SILK ROAD IN CENTRAL ASIA AND THE ROUTE TO KASHGAR
The route from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang is one of Central Asia’s premier overland adventures.The distance between Bishkek and Kashgar, China is about 710 kilometers (440 miles) and takes between 15 hours and two days depending on the vehicles you take, the stops you make and your luck clearing customs and immigration on the Chinese side of 3752-meter-high Torugart Pass. Along the way many travelers stop in and around Kochkar, Song Kul lake or Naryn.
It is said that this route follows the Silk Road route in Central Asia. The Silk Road routes in Central Asia were very complicated and usually defined by oases and passes which were open and accessible. Many goods carried across Central Asia were transported on the backs of shaggy, two-humped Bactrian camels or horses, or, in the high elevations, on yaks. The Himalayan caravan routes from India that passed through Karakoram Pass and Khunjerab Pass (on the modern Karakoram Highway) joined the Silk Road in Kashgar or Central Asia.
The two main routes that entered Central Asia from China were: 1) the northern route, which passed from western China into what is now Kazakhstan and went through or near what is now Alma Aty (Kazakhstan), Bishkek (Krygyzstan) and Tashkent (Uzbekistan); and 2) the southern route which left Kashgar and passed from western China in Central Asia through passes of the Tien Shan and Pamirs mountains that are now on China's borders with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
The main route likely passed through Irkeshtam Pass between Kashgar and the Fergana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan. Many Silk Road tours go from Kashgar over Torugart pass to Bishkek and then Tashkent and Samarkand because modern roads traverse this route. This route however is much longer and out of the way than the direct route from Kashgar to the Fergana Valley. Marco Polo used a route through the Pamirs between China and Afghanistan.
Silk Roads Sites in Kyrgyzstan
The Silk Roads Sites in Kyrgyzstan was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Kyrgyzstan is one of the countries occupying a zone of early contacts. In the south and in the north of the country The Silk Road is represented by various sections which are well expressed and marked by important monuments of history and culture. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]
Northern (Fergana) road which was actively used in early Han times, especially with Davan, had special value in antiquity. Considerable part of this road passed within modern administrative borders of southern Kyrgyzstan occupying foothill areas of east, southeast, southwest and northwest of Fergana. The direction looked as follows: from Kashgar through Terek-Davan pass, to Alay valley, along Gulcha river and its inflows, went to Tar, then to Kara-Darya river, and to Uzgen city (where the most eastern city of Davan - Ju-chen is usually localised), then turned to the Osh oasis, and then went to the West (to capital Ershi) and to the North Kanguy.
“It is considered, that Zhang Qian passed this road in 138 B.C.. This part of the road is well marked by different sites, especially for Muslim time when it was described in guidebooks as a transit corridor with two branches: 1) through Osh - Medva (Mady) to the south in Alai valley and further through Terek-Davan to Kashgar; 2) from Osh to Uzgen, further through mountain passes, to the valleys of inner Tien-Shan and then split near At-Bashi, in two branches, first went through Tash-Rabat and Torugart passes to Kashgar, and the second - to the southern coast of Issyk Kul, through Bedel pass to Aksuu. Local parts of this route served other areas of Fergana, in particular, the northeast of the valley, where through Chanach pass (Chatkal ridge) and Kara Buura pass (Talas Alatau) connected with routes across northeastern territories. It is considered, that these passages were already known in antiquity, by virtue of which intensive contacts of Hans with Semirechie, particularly, with Chui and Talas valleys, Issyk Kul took place.
“In A.D. 2nd-4th centuries the road through Bedel pass and southern Issyk Kul was already in regular use. It became very active in the early Middle Ages when due to the civil strife in Fergana, caravans began to prefer this way to Fergana branch. Besides, the important factor in favor of this way was the location in Semirechie of quarters of Turkic kagans, main consumers of the various prestigious goods, who patronised trade on the Central Asian part of the Silk Road. Variety of medieval sites of ancient settlements of Issyk Kul region, Chui and Talas valleys is connected with this epoch, where the Silk Road played important role in genesis and functioning.
“During Muslim time the whole territory of Kyrgyzstan was practically pierced by various parts of separate branches of the Silk Road. In the north of the country the Semirechensko-South Kazakhstan piece was still actively operating, Inner Tien Shan was involved in the Silk Road, functioning of the Fergana branch was not less intensive. Thus, for Kyrgyzstan these parts of the Silk Road, representing also three chronological periods (antiquity, early to late Middle Ages) were in priority. Political, military and economic events of 8th centuries AD considerably reduced functioning of the above described parts of the Silk Road, a certain revival came in connection with Timur's and his descendants' political and military activities. However use of routes on various parts of the Silk Road continued till modern age.”
Tien Shan Corridor of the Silk Road
According to UNESCO: “The Tian-shan corridor is one section or corridor of this extensive overall Silk Roads network. Extending across a distance of around 5,000 kilometers, it encompassed a complex network of trade routes extending to some 8,700 kilometers that developed to link Chang’an in central China with the heartland of Central Asia between the 2nd century B.C. and 1st century AD, when long distance trade in high value goods, particularly silk, started to expand between the Chinese and Roman Empires. It flourished between the 6th and 14th century AD and remained in use as a major trade route until the 16th century. [Source: UNESCO, World Heritage Site, 2014]
“The extremes of geography along the routes graphically illustrate the challenges of this long distance trade. Falling to 154 meters below sea level and rising to 7,400 meters above sea level, the routes touch great rivers, alpine lakes, crusty salt flats, vast deserts, snow-capped mountains and ‘fecund’ prairies. The climate varies from extreme drought to semi-humid; while vegetation covers temperate forests, temperate deserts, temperate steppes, alpine steppes and oases.
