A tour from Bishkek, located in the north on the border with Kazakhstan, to the western parts of the country takes a lot longer than distances on the map suggest. The road runs along the mighty Naryn River, which meanders its way along dark, gloomy mountain slopes reminding one of the Misty Mountains, described in John Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings towards the Fergana valley. This is located in Uzbekistan but surrounded by Kyrgyz territory on three sides and an outpost of Tajikistan on most of the fourth, which leaves only a small corridor connecting it with Uzbekistan’s mainland. On the northern highlands bordering Uzbekistan, a bumpy track leads to a hamlet named Terek-Say on the banks of a narrow mountain river bearing the same name.
Veins of gold
A little further towards the northwest of there, on the southern slopes of the Chatkal mountain range with heights topping 4,000 metre above sea level at a height of some 2,400 metre, one finds a spot where according to legend one of the gold mines is located from where King Salomon used to obtain masses of the precious metal he filled his hoard with. Other places suggested by legend are in Africa, in the Urals and even as far as the Pamir.
The mining complex is enormous. In the sandstone mountain that overlooks it, gigantic openings have been hewn out by hand by what must have been an army of labourers, from where the alluvial gold-bearing sands and pebbles were washed for the gold to be recovered down in the waterbed.
Over a dozen trenches, now filled with rock waste, remain in place. There must still be veins of gold of significance inside the mountain, since they bear no traces of actual mining. The archeological site is unfortunately under threat from a Chinese mining company which is busy building an industrial mining and processing complex nearby with the obvious plan to drill the gold field open. If nobody intervenes, draglines and bulldozers will soon destroy a unique, world-class archeological site.
Further beyond up the road that leads to Solomon’s mines, there are remains of metal processing settlements dating from varying eras – from prehistoric to biblical and from biblical to medieval, judging by the shape of the ovens and pots found on the spot. Some of the settlements have so-called kurgans on their outskirts, funeral sanctuaries of prehistoric and early historic tribes which also served as places of worship and communal councils’ gatherings.
Pieces of ore found in such places contain not just gold but also silver, copper, tin, zinc and lead – thereby confirming the theory that Central Asia has been the places where bronze was discovered: by fire-setting a piece of such polymetallic ore people found out that the metal it produced, namely bronze, a mix of copper and tin, was much stronger than copper.
Several local agencies in Bishkek organise trips to the area, which apart from the prehistoric and early historic sites offers a number of breathtaking landscapes on the way. A trip to the area takes two days for early birds and three or four for those who are less in a hurry.