except for a couple of years, there was a jerry-rigged tow-rope which had a sort of wheelbarrow at the top, which had the rope that went through the loop there. And at the bottom was a was a motorbike with the tyre taken off a loop at the bottom. So that was a couple of hundred metres long tow-rope which was installed. But apart from that it’s all ski-touring.
Felice How many people have you taken there over the last few years?
James Since that first trip in 2011, we must have taken about, I’d say, maybe 100 skiers over those years. Some years we took more, some years – especially during Covid and when the Taliban first took over, we didn’t take any. But we probably take between 10 and 20 skiers a year on average.
Felice Presumably they have to bring their own equipment with them?
James Yes, we advise people to bring everything they need. Over the years through various donations, there is a small ski shop in Bamiyan. Between 2015 and 2018, the program was sponsored by Volkl, who were a German ski manufacturer. They helped support the two Afghan guys who tried to compete for the Winter Olympics. So some of their equipment came out. There was a Slovenian, when the Slovenian troops pulled out, they had a lot of empty containers go to Afghanistan because they were going to be full of military equipment going back. And there was a lot of old equipment put in a container and brought over for people to ski with, so there’s a fair amount of equipment kicking around. But if you want the equipment that you really want, then yes, you’re going to have to bring it with you.
Peter I’ve been writing about skiing for more years than I care to admit, and I have to say I had no idea there was any skiing in Afghanistan. I’ve been to about 550 resorts in the world but not Bamiyan.
James Bamiyan, it would be hard to describe it as…I mean, what is a resort? Because there is a small ski shop, not that you would be able to see it signposted anywhere – it’s just in the back of someone’s house, and people go skiing, there’s no fixed infrastructure. I’m not sure. I mean, you know better than me. Peter, is that a ski resort or is it just people living in the mountains that go skiing, I’m not entirely sure?
Peter I have a close friend and we have friendly competition about the number of resorts we’ve been to, and we spend an awful lot of time and long lunches and an enormous amount of wine discussing what actually is a ski resort. And we decided a ski resort is something that has a map. I guess it has a map of the area.,I call that a ski resort.
James Well, in 2010, when this New Zealand supported tourism development program, there’s more than a map – there’s a book. Two people went and spent the winter in Bamiyan, created some maps, wrote a book about different routes, about the conditions. So it has got maps, so guess if it’s got maps it’s a ski resort. That’s one for your list. You can make it 551 this winter maybe.
Peter I think that’s absolutely right.
Felice And what about now with the Taliban? How do you manage that?
James In 2021 with the Taliban taking over, the main people who were involved in the skiing… so there was a female ski program for women that skied. There were three main guys that ran the ski club, in addition to managing the ski club, which had male and female competitors, they assisted myself and some others with an event called the Marathon of Afghanistan, which was the country’s only mixed-gender sporting event. There were two races, a marathon and a 10k race, and we had about 700 competitors a year, pretty much 50/50 between men and women, the majority being Afghan men and women. And so they were fairly high profile. So those three and the female skiers, I’m sure you remember the summer of 2021, the scenes at the airport in Kabul and all of those kind of things. So those people left Afghanistan at that time because they were seen at risk for working on gender equality projects.
We went back to Afghanistan for any kind of tourism in September, October of 2022. We did some cultural tourism, and then I went back with our international ski guide, Anna, and met up with some of the local guides, and we brought four tourists over in March 2023. So we’ve just started going back. Yes, unfortunately, there’s no women involved, certainly no Afghan women involved in the ski program, which is obviously a shame. And the way that Afghan women have to live in Afghanistan, especially if they come from urban areas, is pretty awful. But we’ve started going back in in March of 2023.
Peter What’s your relationship with the local Taliban? I mean, presumably you have to negotiate with them?
