MarySmith’sPlace – Travels with a sheep – AfghanistanAdventures #51

From Lal-sar-Jangal to Band-i-Amir, December 1989

Looking across the water to the shrine

We were almost in Yakolang before anyone remembered the sheep. When Jon unlocked the door, his gasp of horror made me fear the poor animal had expired. I peered in. It was still alive – bleating its protests at this unorthodox way of travelling. It lay flattened under a huge pile of bedding and a large box, its legs sticking out like a cartoon character. Jon shifted the bundles, and the sheep struggled to an upright position.

In the bazaar, Rahimy went off to buy fruit and other supplies, while the rest of us paid our respects to the Commanders at the Paygar. As it was in Yakolang the mujahideen had threatened to shoot Khudadad for using a torch, I was less than enthusiastic about the visit.  The Commander gave Jon the usual bear-hug embrace. As a foreign female I was granted a cursory nod.

One of the lakes at Band-i-Amir

The Commander next turned to Zahir and his face froze in horror, his outstretched hand falling limply to his side. Not even his lifelong conditioning on showing respect and hospitality towards guests could overcome his revulsion at the idea of shaking hands with a leprosy patient. My heart went out to Zahir who, standing in the middle of the floor, politely continued the litany of greetings. The Commander finally indicated that we should be seated, and offered tea.

We refused, of course. It’s customary to wait until tea is offered a third time before accepting, with protestations about not wishing to cause the host any unnecessary bother. On this occasion, not even a second offer was forthcoming. The Commander didn’t want us to linger. Although I knew many people feared leprosy, because I spent the majority of my time with people who worked with leprosy patients, I had never before witnessed such a terrified reaction.

This was taken some years after my first visit, when people were once again visiting Band-i-Amir

We collected Rahimy and headed for the lakes of Band-i-Amir for a picnic lunch. After following a rough track for a short distance, a sudden glimpse of the most vivid blue imaginable confirmed we were on the right road. We spent an enjoyable hour or so scrambling on the paths between the various lakes, rewarded for our efforts by stunning views. Each lake was a different shade. In some places the water, with barely a ripple to mar its mirror like surface, was of the deepest blue, in others, it was an equally brilliant emerald green, viewed from yet another angle, it was turquoise. 

At the foot of the cliffs was a shrine built to Hazrat Ali, son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Here, Rahimy, Zahir and Ghulam Ali spent some time in prayer. It was to this huge stretch of water (two miles long and five hundred yards wide) with its supposed miraculous healing properties, to which Qurban’s father had brought the small boy, hoping to cure his leprosy. We left a donation with the caretaker, and shared some of our picnic with his grandchildren who had acted as our guides, leading the way along the paths.  

An overview of part of the lake complex

Choosing a sheltered picnic spot by the side of the main stretch of water, we tucked into cold chicken and nan, thoughtfully provided by Aziz. To round off the meal, I shared out some chocolate. The taste and texture of it came as a surprise to Zahir and Ghulam Ali who had never tried it before. I noticed the latter slipping his piece surreptitiously into his pocket, either to enjoy later or, I suspected, to dispose of discreetly.

In the deep silence around us our chatter, and the clatter of thermoses and cups, sounded intrusive although I knew that, before the Soviet invasion, Band-i-Amir was one of the major tourist attractions in Afghanistan. Every summer, it was visited by thousands of Afghans and foreigners. They had trekked over the paths, admired the stupendous views, swum in the lake beside which we now sat (presumably warmer in the summer months) and enjoyed coffee and honey cakes in Aziz’s father’s coffee shop.

Tourists coming back to one of their favourite places

Aziz had often talked about the summers he spent in Band-i-Amir, helping his father.  He’d enjoyed meeting foreigners from many different countries, picking up a few phrases in several languages. I wondered who’d taught him his most frequently quoted expression of “No money, no honey.” After the tourist season ended all the traders dismantled their tea shops and restaurants, leaving Band-i-Amir as unspoilt as when Hazrat Ali had miraculously created the series of lakes.

According to legend, a young man, whose wife and children had been imprisoned by the cruel Barbar, a king who ruled over the Hindu Kush, appealed to Hazrat Ali for help. The plan they made was for Ali, without revealing who he was, to be offered for sale to the king.   Before he would agree to purchase this new slave, the king set him three tasks. One was to build a dam which the king needed; and in fact had 1000 slaves working fruitlessly to do just that. He also demanded a fearsome dragon be slain and, finally, that Ali be brought before him, in chains.

Jawad enjoying the view

These tasks were no problem to Hazrat Ali. From the top of the mountain he threw down enormous chunks of rocks which created the Band-i-Haibat (Dam of Awe); with his sword he hacked off another slice of mountain to form the Band-i-Zulfiqar. Ali’s groom helped to create a third dam, and the 1000 slaves, motivated by such awe-inspiring activities, managed to complete their own dam, the Band-i-Ghulaman. Two other lakes, or dams, were formed – the Band-i-Panir and the Band-i-Pudina. 

