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Sailmaluu Tash

The magnificent 5,000-year-old petroglyphs of Siymaliytash must rank as the archaeo-logical highlight of any visit to Kyrgyzstan. The site, Central Asia's most dramatic petroglyphs, means 'Embroidered Stones' in Kyrgyz, consists of 10,000 rock carvings and drawings strewn haphazardly over a mountain called Sulaiman, deep in the Fergana range. Although there are other major petroglyph sites, in the Ur-Maral valley west of Talas, around Aravan and also at Cholpon Ata, on the northern shore of Lake Issyk Kul, Siymaliytash is the most complex and best preserved in Kyrgyzstan. Here, high on a lonely alpine plateau, petroglyphs scattered over the slopes of two glacial moraines that have been named by archaeologists, not very imaginatively, as Saimaluu-Tash One and Saimaluu-Tash Two. The larger of the two, Saimaluu-Tash One, measures 3km in length.

The Bronze Age tradition of marking this sacred spot with rock drawings was continued by subsequent settlers in the region and one of the most fascinating things about the site is not just the sheer extent of the galleries, or the large number of petroglyphs, but the millennia-long continuity of the site as a place of spiritual activity. The earlier Bronze Age etchings are succeeded by those of the Iron Age from around 800BC onwards, and the tradition continued until medieval times when Scythian and Turkic settlers added their own quota. This continuity of use has afforded the site sacred credentials that are still respected by modern-day Kyrgyz, who recognise Saimaluu-Tash as having spiritual power and healing qualities.

The carvings are spread over two slopes and depict hunting, shamanistic rites and battle scenes, some dating back more than 4000 years. The oldest images date from the Bronze Age (3000 BC) and were drawn by prehistoric peoples so far unknown but probably of Indo-Aryan stock. Others range from Iron Age carvings (800 BC) to carvings and drawings carved as recently as the early Middle Ages by the Saks (a nomadic people of Iranian origin) and Turkic tribes. Sadly, there is also some graffiti from moronic 20th century visitors.

The age of the site tells us that humans have attached strong religious significance to this spot for thousands of years. Right in the middle of Siymaliytash One lies a small pond where shamans once gathered to conduct meditations and celebrations, and which is still a sacred spot for the Kyrgyz. The Kyrgyz believe a visit to Siymaliytash brings good luck into their lives.

In a country that lacks much tangible evidence of its rich and varied history, Siymaliytash is remarkable. The only problem is that virtually no one gets to see it. Siymaliytash's remoteness has been its saviour.

Siymaliytash was discovered by the outside world in 1903 when the Russians built a track between Jalal-Abad and the military outpost of Naryn, (the present road via Kazarman follows this trail). A military cartographer called Nikolai Khludov became interested in stories he heard from Kyrgyz shepherds about painted stones in the mountains and organised a small expedition to search for them. He reported his findings to the Society of Archaeology in Tashkent, which organised a subsequent expedition, but Siymaliytash was soon forgotten.

Scientific interest was resurrected in 1950 by Soviet archaeologist and petroglyph specialist Alexander Berstamm, from Frunze (present-day Bishkek). Although he only spent a month at the site, he not only scientifically documented but also dated the petroglyphs. The Institute of Archaeology in Bishkek, supported by UNESCO and the UNDP, is currently studying and mapping the stones, and also excavating burial mounds at Siymaliytash Two. The findings from the latter may shed more light on the origins of the oldest petroglyphs.

The designs on the stones are various but they tend to fall into categories. The majority are representations of animals like horses, wolves, lions and, most commonly, ibex; less commonly, camels, snow leopards, reindeer and even monkeys. Many more depict hunting scenes in which deer with larger-than- life antlers are stalked by men with bows and spears. Some have scenes that show ploughing and ritual dancing, and many more have solar imagery and wavy patterns that perhaps depict the course of rivers. There are even some highly erotic stones that portray the procreative act.

The intent driving this artwork is as meaningful as its content. The petroglyphs are less the stone pages of a prehistoric sketchbook than they are individual acts of sympathetic magic in which the artist, in physically representing his desire - a successful hunt, a good water supply, sunshine for crops - has invoked the gods to help him: on top of a mountain at 3,200m is not a bad place to summon the spirits.

The rest show hunting scenes, ritual dances, men ploughing fields using oxen and camels and shamanic symbols, offering a rare insight into the world of Kyrgyzstan's earliest inhabitants.

Getting to Siymaliytash

Getting to the 'Stonehenge of central Asia', as Saimaluu-Tash is sometimes playfully referred to, is not at all easy. In the first place, it normally requires reaching Kazarman, the village that is used as the base for visits to the petroglyph site, itself a rather isolated and not altogether agreeable place. From Kazarman, it is possible to travel some of the way by 4x4, but the rest has to be done on foot or on horseback. Many of the archaeologists who have visited the site have done so by helicopter but a few people have been mad enough to do it on foot. Siymaliytash is certainly worth the effort but it's a big effort and are only for the committed and adventurous.

Siymaliytash is right at the top of Mount Suleiman, at 3,200 metres above sea level. The trek itself requires no technical skills but is quite arduous so you need above-average fitness. Don't even consider trying it without a guide-you simply won't find it. The mountain is criss-crossed with sheep tracks, which are hard to follow and continually peter out. Depending on the weather, you have to make between three and seven river crossings, some of which have to be done on horseback due to the speed of the water. Allow four days for the trip: two to trek to Siymaliytash (you could do it in about nine hours, depending on your fitness), one at the site and one (six hours) to trek back. You'll need a four-wheel drive to get to the start of the trek. If you decide to go to this unique spot, take plenty of food and water and be prepared for all weathers. Siymaliytash's bizarre microclimate makes early August to early September the best time to go.

From Kazarman there are two route options, via Atai, 45km west along the road to Jalal-Abad, and the second via Chet Bulak south of Kazarman (so you can take one up and another one back). Both trips involve a car trip of about two hours, followed by a half-day hike or horse trip (three hours each way). The petroglyph gallery is only accessible from June to mid-September. It's best to spend the night at yurts near the site and explore the stones for a few hours early the next morning, although a rushed day trip is also possible.

It is possible, with an early start, to get up to Saimaluu-Tash and back along the same route in the same day, returning to Kazarman to sleep, but an overnight stay at the top means a much less rushed approach, and you will have time the following morning to make a thorough examination of the site. Petroglyphs or not, it is an idyllic setting and the ascent is worth the effort for the views alone. Those staying overnight at the petroglyph site often return by a different and longer route via the village of Chet-Bulak on the Kazarman to Makmal road. Timing is very important; the site is really only accessible during a narrow window that lasts from early August to very early September. Late in the season, locals may not be willing to rent horses as they worry about them plunging through the melting ice of the glacier (although they do not seem too bothered about hapless tourists doing the same thing!). If this is the case, the site must be approached on foot. On foot to the site from the jailoo it is approximately 3,5 hours up and 2,5 hours down. The slippery surface of the glacier is not much fun in trainers.

Another route that takes a full 4 days to do it justice is from the village of Kalmak-Kyrchyn in the Kok-Art valley, which is reached from Dmitrievka on the Jalal-Abad to Kazarman road. The route from Kalmak-Kyrchyn leads along a very rough track 20km to a honey farm where horses and guides are organised. The trek from here takes a whole day to the site.