James Yes, we have to get a visa. We have to in Kabul, get everyone that visits internationally, you have to get a letter to say which provinces you’re going to visit. Beyond that, there’s not much relationship with them. We get the paperwork from them. Obviously, we have to abide by the laws of the country we’re in. When people ask me what the Taliban seem to think of international people going there for tourism, they seem fairly ambivalent about it. They’re not particularly excited that international people are coming for tourism, but they’re not against it. It’s like if you want to come, that’s fine. That was the surprising thing, is that it just it doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of interest. If we’re coming, we have to get the documents, but apart from that, they pretty much let us get on with things.
In Afghanistan, the central government has never been very strong, whether it was the kings or whether it was when the international community there were there. So it’s kind of the same now. Once you get into the countryside, the people who own the land and the people who live there, the farmers, they’re the ones that are ok with you skiing in the mountains behind their farms. It’s not really…the Taliban are the government, so they can they can do things. But generally speaking, if you’ve got permission off the people whose land it is, and it’s the same people we knew for 15 years.
Felice What about accommodation and food?
James For those trips we come into Kabul – and Kabul has reasonable hotels. I mean, it’s got a Serena hotel, which is quite fancy. Once you get to Bamiyan, there’s a couple of newish hotels which have attached bathrooms which have hot water most of the time. In Afghanistan, if you like, sort of meat and bread and rice, then it’s a great place for you. For vegetarians, it’s not an ideal place. Yes, it’s mainly kebabs, stews, pilau rice, these kind of things, and huge sort of naan flatbreads. These are your basic staples.
Peter What happens if you injure yourself, which after all, is a hazard with skiing that we must all be aware of?
James Absolutely, especially with ski-touring, you know, you’re going off-piste so there’s an additional, you know…there’s the avalanche risk as well. So to begin with, when we go with our tours, we have an international guide with us who has avalanche training. We don’t push it too much with what we do with the skiing because it’s not the Alps; there’s no helicopter coming to rescue you. Until you get to Kabul, hospital provisions are pretty limited. So we have the local guys and Anna, they have rope and they have a system together in how they would bind skis together. If they need to get someone off the mountain who’s broken a leg or something like that, they’ve got their basic skills to be able to do that. In Bamiyan there’s a basic hospital, but they’re not going to be able to perform surgery or something like that; they will be able to stabilise you. Then it’s a question of getting people to Kabul.
People can get insurance which will get them repatriated, but that’s only really going to be as far as Kabul. So we would probably be responsible for getting people as far as Kabul, where there are hospitals which are ok. But that is a risk, the further you go off the beaten path, the further you go off-piste – if something very serious happens to you, it’s going to be very difficult for the doctors, however well trained they are in Afghanistan to have the capacity to do much about it. But broken legs, all those kind of things, they can set, they can stop bleeding, they can do things. But if it’s a very complicated incident, it’s going to be really tough.
Felice And what about doctors? Do any of them speak any other languages?
James Yes, the international community was in Afghanistan for 20 years and despite the fact that a lot of money was wasted and money went for the corruption, some of that money was spent on education. I mean, from when I was in Afghanistan 15 years ago, finding people who could speak English, who were capable of those kind of jobs were limited. Now, there was a lot of money spent on education. In the cities there are doctors, many of them who can speak English. If not, we would be able to have one of our guys translate. So people are capable. The issue is the resources, the actual equipment, that’s the problem in Afghanistan.
Peter What about insurance? I mean, nobody should ever…I’m always preaching…no one should ever ski or think of going skiing without insurance. It must be pretty hard to get insurance cover for one of your trips?
James Of course, not just for the person involved, but it’s for their loved ones and their tour operator. You know, if someone gets injured on one of our trips and they don’t have insurance, we’re left to make very difficult decisions about: do we authorise medical treatment? Who’s going to pay for it? Nobody should be put in that kind of position, whether it’s a loved one or whether it’s us. When you travel to a country which has state or FCO travel warnings against them, most normal insurance is invalid. But there are insurers who will…as you know, Peter, you worked in conflict regions…I’m sure you had some sort of insurance. There are insurers that will cover you to go to areas where the security risk is higher. Plus, having a ski policy is quite tricky. They do exist; we send a document out to all our guests with information about the types of policies they can have. But also we have a list of companies that our guests have used in the past. As I’m not an insurance broker, I’m not supposed to recommend any, but we can put a list together of insurance companies that others have used in the past, and then the guests go and have a look at those and make their choice. It’s a limited number, but they do exist.
