Locating the Tombs of the Genii in Kazakhstan

I have been asked by Baltabay, a reader in Kazakhstan, if I know the location of the six large stones drawn by Thomas Atkinson and published in his book Travels in the Region of the Upper and Lower Amoor.

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Atkinson’s picture of the stones in the Kora Valley

This is the picture to which Baltabay is referring and it can be found in Chapter 6, which is called ‘The Kora and Traditions’. Many people have been fascinated by this picture as it shows six huge stones precariously perched in the bottom of a steep-sided valley alongside a river. Some have even speculated that they were placed there by aliens or beings with superhuman powers, as they appear to be enormous and unnatural.

Like Baltabay I was fascinated by this picture and very keen to track down the location of the stones. It appears that no-one had previously worked out the precise position. The valley that Atkinson describes is that of the Kora River, which starts at a glacier in the Djungar Alatau Mountains and eventually flows into Lake Balkhash. It lies to the south of Kapal, the small settlement where Thomas and Lucy stayed from October 1848 until May 1849 and where Lucy gave birth to their son, Alatau.

The Kora Valley – still today almost exactly as described by Atkinson

The valley itself is not easy to get into. Its western end, which terminates at the town of Tekeli, is almost impenetrable due to the very steep sides. However, there is a Buddhist stupa located at the valley entrance, suggesting that it was known about in ancient times.

Buddhist stupa at the entrance to the Kora Valley in Tekeli

Three years ago, with the help of local guides, I was able to reach the only track that can be used by vehicles to access the valley. Still today, Atkinson’s description of the valley holds true: “From this point the valley was exceedingly rugged, the granite cliffs on the north being nearly perpendicular and rising nearly 1,000 feet. On the south side, a dense forest commences on the bank of the river, extending up a very steep sloe for about 500 yards, to the base of some huge rocky masses. These rose in three terraces till they reached the snow line; in parts they were wooded, in others the cliffs have fallen, forming a mass of debris that extends from the edge of the forest to the lofty crags that stand bristling out of the snow like watch-towers and battlements.

It is a truly beautiful valley, almost untouched since Atkinson’s day, although there is now a small yurt camp. In the past tigers roamed this area, and although they have long since disappeared there are still bears in the area and remarkable stands of wild flowers. It is a truly beautiful place.

Map showing Tekeli in the west at the mouth of the Kora Valley, which is the main feature, with Kapal to the north and glaciers at the eastern end.

Atkinson describes the five huge stones that he later sketched: “As I approached this spot, I was almost induced to believe that the works of the Giants were before me, for five enormous stones were standing isolated and on end, the first sight of which gave me the idea that their disposition was not accidental, and that a mastermind had superintended the erection – the group being in perfect keeping with the scene around. One of these blocks would have made a tower large enough for a church, its height being 76 feet above the ground and it measured 24 feet on one side and 19 feet on the other. It stood 73 paces from the base of the cliffs, and was about 8 feet out of the perpendicular, inclining towards the river. The remaining blocks varied from 45 to 50 feet in height, one being 15 feet square and the rest somewhat less. Two of these stood upright, the others were leaning in different directions, one of them so far that it had nearly lost its equilibrium.

Atkinson goes on to give an account of local superstitions about the rocks, noting that they were the result of a feud between geniis who inhabited the area and who had been punished by Shaitan and buried beneath the huge rocks. Ever since, locals had been fearful of entering the valley. The world ‘kora’ itself means closed or entombed.

Being such large stones, I assumed that it would not be difficult to find them in the Kora Valley. However, I could find nothing that closely resembled the stones, despite walking almost 15 miles along the bottom of the valley. However, I did find what I think it likely to have been the location for the stones. I also heard an explanation for their absence.

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In the Kora Valley searching for the Tombs of the Genii.

A local climbing guide, now retired, told me that the Kora Valley had been transformed on several occasions by earthquakes. On at least one occasion the valley had been blocked by falling rocks, forming a lake which had later burst and swept downstream large amounts of debris. He thought this could have happened to the stones. This made sense, as close to the spot described by Atkinson there are indeed a number of very large stones standing on their own at the bottom of a cliff. They are not so tall as those Atkinson described, but if the original stones had been knocked over and shattered, the existing stones could easily be the remnants of those he mentioned. Here are my photographs of the existing stones.

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Are these the remains of the Tombs of the Genii?

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Of course, if you choose not to believe such a rational explanation, they you can join the ranks of sceptics that can be found online speculating about the superhumans who were able to move these massive rocks. Or perhaps you can choose to believe the Kazakhs, for whom this place still holds a sense of mystery.

Thomas Atkinson and Queen Victoria

Thomas Atkinson’s connections with the Russian Tsars are well known. His first book, Oriental and Western Siberia (1858), was dedicated to Tsar Alexander II, Emperor of Russia, whose father, Tsar Nicholas I, had given the traveller an enormously important document – a passport that allowed him to wander across Russia and Siberia, to leave and re-enter the country and to call upon local officials for help and provisions. Later, both Tsars had offered the Atkinsons their personal protection in St Petersburg even as Russia and Great Britain were at war in the Crimea between 1853-55.

However, Atkinson’s connection to Queen Victoria is less well known, even though his second book, Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor (1860), was dedicated “by special permission” to Queen Victoria. What is more, letters and books in the Royal Collection at Windsor provide some background to the relationship between Atkinson and his monarch.

The first time we hear about this is in Queen Victoria’s personal diary, where she records a meeting she held with Atkinson in October 1856, only weeks after he had returned from Russia for the first time to deliver his book manuscript to his publishers. Victoria writes:

A frost, & found it cold, when we walked out with the Children after breakfast. — Service at 11. — After luncheon we saw about 50 very interesting drawings & paintings done by a Mr Atkinson, who has for about 6 years been travelling in Siberia, & Mongolia, which must be most curious. He has seen all the Russian possessions there & all their unknown Forts. He was very kindly treated by the Empr Nicholas, even after the war broke out, being allowed to remain at St. Petersburg, whilst it was going on. He saw the Emperor about 5 or 6 days before he died. — Walked & drove home. — Dining alone.

Entry from Queen Victoria’s diary that mentions Atkinson. All pictures courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.

However, that was not the end. It seems quite likely that there was a second meeting, although I cannot find a record. However, details are contained in a letter dated 21 December 1857 from Atkinson to a senior member of the Royal Household, Colonel Sir Charles Beaumont Phipps.

Atkinson’s letter requesting permission to present a copy of his book to the Queen

This letter makes it clear that the Queen had agreed to allow Atkinson to present a copy of his first book in person at Windsor Castle. She writes an instruction (in red ink) to Phipps on the back of a letter: “It may be presented in person – some day after luncheon next week at Windsor.”

Queen Victoria, writing in red, agrees to meet Atkinson at Windsor

Phipps must then have written to Thomas, who replied to query the arrangements: “When Her Majesty’s pleasure has been expressed will you do me the favour to inform me on which day during the week the audience will be granted? You have mentioned three o’clock as the hour but the day is not named,” Thomas writes.

Even if we do not know whether or not the meeting ever took place, we do know that Atkinson presented a special copy of his book, bound in red leather with gilt tooling, to the Queen, as it remains in the Royal Collection at Windsor.

The specially bound copy of Oriental and Western Siberia presented to Queen Vicctoria

Emma Stuart, Senior Curator of Books and Manuscripts at the Royal Collection Trust, tells me that the Royal Collection also holds copies of Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor (which was dedicated to Queen Victoria) and Lucy Atkinson’s book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes. In addition, there is a second copy of Oriental and Western Siberia at in the Royal Collection at Sandringham, which was bought by King Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales.