One of the world’s largest and most remote collections of petroglyphs will soon be made easily accessible due to a massive highway project cutting through central Kyrgyzstan.
This is Saimaluu-Tash, a national park in Kyrgyzstan's rugged Jalal-Abad region, around 200 kilometers south of the capital, Bishkek.
The site is littered with thousands of flat-faced chunks of basalt that have lain for millennia alongside an ancient shepherds’ route.
Around 10,000 ancient petroglyphs -- images made by chipping away at the surface of the rock -- have survived for thousands of years. Some of the illustrations are estimated to be around 5,000 years old. Saimaluu-Tash means "patterned stone" in Kyrgyz.
The sacred mountainside holds the largest collection of ancient rock art anywhere in Central Asia, but only a handful of people reach the site each year due to its extreme remoteness and tiny window of accessibility.
Saimaluu-Tash is usually only reachable for two or three weeks each August, when the summer sun briefly melts off the mountain snow before autumn arrives.
Reaching Saimaluu-Tash from Bishkek requires a meandering 10-hour drive through the mountains, followed by a hike of around four hours. But the site is set to become much easier to reach thanks to a massive infrastructure project known as the North-South Highway.
The North-South Highway (pictured under construction in 2017) will cut straight through the mountains of central Kyrgyzstan, connecting Bishkek in the north to Jalal-Abad, near the southern city of Osh.
The highway, which is funded largely with Chinese cash and is part of Beijing’s Belt And Road Initiative, is due to open next year. The highway will run directly past the entrance to Saimaluu-Tash, making the site reachable in a single day from Bishkek.
Bishkek-based tour guide Altynai Kudaibergen (pictured during a tour to Saimaluu-Tash in August 2021) told RFE/RL that Kyrgyz locals have mixed feelings about the changes the highway will bring to the sacred site.
“It’s a good thing that more people will be able to see the place and learn the history and explore the petroglyphs,” Kudaibergen says. But the guide and art expert says “with all things that get more accessible, it can get kind of devalued.”
Kudaibergen also worries that the site, which is nearly impossible to safeguard, will see increased vandalism.
“Already there are some petroglyphs with names from recent times saying 'so and so was here,' that kind of stuff. Actually, it’s interesting. You can see what mattered to people of different eras. You have the hunting scenes and the plowing depicted in the ancient petroglyphs, then in the 20th and 21st century it’s more self expression and everyone just writes their names.”
One detail of the site that surprises some visitors are sex scenes depicted on the rocks.
One visitor who asked not to be identified remarked to RFE/RL "Everyone was very excited about this, They were like, ‘You didn’t tell us this Kama Sutra would be here!'"
American travel journalist Stephen Lioy, who took the photos in this gallery, says the mountainside is “one of the most remarkable historical sites I’ve visited anywhere in Central Asia” and says he hopes the Kyrgyz authorities will be able to conserve Saimaluu-Tash for future generations once the nearby highway opens.
Kudaibergen echoes those sentiments, but points out that if anyone wants to see the art they should probably make the journey soon while it’s still possible to wander the wild mountainside free of signage or fencing, and allow the thousands of ancient characters depicted on the rocks to “show themselves to someone who is meant to see them.”
Written by Amos Chapple based on reporting by Stephen Lioy.