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Victoria Schofield
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Band- e Amir - the King's Dam

The Traveller, Winter 2010

Article:

Driving through central Afghanistan is a dusty experience. The road stretches onwards seemingly forever and the surrounding colour is light to medium brown; there is no water here to turn the hills green and so they too are brown. ‘Wait until you see the lake,’ one of my more  learned travelling companions proffered, as I was beginning to despair of the monotonous palette of colour as we bumped along an equally brown road.

‘Ah yes, the lake’  – the objective of our   journey from Kabul by way of  Bamian, where the giant Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, was to visit  Band-e Amir – the King’s Dam -  a world away from the war torn province of Helmand in the south where the fighting against the Taliban continues.  But could one  lake really make such a difference to this barren vista?    My doubts were   soon dispelled, as   we rounded a corner,  and there in the valley  below, was the lake, glistening in the sunshine as though the artist who painted this unending scene had abruptly  tired of brown and injected an enormous splash of blue.

As we got closer,  I realized that   Band-e Amir  is not just one lake but several interconnecting lakes which fill a gigantic crevasse stretching through the heart of Afghanistan. It seems the earth  has literally been prised open to create a vast receptacle to preserve  precious water in an otherwise parched landscape. Recently granted the status of Afghanistan’s first  National Park, a five mile cordon sanitaire has been suggested to preserve  what has to be unique natural wonder of the world, created centuries ago by a geological fault line.

Having seen this stupendous expanse of water from afar, with our tents now erected on its perimeter, we planned to marvel more closely,  by walking   around the lakes. With  very little human habitation and nothing to pollute it, the water is  crystal clear, the colours changing from  deepest sapphire   to brilliant turquoise, depending on the depth of the lake.    The surrounding land may still look stark but, contrasted against the variegated blues, the rocks appeared almost pink. The only water traffic is  a minor  fleet of   pink and yellow pedalloes, which seem oddly modern, but date from a bygone era when Afghanistan once had tourists.

At a distance,   a few houses and a market bazaar make up the village of Band-e Amir. There is also  a  school, with some windows blocked up to protect the children from the winter winds, which annually transform the whole region into a frozen zone of ice and snow.   In spring and summer, the  abundant water turns the  land in the immediate vicinity  a luxuriant green; in places, the  lake has reached land level, and spills over the bank’s edge in a series of rivulets and waterfalls,  cascading to a lower terrace, whose contours  have been carved by centuries of repetitive flow. 

Walking   along the cliff top, in the scorching heat with no shade,  we followed the natural path frequented by the herds of sheep, which  perpetually move like oversized ants up and down the hillside, searching for pasture; depending where the path led, we sometimes  dropped down to the water’s edge,  where we could stop and paddle our feet in the glacial water,  before journeying up the cliff face again to view once more the surrounding panorama from on high. As we threaded our way over the  well worn tracks, I couldn’t help thinking that we really were treading in the   footsteps of   ancient predecessors, where very little in our surroundings would have changed.

The only building on the lake side  is the shrine of Hazrat Ali,  nephew and son-in-law of the Prophet and founder of the Shia sect of Muslims who predominate in this area.   As we passed the shrine, a young woman was weeping beside the body of her dying son, praying for him to be cured. I  felt he should have been in hospital but  soon realized that the reality of the harsh life of most people in Afghanistan meant that there was no hospital  near by   and her entreaties at the shrine  were her only hope.  Since the water is   rich in sulphur, its   curative properties especially for women are highly valued. As we continued around the lake, we saw  some terrified women, fully-dressed, unable to swim, being lowered by a rope into the freezing  water for a few minutes’ immersion, before being swiftly retrieved by their menfolk.

As the day progressed, for those who became too weary,   the villagers – bemused that we were apparently  walking for pleasure – had provided horses on which to continue our journey, these sure-footed animals  knowing  exactly how to pick their way through the rocky terrain.  By the time the colour of the water had softened to absorb the evening glow of the setting sun,  with the surface ruffled by the    rising wind,    we were back at our campsite on the lake’s edge.  As  the embers of our camp fire died,  the wind dropped, and the water, lit only by the stars, was transformed to darkest indigo.


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