BAND-E AMIR NATIONAL PARK, Afghanistan -- Of all the effects of war on Afghanistan, among the most surreal – and perhaps the happiest – is swan boats.
On a recent day, nearly 40 of the bird-shaped pedal boats packed with families were meandering around the almost painfully blue mineral waters of the main lake here.
From several came one of the rarest public sounds in Afghanistan: women laughing uproariously.
For centuries Afghans have believed that the waters of the group of six lakes known as Band-e Amir can cure illness and infertility. Now Band-e Amir also has become the nation’s soothing antidote to the daily horrors elsewhere: improvised bombs, suicide attacks and bribe-hungry police.
Partly that’s due to the peacefulness and startling beauty of the remote region, which is tucked away high in the Hindu Kush of central Afghanistan, and partly it’s because four years ago it became Afghanistan’s first national park.
The growing array of staff and facilities – including the swan boats – has made it easier for Afghans to visit, and they’ve been flocking here in increasing numbers, despite the fact that many have to drive a day or more and brave insurgent-infested villages and countryside en route.
In 2008 there were about 200 visitors a month to the area during its May-to-September high season, said David Bradfield, an adviser with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society who’s based at the park. The society proposed creating the park, and it’s helped develop a plan for the park with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. This year, average attendance on Fridays, the Muslim holy day, is 4,000 to 5,000.
Kids frolics, and families set up tents, hike, swim, grill kebabs, slice watermelon and go for a whirl in the pedal boats.
The park is a particularly special refuge for women and children, who lack places almost everywhere else in the country to simply get outside and enjoy life without worrying about bombs, firefights or oppressive conservative males. About half the visitors are children and 35 percent are women, said Mirza Hussain, the chief ranger.
"This is my first time ever out of Kabul, and this place makes me feel really happy and calm," said Mustura Baqer, who’d driven several hours from the capital with her husband, Mohammed, a construction manager, and their 9-month-old son.
They were sitting with Mohammed’s brother, Abrahim Abbas, and sister-in-law, Tamana Noori, cross-legged inside a gauzy tent they’d pitched to blunt the high-altitude chill. They were nibbling on salad with peach and tomato, traditional flatbread and chicken in a dark tomato sauce. Two watermelons were bobbing in the frigid waters of the lake a few feet away, cooling down.
Noori, a midwife from Bamiyan, said she and her husband and their three young children had visited the park 11 times, include three trips this year.
"It is a nice place for everybody, and the most beautiful place in the country," she said. "Kids can play around, and we feel safer here than any other place. People are afraid of attacks in Kabul and other places, but not here."
Visitors come from almost every part of the country, including Kabul, Ghazni in the southeast, Jalalabad in the northeast, Mazar-i-Sharif in the far north and even Kandahar, the Taliban birthplace, in the south, chief ranger Hussain said. The big days in the warm months are Thursdays and Fridays; only a trickle come the other days. Snow closes the roads into the park in winter.