“Starting on the Loess plateau at Chang’an, the central capital of China in the Han and Tang Dynasties, the routes of the Tian-shan corridor passed westwards through the Hosi Corridor across the Qin and Qilian Mountains to the Yumen Pass of Dunhuang. From Loulan/Hami, they continued along the northern and southern flanks of the Tian-shan Mountain and then through passes to reach the Ili, Chuy and Talas valleys in the Zhetysu Region of Central Asia, linking two of the great power centres that drove the Silk Roads trade.
“The series of Buddhist pagodas and large, elaborate cave temples extending from Kucha (now Kuqa County) in the west to Luoyong in the east, record the eastward transmission of Buddhism from India via Karakorum, and demonstrate an evolution in the design of stupas as local ideas were absorbed. Their elaboration reflects the sponsorship of local authorities and the central Chinese imperial government as well as donations of wealthy merchants, and the influence of monks that travelled the routes, many of whose journeys were documented from 2nd century B.C. onwards. Other religious buildings reflect the co-existence of many religions (as well as many ethnic groups) along the corridor including Zoroastrianism, the main religion of the Sogdians of Zhetysu region, Manichaeism in the Chuy and Talas valleys and in Qocho city and Luoyong, Nestorian Christianity also in Qocho city, around Xinjiang and in Chang’an, and Islam in Burana.
“The massive scale of the trading activities fostered large, prosperous and thriving towns and cities that also reflect the interface between settled and nomadic communities in a variety of ways: the mutual inter-dependence of nomads and farmers and different peoples such as between Turks and Sogdians in the Zhetysu region; the transformation of nomadic communities to settled communities in the Tian-shan mountains, resulting in highly distinctive construction and planning such as semi-underground buildings; and in the Hosi corridor the planned agricultural expansion of the 1,000 mile corridor after the 1st century B.C. as an agricultural garrison and its transformation to settled agricultural communities. Diverse and large scale water management systems were essential to facilitate the growth of towns, trading settlements, forts, and caravanserai and the agriculture necessary to support them, such as the extensive Karez underground water channels of the extremely arid Turpan basin, many still in use, that supplied water to Qocho city, and were supplemented by deep wells inside Yar city; the grand scale of the network of open canals and ditches along the Hosi corridor that drew river water to the settlements, 90 kilometers of which survive around Suoyang city; and in the Zhetsyu region, river water distribution through canals and pipes and collection in reservoirs.
Silk Road Routes Network of Chang'an-Tien Shan Corridor
Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang'an-Tien Shan Corridor was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014; According to UNESCO: This property is a 5,000 kilometers section of the extensive Silk Roads network, stretching from Chang’an/Luoyang, the central capital of China in the Han and Tang dynasties, to the Zhetysu region of Central Asia. It took shape between the 2nd century B.C. and 1st century AD and remained in use until the 16th century, linking multiple civilizations and facilitating far-reaching exchanges of activities in trade, religious beliefs, scientific knowledge, technological innovation, cultural practices and the arts. The thirty-three components included in the routes network include capital cities and palace complexes of various empires and Khan kingdoms, trading settlements, Buddhist cave temples, ancient paths, posthouses, passes, beacon towers, sections of The Great Wall, fortifications, tombs and religious buildings.[Source: UNESCO, World Heritage Site, 2014]
“The Silk Roads were an interconnected web of routes linking the ancient societies of Asia, the Subcontinent, Central Asia, Western Asia and the Near East, and contributed to the development of many of the world's great civilizations. They represent one of the world’s preeminent long-distance communication networks stretching as the crow flies to around 7,500 kilometers but extending to in excess of 35,000 kilometers along specific routes. While some of these routes had been in use for millennia, by the 2nd century B.C. the volume of exchange had increased substantially, as had the long distance trade between east and west in high value goods, and the political, social and cultural impacts of these movements had far-reaching consequences upon all the societies that encountered them.
“The routes served principally to transfer raw materials, foodstuffs, and luxury goods. Some areas had a monopoly on certain materials or goods: notably China, who supplied Central Asia, the Subcontinent, West Asia and the Mediterranean world with silk. Many of the high value trade goods were transported over vast distances – by pack animals and river craft – and probably by a string of different merchants. As well as conduits for goods and people, the routes allowed the exceptional flow of ideas, beliefs and technological innovations such as those related to architecture and town planning that shaped the urban spaces and peoples’ lives in many fundamental ways.
