Afghanistan has had a bad press. The country and its people have been maligned as a result of continued political disruption and many of its images are of backwardness and desolation. In fact, Afghan society and culture are remarkable and its geography stunning, especially the six lakes known as Band-e Amir.
Six deep blue lakes lie at the heart of central Afghanistan in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, the second highest mountain range in the world. The lakes are not far from the ancient town of Bamiyan, where the Taliban destroyed the limestone Buddha statues in 2001. The six lakes of Band-e Amir are: Band-e Gholaman (Slave Lake); Band-e Qambar (Lake of Caliph Ali’s Slave); Band-e Haibat (Awesome Lake); Band-e Panir (Cheese Lake); Band-e Pudina (Wild Mint Lake); and Band-e Zulfiqar (Lake of the Sword of Ali).
They were created by carbon dioxide rich water drawn from the spring melt-water in the surrounding mountains and they are fed through faults and cracks in the rocky landscape. The water percolates slowly through the limestone, dissolving its principal mineral, calcium carbonate. Over time, layers of hardened mineral (travertine) were deposited, which trapped water in increasingly large basins. Water cascades from one lake to the other over travertine terraces serving as natural dams.
The deep blue colour of the lakes is due to the clarity of the air, the purity of the water and to their high mineral content. Band-e Panir is the smallest lake and Band-e Zulfiqar the largest. The most accessible is Band-e-Haibat, which has been a destination for travellers since the 1950s. The Band-e Amir lakes have been designated Afghanistan’s first and only national park. They are on UNESCO’s World heritage list.
According to the Wildlife Conservation Society much of the local wildlife has disappeared, but a recent survey revealed ibex and urial (a type of wild sheep) as well as wolves, foxes, smaller mammals and various bird species including the Afghan snow finch, which is believed to be the only bird found exclusively in Afghanistan.
“They were incredible. They could not be real, but they were: intensely blue, lapis blue, cerulean, sapphire, aquamarine, rising one above the other, each spilling into the next with a crystal fan of waterfalls which glistened over the rocks in a multitude of streams. Where the lowest lakes spilled over into the valley, there were faint streaks of dull moss-green for a little distance until the desert blotted up the water. Other than that, nothing: absolute desert wrapped around brilliant jewels of blue: no stream flowing into them, none flowing out. A handful of lakes in the middle of the desert ten or eleven thousand feet high – just simply, fantastically there.”