Bande Amirjl

The glittering lakes of Band-e Amir must rank as Afghanistan's most astounding natural sight, hidden in the Koh-e Baba at an altitude of 2900m. A series of six linked lakes, their deep blue waters sparkle like otherworldly jewels against the dusty mountains that surround them.

The lakes' high mineral content gives them their colour, and in the case of the most accessible lake, Band-e Haibat (the suitably named Dam of Awe), these minerals have been deposited along its shore to produce a huge curtain wall over 12m high, streaked with sulphur and containing its waters high above 'ground' level. It's a weird and stupendous sight, and it's not surprising that locals should far prefer a mythic, rather than geological, explanation for the lakes' formation (see the boxed text, opposite). The lakes are reputed to contain great healing powers and pilgrims still visit to take the waters.

Approaching Band-e Amir, the first hint you have of their striking qualities is a bright flash of lapis lazuli as the largest lake, Band-e Zulfiqar appears briefly to your right. Soon after, the road starts to descend from a plateau immediately above the flat mirror of Band-e Haibat. Its deep blue waters and white dams fringed with vegetation are a rude shock when set against the cream and pink mountains - a sight to draw breath from even the most jaded travellers.

Arriving at the floor of the valley, vehicles stop a five-minute walk away from the dam walls, near a cluster of chaikhanas and kiosks. On Fridays and Saturdays, the area absolutely throngs with Afghan day-trip-pers, providing a rare echo of Afghanistan's tourist heyday.

At the lakeshore, it's possible to hire pedalos (75Afg per 15 minutes), shaped like swans, to take onto the water. They're slightly kitsch, but are a great way of seeing the lake, particularly if you've got the stamina to pedal all the way to the end and back - a good couple of hours. Alternatively a boat (the 'Donald Duck') carries up to 10 people for trips around the lake and back for 50Afg a head.

On a more spiritual level, a small shrine, known locally as Qadamjoy Shah-e Aulia ('The place where Ali stood'), overlooks the lake here. Built in the 1920s on the site of an older tomb, its doors are covered with small padlocks left as votive tokens, particularly from women offering prayers for love and fertility.

BAND-E AMIR WALKING TOUR

A walk around the edges of the lakes is the best way to appreciate their scale, and the cliff-top walk offers a succession of sublime vistas. The summer sun can be very fierce at this altitude, so take a hat and plenty of water.

Follow the rough path up from the chaikhanas to quickly find yourself looking down on Band-e Haibat. After about 15 minutes the path reaches a promontory with a great view, looking across the lake, and down into the first of a series of coves with inviting shallows. Continuing along the path, you have to cut inland for about 20 minutes, through some very dusty scrubby terrain, occasionally veering back toward the water. An hour after setting out you find yourself looking over the far shore of the lake and across to Band-e Panir (Dam of Cheese) This is the prettiest of the lakes, almost a perfect triangle of bright turquoise, fringed with a white beach. The lake sits slightly above Band-e Haibat bound by a white calcium travertine dam, and above this again is the tiny Band-e Pudina (Dam of Mint), almost completely overgrown with vegetation. Curving to the northwest, and higher still, the waters of the largest lake, Band-e Zulfiqar (Dam of Ali's Sword), are just visible. The lakes are linked by a series of cascades, each feeding the one below.

Carrying on the walk for another 30 minutes, the cliffs descend and allow you to reach the shores of Band-e Pudina and Band-e Panir. Few people get this far, and their relative seclusion makes them great spots to take a dip. Band-e Panir in particular is relatively shallow and not as cold as the icy waters on the other lakes. Women should take absolute care that there are no locals around before plunging in.

Returning to Band-e Haibat, it is possible to walk the perimeter of the dam walls. Algal growths make it slippery in places. At the far end are several tents, erected for the few

THE MIRACLES OF ALI

An infidel king called Babar ruled the Hindu Kush with a terrible fury. He was particularly frustrated by his inability to control a raging river near his capital. Ali, the Prophet Mohammed's son-in-law, was travelling through the region, and, disguised as a slave, was brought to the king. Babar laughed at the captive and challenged him to perform a series of miracles. This Ali did - he hurled down rocks at the river to form Band-e Haibat, and sliced the top off a mountain with his sword to create Band-e Zulfiqar. His groom dammed Band-e Kambar and inspired by Ali, the king's own slaves made Band-e Ghulaman. Band-e Panir and Band-e Pudina were made with the help of a nomad woman, a piece of cheese and a sprig of mint. To top off the day's work, Ali killed a dragon that had been terrorising the region. Babar was so amazed with these feats that he converted to Islam on the spot.

pilgrims who come to Band-e Amir for the reportedly curative powers of the mineral waters. The walls terminate at the cliff, although there is a rough and precipitous path that can take you to the top. This follows the cliff edge past several chimney-like rock formations. After an hour, the path descends to the eastern shore of Band-e Pudina (also accessible if you have your own vehicle).

Two further lakes lie to the west of Band-e Haibat. The first, Band-e Kambar (Dam of the Groom) has almost completely dried up and is little more than a series of puddles. The shore of Band-e Ghulaman (Dam of the Slaves) is a further kilometre west. This has the lowest mineral content, and its shallows are thick with reedbeds. There is also plenty of bird-life here, giving it a much different character to the other lakes. The green shores are an ideal place for a picnic.

SLEEPING & EATING

In the past couple of years, a small 'street' has grown up to the side of Band-e Haibat, with half a dozen simple chaikhanas offering the usual pulao, kebabs and an occasional omelette and chips for around 60Afg. Although you may see people fishing with lines on the lake, the mohi (fish) themselves rarely end up on the menu.

A few of the chaikhanas are little more than pitched tents, where for the price of dinner (or lOOAfg, according to the manager's whim) you can stay for the night. Bring warm clothes and ask for an extra blanket. A short walk from the tents is a latrine block, dubbed the 'Taliban House' by local wags.

GETTING THERE & AWAY

There are direct minibuses to the lakes from Bamiyan on Thursday, Friday and Saturday mornings (150Afg, three hours), as well as a large bus every Friday morning (40Afg, 3H hours). Hiring a vehicle from Bamiyan should cost around US$60. Public transport sometimes stops at the hamlet of Qarghanatu, two-thirds of the way from Bamiyan, for breakfast. The chaikhanas here serve kimak, a type of dried salty sheep's cheese.

Band-e Amir is a further 15km after the turn-off from the Bamiyan-Yawkawlang route: note that there are several stretches where the verges of this road are mined, although not in the immediate vicinity of the lakes. Band-e Amir is largely inaccessible during the winter, although the frozen lakes would be a tremendous sight.

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