Peter I’ve always been wary of going to a country that’s on the Foreign Office proscribed list where there’s a warning that you shouldn’t go to a particular country, usually for safety reasons, not least because if I then write about it and encourage people to go, I’m putting them in a very awkward position. Also, insurance is usually invalid in countries that are on the list. What do you think about that?
James Bad things do happen in countries. It’s not the whole story of the country and of course the FCO advice is a sort of top line: These are the risks we we don’t think you should travel unless it’s urgent or we don’t think you should travel at all. But as we know, because we’ve visited other countries, what happens in a country is much more nuanced, whether it’s riots in France, which, you know, some parts of France would be no-go areas whilst others would be Functioning perfectly normally. A lot of the times, places that we go are much more nuanced than the FCO top line. So we have a great deal of information about that, a great deal of additional information and a great deal much more nuanced information. So on one hand, of course we do. We organise tourism in a lot of countries where there’s FCO warnings against travel. We feel that it’s possible with small groups and done responsibly, it’s possible. But I also believe that it shouldn’t be sort of encouraged for everyone. It’s not like, oh, everything’s fine and therefore having magazines and newspapers, having policies which say we shouldn’t promote it, I’m also ok with that. I can hold those two views at the same time.
Felice What does the US State Department say about their people coming as tourists to Afghanistan?
James Really, the State Department and the FCO pretty much walk in lockstep on warnings to countries. There might be slight differences, but generally speaking they would have the same. For Afghanistan, the data will show that there’s been a lot less people killed in the last two years in Afghanistan due to insurgency than there was in the previous ten years. However, the FCO and state advice has a greater warning now than it has at times during those previous ten years. Part of that is for political reasons, and part of that is that there’s just a greater unknown because they’re not sure what the Taliban’s going to do. Just because in the last two years it’s been relatively stable with regards to insurgency, doesn’t mean it’s going to continue. So some of the FCO warnings are political and as much as to do with security risks.
Peter Well, let’s take a look now at other countries that you go to. I didn’t know you could ski in Afghanistan…
James Before I delve into that. I mean, one of the things we like at Untamed Borders, a lot of countries we work in, there’s quite a single sort of narrative internationally about them. So when people in the UK who don’t have a huge interest in foreign politics, think of Afghanistan or Iraq, they just think of violence and deserts, huge amounts of problems in these countries. All of that is true, but of course, other things happen in these countries as well. People go to work every day and fall in love and have weddings and good things happen and they win sporting contests and they do all the other all the other sort of things that happen in the UK. It’s not all doom and gloom and I quite like the skiing because as soon as you say, oh, skiing in Iraq, people are like, ‘Well, how is that possible? It’s just a big desert,’ and you’ve already opened people’s minds to the fact that it might not be quite as they had imagined in the country, and so they might be open to the fact that other things can happen in these countries that isn’t all just doom and gloom.
So in Iraq, as you said, most of it is the flat plains that run through the vast majority of the country. But in the far north, in the Kurdish region, there are mountains and they rise as high as 3000m, quite close to the Iranian border. And so after a couple of years of doing ski guiding in Afghanistan and we organised cultural trips in Iraq, we thought perhaps we should try and also organise some ski trips in Iraq. We know there’s mountains, we know there’s snow, this could be something sort of fun for our guests as well. So in 2016, I went to do a recce trip. And to be honest, at that time, it was Iraq was very unstable. I mean, ISIS, Daesh had control of Mosul, one of the largest cities. So the city we would fly into in Erbil was only it was only 100km from Mosul, and the front line was maybe 60km outside of the city.
