Could Afghanistan one day become a tourist destination? Your initial reaction—everyone’s initial reaction—is to vigorously shake your head no. Decades of war have resulted in destroyed infrastructure, distrust, and precarious truces. How could the people who live there, much less tourists, feel safe, especially now that NATO forces have withdrawn? But there are a few hopeful signs of progress in this landlocked Asian country. You just need to know where to look.
The country’s first national park was created five years ago. It was years in the making. The government first wanted to protect this 222-square-mile area in central Afghanistan in the 1960s. War delayed it many times over. But in 2004, it was finally declared a World Heritage Site. Then on Earth Day in 2009, Band-e Amir National Park was established. Its six deep lakes are full of azure water and are separated by natural travertine dams (mineral deposits). They’re surrounded by red cliffs and rocky plateaus. It’s known as the Grand Canyon of Afghanistan.
Band-e Haibat (Lake of Grandiose) is the largest and the deepest of the six lakes. A little mosque overlooks the lake. Bollywood movies have been filmed here. A small kebab stand sells grilled meat, bread, and chai. While paddle boats rest along the shore. Gas engines aren’t allowed on the lakes anymore, but you can see schools of silver fish through the clear water as you paddle around.
The other lakes include Band-e Gholaman (Lake of the Slaves), Band-e Panir (Lake of Cheese), and Band-e Zulfiqar (Lake of the Sword of Ali). Hike the rugged paths between the lakes. Watch out for ibexes, urials, and even wolves. Just don’t stray far from the paths, as there may be uncleared land mines in the Hindu Kush mountains. While park rangers—who now include four women in their ranks—might stop you for identification. But they’re helpful and hopeful that you’re falling in love with your beautiful surroundings.
Band-e Amir National Park is beautiful. It’s beautiful, peaceful, and a sign of progress in a country desperately in need of something to look forward to.