Traveling in Caucasus and Central Asia

In April 08 we were joined by some of my colleagues to travel to “Charyn Canyon”, 200km East of Almaty. It’s a “grand” canyon, second only to the Grand Canyon in Arizona in the US.

Valley of the Temples  (click to enlarge)The Charyn River is running through the deep canyon with bizarre rock monuments reminding in shape of castles and towers on top of steep rocky walls. The Torajgir Mountain have elevations of more than 2000 m and are one of several southeast Kazakh mountain ranges north of the Tian Shan. The walls of Charyn Canyon in the Dolina Zamkov area show rock stories of different ages and different origins. Dark rocks at the bottom of Charyn Canyon and in the lower part of Dolina Zamkov are volcanic lava rocks. These are the oldest rocks in this area. On top of these rocks are layers of much younger rocks. These red cliffs (i.e. the walls of Dolina Zamkov), consist of solid gravel which was deposited by debris flows. The plains around Charyn Canyon is covered with grey gravel which was deposited by rivers, and dust which was deposited by wind. Sand and gravel on the bottom of Charyn Canyon was deposited by the Charyn River. Some gravel on terraces above the Charyn River is evidence of Charyn’s former river bed. The rocks of Torajgir Mountains are of about the same age as the old volcanic lava rocks and are also of volcanic origin. They consist of solid lava and depositions of material thrown out by volcanic eruptions. These rocks were later lifted up along a fault plane. In western Dolina Zamkov the volcanic rocks are of different colors which have about the same age as the other rocks of volcanic origin. They consist (like the rocks of Torajgir Mountains) of ashes and stones thrown out by volcanoes. Later these rocks were bended up so that they are at the surface today.

Carvings of Buddha on the Ilie river  (click to enlarge)In March Jeannie and Hans explored the Ilie river, north of Almaty and past the Kapchagai lake. The key point of interest was to visit Tamgaly Tas, some rock carvings of which there are many in Kazakhstan in many locations. The particularity of these ones is that there are Buddha carvings and Sanskrit inscriptions assumed to have been left by traveling Buddhist monks in the 15th or 16th century.

Filmset on the Ilie river (click to enlarge)While there we could see on the other side of the river what seemed like an old mud walled fortress. The only way to reach it was to take a 40 km detour around the river via the Kapchagai dam. When we finally arrived we realized the fort was … fake. It had been built a few years earlier as the set for the movie “Nomad”. It is rather well preserved although it is starting to crumble in places since it was not built to survive the attack of time.

Altyn Emel Trip Map  (click to enlarge)Our best excusion in a very long time was the trip we made in May with friends. They had organized it through a local Almaty travel agency, Max Travel. We visited the Altyn-Emel National Park for two days. This was an overnight travel staying in a guest house. For this visit you need to obtain permission to enter the park. You are also allowed to enter only accompanied by a ranger. We were lucky to have an excellent and knowledgeable guide with us. In all, the trip was 700km long. We covered a lot of distance but managed to visit several interesting sites: the Singing Dune, the Sak mounds and grave stones of Beshshatyr, Aktau and Katutau – the White and the Red Mountains, and more ….petroglyphs (rock carvings).

White Mountains  (click to enlarge)On the first day we went to see the Aktau and Katutau – the White and the Red Mountains. Aktau, the white mountains, derive their color from the white gypsum crystals that form them. The layers of white are interlaced with colorful stripes of blue and yellow.

Singing Dune  (click to enlarge)The second day started with the visit of the Singing Dune. It’s rather an odd sight to see these Sahara-like sand dunes arise between two mountains and so near the fertile banks of the Ilie river. They are about 3 km long and have been formed by winds from different directions that seem to converge on the same spot. When one climbs the dunes one can hear a continuous and monotonous roaring sound like a jet engine.

Lunch is served!  (click to enlarge)Lunch was served in the shade of the trees in the garden of one of the Park rangers. The hospitality was outstanding and the location idyllic, an oasis-like green patch in the middle of the steppe away from the mountains.

Sak warriors grave mounds  (click to enlarge)After lunch the first stop was Beshshatyr Kurgany (Five Tents Grave Mounds). These graves date back to between the 6th and 3rd Century BC built by the Sak in honor of their generals, officers and soldiers. They come in different sizes based on rank and position from six to eighteen meter large and one meter high all the way to the biggest one which is 105 meter large and 17 meter high and consists of 50’000 cubic meter of sand and stones.

More rock carvings!  (click to enlarge)The last stop was to visit some more … petroglyphs. Bronze Age (7-3 centuries BC) in Terektysai valley. Engravings on the rocks are of wild and domestic animals, hunting scenes and rituals.

