The Hindu Kush mountains which extend into Bamyan province are the highland backbone of Afghanistan. The province is dominated in the centre by a high-altitude plateau at 3000-4000 metres and by the Koh-e-Baba range rising to nearly 5000 metres along its southeastern border.
Bamyan’s people live mostly in the valleys which thread through the mountains or cut into the central plateau. The main valleys are the Bamyan Valley in the east and the Band-e-Amir Valley to the west.
The Hindu Kush divide central and southern Afghanistan from the broad alluvial plains of the north. The central ridge of this mountain chain forms the northern wall of the Bamyan valley. East of Bamyan town the Shikari river cuts north through this ridge, creating the spectacular Shikari gorge. For centuries, the dramatic road through the gorge was the main route between Kabul and the north – a major transit point on the Silk Road for trade between Central Asia and India. This Hindu Kush crossing point was the key to Bamyan’s strategic significance and its prosperity. It was the main road to the north until the Soviet Union built the Salang tunnel through the Hindu Kush in 1964.
The main road from Kabul enters Bamyan province from the east over the Shibar Pass. While neither particularly high nor rugged, this pass forms the watershed between rivers flowing southeast to the Indian Ocean and those flowing north to the Aral Sea.
Bamyan has a mountainous continental climate, with very warm summers and cold winters when temperatures fall well below zero at high elevations. Rain is rare. Precipitation falls almost entirely in the winter as snow. Snowmelt feeding mountain streams provides the main water for crops and irrigation through the spring and summer.
The wild plants and animals of Bamyan are similar to those found in mountainous regions of Europe and Central Asia. Because of the extreme climate, however, fewer species are found in Bamyan than elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Two wild hooved animals inhabit the region. The Siberian ibex lives in steep habitats, most notably in the scenic Ajar valley. Urial sheep live throughout the rolling uplands of the central plateau. Both are becoming rare because of overhunting. Two large carnivores are native to Bamyan. Of these, the wolf is still common, but the common leopard is probably now extinct in the area. Among smaller carnivores, the most common is the red fox, but Himalayan lynx, leopard cat, wild cat, stone mar¬ten and otters also live in the Bamyan region. There are numerous rodent species. Those most likely to be spot¬ted are the long-tailed marmot, the grey hamster and the long-tailed hamster.
Many bird species nest in the province and many more migrate through the area between their wintering grounds in India and Pakistan and breeding habitats in the far north. Some 200 species of birds have been recorded in the province. The Afghan Snowfinch occurs almost nowhere else. The most common species of fish in the rivers are shir mahi (barbs) sag mahi (loaches) and khal mahi (brown trout).
With its dry climate and narrow, intensively farmed valleys, Bamyan has little in the way of woodland. The natural vegetation is dominated by subalpine shrubs. Despite their apparent barrenness, Bamyan shrublands are rich in species of both woody plants and herbaceous vegetation which protects itself from grazing animals with spiny shrubs.
The dramatic series of six lakes known as Band-e-Amir is one of Afghanistan’s best known natural sites. Located in the wild plateau about 70 km west of Bamyan town, the lakes are the focus of the country’s first national park, declared in 2009. Separated by natural dams, each lake is several metres lower than the one above it. The largest lake, Zulfiqar, is 490 hectares in size. The dams separating the lakes are formed of travertine, a form of calcium carbonate. Band-e-Amir is one of the world’s most sig-nificant examples of this type of formation.
Waterfalls form where lake water pours over the lip of the dams, freezing into dramatic ice formations in winter. Shrubs and marshland around the lakes make them an important habitat for migratory birds.
The site also has an important place in local tradition. A lakeside shrine visited by thousands of people in the summer marks the place where Hazrat Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, is said to have prayed after he created the lakes.
The Ajar Valley, overlooked by mountains rising to 4300 metres (14,000 ft), is often said to have some of the most spectacular scenery in Afghanistan. This secluded valley of the rugged Hindu Kush lies a day’s journey to the north of Bamyan town. The valley is riven by the spectacular Jawzari canyon. At the spring of Chiltan, the Ajar river flows directly from the canyon wall. For most of the 20th century, Ajar was protected as a royal hunting preserve and was an undisturbed habitat for large populations of urial sheep, Siberian ibex, Bactrian deer, common leopard and lynx. These species have been severely reduced by overhunting in recent years. The Afghan government, non-government organisations and local people are cur¬rently working to protect the valley as a wildlife reserve.
Shah Foladi (5,143 m/16,872 ft) is the highest mountain in the Koh-e-Baba range rising to the south of the Bamyan valley. Its rugged peak lies at the end of Foladi valley. A series of high-altitude lakes awaits the adventurous hiker on a day trip from Bamyan. The United Nations Environment Programme is exploring the possibility of working with local people and the authorities to create a park that would conserve the natural environment of the mountain and its valleys, and create tourism opportunities to benefit local communities.