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“We were both in the clouds and under the ground.” Walking through the habitats of Karatau pterosaurs

24 April 2021

The Tien Shan mountain ranges are a unique composition of hills that contain many secrets from the life of our ancestors, rare species of flora and fauna, and are also excellent sites for viewing majestic panoramas. The most beautiful thing is that in order to touch all this, you do not need to pass a PCR test and overcome other quarantine restrictions. It is enough to come to the south of Kazakhstan. In this article, we will tell our readers about where to go for the May holidays and why you will not regret it.

And today we will go to the south of the country, to hot Shymkent. It is from there that it is easier to get to the vast Karatau ridge-a place of mystery, grandeur and seemingly endless. To fit a detailed story about Karatau in a concise article is not an easy task. As the children of one of the travelers aptly said: “We were both in the clouds and under the ground.”

Karatau Ridge and protected area

During the emergence of the Kazakh Khanate, this place was called Argyntau (that is, “between two mountains”, “gorge”). In the middle of the Karatau Mountains, there are still sites of ancient people of the Stone Age. Here, in the central part of the ridge, there is also a nature reserve of the same name. It was opened in 2004 and is a protected area. Therefore, you can only be here accompanied by a huntsman. The area of the Karatau Reserve is comparable in size to the island state of Grenada in the Caribbean Sea. Only here it is surrounded not by boundless waters, but by deserts – Muyunkum, Kyzylkum and Betpak-Dala. The relatively gentle slope of the reserve is crowned by Mount Mynzhilki (2,176 meters) in the upper reaches of the Bessaz (not to be confused with the Mynzhilki plateau).

Фото Сергей Волков

Keep in mind that the territory of the Karatau ridge itself (which includes the protected area) is very extensive. In the Jurassic period, depressions formed on the site of the axial Karatau fault, including those that divided the ridge into the Small (Eastern) Karatau and the Large (Western) Karatau.

Фото Сергей Волков

The reserve is notable for the fact that millions of years ago there was a large lake on its territory. This assumption was put forward by Polish researchers who studied this area, relying on the organic remains of reptiles, amphibians and plants that once filled the reservoir. Moreover, the remains of the fish were preserved with all the scales and fin rays. Perhaps the most famous of the finds is the wing membrane of flying reptiles-pterosaurs, covered with hairs. Even more impressive are the calligrams, or stripes, on the wings of dragonflies, which are clearly visible to the eye. One of the turtle fossils, which has been included in all textbooks on vertebrate paleontology, is well preserved.

And the most interesting fact is the discovery of fossils of prehistoric feathers of unusual shape. They are so different from modern feathers that for many years one of the specimens was considered a sago palm leaf. However, isotopic studies of the sample discovered in 2006 by the Polish-Kazakh expedition indicate the animal origin of this fossil – flying pterosaurs of the Jurassic period.

Popular and easily accessible places

Many tourists are familiar with Karatau primarily through a visit to the cave of Akmeshit and the mausoleum of Domalak-ana. These places are well-traveled and well-studied. But it is impossible not to mention them.

In 1456, the mausoleum of Domalak-ana was erected on the slope of Karatau, according to legend, she is the ancestor of the Elder Zhuz and the Kazakh families Alban, Suan and Dulat. However, today some consider her the mother of the entire Kazakh people. Initially, a four-walled mazar with domes was built on the slope. Later, the building was reconstructed many times, because until our time, its original appearance, of course, has not been preserved. Today, the Domalak-ana mausoleum is included in the list of the main attractions of the Turkestan region and is very popular with tourists and pilgrims. Local residents tell about wonderful stories when, after long suffering, the beloved ones came here, asked for the blessing of the saint, and then they had children.

Interesting fact

To appreciate the antiquity and historical value of this mausoleum, it is worth saying that in 1456 the Turks conquered Athens. In the same year, a number of victories over the Turks were won by the ruler of Wallachia, Vlad Tepes, better known as Dracula.

Akmeshit Cave is a location so unusual and fascinating that it attracts thousands of tourists. And it is difficult to see all its remarkable features until you go down to a 25-meter depth. And if the outside of the cave is surrounded by a steppe, then inside there is a whole oasis. Analogies to Alice and the rabbit hole immediately come to mind. So atmospheric and fabulous can be the descent into the depths.

Of course, there are many legends around this place-from the dragon cave (which is why Akmeshit is especially popular with Chinese tourists) to the fall of a meteorite. So, Moscow geologists who studied the cave in 1973, suggested that the Akmeshit appeared as a result of a meteorite fall. At the same time, historians claim that the stones from which the cave was formed belong to the Eneolithic period.

Note that Akmeshit is one of the largest caves in Central Asia. But it is not the only cave of the Karatau mountain range.

There are both vertical “wells” and hidden stalactite “mines”. The Karatau caves were formed in the Cretaceous period. Their appearance was promoted by the humid climate and the deep standing of groundwater.

According to the guide and historian Islam Kalani, on the plateau above the gorge of the Boraldai River (there are more than a hundred gorges in this area, but more on this below), dangerous and mysterious caves “nest”, the depth of which reaches two hundred meters.

