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One of the most mysterious medieval sites in Kazakhstan, Akyrtas lies some 45km from Taraz. To get here, take the main road from Taraz towards Almaty.

Around 33km beyond the eastern edge of town, a signposted right turn around 2km west of the village of Aksholak directs you towards Akyrtas. A track then takes you under the railway line and towards the hills to the south. Turn left after around 4km, where the track forks, reaching Akyrtas another 3km on.

The site of Akyrtas is rectangular in plan, covering an area of some 4ha. Its walls are constructed of large red sandstone blocks, which must have been hugely difficult to bring here from their hillside quarry, several hundred metres away. A trench dug alongside the outer wall around the circular tower marking the northwest corner of the structure reveals that the walls rise to a height of more than 4m, most of that below the current level of the ground. The structure contains many rooms, around a central courtyard. One of a number of strange features about the complex is that it was built far from any natural source of water, necessitating a complicated system of water provision. Archaeologists now date the site to no earlier than the middle of the 8th century.

There is no academic agreement as to the nature of the structure at Akyrtas. Some believe it have been the summer residence of the Karluk khagans during the height of their power from the 8th-10th centuries AD. Judging by the remains of its foundations, a palace certainly existed here. They think that the site represents the ruins of the settlement of Kasribas. Other researchers believe that it was a palace, or a caravanserai. The Russian academic Vasily Bartold thought that it may have been a Nestorian monastery, drawing attention to a carving of a fish, a Christian symbol, on one stone block. Whatever the case, the building was designed using very modern concepts, and excavations have revealed a most ingenious water distribution system. The site seems to have been abandoned in an unfinished condition and archaeologists have uncovered no evidence of human habitation.

Visit it today, and you find yourself standing in front of a partly grassed, overgrown wall, with stone tubs scattered around under the open sky. It is unusual - but welcome - that none of these has yet been carried off. The best explanation for this is that it is so hard to reach the city: you need the help of a local guide to find Akyrtas, off the road from Merke to Taraz near the village of Akyrtobe. Extensive excavation and restoration work has been going on since 2004.

There are indeed some in Kazakhstan who believe that this mysterious structure, with its huge cube-shaped building blocks, was the work not of humans but aliens. The site is claimed by some to possess great powers, and you may find as you walk round the site some of your fellow visitors hugging its stones, or standing motionless in hollows, absorbing its cosmic energies.

Unexplainably but the fact is that most of the tourist visiting the place have their cameras and photos discharged. Those who managed to make several shots have large white spots on their pictures. Guides claim that ancient spirits or ghosts of the slaves that once worked here are teasing people. Indeed, how else they could 'revenge' to vandals that leave 'Vasya was here' next to 4000 years petroglyphs.