"Poetry for the soul" in first Afghan national park

Thu Jun 18, 2009 2:37pm EDT
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By Peter Graff

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.   Continued...

<p>A general aerial view of Band-e-Amir lake, in Bamiyan province, about 310 km (193 miles) northwest of Kabul June 18, 2009. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani</p>