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A remarkable open-air art gallery lies on the lower slopes of the Kungey Alatau just north of Cholpon Ata. This open site, sometimes referred to as the Stone Garden, covers an area of over 40ha just outside the town to the northwest. A huge field of glacial boulders, many with pictures scratched or picked into their surfaces lie just above the town. Although petroglyphs can be found at a number of locations in Kyrgyzstan - most spectacularly at Saimaluu-Tash - the ones on display here are certainly the most easily accessible in the country. Unfortunately, there have been well-intentioned attempts to preserve the petroglyphs in recent years that may turn out to be more damaging than if they had merely been left alone. Only time will tell if the chemicals used to preserve the carvings have had any long-term deleterious effect.

Meandering through these huge fields you will come upon pictures scratched into rocks of all sizes. Said to date from 500 BC- 100 AD, they depict wolves, long-homed ibex, goats, horses, snow leopards, sacrifices and some hunting scenes. Their creators are thought to be the Sak and Usun peoples. Later engravings date from the Turkic era (5th to 10th century).

Some of these petroglyphs date from the later Bronze Age (about 1500 BC) but most are Saka-Usun (8th century BC to 1st century AD), predating the arrival of the Kyrgyz in the area. It is thought that the site may have represented a large open-air temple where the heavenly bodies, in particular the sun, were venerated. In addition to the carvings there are some arrangements of rocks in circles that may have served an astronomical or ritual function. It is believed that the Saka priests used this sacred site for sacrifices and other rites to the sun god and they lived in the settlements that are currently underwater in the Cholpon-Ata bay.

Most are of long-horned ibex, along with some wolves, deer and hunters, and some rocks appear to be arranged in sacred circles. Most of the carved stones, which range from 30cm to 3m in size, are oriented to face southwest or southeast, and this would indicate some form of sun worship.

Images of deer commonly feature in prehistoric carvings world-wide, although there may be a connection with deer worship that was widespread in the Altai and Siberian region in the same period. One of the largest of the Kyrgyz tribes, the Bugu ('red deer'), also venerated deer but would have migrated to the region many years after these petroglyphs had been fashioned.

The best time for a visit is in the late afternoon when the low sun hits the petroglyphs head on and makes them easier to see. It is also cooler and more atmospheric at this time of day, and the noise of water bubbling over rocks, which comes from the stream bisecting the site, can sound almost like distant thunder in the mountains. Many of the stones are numbered and some of the more interesting ones can be found at the top (northern) end of the site. There’s a nice view of Issyk-Kul below.

The Soviets attempted to document arid preserve the site, but money for such ventures is no longer available. In an effort to safeguard the petroglyphs, a small entrance fee was re-implemented and a caretaker appointed in summer 2001.  Guided tours in Russian can also be arranged  at the regional museum and help pinpoint the field’s more impressive inscriptions. Unfortunately, the caretaker faces an impossible task and this vast, vulnerable area of ancient pictures is slowly being reclaimed by the elements.

There are more petroglyphs in the region, at Kara-Oi, a 2km walk from the site, and near Ornok (4km up the new jeep road to Kazakhstan). 

Take the road opposite the boatyard turn-off until you reach a square with the police station on the right. Bear left and stop at the scrappy remains of a black iron fence, recently stolen, then head right on foot.