“Thirty-three sites along the corridor include capital cities palace complexes of various empires and Khan Kingdoms, trading settlements, Buddhist cave temples, ancient paths, posthouses, passes, beacon towers, sections of the Great Wall, fortifications, tombs and religious buildings. The formal system of posthouses and beacon towers provided by the Chinese Empire facilitated trade, as did the system of forts, caravanserai and way stations operated by states in the Zhetysu region. In and around Chang’an, a succession of palaces reflect the power centre of the Chinese Empire over 1,200 years; while the cities of the Chuy valley are witness to the power centre of the Zhetysu region from the 9th to the 14th centuries and their organisation of the long distance trade.” [Source: UNESCO, World Heritage Site, 2014]
Nomadic Sites on the Silk Road of the Inner Tien Shan
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “These series represent cultural heritage of high-mountainous region of Kyrgyzstan located in the north of the country. First of all, these are monuments of tangible culture of the nomadic population, represented by grave and funeral complexes, rock carvings and epigraphics, dated from last centuries B.C. to 18th centuries AD inclusive. Kochkor valley, called Yarysh in the Middle Ages, is identified with the reserved zone of Turkic kagans, mentioned in the written sources of early Middle Ages. Images of horsemen-soldiers with falcons, accompanied with ancient Turkic inscriptions (24 pieces) and tribal tamgas (symbol) can be seen on separate boulders (1 to 3 meters height) in the Kara Too mountain ridge, in the southeast of the valley. Turkic stone grave enclosures with gravestones were found in the same area. Kyrgyz necropolises, vivid example of which is Kyrk-Choro complex near the Kum-Aryk village, have also doubtless value. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]
“Natural mazars (sacred places) tell about elements of archaic beliefs and people's ecological culture, later adapted for Islam, in particular, sacral mountains of Kochkor-Ata in Kochkor and Chesh-Tobe in At-Bashy areas. One more type of monuments of this region is quarters of medieval nomadic rulers: sites of Koshoj-Korgon and Shirdakbek settlements. Koshoj-Korgon, located in the centre of the high-mountainous At-Bashy valley, at the altitude of 2500 meters, is a square construction with the sides 250 х 245 meters long. Walls are made of paksa and mud blocks (remained height from 4 to 8 meters). The structure is surrounded by a ditch, from 11 to 14 meters in width. Excavations revealed remains of inhabited and manufacture constructions inside the settlement, as well as outside. It is identified with the medieval historical city of At-Bash, which mainly functioned in 9th-12th centuries AD, but was also live in Timur's times.
“Shyrdakbek site is also qualified as a quarter of local nomadic rulers, is located to the southwest from At-Bashi, in Ak-Talaa area, in the Valley of Ala Buka river. Lay-out and building materials are similar to the previous monument; its sizes are 120х117 meters, width of walls is 6 meters, remained height is about 6 meters, construction is surrounded by a ditch. Square adobe construction is located separately in 0, 5 kilometers to the south. Limited excavations revealed traces of craft and agriculture. Period of functioning is from IX to the beginning of 8th centuries AD. It is identified with the historical city of Kadzhingar-Bashi.
“Natural climatic conditions of the region, suitable for cattle breeding, dictate preservation of many components of a traditional way of life of mountain nomads. It is specific cuisine with specific processing of products, crafts from manufacturing of yurtas to felt and jewelery. The technology of felt and felt products manufacturing is not only remained, but also develops, having turned into a separate industry of arts and crafts. Traditions of the leather processing and manufacturing of leather products are not forgotten. Forms, methods and skills of traditional hunting, including hunting with the Kyrgyz hounds and falcons have remained, too. Traditional land tenure: djailoo - summer pastures and kyshtoo - winter station has remained, too. Other kinds of intangible heritage: toponymics, Sanjyra (oral transfer of genealogy), art of story tellers, ceremonial songs, national games, - demonstrate a traditional way of life of the Tien Shan nomads.”
Tash Rabat and Caravanserais on the Silk Road of the Inner Tien Shan
Tash Rabat Caravanserai (110 kilometers from the town of Naryn) is a fortified Silk Road caravanserai that dates back to the 15th century and was restored in 1984. One of the best Silk Road spots on Kyrgyzstan, it is beautifully situated among highlands and mountains in the valley of Kara Koyun at an altitude of 3200 meters. It is built of stones and particularly beautiful in the winter when it is surrounded by snow. It contains a well, a dungeon, a tunnel and some rooms once used by well-heeled travelers. There are some nice hikes in the area. It is expensive and hard to get to.
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Another type of the monuments located on the Tien Shan branch of the Silk Road is caravans-sarays. Two sites have preserved: Tash-Rabat and Manakeldy (Chaldyvar). [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]
Tash-Rabat is located in the western part of the At-Bashy valley, on the small river of Kara Koyun, at the altitude of 3200 meters. Square construction, with the length of external perimeter of walls 32,4х34,8 by 32,4х35,1 meters, is made of slate plates. Facade, decorated with towers, is turned to the east. Internal lay-out consists of the central corridor, the square hall and a number of premises ceiled with the big dome and 19 domes of small diameter. It was constructed in Karahanid times, in A.D. 11th-12th centuries, functioned till Timur's time and served as caravan-saray for the routes going to Kashgar through Tash-Rabat and Torugart passes.
“Manakeldy is located in Ak-Talaa area, at the altitude of 2500 meters, on the bank of Ala Buka river inflow. It is a square construction, with the sizes 64х64 meters, maid of mud bricks and pakhsa. Entrance was in the centre of the northern wall, limited by two rectangular towers-pylons. Other corners and walls of the construction were fortified by towers, and the front northern wall was decorated by a half goffers. The internal lay-out had the following appearance: two lines of corridors along the walls and square and rectangular premises between the corridors. Adobe feeding troughs for animals were traced in different places of the external corridor. A court yard occupied the centre of the construction. Casing and domes were applied for ceilings. The caravan-saray provided services for travelers of the route from Fergana valley to areas of inner Tien-Shan and Issyk Kul. Main period of functioning is 10th-12th centuries AD.”
Torugart Pass (3,672 meter, 12,100 feet) is regarded as one of the sorriest, most problematic and adventurous border crossings in the world, complete with a howling wind, chilly temperatures, excruciatingly long waits, patrol dogs and the meanest and most difficult border guards you are ever going to meet. Even so many travelers jump at the opportunity because of scenery along the way, its association with the Silk Road, the stories they can tell afterwards and the sheer adventure of doing it.