Kurlan wild horses  (click to enlarge)Towards the late afternoon we had the pleasant surprise of meeting up, albeit in the distance, with some herd of Kulan wild horses. This was in addition to the Stepper Hare and the gazelle we had seen previously.

End-May 08 I spent 12 days in Caucasus visiting Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. A good opportunity to spend some time sampling the sights of Baku, as well as some sights in Armenia.

Hindu Fire Temple in Baku  (click to enlarge)In an old settlement of oil workers situated 30 km from the Azerbaijani capital Baku is a rare Hindu temple dedicated to `Jwalaji or the goddess of fire. The temple, called the `Atishgah, is a typical Hindu shrine with an iron `trishul’ on its roof with a dome. Encircled by a stone wall, the Jwalaji temple stands in the middle of a courtyard, surrounded by cells for pilgrims coming all the way from India to worship the Fire Goddess in its hey day. Built in 1713, a stone plaque in Hindi on the portal of the main gate says that this gate was built by Ram Datt in 1866. On the carved entrances of cells are stone plaques describing who built them and in which year. In all there are over 20 stone plaques, of which 18 are in Devanagri, one in Gurumukhi and one in Farsi (Persian), text on which begins in Hindu tradition with “Om Shri Ganeshaye Namah.” The temple was built on the spot where subterranean gas leaking out of the rocky ground used to burn day-and-night. Local records say that it was built by a prominent Hindu traders community living in Baku and its construction coincided with the fall of the dynasty of Shirwanshahs and annexation by Russian Empire following Russo-Iranian war.

Shirvanshah's mausoleum entrance  (click to enlarge)Hans spent the weekend in Baku and took the opportunity to do some sightseeing. One of the key historic places is the old walled city. To quote from the UNESCO World Heritage Site list: “Built on a site inhabited since the Paleolithic period, the Walled City of Baku reveals evidence of Zoroastrian, Sasanian, Arabic, Persian, Shirvani, Ottoman, and Russian presence in cultural continuity. The Inner City (Icheri Sheher) has preserved much of its 12th-century defensive walls. The 12th-century Maiden Tower (Giz Galasy) is built over earlier structures dating from the 7th to 6th centuries BC, and the 15th-century Shirvanshahs’ Palace is one of the pearls of Azerbaijan’s architecture.”

Haghpat Monastery  (click to enlarge) To quote from the UNESCO World Heritage Site list: “These two Byzantine monasteries in the Tumanian region from the period of prosperity during the Kiurikian dynasty (10th to 13th century) were important centres of learning. Sanahin was renown for its school of illuminators and calligraphers. The two monastic complexes represent the highest flowering of Armenian religious architecture, whose unique style developed from a blending of elements of Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture and the traditional vernacular architecture of the Caucasian region.”

Sanahin Monastery  (click to enlarge)

Walk, walk, walk across borders  (click to enlarge)Early April Hans traveled to Bishkek the capital of neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The was another “walk across the border” affair as is so typical for the region. By now Hans has walked across the Uzbek-Kazakh border, the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border and the Armenia-Georgia border. The latter one actually already 4 times! What a blessing border free travel is across the EU. Surprisingly this is what it used to be around here too, until the Former Soviet Union broke up. Not sure it can be called progress …

Pavlodar Airport  (click to enlarge)End April Hans traveled to Pavlodar in the north east of Kazakhstan. While Almaty was bathing in sun and warmth, there was still snow falling at night in Pavlodar. It did feel like Siberia! What was surprising was the very big difference in economic development compared to Almaty. Hardly any traffic. The “International” airport of Pavlodar clearly will not win any prizes for architectural design. It’s coming straight out of some sort of Soviet design manual.

Antonov 225  (click to enlarge)When leaving from Tbilisi airport on May 22, Hans was quite impressed with the sight of the biggest airplane in the world. The Antonov 225 was built in the late 80’s in the Soviet Union to ferry around the Soviet version of the Space Shuttle, the Buran. This aircraft made the new Tbilisi airport look like a toy sized terminal.

Embroidered dress  (click to enlarge)For the second year running Leanne’s creation modeled at the Leweston Wearable Arts Fashion Show presentation, on 7 March, stole the show. Her creation of an embellished top with encrusted stones along with matching make-up carried the show. But she had more on show, a hand embroidered shawl as well as a batik dress. Most certainly the uniqueness of her designs and the quality of the work has helped her to get selected at the London College of Fashion for entry in September. She will also still try to get acceptance in the Antwerp Fashion School.

Mount Ararat seen from Yerevan  (click to enlarge)

Last Updated: 13-06-2008

Copyright © 2009 Hans Dewaele – All rights reserved

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