Apples and kurgans in the Djungar Alatau

The Djungar Alatau Mountains never cease to surprise. I had passed through some of the magnificent wild apple forests in the past, but during this trip I was able to form a much better impression of these spectacular areas. According to some estimates, there are hundreds of millions of apple trees in the mountains, with more than 35 separate species. In fact, the ancestor of all domestic apples, Malus sieversii, is found in these forests – a fact established in the early 20th century by biologist Nikolai Vavilov who traced the apple genome back to a grove near Almaty.

It is likely that the Tian Shan apple seeds were first transported out of Kazakhstan by birds and bears long before humans cultivated them. By the time humans began to grow and trade apples, the Malus sieversii had already taken root in Syria, where it was discovered by the Romans, who dispersed the fruit even further around the world.

During my recent trip I was fortunate enough to be taken to see a 300-year-old Sievers apple tree high up in the mountains. Still producing fruit, the tree can only be reached after a long journey in a 4×4 vehicle followed by a 20-minute walk. It is magnificent.

300-year-old Sievers apple tree in the Djungar Alatau Mountains

During the Soviet period, thousands of hectares of apple forest were cleared for agriculture, but now there is a determined effort to protect this important area. Climate change is another challenge, but for now these wonderful forests continue to exist and impress.
Nor was it just the natural beauty of the mountains that impressed me. No-one visiting this part of eastern Kazakhstan can fail to notice the vast number of ancient tombs – known as kurgans – that dot the landscape. Most of these date to a period over 2,500 years ago, when the Scythians (known locally as the Saka) dominated the area. These kurgans can be found from Ukraine in the west to Mongolia in the east, but eastern Kazakhstan is a particular hotspot. In the hills not far from Lepsinsk we visited a huge kurgan at Uygentas. Constructed from massive round stones, it was surrounded by 150 or more subsidiary kurgans.

Part of the huge unexcavated kurgan at Uygentas in the Djungar Alatau

Further south, in the Kugaly Valley, more than 100 massive kurgans dominate the landscape. All over this region there are similar structures, some looted in ancient times, but mostly still intact. Excavations at Eleke Sazy (see my previous articles) in the Tarbagatai Mountains show that the burials often include remarkable artefacts made of pure gold.

Massive kurgan in the Kugaly Valley
Kurgans as far as the eye can see in the Kugaly Valley – known locally as the Valley of the Kings.

Signs of an even older civilisation are not hard to find in these mountains. At Karabulak, not far from the town of Tekeli, hundreds of beautiful petroglyphs dating back 4-5,000 years can be found. Horses, deer, cattle, ibex and humans are all represented in these artistic works.

The petroglyphs of Karabulak

These are just some of the wonders I came across on this trip. Food for thought…

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