Afghanistan’s Grand Canyon

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Band-e AmirPhoto:
Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, a lake
Image: Carl Montgomery

Band-e Amir is Afghanistan’s first and only national park. It consists of six lakes whose waters are bluer than the sky. It is located almost 10,000 ft above sea level in a mountainous desert, 75 km northwest of the ancient city of Bamiyan, once famous for its two monumental Buddha statues, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Getting to Band-e Amir requires a sense of adventure and determination.

Not the Wild West but Afghanistan’s Grand Canyon:
Band-e AmirPhoto:
Image: Cacahuate

Band-e Amir, also spelled Band-e Ameer or Band-i Amir, is a group of six lakes high up in the Hindu Kush Mountains in Central Afghanistan. The naturally formed lakes are at an elevation of 3,000 m and were created by carbon dioxide rich water from geothermally heated hot springs. The carbonite minerals inside the water formed the sedimentary rock or white travertines that separate the lakes today.

A turquoise jewel at 3,000 metres:
Band-e AmirPhoto:
Image: Sqamarabbas

The names of the six lakes refer to this dam-like (“Band”) appearance: Band-e-Haibat or Dam of Awe is the largest and deepest lake, estimated to have an average depth of 150 m. Band-e Gholaman, Band-e Qambar, Band-e Pamir, Band-e Pudina and Band-e Zulfiquar make up the rest.

Serene – Band-e Pamir:
Band-e PamirPhoto:
Image: Hadi1121

The Band-e Amir region was already slated to become Afghanistan’s first national park in the 1960s but these plans had to be postponed due to the country’s unstable political situation. Since submission in 2004, Band-e Amir has been on the tentative list for becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site. In 2008, it was finally declared Afghanistan’s first national park.

Band-e Amir’s (only?) concession to commercialism – pedal boating:
Pedal boatingPhoto:
Image: Carl Montgomery

A few thousand tourists, mainly Afghans and a few international aid workers, visit the 228-sq-mile park every spring and summer. The trek there is not easy and visitors have to be determined to brave the harsh terrain, rocky plateaus, lack of basic facilities and, worst of all, unpaved roads that are mined. Traffic is therefore restricted to a thin track that is clear of mines, and travel from Kabul takes about 12 hours.

The seemingly endless plains of Band-e Amir:
Band-e Amir plainsPhoto:
Image: Sqamarabbas

The lakes seen from space in winter:
Band-e Amir from spacePhoto:
Image: NASA

Given the still troubled nature of Afghanistan’s affairs, maintenance of the park has not been a priority. Lack of a park authority has led to various environmental problems: increasing pollution through human waste and trash, a damaged aquatic ecosystem because of fishing with electricity and grenades (yes, grenades!) and a threatened ecological balance because of unrestricted grazing of animals and uprooting of shrubs, which can result in soil erosion and even landslides.

Creating ripples at Band-e Amir:
Band-e AmirPhoto:
Image: Hadi1121

According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, much of Band-e Amir’s wildlife has already been lost. In 2008, the Afghan government at least banned the use of boats with gas engines on the lakes to decrease water pollution.

Composition in brown, green and grey:
Band-e AmirPhoto:
Image: Carl Montgomery

This leaves us to end with the description of adventure traveler and photographer Carl Montgomery:

“Drive for hours over dusty mountain roads and you’re brought to Afghanistan’s only national park. Band-e Amir is a series of deep blue lakes nestled amidst limestone canyons. This is Afghanistan’s Grand Canyon, truly a sight inspiring of awe. Whether it is worth traveling through Taliban territory to get here is entirely another question. Pictures tell the story although sadly fail to do it justice.”

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

We’ll even throw in a free album.

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