Band-e-Amir — lakes in the desert in the mountains

Afghanistan provided some of the favourite stops on the Hippy Trail, until the 1979 Russian invasion of the impoverished country. Backpacking Westerners by the busload brought welcome tourist dollars and ogled the remnants of the empire of King Ashoka, who spread Buddhism from Asia to the banks of the Red Sea.

The following account of those times is extracted from an early draft of The Novice.

“You are leaving,” said the hotel owner. “But you have paid in advance.” He seemed disappointed.

I’ll be back,” I said, “I can use my leftover days then?”

He shook his head from side to side in the Asian gesture of assent. “No problem.” He looked thoughtful for a moment and asked, “Where you are going?”

“To Bamiyan,” I said.

“Ah! Then go also to Band-e-Amir. High up in the mountains. Beautiful lakes in the desert.” He smiled.

“Lakes in the desert in the mountains?” It sounded like a riddle, but he gave no further clue, “Go and see. You will be happy.”

The lorry was typically Afghan, painted colourfully and rimmed with lattice and wrought iron, hardly suited to the track that soon became little more than a watercourse – a spring runoff from the mountain snows. There was no discernable road surface. One corner of the vehicle rose precipitously while another sunk into a pothole, then the whole leaned sideways and lurched into a depression. The driver rarely shifted up from first gear, and never beyond second.

The almost complete lack of vegetation was made up for by the spectacular play of light and shade over desert vistas. They rose and fell in sandy golds and distant blues that seemed almost orchestrated. As we reached greater elevations, the turn of a corner or rise of a hill revealed landscapes of unimaginable depth. The country seemed to stretch forever into an empty vastness.

I spent a few days in Bamiyan recuperating from my bout of hepatitis and exploring the massive buddhas carved into the cliff face. Then I climbed into another lorry for the ongoing trip with some new travelling companions. We had the rare luxury of being alone in the back and took pleasure in sitting or standing as we pleased, but soon found that sitting wasn’t much of an option. The road – wider, less pitted and rock-strewn than the narrow road from Kabul – enabled us to maintain a good twenty-five miles an hour, at which speed every rock or pit produced a spine-compressing thud that shot from coccyx to skull and left the brain vibrating like a bell. We learned to hang on to the overhead frame for the tarpaulin cover, and bent our knees to absorb the shocks. The Afghan desert climbed higher and higher, and the space around us grew vast. More than once we raised our hands to touch the sky.

Finally the driver stopped just before the brow of a wide, softly rounded mountaintop, and pointed straight ahead, encouraging us to jump down. I got out first and immediately saw a single yellow flower among the rocks. A few cacti were all that grew there, and this had needles in place of leaves. But the flower was wide open like a saucer and seemed too delicate for this rugged terrain. In an Alpine meadow it would be insignificant, but here it stood out like a beacon.

I wandered off, a little disappointed by the endless barren slopes in all directions. Behind me, the driver was shouting and waving me on. I strolled over to the brow of the hill and found myself on the edge of a cliff, suddenly gazing into the most startlingly deep blue water I’d ever seen. Hundreds of feet below, in a huge hole sunk deep into its surrounding vertical rock walls, it lay as still as the mountains it reflected, its depth and colour utterly fantastic. I looked over my shoulder at the driver who nodded sagely with his hands on his hips and a broad grin on his face. I turned back to the lake and stared into it, mesmerized. It appeared to be bottomless, but the stillness was uncanny. I struggled to believe what I was seeing. As I went forward I saw the whole vista of a series of lakes flowing over a series of natural dams, running from higher to lower.

Thanks to Nasrin Jiwan

Band-e Zulfiqar (sword of Ali); one of the six lakes of Band-e-Amir —the dots in the right foreground are people near a pickup truck

One by one, the others came to the rise of the hill and stopped dead in their tracks. A shout from another side of the hill broke my reverie, and I went over to another lake that stood above the valley floor like a dish of water discarded by an untidy giant.


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