In our republic there are some places which are known to everyone, at least through hearsay; for example, Borovoe or Bayanaul. In the Southern part of the country, the Karatau mountain ridge can be referred to in such terms. It is a system of low mountains stretching for more than 400 km from the South-East to the North-West through three oblasts; Zhambylskaya, South Kazakhstan and Kyzylordinskaya.
However, knowledge gained through hearsay gives birth to stereotypes. For example, Karatau is imagined to be pitted throughout with mines. However, our small expedition, in which we decided to cross the ridge from its Northern slope, “teriskey”, to its Southern slope, “kungey”, faced a different picture. The mountains are deserted and possess many secrets.
From Chimkent to Syzgan
In less than one hundred kilometers of the journey, one of the wheels of the “Audi” in which we were travelling burst twice. Thus, we had to ask other travelers to take us to the regional center of Suzaksky region, the most northern region of the South Kazakhstan oblast. Looking at the ridge rising at the horizon, we remembered the history of these places.
Scientifically, the Karatau mountain ridge is a “residual socle height surrounded by new uprisings”, and has been inhabited since ancient times. Here archeologists discovered remnants of one of the oldest ancient settlements on the territory of the former USSR. Since the 4th century BC, the mysterious kanguis tribes lived there; scientists have only recently started to reconstruct the history of these tribes. Copper and lead-zinc ores have been extracted in Karatau since ancient times.
The regional akim’s helping hand in the form of a “Niva” arrived in an hour. Then we continued our journey. 300 km to the North of Chimkent, the Karatau mountain ridge is on our left, while an endless valley is on our right. After traversing another 70 km of deserted highway we came to Kozmoldak village of the Syzgan district. The guides would not arrive until the next day and we decided to wait for them in the mountains, but before this we had to see the local point of interest.
In 1999, a great mausoleum was built in these places. According to local legend, Sangylbiy, the ancestor of the Kazakh tribe konyrat, was buried somewhere here. Sangylbiy was one of those who in 1206 lifted young Temujin on a white carpet, who then grew to become the Earth shaking Genghis Khan.
The one domed mausoleum impresses with its size. It looks like something alien against the background of the village, which is not in the best shape.
By the way, we discovered an interesting detail. The bright blue tiles, which cover the dome of the mausoleum, were ripped off by Turkish restorers from the domes of the Ahmad Yasavi mausoleum in Turkistan; in this way, the enterprising syzgans transferred some holiness of the great Sugi to their ancestor, who was heathen.
A warm wind was blowing and clouds of dust covered the houses and farm-yards of the small village when we left to the ravine, where the new stage of the journey would begin.
In the shade of white figures
Overcoming many small streams, our “Niva” was climbing up the ravine. The chaos of hills, with rocks becoming more frequent, surrounded us. Strangely, there were almost no trees along the streams, mostly stumps, showing that the local population had used the trees as burning wood.
Suddenly, a partridge jumped out onto the road. And a big flock of black griffins was hovering in the sky. Not less than 30 of these majestic and currently rare birds made circles above us. Maybe somewhere in the hills there was a dead horse or cow…
Our road was built by geologists, who found deposits of talc here. The place was deserted. Development of the deposit never started. The geologists left some of their equipment there; derrick, some metallic rusty aggregates and “autographs” of the 70s on the stones…
There, the part of the journey for the car finished. The next day, the guides should arrive on horses to show us the way to the highest point of Karatau mountain ridge - Bessaz mountain, which has an altitude of 2176 meters. Then “Niva” went back and our trinity (which consisted of myself, Rustam Korchiev, the cameraman and Kenes Ismailov, the press-secretary of South Kazakhstan oblast’s akim) found a place for night lodging in the ravine beside the stream.
Among the rocks there were a lot of white ones. The two silhouettes of a man and a woman impressed the most. In the twilight, it seemed like they moved and that they would come down to us to find out who disturbed them.
