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Navekat

Krasnaya Rechka is 30 kilometres east of Bishkek, on the road lo Balikchy and 8 km east of Kant on the main road to Balykchy and Lake Issyk-Kul. Two kilometres beyond the village turn left at the Ala-Too petrol station or a stone cairn marker just further on, down dirt tracks into open fields.

The village also gives its name to a nearby ruined Silk Road settlement that was known as Navekat ('new town') in Sogdian times. Navekat was active between the 6th and I2th centuries and was the largest settlement in the valley at that time. The town was mentioned by the Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang who visited the area in around AD620. The site was re-discovered in Soviet times when a tractor ploughing outside the village turned up a gold burial mask, stamped with curious patterns and with a precious stone in each eye socket. Investigation revealed that the mask had been buried on a middle-aged woman in the fourth or fifth century; the linear patterns were thought to represent her ancestors, children and grandchildren.

Subsequent archaeological investigation has revealed a Buddhist temple containing the remains of an 8m-long reclining clay Buddha, originally painted red, and Bodhisattvas forms that were discovered in another corridor and outside the sanctuary gates. These are all now in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Archaeologists have unearthed remains of a Karakhanid palace and Buddhist and Nestorian Christian cemeteries. On the summit of the citadel (the largest mound) are a series of collapsed chambers, now taken over by mice and lizards. They are reminiscent of similar remains at Topraq Qala in Uzbekistan (albeit on a smaller scale).

The settlement was probably established in the 6th century although the temple itself dates from the 8th. Other discoveries at the site have included fragments of wall paintings, a Chinese stela with inscriptions, and a birch-bark Brahmin manuscript in the Sanskrit language, along with deities of Sogdian and Indian origin.

Look for the preserved sections of mud brick walls and for fragments of pottery. From the top of the citadel you can also see the Kazakh border to the north, marked by a tributary of the River Chui.

The discovery of such a wide range of remains and artefacts demonstrates that Manicheans, Buddhists and Nestorians all co-existed here contemporaneously, and that Navekat was a true multi-confessional settlement. Indeed, the archaeological evidence of all of the Silk Road settlements in the Chui valley - Navekat (Krasnaya Rechka), Suyab (Ak-Beshim) and Balasagun (Burana) - reveals that they were all centres where Chinese, Turkic, Sogdian and Indian traditions met and prospered in a symbiotic melange of culture and religion: the typical, two-way exchange between East and West that characterised much of the Silk Road.

Although there is little to see on the ground here, the site is undoubtedly a significant one. It was excavated 20 years ago and many of the remains were then backfilled to prevent further erosion. However, much degradation has taken place in the interim and the site is under threat. A UNESCO/Japanese Trust Fund project has begun to document and protect the most important structures here.

It is possible to drive along the track right up to the ruins by four-wheel drive; otherwise, they are a pleasant 15-minute walk from the main road.

Visiting Krasnaya Rechka

To reach the site from Bishkek, take a Tokmok marshrutka that passes through Krasnaya Rechka village from the city's East bus station. Get off at the end of the village by the Ala-Too petrol station on the left. A dirt road on the left leads around fields towards the site, which lies a couple of kilometres away; you should be able to see the low artificial-looking hill of the citadel from the main road.

At the site there is little evidence that this was an important Silk Road settlement other than a sign that says, NECROPOLIS VII-IX AD and another, in Russian, that prohibits the passage of farm traffic through the site. The citadel is a low, grassy penumbra with the remains of some chambers sunken into it. The necropolis just north of this is a sunken pit that has obvious traces of human remains in the form of bones and skulls creepily exposed in the cliff face. Fragments of pottery litter the site.

Krasnaya Rechka is the sort of archaeological site that is rewarding if your imagination is powerful enough to make its own interpretation from mere bumps and lines in the ground. Good views of the surrounding countryside can be had from the modest 30m elevation that the citadel affords. The Kazakhstan frontier is very close, just a stone's throw north of the site. To return to Bishkek you could flag down a marshrutka heading west back at the garage, or you could continue eastwards towards Tokmok to visit Burana Tower. The two sites combined make a good half-day trip.


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