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Afghanistan has its first national park, and the major attraction is Band-e-Amir Lakes. Once a popular tourist attraction, this chain of six brilliant blue lakes is seen as the promise of a brighter future for a country marred by decades of war. Located in north-central Afghanistan's Bamiyan Province, the sparkling lakes sit in stark contrast to the red limestone cliffs of the ancient Hazarajat Mountains. To follow the rugged terrain of this western Hindu Kush range is to follow the footsteps of Alexander the Great, Ghenghis Khan, Marco Polo and travelers of the historic Silk Road. While still a destination for the daring and adventuresome, Band-e-Amir Lakes is welcoming thousands of visitors every year.
Band-e-Amir was first declared a national park in 1973 but did not achieve legal status until April, 2009. Joining with the Afghan government, the U. S. Agency for International Development and Wildlife Conservation Society conducted wildlife surveys, laid out park boundaries and developed the park management plan now in operation. The park encompasses about 230 square miles. Amenities include restrooms, a ranger station, and recreational paddle boats. Band-e-Amir's pristine lake water and unique geologic features are now protected by Afghanistan's National Environmental Protection Agency, Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, and the Band-e-Amir Protected Area Committee. Recognizing the value of this site, the groundwork has been laid for Band-e-Amir Lakes to receive UNESCO World Heritage status.
From west to east the Band-e-Amir Lakes (Dam of the Ruler) are: Band-e-Gholaman (Dam of Slaves), Band-e-Qambar (Groom's Dam), Band-e-Haibat (Dam of Fear at 1211 acres and average depth of 262 feet), Band-e-Panir (Dam of Cheese, the smallest lake with a diameter of 328 feet), Band-e-Pudina (Mint Dam or Wild Mint Dam), and Band-e-Zulfiqar (Dam of Ali's Sword at 222 acres). At the end of the chain the Band-e Amir River flows down the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush and disappears into the desert near the Tajikistan border.
Local tradition holds that Band-e Amir Lakes were formed by the miraculous act of Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed. The story has many variations, but in each Ali appears in the disguise of a slave before a tyrannical infidel king. Challenged by the king to control the raging Band-e Amir River, Ali swings his sword cutting off a mountain top to create Band-e Zulfiqar. Ali then digs up trees and shrubs building a dam that creates Band-e Pudina. Local women bring him cheese used in yet another attempt to dam the water resulting in the white-bottomed Band-e Panir. Finally, Ali hurls rocks and boulders that form Band-e Haibat and ultimately control the river. Upon success of the miraculous feat, Ali reveals his identity and the king converts to Islam on the spot. A shrine commemorating Ali's miracle and recited prayers was erected in 1904 and remains along the sacred shore of Band-e Haibat.
Current geology tells us that Band-e-Amir River forms a chain of six lakes. The lakes are separated by travertine terraces with waterfalls flowing from one lake to the next. Rising to heights of 30 feet and widths of 10 feet, Band-e-Amir Lakes' travertine dams are a rare occurrence. The towering structures appear only where calcium carbonate deposits build along fault lines in carbon dioxide-rich water. It is also the high mineral content of the lakes that results in the water's beautiful lapis lazuli color.
During much of 2001 this isolated area of central Afghanistan saw the front line fighting between Taliban and resistance forces. At that time massive mine fields were laid and remain around Band-e-Amir National Park today. Beautiful but harsh terrain and rocky plateaus have made it difficult to safely clear all of the mine fields. Only a single unpaved road leading to Band-e-Amir has been cleared of mines and is considered safe to travel. Please note that the positioning of the marker on LakeLubbers' Google map is not an indication of a safe route. Travel arrangements to Band-e-Amir Lakes should be based on advice from government officials.
The involvement of local citizens in management decisions is essential to the continued protection and preservation of Band-e-Amir National Park. With an estimated population of 2,000-to-2,500 people, four main villages surround Band-e-Amir Lakes: Jaru Kashan, Qela Jafar, Dew Khana and Lupruk. The lakes and surrounding wheat fields are state-owned but subject to citizens' traditional farming rights. Unrestricted grazing continues in over-grazed meadows, and fish populations are threatened by the unusual use of electricity and hand grenades to catch fish. As park employment opportunities increase and tourism revenue provides a new income stream, it is hoped that residents will actively participate in the preservation of Band-e Amir Lakes.
Recreational activities remain somewhat limited within Band-e-Amir National Park. Swimming is open to men only, and even that is limited by the very cold water fed by springs and snow melt. In an effort to control pollution, boats with motorized gas engines are banned from Band-e Amir Lakes. Fishing for carp, known locally as milk fish, is a common sight along the lake shores, but rods and reels are in short supply.
Over the decades, the snow leopard and other large wildlife have disappeared from mountains surrounding Band-e-Amir Lakes. Remaining species are the ibex (wild goat), urial (wild sheep), wolves and foxes. Over 150 species of birds have been sighted at Band-e Amir National Park, causing the area to be designated by BirdLife International as an Important Bird Area. While birdwatching is not yet common practice at Band-e-Amir, it is a treat to spy the Afghan snowfinch which is known to breed only in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Thirty four miles east of Band-e-Amir Lakes, the remains of two sacred Buddhas tower over the community of Bamiyan. Carved into sheer sandstone cliffs over 1500 years ago, the two Buddhas, Vairocana at 180 feet and Sakyamuni at 121 feet, are the world's largest standing Buddhas. Considered to be "idols" by the Taliban-led government, the Buddhas were destroyed in 2001. Today, the Afghan government is working on comprehensive plans to reconstruct the site in hopes of combining the attraction with Band-e-Amir National Park to draw more visitors into the Bamiyan Valley.
Band-e-Amir National Park and the chain of six lakes are part of the transformation that will take Afghanistan from a collection of war-torn provinces to a unified country. Promoting the beauty and adventure that is Afghanistan unites people and creates a sense of pride. Adventure travelers and residents of Kabul and Jalalabad will begin to find travel easier as new roads are constructed and services become available. Typical vacation rentals and modern conveniences are still a rare commodity at Band-e-Amir Lakes, but hotels and guest houses can be found in surrounding communities. If you are looking for the trip of a lifetime, this is it. A trip to Band-e-Amir Lakes is more than a destination - it is a study in geology, history, faith and the endurance of a nation.
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