Band-e Amir, Afghanistan
High in Afghanistan's Hindu Kush mountains, just over 100 miles west of Kabul, are six striking blue lakes set off from the world by high red-limestone cliffs. It's said that Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, carved the lakes into the earth with a slash of his sword, and then dammed the water with cheese. (In fact, a hole-ridden mineral deposit called travertine now forms natural dams around the lakes.) The lakes have mineral waters that are believed to possess healing powers.
In the 1950s, the lakes were a popular tourist destination for Afghans and intrepid foreigners alike. But the trend faded with the start of the Soviet war in Afghanistan in 1979. With the rise of the Taliban in the mid-1990s, the U.S. invasion in 2001, and the uptick in insurgent violence in the country, visitors to the lakes have been few and far between. The instability has also been tough on animals: during this period some of the area's wildlife -- including snow leopards -- all but disappeared.
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In 2006, the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society and the United States Agency for International Development joined forces with the Afghan government to develop a plan to train rangers, map boundaries, and provide financing for Band-e Amir. This effort led, in 2009, to the creation of Afghanistan's first national park. On peak days, a few thousand Afghans now visit the 222-square mile park. But there's still a ways to go: Bamiyan province, where the park is situated, is expected to welcome just 650 foreign visitors this year.
Above, a view of Band-e Amir lake on Oct. 23, 2012.
AFP PHOTO / Massoud HOSSAINI
Mesopotamian Marshes, Iraq
On July 23, the Iraqi Council of Ministers created the country's first national park. The area, which spans roughly 500 square miles and lies between the southern cities of Basrah and Amarah, protects the Mesopotamian Marshes, an ancient and expansive wetland in the country's south. But, with violence in the country returning to levels not seen since the worst of the Iraq war -- a spate of bombings and shootings in late August claimed nearly 100 lives -- the question is: Will anyone ever see it?
The third-largest wetlands in the world once stretched across the "cradle of civilization" between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Iraq. The mid-20th century British explorer Wilfred Thesiger described "stars reflected in dark water, the croaking of frogs, canoes coming home at evening, peace and continuity and the stillness of a world which never knew an engine." The 7,700 square miles were once home to 278 species of birds, including the rare Basra reed warbler and the Iraq babbler. But in the 1990s, some of the Madan people native to the marshes joined a Shiite rebellion against Saddam Hussein's government. To quell the uprising, Hussein drained the entire area, diverting the rivers and ultimately reducing the size of the wetlands by 93 percent.
Above, an Iraqi Marsh Arab woman punts in the marshes on Feb. 8, 2005, south of the Iraqi city of Amarah.
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After the U.S. invasion removed Hussein from power, work to restore the marshes -- led by an Iraqi NGO, Nature Iraq -- finally began. It took years for Nature Iraq to develop and execute a plan for breaching embankments to let water flow back into the marshlands. Dealing with Iraqi government bureaucracy only complicated progress and lengthened the process. But all 278 bird species survived the turmoil of the 1990s and, as of 2012, 76 percent of the potentially restorable area was successfully reflooded. Nature Iraq is currently hoping to secure a water-sharing agreement with neighbors Syria, Turkey, and Iran to ensure that the wetlands are not once again endangered.
Above, an Iraqi man cares for his buffaloes near Nasiriyah, 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, on April 6.
AFP PHOTO / ALI AL-SAADI
Swat Valley, Pakistan
Northern Pakistan's Swat Valley, called the "Switzerland of the East" for its lush green hills and snow-capped mountains split by raging rivers and gurgling streams, is a tranquil destination away from the bustle of the capital, Islamabad, roughly 150 miles away. During the 1970s, the Swat Valley was a popular destination for young Westerners on the "Hippie Trail" looking for an escape from Western culture. The problem is that the Taliban has also gravitated to Swat as an escape -- from the control of the Pakistani government.
In 1977, a military coup ousted Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, ushering in an era of turmoil in the country. Still, tourism was not completely dead. In 1986, the Austrian government helped fund Swat's first ski resort, which later served as a launching pad for the Pakistani Air Force's effort to promote skiing among Pakistanis. In the early 2000s, as embassy staffs grew after the invasion of Afghanistan, foreigners looking for a respite from the capital came to ski. But the Taliban soon came, too.
Above, a Pakistani family crosses the River Swat by bridge at the hill station of Madyan on July 20, 2011.
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The real downfall for tourism in Swat Valley came with the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. By 2008, the Taliban had reached the height of its control over the valley, destroying schools and torturing those its members accused of acts such as adultery and homosexuality. When the Pakistani military finally launched an offensive in 2009 to root out the Taliban, over 1.5 million people were displaced from their homes by the fighting, creating what the U.N. called possibly the worst refugee crisis since Rwanda. The military has since achieved a degree of stability in the region, but there is still violence and attacks on schools. Swat may look like Switzerland, but it's a lot less peaceful.
Above a child watches as passengers traverse a river by cable car on Oct. 9, 2007 near Mingora in the Swat Valley.John Moore/Getty Images
Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Virunga National Park's website opens with a photograph of one of the park's rare mountain gorillas. But superimposed in red letters over the picture is this message: "Tourism in Virunga is currently suspended due to insecurity in the region." The park, located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is home to great natural beauty, but the human conflict around it makes it unsafe for most people to visit.
Above, a park ranger stands at the site of a new eruption in Virunga National Park, near Goma, on Nov. 24, 2011.
AFP PHOTO/Steve TERILL
The park's 3,000 square miles are home to 200 of the remaining 790 mountain gorillas in the world. Virunga is also a wonderfully diverse landscape: from savanna to the snowy peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains, rising more than 16,000 feet high, to lava plains created by a range of volcanoes that erupt every few years. The rivers teem with over 20,000 hippopotamuses.
King Albert I of Belgium created the national park -- Africa's first -- in 1925. But as dictator Mobutu Sese Seko started to lose his grip on power in the 1980s, rebel groups in the region carved out territory there, a process that only accelerated after Mobutu's removal from power in 1997. In 2008, rebels occupied the park's headquarters and evicted the staff. They are gone now, but the surrounding area is still known as the "rape capital of the world" and the central government has no control over the rebel groups in the region. It could be awhile, in other words, until the park changes its travel advisory.
Above, Patrick Karabaranga, a warden at Virunga National Park, plays with an orphaned mountain gorilla on July 17, 2012.
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Mt. Baekdu, North Korea
It won't come as a shock that the "Hermit Kingdom" isn't exactly teeming with tourists. But the lack of visitors means people are missing the serene beauty of a mountain lake named after heaven. Cheonji Lake, or Heaven Lake, sits at the top of Mt. Baekdu, a dormant volcano that formed the lake's basin, more than 9,000 feet above sea level. According to legend, future Koreans first descended to Earth on this sacred mountain.
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The peak marks the northern end of the Baekdu Daegan mountain range, which stretches more than 1,000 miles down the length of the Korean peninsula. The South Korean section is open to hikers, but hitting the border with North Korea means running into soldiers and barbed wire along the Demilitarized Zone. While some guided tours offer the adventurous a chance to see Mt. Baekdu in person, the State Department warns against travel there, noting that Americans are often arrested on vague charges. One American, Kenneth Bae, was sentenced to 15 years hard labor after being arrested in North Korea, reportedly for having a computer disc with sensitive photos of the country. Even if travel were unrestricted, the North Korean government's statements are another hurdle. It has threatened to unleash a "sea of fire" on South Korea and a "merciless" nuclear strike on the United States. Not the most inviting marketing.
Above a soldier stands on Mt. Baekdu in North Korea, overlooking Cheonji Lake.
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