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Talas Province in Kyrgyzstan's little-visited north-western corner, stands apart from much of the rest of the country for reasons of geography. The main road that leads here comes not from Bishkek but from Taraz in Kazakhstan and, almost cut off from the rest of eastern and central Kyrgyzstan by the high peaks of the Ala-Too range, it is easy to imagine that the province looks as much to its giant neighbour as it does to Bishkek. In reality, this is not the case at all, and for those that take the trouble to reach here, Talas shows a face that could hardly be any more typically Kyrgyz. After all, it is considered by the Kyrgyz to be the depository of their spiritual treasures. Every mountain, river and pasture here has a tale to tell of Manas, the great Kyrgyz hero. In people's minds, the stories of the famous Manas epic unfolded in the Talas valley. The Kazak anthropologist, Chokan Valekhanov, described it thus:

Manas is an encyclopaedic collection of all folk myths, fairy tales, legend brought to one period and gathered around one character-the epic hero, Manas. The way of life, customs, traditions, morals, geography, religious relations found their reflection in this great epic.

The valley's other hero is the 20th-century writer, Chinghiz Aitmalov, who wrote compelling fiction, showing how Soviet life deprived people of their individuality.

Talas Province, the smallest of Kyrgyzstan's oblasts with an area of just 11,440km2, about the same as the UK's Cumbria and Northumberland combined, and a little smaller than Connecticut in the USA, has the regional capital of Talas valley as its dead centre, midway along the valley of the same name that runs east to west. North of the valley, the Kyrgyz range defines the frontier with Kazakhstan; to the south the loftier peaks of the Talas Ala-Too separate the province from Jalal-Abad Oblast and the Chatkal valley across the 3,302m Kara-Buura Pass. Just west of here, Uzbekistan's far northern Piskom mountain range prods Talas Province with a finger of convoluted political geography. On the frontier here, at 4,484m, stands the province's highest point that, appropriately enough, is called Manas peak.

The Talas valley itself has witnessed some pivotal events in central Asian history. It was here, after all, just over the border in present-day Kazakhstan somewhere near Taraz, that the Battle of Talas River was fought against the Tang Chinese in 751; Sogdians and Turks gritted their teeth to reluctantly join forces with invading Arabs in order to defeat what they perceived to be the greater enemy, thus ending Chinese hegemony in the region and ushering in Islam, still the major faith across central Asia. The conflict was also central to the spread of the paper-making process to the West, which hitherto had been a well-kept Chinese secret. Whatever the historical chronicles tell of earth-shaking battles in the 8th century, petroglyphs and traces of Stone Age settlements indicate that the valley has a far older pedigree.

The town of Talas has a population of 30,000 people. Wind-raked Talas, isolated from the rest of Kyrgyzstan by a wall of mountains, sees little visitors. Talas was an insignificant village when the Russians stormed it in 1864. One officer described it as 'a straggling, shabby looking village with almost no trees, set down on the bare steppe'. The town wears a leafier and more attractive face today.

Further afield, there are walks up attractive valleys in the Talas Alatau, in particular the Besh Tash valley which has a picturesque lake at the top. It also boasts a series of prehistoric rock carvings. In spite of its cultural significance, however, the Talas valley is not of out-standing beauty or interest for the visitor, although it is off the beaten track and could be visited as a detour en route from Bishkek to Tashkent.

Most locals do their shopping in Taraz (Kazakhstan) rather than make the trek over to Bishkek. While there is little to see in town, Talas does get a trickle of visitors who come to visit the nearby Manas Ordu, claimed to be the 14th-century tomb of Manas, the Kyrgyz tour-de-force that inspired so many legends.

Sights & Activities - In Tash Aryk, on the bank of the Kenkol river, 12 kilometres south-east of Talas, stands Manas Gumbez, the mausoleum where Manas is said to have been buried. This is the main draw in Talas, though the site is largely symbolic, as no one knows for sure where Manas was buried (or even if such a person actually existed).