The Torugart Pass was a pass used by Silk Road caravans but was not the most heavily used one. Irkeshtam Pass was the primary one because it linked Kashgar with the fertile and bountiful Fergana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan . Traveling over Torugart Pass and the mountains on the what is now the Kyrgyzstan side required much more work.
Irkeshtam Pass (100 kilometers south of Torugart Pass) was one of the main passes used by Silk Road caravan traveling between China and Central Asia linking up Kashgar with the Fergana Valley. It is strictly off limits to foreign travelers because of its sensitive location between Chinese and Kyrgyzstan border, which was even more sensitive when it was the border between China and the Soviet Union until 1991.
Lake Issyk-Kul (160 kilometers west of Bishkek) is Kyrgyzstan’s largest lake and one of the largest lakes in the world. Located at an elevation of 1,609 meters in the northwestern part of Kyrgyzstan, it is essentially a large valley filled with water. Surrounded by the snowcapped Terskey Alatau and Kungey Alatau ranges, it is a lovely sight and is regarded as a national treasure. One 19th century explorer called it “a blue emerald set in a frame of silvery mountains.”
By some reckonings, Lake Issyk-Kul is the second highest large lake in the world after Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia. Covering an area of 6236 square kilometers, it measures about 180 kilometers (110 miles) from east to west and about 70 kilometers (45 miles) north to south at its widest point and has a 570-kilometer-long (350-mile-long) shoreline.
Lake Issyk-Kul is the forth deepest lake in the world. It has an average depth of 300 meters. Its deepest point is 668 meters. Because the lake is so deep, the salinity is relatively low and it is fed by thermal springs, it never freezes. The lake is relatively shallow on the north side and deep on the south side. It lies at the converging point of two tectonic plates and is expected to be twice as deep as its present depth in a few centuries.
Around the lake poplars line sections of the road that encircles the lake and marijuana grows wild. Grain, apricots and vegetables are grown in the fertile land. The people that live around the lake are pretty much equally divided between Kyrgyz and Russians and other Slavs.
History of Issyk-Kul
Issyk-Kul means “warm water,” a name presumed to have been chosen because the water in the lake never freezes. The name of the lake also has religious significance. The adjective 'issyk' is phonetically modified form of the ancient Turkic word 'ydyk' which means 'sacred.' This unique lake has been considered sacred to the Kyrgyz and indigenous people that have lived around it.
The warm water Of Issyk-Kul creates a microclimate in the area of the lake with relatively high rainfall and relatively warm temperatures. For this reason people have settled around it for centuries. Remains of Scythian settlements have been found. Silk Road caravans stopped here for a breather. Tamerlane reportedly vacationed here. The remains of mysterious ancient cities have been found in the lake’s depths.
Issyk-Kul has great spiritual meaning to the Kyrgyz people. There are many legends about it; tribes pray to its spirits and it is said that divers have found remains of ancient cities in its depths. According to legend, the 40 maidens who gave Kyrgyzstan its name and migrated to Kyrgyzstan from Siberia in ancient times, settled along Lake Issyk-Kul and founded the 40 traditional Kyrgyz clans.
Silk Road Routes of the Southern Issyk Kul
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: This part of the Silk Road, actively functioning throughout all Middle Ages, is known as "Hsuan-Tsang's road", the pilgrim, who passed it in 629 AD. The Chinese records describe this branch from east to west, Arabic and Persian - from west to east. Traditionally, it is considered that it went through Bedel, Seok passes, Ara Bel valley, Sary-Moinok, Barskoon passes, through Barskoon valley and to the southern coast of the lake, then along the southwestern coast went to the West and through Boom gorge passed to the Chui valley. This part of the route is traced by a range of sites and settlements, which are identified with historical cities of the area of Upper Barshan. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]
“Site of Barskoon 2 is located in the heart of gorge, on the right terrace above the floodplain. It has square form with sides 60 x 60m, oriented to cardinal points. Semicircular towers were traced in the corners and in the centre of southern, western and northern walls; entrance was in the centre of the eastern wall. The site functioned as a fortress protecting entrance and exit from gorge and accordingly, the part of the route going through Barskoon and Bedel passes to the area of Aksuu. Excavations are carried out in the middle of 20th century; the settlement is dated from the early Middle Ages till 12th centuries AD.
“To the west of this site, in the natural boundary of Tamga, in 2 kilometers to the south of the settlement Tamga, there are three stones with the Tibetan inscriptions containing the formula "Ohm mani padme hum"; dated back to Jungar times, 15th-18th centuries AD. Burial ground of Turkic time (funeral and burial sites with stone sculptures) is located on a floodplain terrace. According to some researchers, places with Buddhist epigraphics, mark use of Silk Road caravan routes, known from the early and late Middle Ages, by pilgrims to Tibet. Now, the local Kyrgyz population considers this site as a mazar - a sacred place.”
