The first leg of our trek up the mountain was in total darkness. For two hours we marched single file up a steep flank, loose rocks twisting our ankles as we struggled to keep upright, gasping in the thin air. Far below, a raging whitewater river wound between the mountains. On the distant slopes opposite us were terraced farms hand-hewn by generations of families whose ancestors first inhabited the region thousands of years ago. By the time we reached the first ridge, the sun had finally crept over the top of jagged peaks in the distance and bathed the valley below in a warm yellow glow.
At that moment it occurred to me: Afghanistan would make one hell of a tourist destination.
I say this a lot, actually. I tell people Afghanistan is worthy of appreciation beyond the scope of soldiers, journalists, aid workers, and academics. I say it has abundant natural beauty and rich history. That far from being one big desert, it actually has peaks and vertical faces mountaineers and rock climbers would kill to tackle, plus dramatic rapids for kayakers and rafters, and craggy steeps for snowboarders, skiers, and mountain bikers. It’s an outdoorsman’s paradise! I tell them.
They look at me like I'm nuts. Most say something like, "Isn't it dangerous there?" Those who know me well gently remind me that maybe I'm probably not the best person to advocate on Afghanistan's behalf, seeing as how I was actually shot in the head there a few years ago while covering the war as a reporter.
And, OK, point taken. I may not be the ideal spokesman for this oft-misunderstood country. But I'm not the only one who feels the way I do about its potential. There are actual tourism companies operating in Afghanistan, offering regular tour packages and custom itineraries for people looking for something unusual and off the beaten track, even if that something happens to be marred by "kidnapping, hostage taking, military combat operations, landmines, banditry, armed rivalry between political and tribal groups, militant attacks, direct and indirect fire, suicide bombings, and insurgent attacks," in the words of the US State Department.
So who are these people who will pay good money and undertake real risk to travel to a place whose very name, at least among blinkered Westerners, evokes little else but sand and endless war? Hoping to find out -- and, sure, to vindicate myself in the eyes of everyone who looks at me like I'm crazy when I launch into my spiel -- I called a bunch of them up.