Burana Tower is one of the best known archaeological sites in Kyrgyzstan, near the town of Tokmok, about 1.5 hours drive east of Bishkek. Burana Tower is a 24-meter high brick minaret standing alone in the fields with the backdrop of the beautiful Tian Shan Mountains. It was originally 45 meters high but the upper half of the tower was destroyed in a 15th century earthquake. Burana Tower is all that remains of the ancient city of Balasagun which was the capital of the Karakhanids, the first Islamic state of the Turkic Dynasty, in the 9th century. Balasagun was looted by the Mongols in 1218 and was completely destroyed and abandoned by the 14th century. Traces of the city walls, bazaar, houses, and even water pipelines were discovered. The Burana Tower we see today had been restored by the Soviets in the 1970s. It is leaning a bit but you are still allowed to climb up to the top to get a view of the mountains and fields of Chuy Valley.
After some experience over the past few weeks climbing up and down minarets, I can say I am quite an expert minaret-climber now. 😆 I saw a large tour group entering the gates so I rushed ahead and zoomed up the minaret. This minaret is not as narrow as some of the other ones but still it is a bit of a squeeze to accommodate 2-way traffic. You definitely don’t want to be stuck behind someone who is super slow because not only will you be staring at a stranger’s butt afraid they will fall on you and also I noticed the slower you go, the more tiring it becomes. The rise of each step is quite high with the steps being quite narrow so the trick is to place your hands on the higher steps and do a kind of rock-climbing move. Among the brickwork are very small windows which illuminate the otherwise pitch black staircase inside the tower. Legend has it that a witch told the local king this his newborn daughter would die when she turned 18. In order to protect her from harm, the king built a tall tower and kept her inside with only a servant allowed entry to bring her food. She grew up alone in the tower and on the day she turned 18, a poisonous spider hid in the food and bit her killing her.
An interesting feature of the Burana Tower archaeological site are the hundreds of balbals from the 6th to 10th century. Balbals are small totem-like stone figures used to mark graves or important places by the Turks. The balbals all have different faces and most of them hold a glass in their right hand and a sword in their left. The guide said that one interpretation is that these balbals are depictions of the gods and the glass is a sign of welcome and the sword is a sign that one should not abuse the welcome. There is also a small museum here with some Buddhist remains, Chinese coins, Christian carvings, pottery, and other artefacts from the time it was a center for traders traveling along the Silk Road. Another bit of trivia for my Chinese readers is that not far from Burana Tower is Suyab that was settled around the 5th century. In the 7th and 8th centuries, Suyab came under Chinese Tang Dynasty rule as one of its frontier fortresses. Li Bai, considered one of the greatest Chinese poets, was said to be born here and only moved to China at the age of 5. Only a small portion of the Suyab archaeological site has been excavated with discoveries of some Buddhist shrines, the remains of Nestorian churches, and a Zoroastrian cemetery.
Another place of interest not far from Bishkek is the Ala Archa National Park about an hour drive south. The alpine national park of Ala Archa in the Tian Shan mountains was established in 1976 and covers an area of 200km². Ala Archa Gorge has more than 20 glaciers and 30 mountain passes. Ala in Kyrgyz means “colorful” and Archa means “juniper”, hence it is no coincidence that the gorge is covered in junipers as well as spruce and birch trees. Juniper is an important part of the Kyrgyz cultural heritage because the people use it to get rid of bad smells as well as to chase away evil spirits. Locals burn juniper twigs at home and around places of business and the smoke is believed to bless the place just like burning sage in the western world. The surrounding Tian Shan mountains have peaks perpetually covered in snow. The ridges here are also covered with eternal ice and the streams flowing down from the glaciers form the Ala Archa River that after 78 km joins the Chu River. Ala Archa National Park was established not just to protect the flora and fauna of the area but also to preserve many endangered wildlife such as the snow leopard and the rare blue bird locals call the bird of happiness. Locals come here for picnics, hikes, camping, horse-rides and even skiing and mountain climbing. Ala Archa is actually the alpine climbing capital of Central Asia attracting climbers from all over the world. There are several hiking options in Ala Archa from easy strolls to serious hikes. The Ala Archa valley walk is easy and takes about 4 hours. There is a hike up to Ak Say valley and a waterfall with a 700 meter ascent. And then there is the more strenuous full day climb up to the foot of the Ak Say Glacier with a 1200 meter ascent. I, of course, opted for the easiest walk just to enjoy the beautiful mountains, landscape, and the fresh air.
What a great way to wind down after an eventful 3 weeks in Central Asia. I was actually completely mosque and madrasa and ancient archaeology’ed out. It was time to head back to civilization, good food, and the creature comforts I am accustomed to. I am very adventurous but at the same time I am a city girl. You can take a girl out of the city but you can never take the city out of her! 😅
Coming soon are my posts on Lisbon and Sintra. Stay tuned!
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