Issyk Kul Silk Road Cities of Tun and Dun
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “On the coast, there is the Tosor site on the route, which served as a fortress between two large cities of the area: Barshan and Ton (Тun, Dun). It is on the western end of Tosor village, in 200 meters to the north from Balykchi-Karakol road. It has square form with sides 100х100m, oriented to cardinal points. Semicircular towers were traced in the corners and on the walls. L-shaped entrance is located in the centre of the eastern wall and, the eastern side of the entrance is strengthened by a tower. The topography of the site and materials of excavation of 1960s made a basis for its dating as Karahanid time. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]
City of Dun is identified with Khan-Dobo or Ton settlement, located on the left floodplain terrace of the river Ton, in the entrance to the gorge. It consists of the central ruins and the territory surrounded with two long walls. The citadel has the form of the truncated cone with sides in the basis of 60х60 meters, with the height of more than 10 meters. A platform, limited with low walls, which served as a court yard for the citadel adjoins its northern side. The surrounding area has traces of numerous constructions in the form of mounds of various forms and stone basements of constructions. The Central part is surrounded by a wall with numerous towers in distance of 40-50 meters from each other, 12-15 meters projecting from the side of the wall, height of the wall is 3-5 meters, width in the basis is 10-12 meters. Western and northern walls are well traced where entrances to the city are located. The greatest length of the central part of the site makes 600 meters, width is 500 meters.
“Functioning of the central part is dated back from 7th to 12th centuries AD, the second part of the site adjoins the main site from the south, the east and the north, is surrounded by a ring of walls with towers. Height of the wall is 2-3 m; width in the basis is 10-15 meters. Traces of constructions and cultural layers are detected inside the walls. River Tuura-Suu flows through the territory of this part of the site. Adjoining third part of the site is also surrounded with a ring of wall, constructed on the edge of a floodplain terraces of the river Ton. Small settlements are detected in the vicinity of the site; there are some settlements deeper in a gorge, in the direction to Ton pass, which was on the way connecting Issyk-Kul with Tien Shan and Fergana.
“Remains of the defensive wall indicating western border of the territory of the Upper Barshan in 10th-12th centuries AD is another site of the time of intensive functioning of the Silk Road in this area. It is located on the left bank of the river Ton, to the south from Balykchi-Karakol road, in the cemetery. From Ton to the West the road went along the lake coast, through a number of settlements, some of them have occupation layers of the early Middle Ages, but mainly they functioned in Karahanid period. Transit to Chui valley was made through Boom gorge.
Silk Road and the Chui Valley
Chui Valley (near Almaty and embracing Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) is a France-size region that straddles the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan border and is famous today for it cannabis products. The valley's black soil is very fertile and is largely irrigated with water diverted from the Chu River. The region's Agricultural production includes wheat, maize, sugar beets, potatoes, lucerne, and various vegetables and fruits.
Named after the Chu River that flows through it, the Chui Valley is located in north of the Tian-Shan mountains and extends from Boom Gorge in the east to Muyunkum Desert in the west. It has an area of about 32,000 square kilometers (12,000 square miles), and borders Kyrgyz Alatau in the south, and Chu-Ili mountains in the north. The warm summer and availability of drinking and irrigation water makes this area one of the most fertile and most densely populated regions of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Major towns and cities there include Bishkek, Kara-Balta, Kant, Kemin, Shopokov, Tokmok, Ivanovka The 2006 World Drug Report estimated that 4,000 square kilometers of cannabis grow wild in the Chui Valley.
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Upper Chui Valley Silk Road Sites of the Navikat, Suyab and Balasagyn are located along the important branch of the Silk Road, which basically was functioning in the early and late Middle Ages (from A.D. 6th century - beginning of 8th centuries) and served sub-regions of Semirechie, Issyk Kul, and southern Kazakhstan. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]
“The main towns of the valley, Navikat (today Krasnaya Rechka), Suyab (Ak Beshim) and Balasagyn (Burana), were founded during the 6th century AD, later developing significantly and becoming unique centres of symbiosis between Indian, Chinese, Sogdian and Turkic cultures, as well as a connecting link between these civilizations thanks to their positions on the Northern Silk Roads. Peoples from India, Sogd, Syria, Persia, China and the northern steppes settled in the towns, each bringing with them their own religious and cultural traditions. Navikat, and the other towns of the Chui Valley, are mentioned in records left by the Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang, who visited the area in around 620 AD.
“Under the Western Turkic and Turgesh Khanates of 560-760 AD, the segment of the Chui Valley situated between Bishkek and Lake Issyk-Kul (40km east of Bishkek) became one of the main political, economic and military centres in Eurasia, connected with Byzantium and China by the Northern Silk Roads. Archaeological excavations carried out in the Chui Valley between 1940 and 2000 discovered towns and monumental constructions dating from the 5th to 12th centuries that reflected the cultural and artistic traditions of many countries and peoples, from Byzantium in the west to India in the south and China in the east.
“The town of Krasnaya Rechka (Navikat) has long been one of the most important of all the urban settlements in the Chui Valley and in the Tien-Shan region. Archaeological excavations in and around the town have revealed a Zoroastrian fire altar and grave site in the western suburbs, Nestorian Christian votive stones in the citadel and two Buddhist temples south of the town walls. Blend of Turkic, Indian, Sogdian and Chinese cultures can be seen in the materials used in both the religious and civil buildings, constituting a fascinating expression of regional cultural dialogue. Among the early mediaeval Buddhist buildings that have been excavated in the Chui Valley, the second Buddhist temple of Navikat (Krasnaya Rechka) is the only one that has been well preserved.” A 12-meter high statue of Buddha in nirvana, made of molded clay, was found during archaeological excavations in parts of Nevaket, the medieval city Krasnorechensk. The statue was later delivered to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Ak-Beshim was one of the most important cities in Chui valley. Its remnants are located south of the Chui river and south of present day city of Tokmak, 50 kilometers to the East of Bishkek. According to Chinese and Arab-Persian sources the town is identified as well-known Suyab Town. The city displayed 3 areas. The Shakhristan was nearly rectangular, surrounded by massive walls and measured 35 ha. The southwest corner was marked by the citadel. In the east was a suburb, the rabad area with less massive walls, covering 60ha. An even wider area to the south and the west was protected by a minor wall. To the north the city was bordered by a side branch of the Chui. City walls and buildings were earthen constructions. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]
“In 1953-54 archaeologist L.R. Kizlasov excavated several structures. Of these structures almost nothing is left above ground. Two of these excavated structures were Buddhist Temple 1 (B1), situated at 200m south-southwest of the citadel, and a second Buddhist temple 400m east of B1 and a castle.