Some of these caves have a strictly vertical structure. You can’t do without a rope and special equipment. Islam Kalani says that cavers periodically study them, but for untrained tourists, these caves can be dangerous.

According to the guide, there are legends about a cave up to half a kilometer deep. Allegedly, it is located on the top of one of the mountains. Stories about it come from a former local gamekeeper, but it is not possible to verify the veracity of this information: the area is extremely difficult to access. But there is no doubt about the veracity of the cave burned by lightning. It is located on the eastern slope of the sacred mountain Bolshaya Tura. Inside it grow shrubs and trees, the trunks of which are burned by lightning strikes.

“I believe that Bolshaya Tura is the largest flat-topped mountain in Kazakhstan. This is a sacred mountain, there are many petroglyphs on it, and the caves in which trees grow are burned by lightning. When we climb it, sensitive people experience anxiety, others are attracted by this mountain and as if it does not let go of itself, we have to circle to go down, ” says Islam Kalani.

View of a giant flat-topped mountain.

The height of the mountain is 1,425 meters.

Petroglyphs that are three thousand years old

At the foot of Bolshaya Tura there are ancient petroglyphs about three thousand years old. A gallery of stone drawings depicts animals and hunters who performed ritual dances.

Karatau petroglyphs are various images carved on the rocks of the gorges of Karatau in the Bronze Age and early Iron Age. Found in large numbers in the tracts of Koibagar, Arpaozen, Maidamtal, Ulkentura, Kysan, Zhyngylshak, Koshkarata, Suyundiksai, in the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve. A total of 3,045 compositions and individual images were found. There are 2,765 of them in the Arpaozen tract alone. The Karatau petroglyphs are mostly carved on rocks and boulders of various sizes. They reflect the economic life of the nomadic tribes of the corresponding era, as well as their religious beliefs, customs, traditions, and rituals. There are images of birds, animals, animals. The subject matter of the images is diverse and carries a certain semantic load. For example, the image of a camel symbolizes wealth and strength. Many rocks are carved with scenes of hunting mountain goats with dogs, catching birds. There are images of warriors with spears and clubs in their hands.

Фото Ислам Калани

Of particular value are the 50 images of military chariots and cargo carts found in the last decade of the twentieth century. Among the Karatau rock carvings, they are considered particularly valuable.

Фото Silkadv/Александр Петров

Numerous drawings in the Karatau mountains, depicting scenes from the life of ancient pastoral tribes, are a valuable historical source that gives an idea of their economic and spiritual life.

Of course, this area is rich not only in confirmed stories, but also in some myths. For example, there are rumors that somewhere in the middle of the numerous mountains of Karatau is hidden a huge 100-meter geoglyph depicting a yogi. And there are supposedly buried the remains of Japanese prisoners of war, and some roads were allegedly built by captured Austrians.

But what there is no doubt about is the diversity of flora and fauna. There are about 120 species of endemic plants on the slopes of Karatau alone. The number of endemic plant species and races reaches nine percent, it is one of the richest endemic areas in the world. Both predatory foxes and mountain argali live here. There are also species of mammals listed in the Red Book of the Republic of Kazakhstan (Karatau argali, Indian porcupine and stone marten) and 12 species of birds, including golden eagle, white and black storks, owl and others.

Despite the arid climate of the region, almost every gorge has a small river or stream, which is found in the native river trout, or, in other words, marinka. The canyons of Karatau are filled with hundreds of stone baths where travelers enjoy cooling off in the heat, and the local waterfalls are filled with crystal clear water that you can drink.

Yes, the hike along the Karatau ridge is full of water obstacles, both in the gorges (and there are more than 100 of them here, for a second), and in relatively flat places. These are small rivers, bubbling with clear spring water.

“Given the warm climate of the region, it was decided not to take a tent, and we spent the night in sleeping bags and bivouac bags with nets that protected us from insects, right under the awning. In the morning, we had a stunning view of the peaks of the Karatau range. No suite can surpass our marching orange “house”. The sun was in a hurry to give us its first ray and quickly rose from behind the mountain, winning the shadow meter by meter, ” – this is how tourists from Russia describe their trip to the Karatau Mountains.

Perhaps, the way the journey through the vast expanses of the Karatau range is described is the best motivation to visit these dangerous, ancient, alluring mountains of southern Kazakhstan.

Фото Сергей Волков

“Another gift of fate – an amazing black sky, embroidered with bright rhinestones of stars. The depth in which to drown is not terrible. One sadness is that the tent is opaque, so I allowed myself to close my eyes at night, ” writes a tourist from Russia.

Where is it located?

Karatau is a northwestern spur of the Western Tien Shan in the south of Kazakhstan, in three regions – Kyzylorda, Turkestan and Zhambyl. It extends from the Talas Alatau and, gradually descending, passes into the Syrasu-Chui plain.

Фото Сергей Волков

The office of the administration of the Karatau Nature Reserve is located in the city of Kentau, 40 kilometers from Turkestan. You can get there by car on an asphalt road. The nearest distance from the central office to the territory of the reserve is 17 kilometers.

Keep in mind that it is better to choose an SUV for transportation. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting stuck on numerous rough terrain.

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