Ringed by snow-covered mountains, Bamiyan has often been called Afghanistan’s “safest” province.
Its roads, paved for the first time in the central province’s history, make Bamiyan’s natural beauty and historical artifacts more accessible than ever. In interviews with Al Jazeera, residents of Bamiyan city and mountainside villages alike spoke proudly of their province’s safety compared to the rest of the nation.
But despite Bamiyan’s relative safety, poverty remains rampant. Nearly 70 percent of the province’s roughly 418,000 people live on less than $25 per month.
“We continue to struggle, so many people are without jobs,” said 19-year-old Zahra in Bamiyan city’s Titanic Market area.
The winter’s snow brings with it a host of economic and health problems. Though paved roads now stretch from the provincial capital into the mountainsides, Zahra says streets within the province’s snow-covered villages remain unpaved dirt. As temperatures drop, the harsh winter in Bamiyan puts much of the population at risk of malnutrition.
In December, the first commercial flights to Bamiyan hoped to bring tourists from Japan and China to ski the mountains, climb the cliffs that housed what were once the world’s largest free-standing Buddhas, and visit the picturesque “red city” of Shahr-e-Zohak.
But several hotels in Bamiyan city are closing for the winter because their pipes have frozen over, and the annual snow adds yet another difficulty for the struggling economy. Last year, a mere 2,500 Afghan tourists and 1,000 foreign tourists visited the province which is home to Afghanistan’s first national park.
Locals have tried their best to boost tourism. For instance, in a bid to bring the skiing industry into their province, merchants in Bamiyan have made skis from wooden planks and leather straps.
And Gholam Sakhi, a 42-year-old tour guide, escorts hundreds of people up rocky cliff sides to see where Bamiyan’s gargantuan stone Buddha statues once stood, before they were dynamited by the Taliban in 2001. Sakhi proudly offers to take pictures as tourists pose along the thin railing outside the caves where the statues once stood.
But development remains slow, and many in Bamiyan see a conundrum. Billions of dollars in foreign aid have been funneled into Afghanistan’s much more dangerous eastern and southern provinces. “Perhaps if we blow something up, the world will pay attention to us,” many in the province told Al Jazeera.