Bamyan, Afghanistan – The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful. Pristine mountains, mirrored in crystal clear lakes, rise into blue skies. The valley, rich in history, is studded with archaeological remains. The people are exceedingly hospitable and their culture is unique.
What is missing, though, are foreign tourists. Bamyan province, after all, lies in the heart of Afghanistan, which is not exactly a shining holiday destination these days.
Undeterred by the long and ongoing conflict in their country, the people of Bamyan have their sights set on change. With an enthusiasm that is almost touching, they are gearing up for better times that they hope ecotourism will bring.
Bamyan is one of the safest provinces in Afghanistan. Most of its inhabitants are Hazaras, members of the Shia Muslim minority who have little use for the radical Islamic insurgents of the Taliban. But Bamiyan made worldwide headlines in 2001, when the Taliban blew up two giant standing Buddha statues carved into a cliff facing Bamyan town, the province’s capital.
Looking up while standing in the now empty recesses, one realizes the colossal achievement of the Buddhas’ builders. In the fifth or sixth century AD, with neither machines nor computers, they fashioned their masterpieces, the larger of which stood 53 metres tall. The outrage caused by the statues’ demolition was also colossal.
The larger one was so solid that it took more than three weeks to destroy it. ‘The destruction was the worst news I’ve ever heard in my life,’ said Amir Foladi, head of the Bamyan Ecotourism Programme, which is backed by the New Zealand government and the Geneva-based Aga Khan Foundation. ‘It was a cultural tragedy not only for the people in Bamyan and Afghanistan, but for the entire world.’
In 2003, the archaeological remains and cultural landscape of Bamiyan Valley were inscribed on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. The huge recesses in the rock where the statues once stood remain a sight worth seeing. Ancient steps lead up into the cliff, past a network of caves with vestiges of Buddhist wall paintings. The view of the Hindu Kush mountains from the caves is spectacular.
Archaeological remains are not all that Bamiyan province has to offer tourists. There is unspoilt nature as well. The mountains are waiting for hikers and the lakes that make up Band-e-Amir, Afghanistan’s first and so far only national park, are a three-hour drive from Bamyan town.
Before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Bamyan drew about 64,000 foreign visitors a year. Some 4,000 came in 2004. Then the security situation worsened. Fewer than 800 foreigners ventured to Bamyan last year, almost all of whom were working in Afghanistan. But the number of Afghan visitors rose from 950 in 2008 to 1,500 in 2009.
Stefan Frischauf, a Dusseldorf architect working for a humanitarian aid organization in Kabul, spent a recent long weekend in Bamyan with colleagues. He raved about the archaeological sites, the landscape and the people.
‘This is an unbelievably exciting place,’ he said. ‘The empty Buddha niches reflect a lot of what has gone on in the world over the past 10 years. I’m sure this country and this place have a future in tourism if the security situation in Afghanistan improves.’
Progress is hindered not only by the dangers plaguing much of the country but also by Afghanistan’s poor infrastructure. Getting to Bamyan is no easy matter. Inhabitants hope that commercial flights to Bamyan from Kabul will begin someday and, above all, that the road from the Afghan capital will be paved, which would cut the driving time from eight hours to three.
Foladi has big plans for the future. He aims to increase the number of tourist beds from the current 116 to 1,000 by 2015 and the number of hotel industry workers to 1,000 — eight times more than at present.
‘Bamyan is safe and has a lot of potential,’ he said. He also hopes to attract winter sports enthusiasts to the Bamyan Valley, which lies 2,500 metres above sea level. The surrounding mountains, with peaks as high as 5,000 metres, beckon skiers.
Chad Dear and Laurie Ashley, both Americans, are currently scouting the skiing terrain for the Bamyan Ecotourism Programme on behalf of the Aga Khan Foundation. ‘They’re world-class mountains that offer world-class skiing,’ Dear remarked. ‘They’d attract the best skiers in the world.’
Dear said that the programme would promote skiing not only for foreigners working in Kabul, but also for Afghans from Bamyan.
Source: Monsters and Critics