However, nothing except for the stream and leaves was heard in the silence of the night…
Climbing up to teriskey
The next morning was cloudless and the colors of the ravine became unusually bright. The diversity of the grass, untouched by cattle, is impressive. Sometimes among bluebells and poppies there are whole areas of wild onion and garlic, which are small but edible.
Our guides, a local veterinary and a young shepherd, arrived at 10 o’clock. We loaded the bags on the horses and had to walk. We started to climb up the mountain ridge, which was actually the incline of teriskey.
“Teriskey” and “kungey” are very wide terms, which are peculiar to the Kazakh language. Teriskey is the Northern slope of a mountain or a mountain ridge; it is wetter and rougher. Kungey is the Southern slope. Here, the snow melts earlier, and there is less moisture and vegetation. The environments of teriskey and kungey are always different, but nowhere is this as obvious as in Karatau. The inhabitants of the Suzaksky region call their area Teriskey, which emphasizes the local peculiarity and difference from people living in Kentau and Turkistan, on Kungey.
The path covered with grass was climbing upwards; sometimes we could see mushrooms, but they were few. The rocks, covered with lichen in some places, were very beautiful. Patches of white stones on the rocks gave place to green copper oxides, then blue and sometimes parts of the rocks have a metallic glitter. Even a person without any knowledge of geology would understand that there is a great diversity in the rocks.
The path crossed a deep ravine, so we had to descend. Here we understood why the mountains were called Karatau – the rocks surrounding the ravine were totally black.
Then we started to climb upwards again, and that was the time to remember the person who discovered Karatau mountain ridge for science.
Nikolay Alekseevich Severtsev, a zoologist whose life was always connected with Southern Kazakhstan, was the first to describe the mountain ridge, only 150 years ago.
On the instructions of the imperial academy of sciences of 1858, he traveled from Ak-Mosque (Kyzylorda) upstream Syrdarya to study the Karatau mountain ridge. Zoological gatherings were made along the way.
This place belonged to the Khanate of Kokand at that time, and the scientist was captured. Later Severtsev remembered:
“The Kokand person hit my nose with his sword and cut only some skin; the second blow to my temple, which broke the cheek-bone, knocked me down. Then the person tried to slip my head off, he made several hits, cut the neck, broke the skull… I felt every strike, but strangely without a strong pain…” The scientist was saved by two other Kokand people, who stopped the violence.
Severtsev, injured and ill, spent one month in captivity in Turkistan, and, as he wrote later, “… saw the Southern foothills of Karatau experiencing the conditions unfavorable for study”.
The scientist was released after an ultimatum from the headquarters of the Russian army in Ak-Mosque.
Upon his return to St. Petersburg, Nikolay Alekseevich refused the offer of an assistant professorship in the University of Kiev and went back to Central Asia.
He studied Karatau for the second time between 1865 and 1866 and proved that this mountain ridge is not a separate mountain formation, but the North-West spur of Tian Shan, and its length is 420 km.
From a scientific point of view
Modern science discovered that the mountains of Karatau consist of Precambrian and Palaeozoic layers, and the peculiarity of the layers determines the diversity of the minerals. Although the ridge lies within an earthquake zone of six points on Richter scale, there was no evidence of strong earthquakes in the area.
In contrast to common opinion, the mountains of Karatau are not very old. The mountains of the Chakpak pass are still growing at a rate of 12 mm per year, while the Bessaz mountains, the part of the ridge which contains the highest point (called Mynzhykly (thousand mares) by the local population) are much older than the surrounding mountains.
Passes and valleys
By lunch time the next day we reached the next pass, which was surrounded by very unusual rocks. Then the strongly continental climate showed its character. The heat instantly changed to cold, and it became very windy and rainy. We had to build an improvised shelter from polyethylene under a large stone.
Luckily, the bad weather didn’t last long, and we continued our journey among the chaos of rocks and interlacing narrow ravines. Soon we found out that we passed the Northern slope, teriskey. The valleys of the ridge’s internal part lay before us. Strangely, the surroundings again reminded one of the Tibet depicted in the famous Brad Pitt movie.