The gumbez (tomb) has been dated to 1334, which does not bode well for traditionalists as Manas is said to have died in the 10th century. Whatever the reality, there is much legend attached to this place. It is said that Manas’ wife Kanykey ordered the construction of the gumbez but to prevent it from being looted she ordered the engraver to include an inscription saying it is the mausoleum of a young girl.

Barely five metres square, it is made of baked bricks, held in place with clay. It wears a double dome and the portal, richly decorated in carved terracotta slabs, bears two inscriptions: one declares in ancient Arabic (written the wrong way-from left to right) that 'Power belongs to Allah'. The other is too damaged to read. Mausoleum appears to have been restored twice since comstruction. The well-tended gardens around the complex are a fine place to sit and contemplate it all.

To reach the site, travel 10km east of Talas on the road to Bishkek. The 4km access road to the complex is well signed from the highway.

In honour of the '1,000th year of Manas celebrations', held in 1995, a museum was built in the Manas Gumbez park. It contains models of scenes from the epic, and, more interestingly, photos and articles about the gumbez itself. Yurts in the park are attended by local people dressed in national costume. All said and clone, the complex is not really worth a visit unless you are in the valley for other reasons. A more lively feel of the Manas epic will be gained at a recital by a manaschi, though these are now rare.

A series of petroglyphs and rock drawings lie well hidden in the canyons of the Talas valley. They date mostly from the Iron and Bronze Ages, are thought to have been drawn mainly by the Scythian (Saka) people and depict animals and ritualistic scenes. The most interesting group of drawings is on the 'Shining Rock', a huge granite wall which half blocks the Kaman Suit gorge. Galloping deers and goats are depicted here.

Other groups of drawings can be seen on the Kurgan Tash river, a tributary of the Kenkol, and on the upper reaches of the Urmaral river. These sights can currently only be reached with persistance, private transport and a knowledgeable guide. Celestial Mountains in Bishkek might be able to arrange trips to the rock carvings.

Besh-Tash (Five Stones) National Park, 15km south of Talas, offers cool rushing rivers, hot springs and stunning alpine scenery. As legend has it, the name is derived from a tale about five brigands turned to stone by a good witch. We can organise in Talas a day and overnight trips, horse riding and yurt stays. The first yurt is 38km from town. 

Getting There & Away - Most transport from Bishkek takes the quicker, but longer, route through Kazakhstan, which heads west from Kara-Balta through Kazakh territory to Taraz at the head of the Talas valley, from where the road heads south then west to Talas town. The problem with this for non-CIS visitors is that this route requires a Kazakhstan transit visa and a double-entry Kyrgyz visa (although it is probably possible with a single-entry Kyrgyz visa, as the guards may well not stamp you out of the country, but this is taking a risk). The Kazakhstan transit visa is essential, even without placing a foot on Kazakh soil.

Without a transit visa, it is best to take a minibus going the more direct route over the Otmok Pass. These leave, when full, from Bishkek's West Bus Station and are more frequent in the morning. Check on the route the driver is taking before committing yourself. The journey takes 6 hours with brief breaks. The road that turns off the main Bishkek-Osh highway to lead up to the Otmok Pass is quite rough but improves considerably after the top of the pass is reached. Because of snow on the pass they do not run in winter, and the Kazakhstan route provides the only possibility at this time of year.

Coming from Kazakhstan, there is plenty of transport from Taraz. This would be a good way to enter Kyrgyzstan (with a visa) if coming by train from Russia, as it would save the considerable amount of time taken in continuing the rail journey to Almaty or Bishkek.

The bus station is some way west of the town centre, a couple of kilometres out on Lenina. Both buses and minibuses arrive and depart from here, although most minibuses also drop off in the town centre opposite the bazaar, from where most local marshrutka services also operate. Buses, via Taraz, take around 9 hours to reach Bishkek; minibuses, 5-6 hours. Occasional local buses run west to Sheker and east to Aral and Koptiro-Bazar, although no services run south over the Kara-Buura Pass to the Chatkal valley.

Taxis for local or longer trips congregate on a corner near the bazaar.