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Bamiyan: Rugged, poor and endlessly beautiful

Set hard against a dramatic mountain backdrop and hemmed in by sheer, cave-dotted cliffs, Bamiyan is one of the most picturesque places in Afghanistan. It's also one of the poorest. Officials hope to improve its economy through a fledgling tourist industry that is trying to attract visitors to take in its historical sites, mountain vistas and Afghanistan's only national park, Band-i Amir, which is an hour's drive away.

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan — Beyond the famous Buddhas and their infamous demise at the hands of Taliban soldiers lie a city and a province steeped in history and struggling with the present.

High in the Hindu Kush Mountains, Bamiyan province is both one of the safest regions of Afghanistan and one of the poorest. The province is dominated by the Hazara minority, whose Asiatic features and adherence to Shiite Islam (as opposed to Sunni Islam, which dominates the country) set them apart from most Afghans. It had a long Buddhist history before Islam was introduced to Afghanistan around the 7th century.

Because of harsh winters and rocky soil, little grows in Bamiyan. Although the province is famed for its potatoes and apples, Bamiyan residents rely largely on herding for their livelihood, and most basic goods must be imported. Poverty is widespread, and some in Bamyan — too poor to afford even basic housing — have taken to squatting in the cliff-side caves carved out by Buddhist monks centuries ago.

This poverty lies in stark contrast to the natural beauty that surrounds the provincial capital — craggy snow-capped peaks and cliffs that glow red in the sunset. For six months of the year, snow blankets a landscape that includes peaks rising more than 13,000 feet. In that beauty lies a hope that as war ebbs, large numbers of foreign visitors may return to a region that was once a major stop for adventurous tourists.

druzen.heath@stripes.com

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