After the pass, we entered a beautiful valley with snow and a waterfall on a stream. There were remnants of the stone laying of some building. There was also a rock in a shape of a face and a rock with a white feather imprinted on it. We didn’t want to leave this place.
At the exit from the valley, we again noticed that the mountain paths were covered with grass. It was a natural process, because local pastures had to feed fewer cattle. Previously there were 60,000 pieces of cattle in the village where we started our journey, now there were only 15,000, and, according to the specialists, the local pastures can optimally feed 40,000 pieces of cattle.
Meanwhile, evening approached and we understood that we couldn’t reach Bessaz in the same day.
The valleys of the internal part of Karatau surrounded us with the typical landscape of mountainous tundra; small bogs, moss, and little, very bright flowers forming big carpets. In some places we saw deserted cattle enclosures and the remnants of stone huts.
Our guides picked one of those huts as a place for night lodging. From the imprints on the stone we found out that the hut was built in 1932 by some Irismat-aka, probably hiding from collectivization.
Just beside the hut we collected some good mushrooms. And that’s when an interesting thing happened; our guides were surprised that we were going to eat them, and were even more surprised to find out that people would pay 200 tenge for a kilogram of these mushrooms at Chimkent market. And this happened when all the places rich with mushrooms were long divided among the local inhabitants, who made a good profit.
The mushroom soup was dressed with some wild onion and nettle, also found there…
Bayaldyr river is roaring beside us. The river brings a lot of troubles to Kentau by flooding the mines there.
The guides left during sunset. The rest of the journey we’d have to do on our own, following the verbal directions of our erstwhile companions.
In the morning of the third day, we came to several stone graves. Horns of argali were scattered around the graves, some of the horns new. The day before, Kenes had found out from the guides that the graves belonged to the legendary Toskaul batyr (which means warrior) and his family. All of them were killed by Jungars.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, in the period of the most violent conflict between the Kazakh khanate with its Eastern neighbor,s Jungars moved to the South through the ravines of Karatau. Toskaul, the legendary giant man, held the pass for a long time until Jungars didn’t come here in large numbers. Toskaul died and all of his family was killed. Toskaul is still honored in the region and the hunters offer him horns of animals ias a sacrifice.
The signaling towers, where fires burned, and the sheltering settlements in Karatau also descend from the period of the war with the Jungars.
Just after Toskaul’s pass, we left our back-packs in the valley and started our ascent to Bessaz, which is rising over the valley in a form of a black massif. Bessaz means “five sources of water” in Kazakh, and there are many springs in the area.
Soon after coming to the mountain slope we saw a couple of pasturing donkeys, and then came across a stone hole with some people’s belongings left there. Later we found out that argali hunters settled there.
Less than 300 of these very rare animals are left in Karatau. The license to hunt them costs 9,000 dollars for foreigners, and is granted only by the institute of zoology of NAS RK (National Academy of Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan). However, local people mercilessly hunt argali and there is nobody to protect the animals in that region. The argali really are in danger of depopulation and total extinction. However, the hunters are sure that “in their own mountains, they can hunt anything”. Anyway, these two hunters were unlucky and didn’t see argali. We also didn’t see any argali during the whole journey.
Later we walked up the pass, which was twisting around the rocks and taluses. Then the wind and rain, which later changed to hail, started again.
Ascending to the top took two hours. We didn’t find any writing in the crown built from stones. It seemed that the wind, which came from the South, wanted to blow us off to the Northern side, where we could see the village of miners – Taukent.
That was it; the highest point of Karatau had been reached. Then we could return back to people. The descent to Kentau lay ahead of us, but, at that moment, we didn’t suspect the challenges that we were to face…
Along the old pass
The wind and the rain didn’t leave us alone during the descent. But as soon as we reached our back-packs, the sun came out. Then we had our last portions of food. The pass, which was pointed out by the guides, should bring us to settlements on kungey in five hours. If only we knew how wrong these calculations were!
