mARGARITA pRIFTI RECOUNTS HER TRIP TO ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES AROUND BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN
NOTE: this post contains several tiled galleries of images: click on an image to open the gallery for larger images and captions
It all began when I started my work at CAAL as a research assistant and part of the remote sensing team. My work was focused on some regions of Kyrgyzstan and since then I had set for myself the goal to travel in this most interesting country. I had only seen the landscapes from satellite images which enabled me to explore the sites, the cities and villages virtually. Waiting patiently for the winter season (and the pandemic) to finally end, my dream came true in May 2022!
I spent my first days exploring Bishkek, becoming familiar with the surroundings, making friends at my hostel and savouring the most delicious food. I went on several excursions and discovered places of natural beauty around the city and of course I had to visit the ancient city of Balasagun, once capital of the Qarakhanids (Frankopan 2015, 131) with the famous 11th century minaret, the Burana Tower. I believe that this is probably the most popular archaeological site in Kyrgyzstan, located about 80 km east of Bishkek, near the city Tokmok (Figure 1). On the way there I wanted to stop and photograph the fields, which during springtime, are filled with poppies (Figure 2).
The site has a large main entrance with a ticket office (Figure 3). That day appeared to be a busy one with many visitors from all around the world. The area of the site, surrounded by the Tian Shan mountains, is quite large and includes remains of the city (Figures 4). Figure 5, taken inside the museum is a reconstruction of what the city of Balasagun possibly looked like). The area also has many Balbals (Figure 6), as well as a small museum with some artefacts and a souvenir shop.
The Burana Tower (Figures 7, taken inside the museum is what the tower looked like before reconstruction, Figures 8 and 9), originally 40m high, is now only 25m as a result of earthquakes in the region. It has a staircase (Figure 10) which someone (who is not claustrophobic) can climb and enjoy the view of the entire complex.
Sightseeing was followed by a meal at a local farm nearby with many local delicacies, the best way to end a day trip (Figure 11)!
My next archaeological exploration in Kyrgyzstan happened when I came across a tour company named Bishkek Walks (visit their Facebook or Instagram channels) which organises tours in the city but also to archaeological sites around the country, with a local archaeologist (Sergei Ivanov). I was excited to see that during my stay there, they were going on a 2-day trip to Tash Rabat and Koshoy Korgon, so I immediately signed up.
I was a bit surprised though to see that only three more people had the same idea! The way from Bishkek to Tash Rabat caravanserai is about 440 km, which means a six and a half hour drive. Along the way I was able to appreciate the view from the window of the bus and spotted some very low kurgans (indicated by the arrow in Figure 12), which were a big part of my work.
Our first stop was at the Orto-Tokoy reservoir. The scenery was beautiful with barren mountains contrasting against the blue water of the artificial lake (Figures 13 and 14).
The site is located in At-Bashy District, in the south of the country, close to the border with China, therefore, it was convenient to make a second stop for lunch in Naryn. It was a sunny day; the horizon was very clear and all the mountains with their snowy tops were visible. We had lunch at a restaurant in a very quiet area with a beautiful square with a fountain. The meal included noodles, dumplings and of course a lot of tea (Figure 15).
Approaching Tash Rabat, the altitude changes and the road between the mountains is long and bumpy. The slopes were filled with herds of horses and yaks. At some point, the tarmac along with the phone signal were lost so I was able to enjoy the landscape without any distraction. The caravanserai appears impressive, isolated in a stunning location (Figures 16-19).
The current structure was built in the 14th century (UNESCO Silk Roads Programme-Kyrgyzstan) and has been well preserved because it is made of stone. The road from there continues to the south-east towards the Torugart Pass that leads to Kashgar and was used by the travelling caravans of the Silk Road. The caravanserai is a rather big building (34 x 32 m) with multiple rooms; more than 20, arranged around a rectangular central one with a domed roof. Some are with stone made benches, others have wells and some others were used for storage. Its dark corridors are lit only by the small openings on the roof, which allow some rays of sun inside. Outside, from its western side, it is easy to step on the roof to see the view and approach the dome and its small windows (Figure 20).
The Tash-Rabat complex belongs to the state and the local municipality that is responsible for it. However, because it is so remote, it was decided to hire someone local to look after it. So a person from a local family who goes to the summer pastures near Tash-Rabat with their livestock, is hired to open the caravanserai for visitors and as a compensation is getting paid for this job. The family also provides yurts for an overnight stay (Figures 21and 22). During the winter, the entire area is covered in snow so there are no visitors.
Due to the high altitude (3200 m) the temperature drops drastically and gets colder. Also, there might not be enough oxygen especially for someone who is not used to being in this high altitude.
After the visit, a dinner was prepared for us with many dishes: salads, noodles, soup and jars full of jam (Figure 23). The night was cold with a clear sky full of stars. Inside the yurt, we had lots of woollen blankets and someone from the settlement kept checking on us making sure that the fire was burning. Since there is no wood around, the only available burning material is yak dung, with a distinct smell.
The next morning on the way back to Bishkek we made a stop to visit Koshoy Korgon, a fortress of a city that existed between the 8th and 14th centuries (according to our guide from Bishkek Walks), named after one of the closest soldiers of the epic hero Manas, according to the legend. It is located in the outskirts of the village Kara-Suu (Figure 24). It is a big rectangular structure (270 x 280 m), built on a plateau, at a strategic point on the Silk Road. Right outside the front entrance and around the site there are many cultivated fields (Figures 25 and 26) and a very small museum nearby (Figure 27) with household items, tools, weapons, a few artefacts found there as well as information about the nomadic culture and legends about the fortress (Figure 28). The Koshoy Korgon museum was built with funds from a private entrepreneur, Askar Salymbekov. It is in the administration of the local government and there are discussions to transfer it to the administration of the Ministry of Culture.
The only thing that remains from that big fortress are parts of its wall which was made of mud bricks (Figures 29-33), which is the reason that it is falling apart, with birds nesting all around it. The watchtowers that once existed are no longer visible. Inside the large plain in the fortress area, there can be found many pieces of pottery.
Traveling through this vast landscape was truly amazing. Walking the fields, tasting the food, exploring some of the Silk Road archaeological sites in real life and not just through satellite images, as well as immersing myself in the traditions and cultures which I had not experienced before, was a remarkable experience!
Frankopan, P. 2015. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. London: Bloomsbury Paperbacks.