It takes several rough hours on a dirt track to reach Afghanistan’s first National Park from Bamiyan, but the beauty and solitude in just getting there is worth crossing the world for.
Band-I-Mir has been described as “the Grand Canyon flooded with deep sapphire lakes, bluer than the cloudless sky, with sheer golden cliffs plunging into turquoise shallows.” The lakes are formed by the flow of water over a succession of natural dams. And, obviously, I wanted to see it.
So, I hired a driver early in the morning and we set out. The driver I hired ended up being a real cowboy and so we made excellent time and I quite enjoyed careening through the ruts and streams we crossed.
Valley after valley like those pictured below unfolded before us as we raced toward Band-I-Mir. And don’t be deceived by the pictures illustrating a fairly benign-looking road. I was only able to take pictures on the relatively smooth sections when I wasn’t being thrown around.
Human habitation out here is very sparse and the families are entirely self-sufficient. The stacks on top of the roof are animal dung being dried to use as fuel during the harsh winters. And although you can’t see it in this picture, there was a whole array of laundry laid out on the mountainside behind the dwelling. In the absence of any trees, the Afghans place their laundry directly on the rocks heated by the sun to dry their clothing.
After a couple of hours of driving through mountain valleys in the Hindu Kush, we emerged onto the high plains.
Being a shepherd or goat herder is the only way to make a living out here.
Absolutely beautiful. Absolutely desolate.
At least an hour from Band-I-Mir and with a snowstorm closing in, we encountered the U.N. personnel pictured below. They told us that they had just tried getting to Band-I-Mir and that they had been unable to make it because of snow and ice across the road. With a new snowstorm approaching, they told us not to even consider it. Very reluctantly, I told the driver to turn around. Afghanistan is not a wise place to take serious chances in without proper gear or a support crew and I had neither to cover anything going wrong.
This person was at least twenty miles from anything – any settlements, any other roads, any goat herders – anything…
As I stated earlier, the driver was quite a cowboy and so we were back in Bamiyan by early afternoon and arrived in completely different weather – warm and sunny – so I decided to wander up to the U.N. compound right next to the air base where the troops from New Zealand are stationed.
I arrived at the airfield…
…just as this airplane was landing with fresh troops. It was pretty awesome seeing the massive plumes of dust being thrown up behind the airplane’s powerful engines as it landed.
After a minute or so of watching the troops, I walked into the U.N. compound. I kept expecting to get stopped and questioned as I was wandering quite freely around the military area and the U.N. compound, but no one took any notice of me. I presumed it was my “Western pass” as I was dressed in American clothing and don’t exactly look like the stereotypical Afghan (although there are plenty of Afghans with blond hair and blue eyes).
The U.N. personnel couldn’t believe I was there, but were really friendly with me. Theirs was a small contingent and so I think they were happy to have someone new to talk to.
As we were talking, a massive explosion rumbled across the valley. We speculated that it was likely an N.G.O. or the Kiwis detonating some land mines or unexploded ordnance. However, I was told the next day as we were leaving that it had been a roadside bomb and had killed two people. It was along the road I had just come back from Band-I-Mir on twenty minutes before. That will make you think! I’d like to think that going around the town of Bamiyan the night before and being friendly, handing out pens to the kids and shaking hands with the adults might have saved my life that day. But who knows why the bomber decided to detonate the bomb for the vehicle behind us rather than on me, the obvious Westerner, except for the bomber himself? Like I said, that sort of experience will give one pause for reflection.