At the beginning, the pass was great. Previously it was used to move cattle from the Northern slope to the Southern. It is also used now, but rarely.
Then we passed a wide valley and ascended to the ridge. There are a lot of stone barrows along the pass. The ones that are larger (that is, richer) were ravaged a very long time ago; the craters on the barrows were covered with grass. The poorer barrows didn’t attract the attention of the robbers, and modern archeologists wouldn’t have enough time for them for a long time. Hence, the Sakas buried there would not be disturbed by anyone.
Although there were many ravines going to the required direction, we were warned by the guides that all of them are very narrow and impassable. The pass goes over a dry plateau with the stones crushing under our feet.
Finally, we reached the first petroglyph. On an almost black rock covered with patina we clearly saw… a swastika. This ancient symbol was used by many nations. And we could only guess who imprinted it there, and when. The picture of an argali imprinted nearby implied that the pass had been used since olden days.
Suddenly the pass diverged into three directions. There was no directing stone, like there is in fairytales. We decided to take the central pass, which seemed to be used more often. If only we knew that we were mistaken…
Without a helm and sails
In the beginning, our pass smoothly descended along the wide slope covered with tulips. At some point we saw three ideal circles, created by vegetation. They reminded us of the strange circles supposedly left by aliens on wheat fields. The phenomenon we saw is not that easy to explain.
As sunset was approaching, we had to hurry. The pass brought us to a large glade. There was a spring coming out of a big stone. There also were remnants of stone huts, and one of them was dug out of the rock. We wondered who had lived there, and when. There were signs on the stoned dated 1987, but it was unlikely that the huts were built by the victims of perestroika…
Another ascent along the slope was met with more pictures of argali on the stones. Suddenly the pass disappeared. Deep ravines were on the right and on the left with rivers in them. Kenes suggested going back to the crossroad. But I was sure that we wouldn’t make it before darkness, and insist on descending down to the ravine. Moving downstream, we were guaranteed to come to civilization.
The stones were falling down under our feet. The sun was suddenly covered by a big cloud. In another minute hail the size of haricots began to fall. We were totally drenched within seconds.
It was 40 minutes until darkness, but our nerves were breaking; it seemed that the night had begun and there was no place to lie down on that steep slope.
We quickly descended…
We found hardly any place for our tent at the juncture of the two ravines. We didn’t have anything to eat; besides everything around was so wet that making a fire would be a torture. Luckily, the tent pitches itself. Instantly we fell asleep.
Later, using a topographical map, I discovered that the river in the ravine was called Tuetas. It was a good example of a place not dedicated to normal people.
There were wind-fallen trees at the banks of the river, huge slippery boulders in the river-bed and taluses on the slopes. In such conditions, our speed was about one km per hour. The fact that we didn’t have any food for two days also had its effect. On the other hand, the good thing about that extreme journey was that we were deep in our thoughts. Our consciousness divided itself into two parts. One of them wants to fall into hysteria, jump under a bush and wait for a miracle. The other part understands that there would be no miracle…
A waterfall one hundred meters high, with several cascades, became the most important challenge of that day. We had to go around the waterfall, following the descent of the slope, but there was a strong desire to jump down into the stream.
Only after 7 hours of walking did we see the first signs of people. I had never thought that I would be so glad to see signs like “Bakha was here” on the rocks. Although, the signs referred to the 1980s, we understood that our journey was almost over!
Then Kenes found the strength to go ahead of us, and later he brought rescuers. The rescuers were the farmers Nurman Akhmetov and Bekzat Akataev, who carried our back-packs to their house, and luckily for us, there was a car…
As we were later told by local old man, the water-fall that we saw was called “Cruel Heart” and nobody had been there for a long time.
Now we know that Karatau is not all about mines. It is a deserted wonderful world, which is still waiting for its discoverers travelling from Teriskey to Kungey or vice versa.
Aleksey Goncharov. Chimkent – Syzgan – Karatau mountain ridge – Chimkent.