Ghulam Ali, Rahimy and Zahir were talking volubly amongst themselves about the lakes and the wonders of Hazrat Ali when I slid behind the wheel and started the engine.  When I put the vehicle in gear there was a sudden silence in the back and, glancing in the mirror, I saw, with the exception of Ghulam Ali, the faces of the other two registered a mixture of absolute astonishment and terror. I said, “Don’t worry. I’ve seen it done. I’m sure I can learn quite quickly.” They quickly assured me they were not afraid, but it was some time before they relaxed enough to resume their conversation.

58 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – Travels with a sheep – AfghanistanAdventures #51

    • I don’t know about how many foreign tourists there will be today, but probably quite a few from the various aid agencies and it is very much enjoyed by Afghans who travel from Kabul and other places. Quite a few of my Afghan friends were there over the last Eid holiday.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. It is a breathtaking sight to see the colours of those lakes. I can only imagine that if Afghanistan did not have such a tragic history, there would be a 5-star hotel with an infinity pool where Jawad was standing.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

    • As Jemima said in her comment it’s maybe good it’s not so well known internationally. The first time I visited there was absolutely no one else there about from the man who looked after the shrine and his grandchildren. Last time I saw it people had come back but the place is so vast it could never feel crowded.

      Liked by 3 people

    • They are definitely not man made. Here’s a wee bit from Wikipedia: They were created by the carbon dioxide rich water oozing out of the faults and fractures to deposit calcium carbonate precipitate in the form of travertine walls that today store the water of these lakes. Band-e Amir is one of the few rare natural lakes in the world which are created by travertine systems.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I so love reading about your adventures. The place is so beautiful. The legends wonderful. The science behind the dams wonderfully explained. I wish I could have seen the faces as you took control of the vehicle. I bet it was priceless. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences.

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  3. Mary, the views are absolutely stunning. I would never have imagined such a place existed, which is a sad statement about the lack of education about the world in American schools and culture. Such a beautiful place and a lovely post to read. Thank you, Mary.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: MarySmith’sPlace – Travels with a sheep – AfghanistanAdventures #51 | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  5. The ending of this episode is really unique! 😉 But the poor sheep. This was not the best way of transportation.The landscape looks like so wonderful.I hope in future they will have the chance earning money with tourism. Than you for the wonderful episode, Mary. Best wishes, Michael

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    • Glad you enjoyed the post Michael. Yes, the sheep must have been very fed up. We also got fed up having to find food for it. The landscape around Band-i-Amir and the colours of the lakes are stunning. Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What memories! That poor sheep had the trip of a lifetime.

    I’m sure you were probably versed in the culture before you went but did things arise that you weren’t familiar with? (I had never heard of the tradition of waiting to be asked three times before accepting tea.)

    Like others, I would have loved to see the faces of your passengers when you took the wheel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lots of little things, Pete. I did a lot of reading before I went but books tend to give a broad picture of the history and culture but not so much on the day to day customs and superstitions, which can vary from district to district. When a host is pouring tea for visitors and the teapot becomes empty half way through filling a glass (tea is drunk from small glasses) he or she will say to the person, “Oh, your mother-in-law doesn’t like you.” In many places no one from outside the family is allowed to see a mother and newborn baby for 40 days in case the visitor has a djinn (spirit) which could make the baby ill and die. Sometimes a rope is placed around the house so everyone knows not to go near. And then, there is the problem of a disappearing navel (naf raft) for which there are many ‘cures’. I write an article about that years ago, might try to find it. So, yes, however much I thought I knew there was always much more to learn.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The lake is breathtaking, Mary. I could understand it was a favorite tourist location. The photos represent the beauty very well. I’m glad the sheep was laid back. The culture about “tea” is common in Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, and China when something is offered. Great memories to share.

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    • It’s really beautiful. We found the tea thing was the same in Pakistan, too. One thing in Pakistan which we had to learn was that in some places it was considered good manners to leave a little food on the plate because if you ate everything it meant the host hadn’t given enough and would give you more – in other places if you left a little it meant you didn’t like the food. Very important to learn so as not to give offence.

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      • Culture is an interesting. I read Steve Jobs’s bio when talking about him going to Japan and being received by the high officials. He was presented a gift. He was busy talking and forgot to take it. It wasn’t a good thing. I forgot how it turned out.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Another beautifully written insight into Afghanistan and your experiences. The one sentence that had me chuckle a bit about your trepidation ~ “As it was in Yakolang the mujahideen had threatened to shoot Khudadad for using a torch, I was less than enthusiastic about the visit.” Your photographs show a beautiful land to accompany the people/culture.

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