This remote, high valley on the north side of the At-Bashy range, about 75 kilometres south-west of At-Bashy, must be one of the prettiest in Kyrgyzstan. With its lush velvety pastures, winding streams and occasional yurts, it is an idyllic place to camp before or after crossing the Torugart pass.
Tash Rabat is probably Kyrgyzstan's most remarkable monument; indeed, it is one of the most interesting sites in the entire central Asian region and its presence is in complete contradiction to the popular tenet that Kyrgyzstan is all about landscapes rather than historical sights. Tash Rabat is a Silk Road monument par excellence: a small but perfectly formed 15th-century caravanserai that sheltered an array of merchants and travellers along one of the wilder stretches of the Silk Road. Its location is even more remarkable: tucked away from sight, half-buried in a hillside, up a valley at 3,530m above sea level.
This surprisingly level valley, surrounded by lush corduroy hillsides that for centuries have been offering shelter to well-to-do travellers in a fortified caravanserai (9am-5pm mid-May–mid-Oct), which looks like a mausoleum, sunk into the hillside. A 15th century caravanserai bears solitary witness to the massive Silk Road trading caravans that used to pour through these inhospitable mountains.
The origins of the caravanserai, which underwent some restoration work in the 1980s, are not clear. There is apparently some archaeological evidence that the site was occupied as early as the tenth century. Local sources say it dates from the 15th century, although some sources say the site dates from the 10th century, when it was a Christian monastery. Either way historians agree that at one time Tash Rabat (Kyrgyz for stone fortress) must have had significant Silk Road political and trade importance to justify the investment of the labour required for its construction.
The building is entirely stone-built, half-sunken into the hillside from which it emerges almost organically like a rocky outcrop. It is a broad rectangle in shape, measuring 36m long but looking smaller from the outside because some of its internal structure lies beneath the hillside. The front entrance leads into a central hall that is surrounded by a network of small rooms, about 30 in all, which were used as bedrooms, prison cells, pantries and prayer rooms. A dome stands above the central hallway and this still bears faint traces of plaster and decorative paintwork. Facing the entrance just beyond the dome is the khan's seat, where the local ruler would have sat, and behind this is a small room that would have probably served as a gaol, as there are two deep, covered holes, one of which has been subsequently filled in, in which prisoners may have been confined. There is also a well for supplying water. Local rumour suggests that there was also a tunnel leading from the building through the hillside to a lookout post on the other side of the hill. The chambers on either side of the entrance each have a broad, raised ledge, which is said to be a communal bed used by the caravanserai's soldiers, who were garrisoned here to protect against bandits.
A few fragments of the original central mosque are visible in the main chamber; leading off this are many other chambers, including a well (some say a treasury) in the far left corner and a dungeon (in the central right chamber). An opening in the far right corner leads to what the caretakers say is a tunnel, explored generations ago for as far as about 200m, and perhaps once leading to a lookout point to the south.
The site may have been originally used as a monastery by Nestorian Christians, or even possibly by Buddhists, who lived in the region before the 13th-century Mongol invasions took place, and well before Islam came to the region. There is some archaeological evidence to suggest that the building may have been occupied as early as the 10th century, which would support this theory. Whatever the true historical facts, there is no denying the atmosphere of the place, which seems to be imbued with ghosts of the past and authentically redolent of the old Silk Road. The cold, dank atmosphere inside the building and the altitude-rarefied air both help cement this impression.
It’s irregular shape and improbable location has fuelled a number of local legends. One relates how a ruling khan devised a test for his two sons to see who was worthy to inherit his throne. One son, determined to prove that he could provide for his people, pursued the development of education, agriculture and industry. The other son amassed armies and built fortresses. Tash Rabat stands as a silent reminder of a war-mongering man who lost a khanate to his philanthropic brother.
The Soviet restoration that took place in 1984 was carried out in an uncharacteristically sensitive way and, apart from some mortar added to cement the stones together, has done little to damage the integrity of the structure, the only gripe being the need to position the car park directly in front of the entrance, thus blighting photo opportunities from this direction.
Part of Tash Rabat's timeless appeal is thanks to its location in a high, velvet-green valley far away from anything that vaguely resembles civilisation. Another clement of its wow factor owes much to the journey taken to reach the site. Tash Rabat lies 125km from Naryn and 90km short of the border at Torugart. After turning off the main road to the border just after the stretch of aircraft runway, it is another 15km along a small but very beautiful valley, the Kara-Kojon gorge, before the caravanserai is reached.
Tash Rabat is 3,530 metres high and so can be bitterly cold, despite its relatively sheltered location, so take warm and waterproof clothing. In winter and spring the wolves come right down into the snow-covered valley at night to prey on livestock; they took 45 horses alone in the winter of 1999-2000. The altitude is high enough to produce symptoms of altitude sickness, such as headaches, breathlessness and tiredness. If so, take it easy for the first day or two and give your body time to adjust before undertaking any major treks.
From Tash Rabat a six-hour horse ride or hike will take you to a broad ridge overlooking Chatyr-Kol; if you continue for a couple of hours you can stay the night in a yurt at Chatyr-Kol before returning to Tash Rabat the next day. Neither Tash Rabat nor Chatyr-Kol are in a restricted border zone.
There are two more yurtstays located 1km back downstream. There’s no public transport here and because of snow the road is closed from mid-October to mid-May. It is also possible (and recommended) to include Tash Rabat as a side trip en route to the Torugart Pass, although this involves setting out an hour and a half earlier and an additional $ to cover the extra kilometres.
At regular intervals throughout its length the Silk Route offered shelter from the elements and from pillage in the shape of that ancient forerunner of the motel, the caravanserai. The best remaining example we came across lay on level ground a few hundred yards from the huge earthworks of a fortress which had originally been built in the fourth century bc. From the topmost ridge of these embankments the view of the mountains a few miles away would have been sensational on a clear day, but they were totally hidden by a steadily falling curtain of snow. All that otherwise survived of military engineering was the gatehouse, with a single tower like a stumpy minaret on each side of it. This had been built in the seventeenth century. The nearby civilian architecture was much more rewarding, and was in the process of being restored after various dilapidations. The oldest building was the Islamic mausoleum containing the grave of a fifteenth-century beneath its dome; the most complete a madrassa, a school of religious studies built two hundred years later, with a courtyard surrounded by cubicles, in each of which a young man and his tutor would together have pored over, memorised and interpreted scripture.
Alongside the madrassa, separated from it by only a few yards, was what remained of the caravanserai. None of its brick walls, all recently repointed with mortar, was more than chest-high, though when this was a going concern they would have risen to one full storey and might have been topped by a series of shallow domes around the ccntral courtyard. The internal walls simply created a series of compartments running round all four sides of the building, each about five yards deep. In other words, this was a relatively small caravanserai of sixty rooms, where traders and drovers would rest with their merchandise until they were ready to continue along the Silk Route. The camels would have been brought through the solitary opening in the walls, would have been unloaded in the yard, then led away to graze the surrounding land under the watchful eye of a lad who was travelling with the party for just such a purpose. With a fortress just across the way there would have been little need for these travellers to worry about attack, though some caravanserais were built in vulnerable isolation for no other reason than the fact that the wilderness provided a spring of water, or a mountain stream, close by.
"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse