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The Aravan valley & Chil Ustun

The small Uzbek town of Aravan lies 25km southwest of Osh, nuzzled against the Uzbekistan border. Just outside the town is a holy site that pays tribute to the syncretic tradition that suffuses central Asian Islam with earlier pagan beliefs.

Remains of Fergana's long history include the rock carvings of the Aravan valley and the awe-inspiring Chil-Ustun caves nearby. There's only one problem; both are difficult if not impossible to find on your own. The Celestial Horses of Aravan, as they are known, are petroglyphs that have had an important role in regional folklore and that have become a pilgrimage site for Muslims in the Fergana Valley.

The horses etched into the rockface are thought to represent the legendary, blood-sweating 'Celestial' or 'Heavenly' Horses of Fergana that were so admired by the Chinese of the Han Dynasty at the time, especially by Wu-Ti, the dynasty's ruthless emperor. The site was excavated twice in the 20th century and evidence has been found of animal sacrifices at the cliff-base below the carvings. Today, there is a small Sufi shrine at the site and a shelter for pilgrims.

The rock carvings of the fabled 'heavenly' Fergana horse, said to date back 2,000 years, are visible only from people's back gardens and lie on south-facing cliffs where the sun makes them difficult to spot. However, the determined need not be foiled: engravings of horses and sheep, including a magnificent large red and white horse, are visible.

The carvings and the nearby spring are considered sacred to local Muslims and it should be remembered that this is an important religious site rather than just one of archaeological interest to tourists. It goes without saying that one should dress accordingly and behave in an appropriately decorous manner.

The cliff-face is reached by going through a green gate on the main road near the hospital on the outskirts of the town. The gate has a sign above it that says: Dul-Dul at Ziyarit Zhai, which refers to the Sufi shrine found within. A path leads down next to a Russian Orthodox and Soviet cemetery on the left and then crosses a stream to come to the base of a cliff where there is a pilgrims' shelter on the left and the small shrine of a Sufi sheikh on the right. The petroglyphs are rather hard to see, high on the cliff above, and slightly to the left of, the shrine; they're about three-quarters of the way up, just above the top branches of a willow tree. Binoculars would be a great help, although they're not essential.

Sadly, there is also much modern-day graffiti around the base of the cliff, testament to the popular belief that making one's own mark at a sacred site such as this will bring its own spiritual benefit. Hornets, too, seem common here in late summer.

From Osh, regular shared taxis for Aravan leave from the bus stand on Alisher Navoi, just west of the junction with Kurmanjan Datka. The road to Aravan follows the Uzbekistan border so closely that recently erected Uzbek watchtowers and barbed wire can be seen at the roadside. Approaching Aravan, ask to get off at the hospital ('bolnitsa'); the green gateway isjust before the right turn to the hospital and a garage on the left-hand side of the road. Minibuses also run from the Old Bus Station.

Chil-Ustun is the name given collectively to an extensive system of caves in the limestone hills near the Aravan valley. There are about 200 caves altogether, scattered across an area of about 200 square kilometres in the almond-grove flat lands of the Ak-Bura and Aryan river basin. The vast majority are inaccessible except with a guide and ropes. Their Tajik name means 'forty columns' and derives from the caves' numerous stalactites and stalagmites. The entrance to the Chil-Ustun system is about 4km from Aravan, high on the southern slope of a 1,460m-high mountain of the same name. There are several dozen large caves that apparently measure more than 100 metres in length. The main cave is, confusingly, itself called Chil-Ustun, and is found on the southern slope of a mountain also called Chil-Ustun.

This 380m- long main cave cave consists of three large chambers connected to each other by narrow, winding passages, the largest of which is 100m long, 50m wide and 20m high. The first and last chambers are said to be full of light pink stalagmites and chandeliers oа stalactites made of aragonite, a delicate, brittle, calcium carbonate mineral. The first chamber is 380 metres deep and contains many ancient drawings and inscriptions in various languages, including Sanskrit. The second chamber, only discovered in the 1960s, contained two skeletons. The third chamber can feel claustrophobic. A visit to the caves requires ropes and torches although apparently you do not need climbing skills to reach them. Other caves nearby include Sasyk- Unkur (140m deep), Suvli-Kamar (120m), Chil-Mayram (130m) and Teshik- Tash (180m).

This whole area has yet to be made accessible to the casual visitor: trips here are for the adventurous only and need to be arranged in advance from some travel agents in Osh.

Another canyon, in the Tuya-Muyun region 20km south of the Chil-Ustun cave system, has the deepest cave in the entire country, the 240m-deep Fersman Cave. None of these caves are set up for tourist visits in any way at all, and all require torches, ropes and a knowledgeable local guide to locate them.