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Ulytau village

The region of Ulytau (Great Mountains) to the north of Zhezkazgan occupies a prominent place in the history of the Kazakh nomads. Archaeologists have found numerous remains of human settlements in this region, dating from as early as the Bronze Age. Due to the abundance of accessible and easily worked copper, from about 1500 BC this territory was an important centre in the development of steppe civilization. In the wider surroundings there are significant rock carvings from this epoch. The Copper Way, as it is called, part of the early route system that became the Silk Road, began here. Mount Ulytau was also a meeting place of the Kazakh khans for hundreds of years.

Looking at the mountain range, which gradually rises from the steppe, one can easily imagine why this particular spot was selected for important councils and actions. With an abundance of lakes, springs and rivers, the landscape is one large oasis in the steppe. Its appearance and characteristics give it a certain heavenly aura that would have appealed to the tribal leaders. The Turkic word "Ulytau" means "big mountains". Ulytau is not just the geographical centre of Kazakhstan, but was also of great importance for the ancient Kazakhs as the origin of the Torgay River and the Sarysu Basin. The steppe mountain range stretches over 350 kilometres from west to east and over 210 kilometres from north to south. Its highest peak is Mount Akmeshit, or Ulytau (1,133 metres). In this region there are many historic grave mounds, among them those of Alasha Khan and Zoshy (Juchi) Khan, the oldest son of Genghis Khan and an important commander of the Golden Horde. In the second half of the 15th Century, the leaders of the three Kazakh tribal hordes and numerous subordinate tribes came together here for a great kurultay and sealed their unification. The inscriptions of all the tribes' coats of arms (tanba) on the memorial stone of Tanbalytas are a sign that this alliance was meant to last forever. Recognizing the significance of this period, a monument to Kazakh unity was opened at the foot of the mountains.

The sleepy village of Ulytau set in an attractive spot at the foot of the mountains. The administrative heart of the village is a square centred on a statue of two local writers, Bulkishev and Imanzhanov. The akimat is on the right-hand side of the square. At the back of the square is the Ulytau Museum.

The labelling here is all in Kazakh, and there is a somewhat ramshackle quality to some of the displays. In the foyer stands a golden bust of Akin Tayzhan, a jolly-looking accordionist who was killed in 1937, a victim of Stalin's repression. There is a room devoted to Satpaev, featuring a decidedly amateurish statue of the chuckling scientist holding a geological hammer. Photographs of a visit made by Satpaev to the United Kingdom in March 1947, as part of a delegation of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, show him receiving a souvenir from the Mayor of Sheffield and visiting the Bodleian Library. A nature room offers stuffed animals, including a particularly bad-tempered-looking wolf, arranged in alcoves, and a relief model of the mountains.

Upstairs, there are photographs of local Bronze Age sites and some of the many mausolea populating the surrounding steppe. One room includes an odd mix of Stone Age artefacts, a display about the archaeological work at Baskamir, and some rusting agricultural implements. In the corridor, a chair on which President Nazarbaev sat during a visit to Ulytau is carefully preserved in a glass case. The wolf pelt on the ground below it is a mark of Kazakh leadership. Another room includes a model of the mausoleum of Genghis Khan's son Jochi, a diorama of the inauguration of a new Kazakh khan outside the Mausoleum of Alasha Khan, and another depicting Erden Sandibauly, a 19th-century governor, standing watchfully on the steppe, his horse by his side. Erden is another figure whose mausoleum lies in the area. A last room is dominated by a yurt, with many furs hanging up inside it.

Just outside the village of Ulytau are some good examples of a curious ancient monument known as 'moustachioed' kurgans, whose purpose continues to provoke disagreement amongst archaeologists. Take the main road out of the village heading away from Zhezkazgan, and turn right onto an unmetalled track after 1km or so, just past the sign marking, in the other direction, arrival into the village of Ulytau. A couple of kilometres or so further on, look for piles of stones, indicating kurgans, in the wormwood-scented steppe to the left of the track. One of these in particular demonstrates clearly the 'moustachioed' form: two lines of curving stones running out from the kurgan enclose a large space to the east of it. At the end of each line of curving stones, furthest from the kurgan, is a standing stone. Scientists continue to debate whether these structures are a kind of early astronomical observatory, a ritual complex, an elaborate burial structure, or some combination of all of these.