“The Christian Church with necropolis of 8th centuries AD was excavated in the east of Shakhristan. It is one of the most ancient Christian constructions in Central Asia. The archeological and architectural analysis allows proving that there was a considerable influence of the Asian style (X-shaped plan, domed roof) in its architecture, i.e. open yard instead of a nave, pakhsa was used as a building material, and etc. In the South-Eastern corner of Shakhristan, Complex of Christian Churches of Х-ХI centuries was excavated in 1996-1998. This complex is located in 10-15 meters far from outer wall and consists of four (?) churches with cross - shaped bema and large hall or court yard in front of them. There are some utilities and living rooms in the North and West.”
Balasagun (12 kilometers southeast of Tokmok near the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border) was an ancient city founded by Soghdians, a people of Iranian origin, in the early centuries A.D, and remained in their hands until the 11th century. Situated in the Chuy Valley between Bishkek and Issyk-Kul Lake, it was the capital of the Kara-Khanid Khanate from the 10th century until it was taken by the Kara-Khitan Khanate in 1134. It was then captured by the Mongols in 1218. The Mongols called it Gobalik ("pretty city").
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Balasagun is one of the largest medieval cities in Chui valley in Kyrgyzstan. Established in the 10th century on the site of an older settlement. Along with Kashgar, Balasagun was one of the capitals of the Eastern Khanate after the Karakhanid state split up. It was saved from destruction by Genghis Khan's Mongols, and was renamed Gobalik (= «good city») in the 13th century, but the city lost its importance and had disappeared by the 15th century. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]
Under the Kara-Khanid Khanate in the 9th century, Balasagun soon supplanted Suyab as the main political and economical centre of the Chuy Valley but its prosperity declined after the Mongol conquest. The poet Yusuf Has Hajib, known for writing the Kutadgu Bilig, is thought to have been born in Balasagun in the 11th century. The city also had a sizable Nestorian Christian population. A Nestorian graveyard was still in use in the 14th century. Since the 14th century, Balasagun has been a village with a lot of ruins.
The medieval town of Balasagun was the capital of the western wing of the Karakhanid Empire for a long time. It was a cultural, academic and spiritual centre in the enormous territory of the Eurasian continent. Prominent figures such as Iusup Balasaguni, Mahmud Kashgari and others lived and worked here; it was where the famous medieval poet Yusuf Balasaguni wrote his encyclopaedic work “Kutadgu Bilik” (“The Book of Moral Edification,” also . home to author of the poem Kudatgu Bilig (Beneficial Knowledge).
Balasagun was a significant economic, political and cultural medieval centre on the Great Silk Road. Archaeological excavations carried out here have lasted at least a decade. Much has been uncovered over this time: a palace complex with a square and eastern bath house, water-carrying and sewerage systems, residential and agricultural buildings and centres of craftsmanship, where ceramic crockery and tools have been discovered. A unique archaeological find of more than 500 bronze coins was made here.
Balasagun Archaeological Area in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan
The Burana archaeological zone is located at the edge of Tokmok, The western end of the ancient city is six kilometers from the present-day village of Balasagun. The zone includes the Burana Tower and a field of stone petroglyphs, the bal-bals. Parts of the archaeological zone extend into Kazakhstan in the Shuskii region of Zhambyl Province, three kilometers south-east of the village of Aktobe on both sides of the River Aksu.
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: There were major archaeological surveys of the site in the 1920s, 1950s and 1970s. The archaeologists discovered that the town had a complicated layout covering some 25-30 square kilometers. There were ruins of a central fortress, some handicraft shops, bazaars, four religious buildings, domestic dwellings, a bathhouse, a plot of arable land and a water main (pipes delivering water from a nearby canyon). Two circles of walls surrounded the town. Although the Karakhanids, practiced Islam, they were tolerant of other religions and there are many examples of early Christian (Nestorian) inscriptions. Burana museum and Kyrgyz state historical museum has some Nestorian grave stones. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]
Balasagun comprises two shakhristan settled areas (1 and 2 ), a citadel and city outskirts. Shakhristan 1 is rectangular in form (380 x 250 meters) and 6-7 meters tall. The citadel is situated in the central area, is square in shape with sides of 100 meters, and 10 meters tall. Shakhristan 2 is sized 300 x 250m and is 3-6m tall. The city’s outskirts are surrounded by long embankments: the first embankment is 17 kilometers in length and the second is 25 kilometers. Four semicircular embankments are attached to the second embankment on the east and west sides. [Source: visitkazakhstan.kz]
Shakhristan 1 is rectangular in form (380 x 250m) and 6-7m tall. The citadel is situated in the central area, is square in shape with sides of 100m, and 10m tall. Shakhristan 2 is sized 300 x 250m and is 3-6m tall. The city’s outskirts are surrounded by long embankments: the first embankment is 17 kilometers in length and the second is 25 kilometers. Four semicircular embankments are attached to the second embankment on the east and west sides.
