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Sightseeing in Talas

Talas, like almost any medium-sized town in Kyrgyzstan, sprawls in a grid pattern away from the centre, where there are the usual trappings of civilisation: a bazaar, a park or two, a few large civic buildings and a taxi rank. The Soviet-era khrushchevki apartment blocks are concentrated mostly in the centre too - a few blocks of grey concrete, broken paving and flapping laundry that might be Omsk, Saratov or any of the less aesthetically appealing neighbourhoods of any Russian provincial town.

A little further way from the centre in any direction lie quiet, leafy neighbourhoods of attractive Russian-style wooden houses, the legacy of the town's Slavic past. The town's Orthodox church, built for the Russian community in the 1920s, is worth a look. The central park behind the administrative headquarters on Frunze has a World War II memorial obelisk, complete with red star and hammer and sickle, which is surrounded by fencing with a Soviet-era red star motif This sits in odd juxtaposition to the new building that stands just beyond it - a brand new mosque.

Manas Ordu Complex - The Manas complex of museum, parkland and mausoleum stands 15km outside Talas, just off the main road towards Bishkek at the village of Tash Aryk. Because of the Manas connection the complex is an important place for Kyrgyz, who come here as pilgrims to catch a glimpse of their nation's historic soul. Certainly, it is clear from the hushed voices and the devout, serious faces that this is as close to a religious experience as many Kyrgyz get.

For foreign visitors, a visit to the complex is an interesting outing but somehow the experience fails to satisfy completely. Perhaps it is because there is the hint of the theme park about the place: the atmosphere is quiet and reverent, the parks and gardens tranquil, but somehow the authenticity of the historical background seems to be a little doubtful. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this: after less than two decades of having a country to call their own, many Kyrgyz are still in the process of defining themselves as a nation, so it may be that a theme park is exactly what is required.

The car park has a few stalls and yurts selling souvenirs, cold drinks and, inevitably for this bastion of all things Kyrgyz, kumys. Just inside the grounds of the complex is a statue of Manas on a plinth amidst well-tended flower beds. The lovingly maintained grounds and remarkable cleanliness of the complex may come as something of a culture shock after weeks travelling in the scruffier regions of central Asia - there are even waste paper bins.

This is the alleged burial site of Manas. As you can see, it's tradition for visitors to walk around the building with their hand on it. The Manas gumbez - The mausoleum is a few minutes' walk from the car park along well-tended pathways lined with rose bushes, trees and shrubs. There is a shaded seating area opposite the entrance where pilgrims gather as a mullah says prayers and recites from the Koran. A couple of large boulders stand nearby that some believe to be meteorites.

The gumbez was discovered in 1898 and has been dated to having originated in 1334, although there is some evidence of later rebuilds. The single-chambered tomb is relatively small and built of pale red bricks, with a richly decorated facade at the entrance that bears an inscription in Qufic script that repeats the Arabic word al-mulk, which means 'power' or 'rule'. Another, partly obliterated, inscription tells of a woman Kanizyak-Khatun, who was the daughter of a local ruler. The 16-sided dome roof is a recent addition but has been executed in a style that is thought to be appropriate to the period and building style of the original, which has not survived.

Two different stories relate the origin of the gumbez. The first suggests that Manas's son Semetei carried his body here and built the mausoleum for him. The other, generally more accepted, version says that it was his wife, Kanykei, and his friend and counsellor, Bakai, who built it and, in order to avoid desecration by his enemies, they put an inscription over the door that declared that it was the mausoleum of a young girl. This version corresponds better with the inscription relating to the emir's daughter, although the dates are quite wrong if we are to believe that Manas perished in the 10th century.

The archaeologists who excavated the tomb during its renovation in 1969 are said to have found the bones of a very tall man within and many insist that these were the remains of Manas himself The exact whereabouts of Manas's remains will never be known with certainty - there are those who believe that his body lies in the Kara-Too district of Batken Province - but what is more important in the hazy territory where history and legend overlap is that a symbolic resting place be found. This is certainly that.

Manas Ordo MuseumManas museum - The marble museum has a ground floor that is mostly dedicated to the lives of some of Kyrgyzstan's most well-known manaschi, with black and white photographs and text in Kyrgyz. There are also photographs showing the gumbez before reconstruction and some very elaborate wooden carvings of horsemen fighting and mythological scenes with dragons, snakes and eagles. There is a large dream-like mural on the wall of the staircase leading up to the second floor, the walls of which are also completely covered in murals. There are dioramas of scenes from the Manas epic and displays of the accoutrements of the Kyrgyz chivalric and nomadic tradition: saddles, leather goods, weaponry and an enormous suit of armour that is said to have been the type that Manas wore. Many of these, like the suit of armour, arc quite clearly reproductions but, as elsewhere in the complex where a vague, murky territory exists between historical fact and legend, the same blurring exists here between genuine historical artefact and replica.

Above the museum is a large manmade mound that offers good views from its summit. Pathways lead up it from both the gumbez and the museum. The hill has a stone carved with a 13th-century Arabic inscription that relates to a fortress that used to stand nearby. A little further afield, there are also said to be 2,000-year-old petroglyphs in nearby Ken-Kol gorge, a few kilometres north of Tash Artyk village. A guide from the Manas complex should be able to locate them.