Afghanistan bets on peace with first national park

Wed Apr 22, 2009 1:34am EDT
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By Emma Graham-Harrison

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A unique cascade of turquoise lakes nestled in bleak mountains near the heart of Afghanistan was touted as a national park in the 1970s, long before three decades of war drove the tourists away.

Wednesday, Afghanistan at last declared Band-e-Amir its first conservation area, hoping nature-lovers will return.

For decades, the area deteriorated along with so much else in a country consumed by war. The last of Band-e-Amir's magnificent snow leopards was hunted down some time in the 1980s while Soviet troops were battling mujahideen guerrillas.

Spectacular ancient giant Buddha statues in the nearby Bamiyan valley were blown up by the Taliban in 2001.

But today the area is far from any fighting and Afghan tourists have begun to return. Authorities hope foreigners who made Afghanistan a stop on the "hippie trail" in the 1970s will one day come back too.

The chain of lakes are a bone-jarring day's drive from Kabul over dirt roads that are currently considered unsafe for foreigners. There is only a dirt airstrip at the nearest town.

But the giant natural dams, formed from slow-growing deposits of travertine stone that hold back each pool of startlingly blue water are a unique natural treasure.

"There is nothing else in the world that looks like that," said Peter Smallwood, Afghanistan Country Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has helped set up the park. "There are some travertine dams that are bigger but nothing so vertically sheer. It is so thin and tall it looks almost unreal."   Continued...