Burana Tower

Tokmok Travel Blog

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Natalie and Dmitri, my guides for the day
An early start, for today's plan was to visit the Burana Tower, and then move on to the Issyk-Ata sanatorium. Unfortunately Irina was unable to come, but I was lucky that two of her friends, Dmitri and Natalie, were available to act as guides. Dmitri is in the army, but in his spare time earns extra money by showing tourists around. Of course, I was not a conventional tourist - Heaven forfend - but I was nevertheless very glad of their services! They had a smattering of English, and Natalie had brought an impressively large Russian-English dictionary.

This was my first excursion outside Bishkek, and to begin with the road was better than I expected, so we made good time - too good, in fact, because before very long we were waved down by the police who had set up a radar trap on a particularly inviting straight stretch.
The curiously asymmetric Burana Tower, watched over by some bal-bals; the dramatic hills beyond are partly obscured by the foul weather that was brewing
I was somewhat alarmed as Dmitri got out to negotiate with the officer, but Natalie indicated that there was nothing to worry about, and that 30 som (about 45 pence) would settle it - and she was right. Apparently this is a well-understood method by which the police supplement their salaries; they take no details, and the money goes straight into their pockets. Indeed, I noticed that all the other drivers who had been waved down got out of their cars clutching their wallets - they obviously knew the drill. A few minutes later we were on our way again, and Dmitri drove just as fast, for there would not be another trap along that stretch of road - the police could not risk antagonising their public too much.

Once we turned off the main road, it became clear that the maintenance of the highways was not a government priority.
Exterior decoration on the lower part of Burana Tower
This is an example of how - Kyrgyz will sometimes tell you - the country has deteriorated since independence. Whatever the demerits of Soviet rule may have been, they say, money was available for public works and utilities; now some roads have gone fifteen years without maintenance, and given the extremes of climate a great deal of damage has gone unrepaired. Rapid avoiding action was frequently necessary to avoid large potholes, crevasses across the road, and debris scattered over it. Dmitri said that no-one should drive a new car in Kyrgyzstan, for there was too much risk of damage, and I was certainly very glad that it was his car's suspension, and not mine, that was on the receiving end.

After about an hour and a half we passed through the town of Tokmok, about thirty miles east of Bishkek.
The narrow, dark and somewhat dangerous stairs that you ascend to the top of the Tower
A further six miles south brought us to the object of our expedition: Burana Tower, the most celebrated ancient monument in Kyrgyzstan, as seen on Kyrgyz postage stamps. Considering for how long there has been civilisation in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is remarkably deficient in ancient monuments, and Burana Tower does not actually have a lot of competition. The whole area surrounding it was, from the tenth century, the bustling market town of Balasagun, which lay on the Silk Road; but the sea route opened up by Marco Polo significantly reduced the importance of the Silk Road, and therefore of Balasagun also. By the fifteenth century the town had fallen into desuetude, and now little of it can be seen save for the Tower itself and the remains of some mausoleums.

The Tower's original function is unknown, but the name, which probably derives from a Turkish word for minaret, gives as good a clue as any; and if it is indeed a minaret, then it is the oldest in Central Asia.
Looking north over the valley of the River Chuy to Kazakhstan; the hill in the foreground covers an old palace or temple
Thus say the guide books; but in fact the Tower itself is not strictly speaking the original. Over the centuries earthquakes, and the depredations of locals who required building materials, reduced it to ruins, and it was not until the 1970s that a comprehensive rebuilding programme was put in hand. Most of what can be seen today, therefore, is a reconstruction, and the present tower, at about 70 feet, is little more than half the height of the original.

It sits in the middle of a field in which there is also a cabin where you pay the modest entrance charge, buy souvenirs and view a small museum of objects excavated from the surrounding area. The good thing about the Tower is that you can ascend it, to enjoy the extensive views. There is a door in the wall about twenty feet above ground, which is reached by an external iron staircase.
Reconstructed foundations of old mausoleums, from the top of the Tower; in front is the line of strange information boxes, and behind, in the road, is an attractive bus shelter
Once in the Tower, an internal spiral staircase, which is very narrow and very dark, leads to the top; you don't realise how much you rely on a handrail until there isn't one! At the top we literally bumped into an uncle of Dmitri's, who was conducting a party of Germans; there was thus a lengthy exchange of family news that allowed me plenty of time to look around, get my bearings and take some photos. From the top you can see clearly the reconstructed ruins of the mausoleums, and also obvious is a small hill under which are the remains of a palace or a temple - opinion is divided - which predated Balasagun itself. Further away to the north can be seen the valley of the River Chuy with Kazakhstan beyond, and dramatic hills and mountains lie to the east and south.

On returning to ground level we wandered around a field containing many bal-bals, or nomadic gravestones, that have been brought here from all over the country; they date from about the sixth century.
One of the information boxes, showing a nightmarish picture and what I assume is an explanation thereof, in Russian
There are also other stone artefacts lying around, including what looked like large millstones - but this is just my guess as to their use. There is a very curious set of informaton boards in the field, housed in horizontal boxes with hinged lids. When you open one, there on the bottom of the box is a peculiar painting, with a corresponding description in Russian inside the lid.

Just as we were thinking of leaving, the curator appeared and produced a baby owl for us to admire, and I must admit that, although animals are not my thing at all, it was pretty cute. It certainly appealed to all the other visitors, who converged on it from all points of the compass uttering little cries of joy and deploying their cameras with gusto, a reaction that the Tower itself had somehow failed to elicit.
A meeting of generations: Baby Owl and its friend Bal-bal


After I too had obtained my quota of shots of Baby Owl, and Natalie had resigned as the self-appointed chief handler, it was back to the car-park and a visit to the, er, comfort station; my recommendation is not to use this if you can possibly avoid it, but if you must, take a deep breath before entering and try not to breathe again until you emerge. Then we were off again, heading for the Issyk-Ata Sanatorium, with a picnic to look forward to on the way.

It began to rain.



vances says:
A really brilliant blog...sounds like a fascinating adenture! Thank you for sharing.
Posted on: Sep 23, 2006
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Natalie and Dmitri, my guides for …
Natalie and Dmitri, my guides for…
The curiously asymmetric Burana To…
The curiously asymmetric Burana T…
Exterior decoration on the lower p…
Exterior decoration on the lower …
The narrow, dark and somewhat dang…
The narrow, dark and somewhat dan…
Looking north over the valley of t…
Looking north over the valley of …
Reconstructed foundations of old m…
Reconstructed foundations of old …
One of the information boxes, show…
One of the information boxes, sho…
A meeting of generations: Baby Owl…
A meeting of generations: Baby Ow…
The Burana Tower on postage stamps
The Burana Tower on postage stamps
The Burana Tower, showing the exte…
The Burana Tower, showing the ext…
Cute bal-bal
Cute bal-bal
Ancient headstone with Arabic insc…
Ancient headstone with Arabic ins…
Poppies. In the field.
Poppies. In the field.
What appear to be ancient millston…
What appear to be ancient millsto…
Baby Owl again
Baby Owl again
Natalie displays hitherto unsuspec…
Natalie displays hitherto unsuspe…
The attractive Burana Tower bus-st…
The attractive Burana Tower bus-s…
Tokmok Sights & Attractions review
On the face of it, Burana Tower does not look an exceptional attraction. Dating from the tenth century, and possibly the oldest minaret in Central Asi… read entire review
Tokmok
photo by: londonstudent