Burana Tower (in the Balasagun area, 10 kilometers south of Tokmok, 80 kilometers from Bishkek) is an 11th century monument painstakingly restored by the Soviets. It looks like a squat minaret and sits next to an ancient Scythian archeological a mound which became part of an 11th century Songdian fortress. There is a mall a small museum, with artifacts excavated at the sites, and a cluster of balbals (stone grave markers).
Situated about halfway between Bishkek and Issyk Kul, Burana Tower was once part of a mosque. The minaret was built in the first half of the 11th century. The mosque was built and later completely destroyed. The minaret was damaged by earthquakes over the centuries and partially ruined by an earthquake in the 15th century. Today, the tower stands at about 24 meters (79 feet). When it was first built it topped 46 meters (138 feet). What you see today is mainly the result of a major renovation carried out in the 1970s.
A Kyrgyz legend on the origins of the tower goes: Once there was a powerful khan who had a beautiful daughter, Monara, whom he loved very much and wanted to protect against the affections of local djigits — young men. One day the khan summoned all the fortune tellers and clairvoyants in the region and demanded that they tell the girl's future. All of them foretold a happy life for the girl — except one. This aksakal declared, "I can only say the truth even though you may execute me for it. Your daughter's fate is a sad one. She hardly reaches her sixteenth birthday when a poisonous black spider bites her and she dies immediately." The Khan was angry, but he could not ignore the prediction. So he built a tall tower and the fortune teller was incarcerated in a small room at the bottom and his daughter was placed in isolation in another room at the top of the tower. [Source: advantour]
The girl grew up in the tower, looking out over the valley through the four windows in the cupola which looked out to the compass points – North, South, East and West. Servants brought her food and drink, delivering it in a basket after by climbing a ladder placed against the outside of the tower. They were inspected from head to toe to make sure that their clothes, the food, nor the plates, hid a spider.
On the day of her sixteenth birthday, the khan was so happy that the old man's prediction had proved false. He decided to congratulate the girl on her "special day" and went to her room carrying a bunch of vines. Congratulating her with a kiss, he presented her with the fruit, which she accepted and then, inexplicably, collapsed and died. Dumbfounded the Khan inspected his gift ... and there was a black spider. The khan was grief stricken and sobbed so loudly that the tower shook and the top part fell down, creating the ruin that we see today.
Silk Road Sites of Talas and Manas Ordo
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The sites of Talas and Manas Ordo “are located in the northwest of the country, in the upper Talas valley, on the right bank of the river Kenkol, inflow of Talas river, in the entrance of the Kenkol gorge. They were connected with the Silk Road branch, serving sub-region of Semirechie and South Kazakhstan in the Middle Ages. The series consists of monuments of tangible and intangible heritage on the territory of Manas-Ordo complex and its vicinity. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]
The first group includes archaeological monuments of different historical epoch: 1) barrows of the well-known Kenkol burial ground (end of the I-st millennia B.C. - first half of the I-st millenia AD) connected with Huns and entitled the whole archaeological culture of the region; Rich archaeological material, including number of finds of silk clothes, demonstrate communications with the various historical and cultural regions located along the Silk Road. 2) petroglyphs, located near to the burial ground which repertoire reflects an economic-ceremonial life of the nomadic population, dated from the same epoch. 3) architectural monument - mausoleum of 14th century AD, a single-chamber cube-shaped construction; ceiling with two domes: internal dome of spherical form and external - ribbed peaked roof. Ornamented portal is in the southern wall. The mausoleum belonged to one of Chagatai princesses, but Kyrgyz people traditionally connect it with the Kyrgyz epic hero Manas. 4) Muslim cemetery of the late Middle Ages which was functioning until the end 60th of XX century.
Kenkol gorge is rich in different types of nomadic monuments dated from the early Iron Age to 18th centuries AD inclusive. Petroglyphs and barrows make considerable part. Ancient Turkic runic inscriptions were also detected. In 4 kilometers to the northwest there is one of the largest medieval sites of the valley - Ak-Tobe (Talassky), identified with Tekabket which is known in written sources as a city at the mountains with silver mines. The intangible cultural heritage is presented by various rituals and the ceremonies connected with initiation of Manaschy-storyteller of national epos Manas, and also with different pre-Islamic beliefs - Shamanizm, often presented by women, cults of trees, waters, mountains, fertility, animal-worship, including ant heaps worship. Throughout long time traditional form of land tenure, i.e. use of summer pastures - djailoo in Kenkol gorge, has not changed. It is important that the epos "Manas" remains an active social factor and its influence to the modern Kyrgyz society is huge. The sites of these series demonstrate economic, trading and cultural exchanges both on regional, and on international levels.
Silk Road Sites of Safid Bulan
There are a series or archaeological sites located on the northeastern end of Safid-Bulan village (Ak-Korgon administration of Ala-Buka district of Jalal-Abad oblast), on the border with the Namangan area of Uzbekistan, at the foot of Archa-Mazar mountain.According to a report submitted to UNESCO: These sites are connected with the branch of the Silk Road serving the northeast of Fergana in antiquity and the Middle Ages; includes sacral complex consisting of constructions of various chronological periods standing on a medieval Mazar site, natural sacral components and rich intangible heritage in the form of legends, rituals and practice of sacrifices. Historically these monuments are connected with the time of distribution of Islam to the northeast of Fergana valley where it entrenched in 9th-10th centuries. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]
“Existing ancient sanctuary was adapted for new religion. The first mentioning of this Mazar was made by Djamal Karshi in the end of 8th century, who spoke about two tombs. The central complex is protected by a wall with a main entrance from village street. The mausoleum of Shah-Fazil occupies its southeastern corner. It is a dome centered building with the corners oriented to the cardinal points, with rich carved ganch interior, which includes wide strips of epigraphics. Adobe mausoleums of 18th-19th centuries AD with a traditional name of Safid-Bulan and Keldekhana (Kellahana) were erected on a place of earlier structures. In the northeastern corner of a court yard, near Shah-Fazil a phallic shaped stone so-called "fertility stone" or Tash-Mazar is located. Gravestones - sagona, are connected by local people with characters of the legendary events which entailed emergence of this complex, i.e. with Shah Fazil, son of the Arabian military leader who fell in battle here, girl-servant Bulan who collected, washed and buried heads of 2700 soldiers-martyrs.
