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BAND-E-AMIR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - If you want to see the stunning blue lakes of Afghanistan's first national park right now, it helps to get the U.S. military to fly you there in a Chinook helicopter with the American ambassador.
It's worth it.
The U.S. embassy flew a small group of reporters on Thursday to Band-e-Amir, a vast expanse of amazingly blue lakes set in austere desert cliffs, nearly 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) high in the Hindu Kush mountains, to attend the opening of Afghanistan's first national park.
For now, any foreign tourists who might want to visit would have to defy their embassy's warnings of kidnappings and war, and drive more than 10 hours from Kabul on treacherous mountain roads that barely exist.
But the park, which was a tourist destination in peacetime back in the 1970s, is in a part of Afghanistan that has been comparatively stable for years. And the U.S. government is funding a new road that should reduce the drive by two-thirds.
"Look at this. It is poetry for the eyes. Poetry for the soul. Poetry for the spirit," said Prince Mostapha Zaher, grandson of Afghanistan's last king and now head of its environment agency, gesturing to the cliffs behind one of the lakes.
"Afghanistan will become again the tourist destination for Central Asia, for Americans, Europeans, for people of all the world. You can hold me to that. In five years. You can grab me by the tie and hold me to it."
The lakes -- flat as pool tables and blue as the late evening sky -- are suspended improbably over lower parts of the valley, held back by natural dams that were formed over eons by calcium deposits called travertine. Although created entirely by nature, they look like a marvel of human engineering.
An ancient legend, written down by a British diplomat more than 150 years ago and still believed by the Shi'ite Hazara tribes in the area, says that the dams were built by magic by Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad, who knelt in the valley to pray. A modest mud-brick shrine marks the spot.
Beneath it, after the park's dedication ceremony, Afghan Vice President Karim Khalili, a visibly delighted U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry and other senior Afghan officials paddled around the lake in swan-shaped paddle boats.
They tossed granola to teeming schools of silvery fish, who leapt out of the lake to gobble it up. (The new national park's rules ban the Afghan practice of fishing with hand grenades.)
Eikenberry said diplomats from his embassy still remember picnicking on the lake's shores in the 1970s, before three decades of war put it off-limits.
The park is in Afghanistan's central Bamiyan province, an area of extraordinary natural beauty even by the stunning standards of Afghanistan, but also a place that suffered perhaps the harshest treatment of any area under the Taliban.
The people of the province are mainly Shi'ite Muslims, who long resisted the Sunni Taliban and were punished with mass killings and sectarian repression when they finally succumbed.
A few hours' drive from the park are the vast cliff caves that housed ancient giant statues of the Buddha, blown up by the militant Islamists in 2001 at a time when they set out to destroy all of Afghanistan's pre-Islamic religious artifacts.
Today the area is dirt poor. Locals hope that national park status and the soon-to-be-built roads will bring tourists, first from other parts of Afghanistan and then, as in the old days, from the rest of the world.
To help preserve the lakes now that they have been declared a national park, shopkeeper Sayed Asghar, 47, was ordered to move his lakeside stall selling tea, biscuits, sandals and soccer balls to a new tin-roofed shack a few hundred meters away.
He sees only about 10 tourists a month, he said. Nothing like the days in the 1970s that he remembers from his youth, when busloads would arrive every day. His hope is that the government will fulfill its promises and finish the road.
"Right now, the shops have everything but customers."
Editing by Kevin Liffey