I went to one area which I’d read about. There had been an article about cross-country skiing in a place called Penjwen. I went there and I found that there is a Basque-Kurdish cultural society which runs quite strong, and it seemed very strange. But the Basques are a nationality split over two countries of Spain and France, and Kurds are a nationality split over four countries of Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. So they have this kind of cultural exchange. These Basque guys had gone over and taught people how to do this very simple cross-country skiing techniques.
But the place where the best skiing is a place called Choman, which is further north and next to the big high mountains. So yes, so in 2017, we bought a bunch of skiers who had skied in Afghanistan who thought, ‘Oh, this will be fun to go skiing somewhere else.’ And then in 2018, a few people skied in the area. We did another ski-touring race and there was a winter festival that had existed in the ’50s, and then Saddam Hussein had stopped it. So they decided, the local community of Choman, to revive that winter festival around the ski race. That’s happened apart from a short break during Covid that’s happened every winter since. So it’s a slightly different experience; rather than staying in hotels, we stay in home stays in the town of Choman. And as part of that program, there’s an organisation that organises sports and outdoor activity for women in Iraq, specifically for people from the refugee camps, from the conflict with ISIS. And some of those girls get to go up and have ski lessons, it just gives them a day away from the camps. So that is the kind of overview of the skiing and the sort of and the program there.
Peter So when is the ski season? I guess it’s the same in Afghanistan. When does it start and when does it end?
James Well, they’re both northern hemisphere, so essentially it’s the same as in Europe. As you know, with climate change, it’s all moving around a little bit, but generally speaking, we would say from mid-January to towards the end of March is probably the best time to go because it needs a bit of time for the snow pack to really get there. Afghanistan, it can go a bit longer. The mountains are higher in the Koh e Baba Mountains near Bamiyan; they top at 5000m. So there’s always a possibility to do spring skiing later in the year. But I would say mid Jan towards the end of March.
Peter And then of course, neighbouring Iran has really quite sophisticated skiing by comparison, doesn’t it?
James Absolutely. They have skiing in a number of areas, mean the big area is just north of Tehran and yes, they have ski-lifts. It probably doesn’t compare to the big resorts of Europe. But yes, there are lifts, there’s a real ski community there. In fact, a lot of the skiers in Iraq, since we’ve started doing it, have bought second-hand Iranian skis – because there’s a lot of trade along those that border – to practice on.
Peter Yes, certainly. I was in Tehran when the revolution happened. It happened I think it was on a Saturday morning and I was planning to go skiing that weekend, which is a little way from Tehran and quite remote. I was planning to leave at 5am. I borrowed all the gear and everything else to go and spend the weekend skiing. Then the revolution broke out, mercifully at 4am, not 5am. Otherwise, I think I’d have lost my job.
James Quite a big scoop, though, wouldn’t you say, Peter?
Felice You also offer skiing in Pakistan as well?
James Yes, we sometimes organise stuff in Pakistan. There is in Swat Valley a resort there called Malam Jabba, which has which has some lifts and some nice runs. And there is another valley further north called Naltar, which is managed by the Pakistani Air Force, so sometimes they let you ski there and sometimes they won’t. But Malam Jabba is the main resort. But of course you get people doing ski descents of some of the huge some of the 8000-metre peaks in Pakistan. It’s got some of the world’s highest mountains. You know, K2 is there, the world’s second highest mountain, so you get some of these really adventurous types go up and do ski descents of incredibly steep and high peaks as well.
Felice What are your clients like, the people booking with you? Are they mainly men? I assume they’ve got to be for going to Afghanistan?
James For Afghanistan, I’d say probably a third of the people that we guide generally are women. I’d say with the skiing, that’s probably similar. Maybe there are slightly more men skiing. There isn’t anything to stop a woman going to Afghanistan to ski or to go as a tourist. The majority of the restrictions are placed on Afghan women, not on international women. But they’re from all sorts of backgrounds, generally it’s because they like to travel, that’s the main draw. So it’s people who like to travel, who like to travel to interesting places. And then if you have something else that you like to do, so if you like to run marathons or if you like to go hiking or if you like to go skiing, then it’s just an extra way of combining two of your passions. But I would say people go skiing in Afghanistan or Iraq because they want to go to Afghanistan and Iraq, and then the skiing is another way of accessing the country – rather than people who are big on skiing. And they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re where’s the next best skiing destination?’