The collection of gravestones - kairaks from the medieval necropolis, containing valuable information on a composition and a religious status of the buried is presented here. To the north from this Mazar complex there are: new mosque constructed on a place of old, hauz and small constructions, making a service infrastructure for pilgrims. There is one more complex (closer to the floodplain terrace of Chanach-Sai river), which centre is ruins of the Kyrgyn-mosque standing at Mazar on a place of burial of 2700 soldiers. To the southeast, on a slope of Archa-Mazar, there is one more adobe construction attributed to a standard-bearer of Arabs. Natural components are : sacred trees, a stone plate, a path on Archa-Mazar slope, considered to provide longevity, the mountain, abovementioned "fertility stone".
“Intangible heritage makes a whole cycle of legends connected with occurrence of sacral functions of this place, rituals and practice of sacrifices which along with Islamic traditions of honouring Mazar, contain also elements of archaic cults. Preservation of Ethnic, language and cultural variety are remarkable in this district, with prevailing Turkic language component - Kyrgyz and Uzbek, the Tadjik community which has not lost ethnic identification lives here. Families - descendants of sheikhs who remember traditions of teaching of this profession and ethics of behaviour in similar places have remained too.”
Silk Road Uzgen and Shorobashat Sites
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Ancient settlement of Uzgen is the centre of the oasis rich of monuments of settled and nomadic people, dated in a wide chronological range. It belongs to a zone of early contacts on the Silk Road, being the most eastern city centre of Davan, as the city of Ju-chen known on Chinese sources is traditionally localised here in a context of military expeditions of 104-99 B.C.. Another hypothesis is that ancient Ju-chen is Shorobashat, the largest site in eastern Fergana located along Zhazy (Yassy) river, which has four-part structure with fortifications, covering the area of more than 70 hectares. Main period of development is 4th-1st centuries B.C., at the turn of the era nuclear part of the city migrated to the area where now ruins of Uzgen site are located. Medieval written sources say that the city of Uzgen was on the border of Muslim and nomadic (not yet adopted Islam) worlds. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]
“Kosh-Bulak settlement is located on high cape of the right bank of Zhazy (Yassy) river, trapezium-shaped; the sizes 150 x 200 meters, walls are traced along the perimeter. The settlement is protected by deep ditches from the north and the east. Neighborhood has traces of habitation, too. This settlement had strategic value to control entrance and exit of Zhazy valley, approaches to Shorobashat and Uzgen, and exits from various gorges. One of the branches of Fergana line of the Silk Road went from here, upwards by the river Zhazy, through mountain passes, to the areas of Inner Tien-Shan and southern shore of Issyk-Kul, and further to China.
“During the expansion of the Karahanid state at the end of the10th century,, Uzgen became capital of the western part of the empire for a short time, and then for a long time remained as a center of Fergana. It is considered that Kara-Kidans kept their treasury here. Uzgen had endured Mongolian invasion, continued to function at the time of Timur and Timurids. Uzgen site is situated on four hills stretching along the Kara-Darya river. The third hills, having solid defensive structures, carried out citadel functions, the others were Shakhristans. Rabad was lower, occupying considerable territory between two rivers.
“Three mausoleums and minaret, known as the Uzgen architectural complex, are located in the east of the fourth Shakhristan, on a necropolis. Mausoleum complex consist of three fired-brick buildings, closely attached to each other along one line. The earliest mausoleum was built at the turn of 11th-12th centuries AD. Facades are decorated with architectural terracotta and carved plaster. Wide belts of inscriptions written in Kufi, Naskh, Suls and vegetative ornament cover them. Inscriptions testify that the representatives of Uzgen branches of Karahanid dynasty and their military leaders are buried in the Northern and Southern chambers. They lived in a period from the middle till the end of 12th centuries AD (three dates have remained - 1152, 1186, 1187). The minaret is located to the northwest from the mausoleums, is dated back to middle of 6th centuries AD, and consists of stylobate, octahedral base and the conic body with figured bricklaying. Uzgen architectural complex demonstrates development of domical and portal architecture in a time span, and its decor is considered as "encyclopedia of ornament" of Karahanid epoch.
“Excavations in 1988-1989, between minaret and tombs, revealed a monumental fired brick construction, possibly, ruins of the medrese, mentioned by Dzhamal -Karshi in the end of 8th centuries AD. In 0, 4 kilometers to the north, remains of a potter's workshop, of the end of 12th centuries AD, with four rectangular furnaces are found in the middle of modern city. Uzgen was a connecting point on the Silk Road with intensive political, economic, trading and cultural contacts from antiquity and the Middle Ages till modern age. The architectural complex is a model of evolution of architecture in premongolian period.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Kyrgyzstan Tourism website, Kyrgyzstan government websites, Wikitravel, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020