BAMIAN, Afghanistan » It will be a long time before anyone calls this mountain town a tourist trap, especially at 9,000 feet when lows in the winter can plunge to 20 degrees below zero.
Even when two new hotels open in the coming year, Bamian – perhaps best known for the Taliban’s destruction of its ancient Buddhas – will have hotel rooms for fewer than 300 tourists. And while a new private airline, East Horizon, has made it possible to avoid insurgent checkpoints on the only two passable roads here, even frequent fliers might raise their eyebrows at some well-connected passengers who take their assault rifles with them in the cabin.
Still, despite the war that rages on elsewhere in the country, intrepid tourists are finding their way to this mountainous area of central Afghanistan in growing numbers, even in the coldest months.
On a recent February day, only three overseas tourists were visiting, but that was three more than in many years past. The same week, two conferences for Afghans were taking place. And as the month was ending, Bamian hosted an international Ski Challenge, drawing people from half a dozen countries to its pristine mountainsides – some 20 visitors who cheerfully snowshoed their way up the slopes, in lieu of any lifts.
"With all the cultural stuff here, anywhere else it would be heaving with tourists," said James Robertson, a British photographer, who was staying recently in the Ski Chalet guesthouse, one of only four places equipped to accommodate foreign guests in the winter.
While the famous standing Buddhas are both gone, even the niches where the sculptures stood before the Taliban blew them up in 2001 are impressive; one niche is 115 feet high, the other is 174 feet. The nearby complexes of caves, dating back two millenniums, are also still accessible.
Nearby caves include some of the oldest oil paintings in the world. Afghanistan’s only national park, encompassing the Band-e-Amir lakes, are also in the area and draw a mostly Afghan camping crowd in the summer.
"It’s just gorgeous," said Alison Tigg, 32, a railway surveyor from London who was in the region recently. "Just being here and looking around at the mountains. And because there are not a lot of tourists, you just melt into it a bit more."
She came on a package tour arranged back home, and says that one of the attractions is the bragging rights that come with a trip to a country at war.
Most appealing, though, the area has something few places in Afghanistan can boast about: relative safety. Though the roads from Kabul to Bamian province are prone to Taliban ambushes, the Bamian Valley is considered the most secure place in the country. And since East Horizon Airlines began flying to Bamian, tourists can actually make it here.
Much of the push for tourism, after decades of war, is being driven by international groups hoping to bolster the incomes of a local population mired in poverty and to begin opening Afghanistan up again to the world. Though their mission may seem quixotic, they are banking in part on Afghanistan’s longstanding appeal for those adventure travelers drawn to the country’s rugged beauty and the isolation that has left traditional cultures intact.
The nascent ski industry has been promoted heavily by the international Aga Khan Foundation’s Development Network as one of its many Afghan projects. The foundation thought that to build a tourist industry in this remote place, it made sense to make it all-season to promote year-round jobs.
"When we were first talking about tourism, people were laughing at us," the foundation’s national tourism coordinator, Amir Foladi, said.
The foundation financed the training of ski guides, and encouraged Afghans – men and women – to learn to ski, something previously unknown here. (The women managed to do so without violating the conservative dress code by wearing headscarves or helmets.)
There are obvious challenges. Electricity fails repeatedly, and heating is generally by wood or coal stove, which has to be tended through the night to ward off the bitter cold.
The two year-round hotels, the Noorband Qala and the Highland, offer about 30 rooms between them. At the Highland, there was only one guest on a recent day. Next year, the new hotels will add 140 rooms. Outside the hotels, there are only two restaurants, both of which use rolls of vinyl drawer lining for tablecloths, and one of which looks out onto a junkyard. The menus are variations of beef stew and freshly baked Afghan bread.
"Bread and meat, what more could you ask for?" said Robertson, the British photographer. He said he was unfazed by the ban on alcoholic beverages.
Tigg said her only complaint was not being able to walk around alone since cultural norms require women to be escorted by men.
"There are lots of places in the world like that, though," she said.
So far, many more Afghan tourists are coming than foreigners; Mohammad Reza Ibrahim, the head of the local tourism association, estimates them at 36,000 a year. Last year, the Aga Khan Foundation arranged with people who owned houses near the Band-e-Amir lakes to take in boarders, and the 40 homes that did so averaged $1,000 each in additional income, a significant amount for families who largely live off animal husbandry.
Especially encouraging, said Foladi of the foundation, was the arrival of about 1,000 tourists last year from southern Kandahar. Bamian is a largely Hazara area, and Pashtuns from Kandahar and elsewhere in the south are their traditional enemies.
"This is what tourism is really about," he said. "Learning to understand others."
International tourism will be a bit slower coming, he said. However safe Bamian is, visitors have to travel through Kabul, which has had growing problems with high-profile assaults, most recently a suicide attack that killed 21 foreigners in January at a popular restaurant.
Foladi sees a flip side, though.
"The war promoted Afghanistan," he said. "Even if the news was not good, people now know where Afghanistan is."