Located on the ancient Silk Road at 9,200 feet Bamiyan is at the crossroads between the East and West when all trade between China and the Middle East passed through. Today it has a population of approximately 61,000 and before the wars in Afghanistan was a thriving tourist center.
Bamyan was the site of an early Hindu-Buddhist monastery from which Bamyan takes its name (Sanskrit varmayana, "colored"). Many statues of Buddha are carved into the sides of cliffs facing Bamiyan city. In 2008, Bamiyan was found to be the home of some of the world's oldest oil paintings. In 2001 the Taliban destroyed the famous Buddha statues, and with it the main tourist attraction, not to mention depriving future generations of the world of these sacred, ancient sculptures.
But now in an effort to revive the area, this central Afghan province is discovering a new avenue for tourism: Skiing. In BBC Afghan Ramin Anwari reports on snowy slopes and a ski festival.
"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.
This is only the second year of the competition and the first time foreigners have taken part; and this is part of a country wide plan to promote this and other areas of Afghanistan after three decades of war and destruction. Areas that were not destroyed by warfare were ransacked by black marketers seeking to remove antiquities from Afghanistan and selling them on the international black market, which has become an industry in itself the last few years.
"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 has the perfect climate for skiing.
Bamiyan is a good place to visit in spring and summer, but we are trying to make it an enjoyable place 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."
Mountaineering is also being promoted in other provinces and is becoming one of the foundations for tourism in the high mountain regions.
The area still needs to improve services
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 another big challenge for our future plans, but there is no point in losing hope and not doing anything."
Bamiyan untouched by war since 2001, but security a risk
While there have been huge security problems throughout the country, Bamiyan has been untouched by war since 2001; however, security remains to be a concern for tourists visiting Bamiyan. Before the wars, Bamiyan had tens of thousands of foreign tourists, but the new plan wants to encourage foreign tourism.
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."
Transitioning from war time to a peace time economy—if peace can ever be achieved—is definitely a challenge in Afghanistan and presents many obstacles. Programs like promoting skiing in this once highly travelled area rebuilds their society, encourages industry and with it an economic base from which the Afghan people can grow. If security remains the primary need, then it is incumbent upon the Afghan government to support these kinds of efforts that are positive and create a base for civilian progress.