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