They say that if life gives you lemons, make lemonade! In this case, nature gave the people of Naltar beautiful snowy slopes and plenty of trees…so they made wooden skis and world-class skiers instead.
Hidden in the mountains north of Gilgit, is the surprisingly green and lush valley of Naltar. The valley, heavily wooded with pine, spruce, birch, rowan, and juniper, not only attracts tourists in the summer but also during the peak of the harsh winter season. That’s because this valley is famous not only for its lakes, lofty trees and scenery, but is also the hub of skiing in Pakistan and home to some of the most talented craftsmen in the country.
In fact, Pakistan’s first Winter Olympian, Muhammad Abbas started out on the slopes of Naltar in Gilgit. He learnt how to ski not through formal training but simply by studying other skiers on the slopes. His first skis, two planks of wood strapped to plastic boots, are now on display at the Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Canada.
I had often been to Naltar in the summer, and had greatly enjoyed myself, but what I really wanted to do was visit Naltar at the peak of the great winter season, when hundreds of skiers from all over the country gather to take part in the prestigious winter games.
So when Mussarat Ali, the Secretary General of the Ski Federation of Pakistan, invited me to Naltar, I accepted without hesitation. Luck favoured us in Islamabad and we got two seats on the first flight out to Gilgit. It is always wise to opt for an early morning flight to Gilgit as the second flight which takes off from Islamabad at 10 am usually gets cancelled due to bad weather.
The drive from Gilgit to Naltar was dry, dusty and the roads were a mess but as the road wound deeper into the valley, more and more greenery began to appear, finally revealing a small village nestled in the meadows below the impressive snow-capped peaks. This, at last, was Naltar.
The Pakistan Air Force has set up a winter survival school and a skiing resort where they arrange a skiing championship every winter. Besides providing free ski coaching to local boys and girls, the school trains and helps both local and outstation skiers. Every winter, the Ski Federation of Pakistan, with the help of the PAF, holds various winter competitions including the famous national championship.
Various organisations, clubs and associations of all provinces including the federal capital participate in the competitions. While the Ski Federation and the PAF both provide some skiing equipment to local skiers, not everyone is facilitated, so the residents rely on local handmade wooden skies.
Such is the demand, that almost every head of Naltar’s major families knows how to make skis. “Naltar has a very vibrant cottage industry for ski equipment,” says Fahid Farooq, a ski trainer. “Their forefathers were from China and Kohistan of Hazara division. They used to make wooden coffins, doors and windows for themselves and other villagers. Later, the same art was utilised in making wooden skies and poles,” he adds.
Forty-five-year-old Mumtaz is famous for making wooden skis for the children of Naltar. He makes dozens of such local wooden skis for the children for free. Mumtaz’s family have all made contributions to the field of skiing, with many of his cousins presently skiing professionally for various departments including the armed forces. Our own ski champion Muhammad Abbas also belongs to the same family. “Almost every elder of Naltar does this job in the winter for the children,” says Mumtaz, “and if we are given proper facilities and training we can not only produce world class skiers but also world class craftsmen. Sadly, the valley has never been given any importance.”
He’s not wrong about the talent. Naltar has consistently been producing a great number of talented skiers over the years, and young boys and girls are employed by various organisations including the armed forces as professional skiers and are given the chance to shine in the field of skiing. Besides Abbas, the Wali sisters and Mir Nawaz have won numerous medals in various competitions across the world, even racking up wins at the first South Asian Winter Games in India last year.
Besides the PAF, the Civil Aviation Authority is the only organisation which has launched a programme to upgrade and develop underprivileged areas of Naltar. “We have started giving Rs500,000 to the Ski Federation of Pakistan annually for the development of Naltar,” says a CAA Ski representative. “We are also planning to select at least 10 young boys and girls from Naltar to ski professionally for the CAA. We will be in charge of their education and diet, while the Federation will look after their ski training”.
Sadly, many people in Pakistan aren’t even aware of the ability of the people of Naltar to excel in winter sports, but with a little help and a little push from the government, a kind of alchemy is possible. That is to say that these planks of wood can help bring home medals of gold!
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 22nd, 2012.
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