Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Skiing in Afghanistan

Bamiyan was once renowned for the famous Buddha statues, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. But now this central Afghan province is working hard to attract tourists to its snowy slopes with a ski festival, writes BBC Afghan's Ramin Anwari.

"Forget about war, forget about terrorism. For now, this is all about having fun," declares one participant at Bamiyan's international ski competition held in the mountains of Khoshkak, a 30-minute drive from the capital of Bamiyan province.


Although the ski competition is in its second year, this is the first time that foreigners have taken part. There are about 20 skiers from outside Afghanistan, alongside 10 local competitors who have been newly-trained.


This is part of an ambitious plan to promote adventurous activities in different parts of Afghanistan, a country exhausted by more than three decades of war and destruction.

"Bamiyan certainly has the potential, as it has had throughout its long and rich history, to become a favourite tourist destination," says Amir Foladi, who works with the Aga Khan Foundation to promote tourism in the country.


"Bamiyan is a good place to visit in spring and summer, but we are trying to make it an enjoyable place for all four seasons, by introducing winter sports such as skiing," he adds.

The initiative by the Aga Khan Foundation and other partners, including the Bamiyan Ski Club and the Rah-e-Abrisham Company, has attracted tens of locals, including a number of women in Bamiyan who are relishing the opportunity of becoming the first ever ski guides in their country.


"We are surely having lots of fun" says one who is training to become a ski guide. "Besides that, we are learning a very exciting sport. It's amazing to learn to ski, it's like flying up in the air and with the beautiful landscape of Bamiyan, it's even more exciting."


Although Bamiyan has the perfect climate for ski lovers and mountains as high as 5000m (16,404 ft) covered by snow throughout the winter, there are poor facilities on the ground.


There is no mountain rescue service or avalanche warning system in place and local medical facilities are described as very basic.


Skiers have to rely on the knowledge of local guides who have been trained on how to escape from sudden avalanches and the only local hospital in the town, which can provide emergency assistance.


"There are challenges, no doubt about it" says Amir Foladi. "But we are working to solve it. Security is anther big challenge for our future plans, but there is no point in losing hope and and not doing anything."


While there have been huge security problems throughout the country, Bamiyan has been untouched by war since 2001.


But the security situation elsewhere remains a concern and this has had its impact on the number of tourists visiting Bamiyan.


Before the civil war in Afghanistan, Bamiyan welcomed tens of thousands of foreign tourists in a year. There were none during the war years.


Although Bamiyan has begun to lure tourists back over the last decade one of the main problems lies in the route from Kabul to Bamiyan.


Currently no commercial airline operates between the two and those who wish to fly to the province have to rely on UN or Isaf flights, which are expensive and cannot accommodate large numbers of passengers.


And security problems on the road route, from Taliban ambushes to land mines, prevent tourists taking the eight hour drive from Kabul to Bamiyan.


"There are hopes for the future of Bamiyan if we have a better security in Afghanistan," one local shopkeeper in central Bamiyan says.


"Lots of things rely on security. We definitely would love to be a tourist-friendly province. It will help our economy, but for the time being, security is the most important need."


- Ramin Anwari/BBC News








Skiing in Afghanistan

“There’s a new force in town and you will be blown away by it!” – Asad Shan

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There’s nothing as alluring – particularly for the fairer sex – as a self assured man who chances everything on something that he believes in. Noone in all of this green and pleasant land epitomizes the aforementioned qualities, it seems, than model turned VJ turned writer, director, actor, producer and iPad toting man about town Asad Shan.

Shan, who was (allegedly) the inspiration behind the Energizer Bunny (or is it the Duracell Hare....???), is preparing for the release of his first movie, the intriguingly named ‘7 Welcome to London’; which he co-wrote, directed, produced and has been single handedly marketing over the past 12 months with the help of several adoring cheerleaders.

Our entertainment editor Poonam Joshi catches up with Shan to talk criticism, good looks, British accents, Desis, investment banking and...erm...the new force that’s with him!

Asad, shouldn’t you have run that title through your grammar teacher first...?

You know a lot of people have asked me what the title means. My thinking behind it was to get exactly the same response from people. I want people to go see the film and then be able to explain to their friends what the title meant. So you will have to go and see the film to find out. I wouldn’t want to ruin the Mazaa you will get from the film!

You’re about to be thrust into the limelight...are you ready for the slack that might come your way...? I know a great place where they do armour plating...

The only reason people worry about the slack that comes their way is because they are worried about the work that they have put in. I know the quality of what I have made so I don’t need to worry about the slack. For instance, I was reading a review of a very recent Bollywood release – what I thought was a good film – which had been given 1 out of 5 stars by a reviewer and 4 out of 5 by another. So slack is subjective! For me personally, I have made a film based on my understanding of the audience and what I know that audience wants. It’s easy for people to sit around and criticize. No one has the courage (he didn’t actually use the word ‘courage’ but something a bit more anatomical but this being a family-friendly site and all...) to go out there and do what they truly believe in. Take the risks.

Tell me about this new force you keep talking about...

People can be quite insane these days. They are more worried about how much a film will make rather than whether the story is good or if the director did a good job or if the editor did a good job. What we have done with this film is that we have made something where people are going to sit back and they are not going to find any faults with this film! The editing, the continuity and everything has been done to absolute perfection. For instance, when our hero is punched in the face and goes down he has a different hair cut whilst he’s on the ground than what he had before he’s punched. Our film is totally commercial, it is totally Masala. I’m not worried about the slack because there’s a new force coming your way and believe me people will be blown away by this force!

Still...hope you’re thick skinned. Seriously.

