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.
Despite its world-class beauty, the park is little known in the West. Perhaps 20 Western visitors come in an average month, mostly aid workers from Kabul.
Like much of what people do in Afghanistan, a visit to Band-e Amir often is underpinned by religion. The Baqers’ son has epilepsy, and they hoped that the powers of the waters would help.
Beliefs about the lakes’ ability to heal are based on the reputed role of Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, in their creation. There’s a much-visited shrine to him adjacent to the landing for the pedal boats.
Ali is said to have created the lakes through various amazing feats, including a slash of his sword, and damming the resulting valley with, among other things, cheese.
The six lakes of the park are indeed dammed with a hole-ridden substance, but it’s a rock called travertine, created by buildups of the minerals in the water, which mainly wells up from springs.
The dams are generally U-shaped, with hosts of small lime-green and sulfur-yellow waterfalls spilling over them, making the series of lakes like massive, watery steps that stretch for miles, each one higher than the next.
With the U.S. and NATO pullout of combat troops and a slide in the foreign aid that’s been propping up the Afghan economy for more than a decade, there’s much speculation about what parts of the foreign legacy will be sustainable. The park, which is a direct result of U.S. aid money, appears to be one of those things, as it generates income and doesn’t take much for the Afghan government to operate.
Already, the Afghan government is supporting nearly all the operations related to the park, and the Ministry of Agriculture just approved eight new jobs for people to clean the park. That’s crucial, as the visitors tend to leave a lot of trash behind. It also has approved the park’s first women rangers, which will be a boon for all the female visitors.
The park benefits local residents, too. The swan boats, which the Afghans insisted be added to the Wildlife Conservation Society plans, generate income for families in 15 area villages. There’s employment at the small food and souvenir bazaar and the park’s seven little guesthouses. There are several other guesthouses close by, and in high season, locals rent out rooms in their homes.
More amenities are coming. A ranger station, a training center and a reception center are under construction, and there are plans for shuttle buses and more parking.
Women who immerse themselves in the chilly waters of the lakes do so fully clothed, and modesty dictates that they do it out of the sight of men, so under way now is a feature that probably can’t be found in any other national park in the world: a walled area near the shrine so that women may take their dips privately.
There are tentative plans for a massive international airport close to the park, but the potential for international tourism, at least while the war continues, is murky. This year, only 650 foreign visitors are expected in Bamiyan province, where the park is located, said Abdul Khaliq, the province’s tourism director.
For now, the visitors are almost entirely Afghan.
Gulbahar, who like many Afghans uses only one name, said she’d come to Band-e Amir with a group of 14 people from two families, all but four of them women and children. They’d come to seek a cure for her nephew, who’s mentally ill, and for a woman with a heart problem. They’d driven three days over bad roads, then eventually they’d parked the two minivans and walked nearly a full day to reach the park, she said.
They may or may not be happy with the medical results, but they were, Gulbahar said, overjoyed to feel the burdens of living in a war zone lift.
"There is no other place in Afghanistan with this atmosphere for women and children," she said. "No one bothers us here."