Felice They’ve got to be a pretty high level of skier to be able to manage the ski-touring.
James Absolutely, yes, you’ve got to be able to make your turns in off-piste conditions. That’s the basics in Afghanistan in the past, before the Taliban took over because there was a much a bigger ski programme, there was the women’s ski group, there was this tow-rope. We did take people who really couldn’t ski much. They just saw it and just for whatever reason, they just said, ‘I want to see this, I want to see this.’ And they were really people who couldn’t ski, but because there was that tow-rope for beginners, they could go on the beginners’ slope and learn. I mean, why you’d go to Afghanistan to learn how to ski. But it’s more for the more for the experience of it all. But certainly in Iraq, yes, you need to be able to ski off-piste. For the actual touring, the walking up, it’s not particularly technical. I mean, there’s you know, you keep your toes on the ground and as you slide up and there’s some things that you do to make sure if it’s a bit steeper, you grip better and you and you’re more efficient so you don’t get as tired. But generally the touring bit’s quite easy. But yes, as you said, you need to be at a ski in all conditions.
Felice Our son on his gap year went to India and he skied in Manali. I think they took him up by Land Rover and donkey. So is there anything like that, is there anywhere people can get to without ski-touring, without skins, to ski down?
James. Yes. When we skied the very first year in the Salang Pass, it’s got a two-kilometre-long tunnel built by the Russians, and it goes between Kabul and Mazar e Sharif in the north of Afghanistan – Kabul’s further to the south. So this is the road through the Hindu Kush. And so you could drive up to the mouth of the tunnel, which is about over 3000m, you could start skiing down from there. In addition, as you might imagine, the sun can be quite strong and so you’ll often have south-facing slopes, the snow melts or it’s very thin, which means you can walk up very easily. And the north-facing slopes still have lots and lots of snow on them. And so there are other areas where if you didn’t want to skin up, you can walk up and we could hire a donkey and you could you could donkey up. But generally speaking, when we have the groups we ski-tour, there are opportunities to do that kind of thing. But Anna, who’s from Slovenia, she is our national ski guide that goes on the trips.; she’s a huge donkey lover. She lives in Slovenia on a farm, and she has, I think, half a dozen donkeys, she loves donkeys. So yes, there is a certain donkey love with Untamed Borders.
Peter I know it’s very difficult, James, but can you give us some sort of indication, a ballpark indication of price for any of these trips?
James On the website we price in US dollars. The ski Iraq trip is $2,500 and the ski Afghanistan is $2,850. I think they are eight days and ten days respectively, that includes all the on-the-ground expenses, but it doesn’t include flights or visas so you’ve got to add those on as well, but they’re on the website. You can always drop us an email as well and we can send them further information. A lot of people have questions before they book trips with us, which is understandable.
Felice If you want to know more, where can people look?
James They can go to the website www.untamedborders.com and they can also see images on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. All of them are @untamedborders. You can also drop us an email at [email protected]
Felice Thank you very much, and we’ll be doing another episode with you about other travels not skiing, but all the other different experiences you can have in unusual places.
Peter Just give us a taster of that. What are the other things you do away from skiing?
James Away from skiing, we offer cultural trips. So you’re doing the cultural, historical monuments, the geography in a lot of countries in Central Asia, in the Middle East and North Africa. But that includes Afghanistan, it includes Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Algeria, Libya, South Sudan. We also organise trekking routes there. We helped organise to this date the only mixed-gender sporting events in Afghanistan and Somalia’s history. So yes, anywhere that you might find difficult to go yourself, but still has a lot of history and interest, that’s where we go.
Peter Well, I hope you’ll come back soon and tell us all about it.
James I’d love to, thank you.
Felice Thank you very much for coming on our show. It’s been fascinating. That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to pe[email protected]. By the way, we’re no 7 in the Top 20 Midlife Travel Podcasts.
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