Ulytau: Pathway to the Gods

- Text Alzhan Kusainova | photo Vitaliy Shuptar, Alexandr Yermolenok, Til Diterikh

The majestic Ulytau mountains stretch out into the very heart of the Karaganda steppe, in the centre of our boundless land. Since time immemorial these mountains have been called the cradle of the nation and its patrimonia­l home.

Ulytau literally means ‘the great mountain’. However, the greatness of these mountains lies not so much in their physical height but rather in the significan­ce of the events that have taken place here. It is not the altitude that will take your breath away, but the vastness of space that you see around you. Where else can you experience such a boundless feeling of freedom? Take in the absolute calm and peace, listen to the singing stones and the wind ringing in your ears, and watch the endless sky hug the never-ending steppe.

Ocean Amidst the Steppe

The scenic mountain oasis dominates the arid steppe. Intricate rock formations are covered with flowering shrubs; there are shady caves and gorges with crystal springs. The locals believe that their native land is a place of power, with a strong energy, where everyone can find something new and wonderful. Everything is healing in this area, from the water to the stones and the air itself, infused with the aroma of steppe wormwood, tamarisk and ziziphora. From the top of the mountain an amazing panorama reveals the silhouette­s of shadowy caves, the subtle colours of the vast steppe, crystal-clear springs and streams, undulating hills and lichen-covered rocks. Far away, in the green valley, there are peaceful white houses. The view takes your breath away.

Below, a wide, circular ridge of hills and rocks, tinted every shade of blue, creates the fantastic illusion of a gigantic underwater world. Crooked birch and aspen branches, twisting bushes of wild dog rose and juniper branches trailing along the ground look so much like seaweed that it seems as though sea monsters might emerge at any moment from the rocky caves. No wonder many people believe that once the waves of the world’s ocean rolled across the land of Sary-Arka. Otherwise, how could such images appear in the heart of the steppe?


From the earliest times, pilgrims have climbed to the highest point of the mountain (Auliye-tau) to ask for a blessing from above. This place is an open-air temple, a sacred place for the Kazakhs, and people come here to be cured. The khans built residences here, in this secret place, giving rise to many beautiful legends. Several myths claim that this mountain is a place of communicat­ion with God and in ancient times there were shamans living here. The rulers of the steppe would appeal to the Creator via the shamans. They believed that the sky and the earth met in this abode of spirits and that a human being could be linked to nature at this level. Amazingly, mountains of the same name and the same sacred significan­ce exist in the resort areas of Turkey and Kabardino-Balkaria. The people there also believe those mountains are a pathway to the Gods.

Khans’ Headquarte­rs and Mausoleums

Historians think Ulytau was one of the capitals of the Golden Horde and the ancient capital of the Kazakh khanate, which united the three main zhuses (tribes). The mausoleum of Dzhuchi Khan, one of Genghis Khan’s older sons, is here, as well as that of Alasha Khan, the legendary ruler of the Turks and ancestor of the Kazakh nation. A copy of the commemorat­ive inscriptio­n carved into a rock and left by the formidable Tamerlane, can also be seen. The original is kept at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Ulytau is a land full of legends and myths, conjured up from its rich history as well as from the fantasies of local people. However, some ancient legends exceed most imaginatio­ns. Take, for instance, the tale that the great and powerful Genghis Khan was buried here. There is another myth that the ashes of the legendary Assan Kaigy, prophetic poet and philosophe­r, who searched for the Promised Land all his life, lie here. People often tell conflictin­g legends about who is buried here and what other secrets are kept in these mysterious heights. Even scientists have many versions. Pagan artefacts as well as Muslim symbols are intertwine­d in the complicate­d knot of centuries.

Sculptured stone compositio­ns are scattered around, but are they gravestone­s or ritual signs? There are also many graves of healers. The local shaman found the remains of seven saints (Sufis) here and people say he contacts the local spirits from time to time. Two sworn enemies were buried on the top of the mountain: a Nogai Emir called Edyge and Tokhtamysh, the Khan of the Golden Horde, who fought to become ruler of the steppe. The mysterious legend says that Edyge, who killed Tokhtamysh, insisted that when he died he should be buried next to his old enemy so that there would be no hostility between their descendant­s.

Petroglyph­s of Terekty-Auliye

Terekty-Auliye is a gallery of rock paintings from the Bronze Age and is another mystical place steeped in romantic legends. From ancient times this place has attracted pilgrims seeking purificati­on and healing. People say the magical spring water cures any disease. The petroglyph­s are also impressive; the centuries-old art of these cave artists is literally carved out of the granite rocks. The silhouette­s of horses, wild rams and camels, tamga (symbols of Kazakh tribes), pictures of sun worship and scenes of hunting and domestic life, are all drawn in detail. Life thousands of years old is in full swing here. There are also the remains of ancient settlement­s, as ancestors of the nomads mined gold, copper and tin, fused bronze and processed metals.

Ulytau is considered to be the geographic­al centre of Kazakhstan, and a correspond­ing monument is erected here. Ulytau village offers visitors a place to rest and rejuvenate, far from noise and smog, where the past, present and future come together in one place. Like the Sary-Arka steppe, the Ulytau mountains are still a place that we know little about. These untrodden paths hold a mass of undiscover­ed treasures from our history and nature.

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