We are lost.
We must be lost – we have been driving for almost 3 hours and haven’t seen a sign for Tamgaly for about 45 minutes. I forgot to mention, our driver has never been there, and has no GPS.
But how can we be lost? There is only one road to Tamgaly, and we are on it. It’s a road that stretches forever, beyond the horizon, slicing through mile after mile of pale yellow fields, where once in a while wild horses kick up storms of dust, and other than that, there is almost nothingness.
Up ahead, a large tree drapes some shade across the road, and as we approach, a figure that was laying down there, waiting for who knows how many hours, stands up, dusts himself off, and sticks out his thumb. This is a common way to get around in Kazakhstan, and almost everyone is willing to take you somewhere, for a small fee.
We pull over and the young man perks up. Finally! he must be thinking. But he will be disappointed. We are not stopping to give him a ride – our car is full, and we just want directions.
Our driver asks how to get to Tamgaly. The man peeks in the backseat at us, the tourists, probably wondering why in hell foreigners would want to drive out into the middle of nowhere on a hot summer day to look at some old rocks. After a brief exchange, we take off. Apparently it will only take another 30 minutes. The young man lays back down in the road to wait.
And finally, there! We see it, up ahead. A small fenced compound, with two large white yurts, one car, a horse with a saddle, two port-a-potties, and a sign – TAMGALY.
There is only one person at this UNESCO World Heritage Site, an old copper coloured Kazakh man who is missing his two front teeth. We pay the meagre entrance fee, and just then a big 4×4 pulls up. An old English gentleman, a young Chinese photographer and a translator join our tour group, and we set off for a walk in the Tamgaly Gorge. Our driver and his friend, who came along for the journey, decide instead to wait in the shade and drink vodka. To each his own.
The Tamgaly Petroglyphs are a stunning collection of more than 5,000 rock carvings dating from the Bronze Age, around 2000 B.C. To make them accessible to the public, they are separated into seven main groups, spread out around the valley, and each one is different. A rough footpath has been created to allow people to get close to the rocks, but some are so high up you can’t reach them. Thousands more are said to be in this area, but have not yet been excavated.
The first group of carvings we see are quite simple, but beautiful, depicting almost child-like shapes of animals, such as horses, elk or deer, even camels, and people. As we walk and climb, they become more intricate, showing hunters, dancers, tools and weapons.
We climb from one to the next, looking closely at what people chiseled into the stone thousands of years ago, and are delighted over and over again by how they are at the same time simple and amazingly expressive. My daughter surprises me by wanting to go higher and higher to see more, and she was excited every time she found one.
The ones that I like the best are the group of bizarre, far out ‘sun head’ gods, which, according to the booklet, have also been found elsewhere in Kazakhstan, and are referred to in the local language as ‘the images of the disguised‘. To me, they look like aliens, come down to earth.
I just love the ones of people dancing!
Some of the petroglyphs are a bit damaged, with bits and pieces missing, and it can be hard to make out what you are looking at. But stand there and look closely, and you’ll get it.
All in all the tour took about an hour and a half, perhaps closer to two hours. The guide didn’t speak any English but was friendly and helpful, showing you which way to go, and pointing out the most interesting petroglyphs. The route is rough and climbing is involved so wear good shoes. There are no facilities other than a few benches, and little to no shade, so stock up on hats and sun block.
It is hard to believe that this incredible historical site is just sitting there, unprotected, and completely vulnerable to anyone who may want to come along and do some serious damage. Some of the groups of carvings actually did have grafitti, and some smart ass drew a horse on one of the rocks! The translator with our group said that during past excavations, many carvings were removed and stolen. There is literally nothing protecting this UNESCO World Heritage site, other than the old man with no front teeth.
It was a long day, but truly unforgettable. In my opinion this was also more interesting than the Charyn Canyon, which is a pretty view, but not much else. This makes you feel like you are walking in the footsteps of ancient civilisations. Or maybe I’ve just seen too many Indiana Jones movies when I was growing up. Either way, I loved it, and it stands out as the highlight of the entire trip. The remoteness of the location just adds to the feeling that you have stepped back in time. There is nothing around, as far as the eye can see. That is something that you can never, ever get in a crowded place of Hong Kong, so I really enjoyed the sensation of finally being far away from civilisation.
When we returned to Almaty, we were exhausted and starving, so went immediately to a restaurant nearby. And much to our shock and delight, what did we find painted on the walls of the bathroom??
Life imitates art, isn’t that what they say?