When I first started as a VJ people were saying that I had landed the gig purely on the basis of my looks or because I had a British accent but later on people acknowledged that I know what I’m talking about and that’s what matters ultimately. Not my looks or my proper British accent. I’ve been in the business for about 5 or 6 years now and I’m thicker skinned than anyone you will ever meet. I don’t give a damn when someone criticizes me. I smile, take it in and try and learn from it. For me it doesn’t matter because as long as there is an inner force and a certain gut feeling, and I know I’m what talking about.

So 7 Welcome to London...a ganster movie with Bollywood sensibilities. This is a new genre isn’t it? I’m imagining Layer Cake with a few song and dance numbers set on Greenwich Common...

I know a lot of people are calling it a gangster movie but it’s actually not. Just because there are gangsters in it doesn’t mean that it’s a gangster film. There was a gangster in Delhi Belly but that wasn’t called a gangster comedy or whatever. ‘7 Welcome to London’ is a thriller. Now everyone has their own perception of what a thriller is but once you’ve seen this movie you will have a different perception. The film is based in East London, home of the Kray Brothers, the Lock, Stock films. That’s Guy Ritchie’s territory. Then we have taken the Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra school of thought and infused some of that with the Punjabi guy in London. And London is also another star of this film. It shows London as no one has shown London before. Ever!

Ultimately we have put together a film that people can relate to. People will watch this film and think that they walk on the same roads as the characters. These guys don’t patronize Selfridges and Harrods. When this Punjabi guy lands in London he doesn’t assimilate immediately so he’s one of us so people will identify with that. This is a guy who’s on a journey of discovery and this film will be a journey of discovery for the people who watch it as well. On any journey, you will good people and you will meet not so good people. That realization will help you face the obstacles in your life and come through a winner and that’s what Jay’s character is all about in this film.

This must have been quite an expensive enterprise...

Financing the film is the most difficult part. I was speaking to Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra recently and he was telling me that if Aamir Khan wasn’t in his films, his films wouldn’t even be made! It’s ridiculous that people backing films based on who is acting in it! For instance Paan Singh Tomar is an amazing film but it won’t get a wide release because the market for it is really limited. We were fortunate in that we had a distributor lined up – Bollywood Films – who came and saw the film and straight away offered to distribute it for us. They are the guys who released Naseeb and Kalnayak among other films and they also advised Fox on the release of My Name is Khan. They believed in the film from the beginning.

So what do you make of this Brit Bollywood thing then...

We deliberately stayed away from the Brit Bollywood tag because ours is not a Brit Bollywood film. We don’t have thousands of dancers running around and there’s no fake rain. Our film is about the youth, modernity and modern filmmakers and how youngsters today want to see films and how they want to make films. It’s got an Indian heart. It’s a film made for the Desis which will be enjoyed by the masses. From the outset it was important to me that this was a commercially viable thing. In Britain, 100 films on average get made but only 10% of that get bought. Why is that? Because distributors will only pick up films that they are confident will make money and thankfully that’s what they saw in our film. What’s more, we have just finalized our sales in America which means that we have broken even before we have even released it. For a first time filmmaker I think it’s a huge achievement and I think that says a lot about the quality of our film.

You have an interesting life...sitting on sunny rooftops interviewing Oscar-winning music composers or featuring prominently in the wild imaginations of young girls. And then you go and make your own movie. Not one for the easy life are you...??

I think this is merely the next stage in my evolution. I have established myself as one of the top faces of B4U. I’ve done a few film roles before but I also got offered numerous films, all of which I rejected because they were kind of like B grade films. In spite of the state of the economy I saw a gap in the market; in the last two or three years a lot of films were making money and I saw that there was a demand for this kind of film and I pounced on it.

I think I have grown tremendously during this entire process. I mean today I could take a single sentence and then turn it into an entire feature film because I have gained that knowledge now. This has been the most rewarding experience of my life and my product will speak for itself. Everything is abuzz, the whole country is abuzz; audience numbers for Desi channels have shot up because they’ve been playing ‘7 Welcome to London’ material. It’s amazing. The risks I have taken have paid off. People always play safe and if you die tomorrow you know you’ve died never achieving anything. If that were to happen to me I would pass on happy!

For me it’s not about the money or being a hero or a filmmaker. For me it’s about making a good film and having people go to the film and come out and say ‘You know what, that was an amazing film.’

You with your deliberately scruffy look and iPad is a common sight at media events in London...no one knows much about you though...except that you were Mr Asia UK.

I went into the Mr Asia UK 2004 contest on a whim with a friend and entered and won and that kind of opened a lot of doors for me in the entertainment business. But I’m an average Joe from the East End; I went to a private school because fortunately my father could afford to send me; went to Uni, got a law degree and then went and worked as an investment banker for a while. It was quite a natural progression for me but it was amazing as well. I was 20 years old and I was making 32 grand in the corporate world. What else would anyone need? But then my mom fell badly ill at that time and I almost had an epiphany. I thought life is too short to just be content. So that’s when I decided to follow a path to the entertainment industry. Again however, I was not just interested in the fame or being a hero. I wanted to share and give something back to the public; my creativity. Everything I have learned from those early beginnings, from the intellectual side to the articulate side to the ‘masses’ side, I have brought together to create '7 Welcome to London'. Never before has a film created so much buzz and interest. I believe in the people out there and I believe in myself and someone’s opinion or non-opinion does not matter to me. You have to be honest and you have to be truthful and the beauty will come through.

- Interviewed by Poonam Joshi

‘7 Welcome to London’ premiers at Cineworld Ilford 08th March 2012 and releases nationwide Friday 09th March 2012.







“There’s a new force in town and you will be blown away by it!” – Asad Shan

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