Page last updated at 07:00 GMT, Thursday, 25 February 2010

Tourism plan for Afghan mountains

By Christopher Sleight
BBC Scotland news website

Chris Philipson on the summit of Koh-e-Beefy
Chris Philipson made the first ascent of a peak in Afghanistan in 2009

A Scottish company is promoting Afghanistan as a tourist destination.

Dundee-based Mountain Unity was set up to provide information to mountaineers and trekkers who want to visit the north-east of the country.

Mountain Unity's David James, a former soldier, said the area known as the Wakhan Corridor was widely regarded as the safest part of the country.

The mountains of Afghanistan were popular with many climbers until the Soviets invaded in 1979.

Mr James, 37, who completed two tours in Afghanistan with the British Army, said he had started Mountain Unity as a social enterprise, with all profits ploughed back into the Wakhan.

He told the BBC Scotland news website that the area had always been peaceful - even during the Soviet invasion and recent conflict with the Taliban.

People are pretty shocked when I tell them I've been on holiday in Afghanistan - usually mouths wide open is the main reaction
Climber Chris Philipson

"I wouldn't suggest anyone goes with a holiday mentality," he said. "This is for serious trekking and mountaineering expeditions - people that know about working in a real wilderness environment."

"You've got to look after your own medical emergencies and be aware of your own security. You've got to be responsible for yourselves in Afghanistan. But this one particular part has remained entirely peaceful."

Mr James lives for much of the year in the Wakhan Corridor - a spur of land bordered by Tajikistan to the north and Pakistan to the south - with his wife and two young children.

He said he would move away immediately if it became unsafe.

"We're not blasé. There is the chance that something might change and if it does we'll just tell people it's not safe any more."

PhD student Chris Philipson, from Edinburgh, is one of a number of climbers who have gone to Afghanistan to climb recently.

He made the first ascent of a peak he named Koh-e-Beefy with his friend Joel Fiddes in September 2009.

The 29-year-old said: "People are pretty shocked when I tell them I've been on holiday in Afghanistan - usually mouths wide open is the main reaction."

"Now I can give them reasons why it's much safer than it sounds, but it was harder when I was planning it to convince people it was a good idea."

Mr Philipson, who now lives in Zurich, said they had been welcomed with "incredible Muslim hospitality" by villagers excited that tourists were beginning to return to the region.

"They were really appreciative that we'd come to understand the culture and climb one of their mountains. They could understand that more people would be coming as a result," he said.

Porters in the Wakhan Corridor load gear onto yaks
David James hopes tourism will help boost the local economy

"Some of them talked about the tourism that their parents knew in the 60s."

British mountaineer Doug Scott spent six weeks in the Hindu Kush mountains in 1967.

He believes the country is a "climber's paradise" with hundreds of unclimbed peaks and very settled weather.

"It's great that things are calming down," he said.

"The central Hindu Kush would have been affected by the wars, but I think in the far north, in the Wakhan Corridor, it will be a lot safer - and there's a lot more to do up there."

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