Kyrgyzstan is known not for its ancient mausoleums, but for its virgin mountains, alpine lakes, and green pastures.
However, there are a few cool historical sites scattered throughout the country. One of the most interesting (and definitely the most accessible) of these is Burana Tower, an 11th-century minaret that lies just 60 km east of Bishkek. This minaret is one of the last remaining vestiges of the ancient city of Balasagun, the former capital of the Karakhanid Khanate.
Suyab & Balasagun
Before there was Balasagun, there was Suyab. Settled around the 5th century CE, the city was home to Sogdian traders and an early Turkic khaganate for a good century. It became part of the Chinese Tang empire in the 7th and 8th centuries, before it returned to Turkic hands for good.
During the Tang period, the city possibly gave birth to Kyrgyzstan’s most famous son, Li Bai. Unknown to Kyrgyz ears, he is revered in the Chinese-speaking world as the greatest of poets, popular to this day.
In the 11th century, Suyab was abandoned for nearby Balasagun, where the Burana Tower still stands. The ruins and archaeological excavations of Suyab are now called Ak-Beshim, located around 15 km from Burana.
The Burana Tower
The minaret originally stood 45 m tall, but an earthquake in the 15th century destroyed the upper half of the tower, and it now tops out at 24m. Still, it’s quite an impressive structure. Like many monumental brick constructions from this era, the minaret leans ever so slightly to one side.
That it has survived complete destruction in one of the most seismically active regions in the world testifies to its structural robustness.
The tower was restored in the early 20th century, and again in 1970, after locals stripped some of the bricks for use in their own construction projects. Both efforts sought to restore the structure to its original appearance, rather than spiff it up unnecessarily.
A close inspection of the tower reveals neat architectural details, like the intricate brick patterning, and the small windows, which are spaced far enough apart to illuminate the narrow staircase inside without disrupting the exterior design.
The staircase is not for the faint of heart. It’s frightfully steep, and hardly wide enough to allow two people to squeeze past each other. But the platform at the top of the tower offers fantastic panoramic views of the mountains to the south, and the fertile fields of the Chuy Valley to the north.
Just as interesting as the tower itself is the field of balbals, or anthropomorphic stelae likely used as gravestones, adjacent to the tower. Although the balbals were moved here somewhat recently, many of the stelae are as old as the minaret itself, if not older.
To our modern eyes, the characters they depict seem quite comical, much like the royal portraits of yore. They are oddly proportioned, with misshapen heads and short torsos, and they often wear strange facial expressions. Nevertheless, these gravestones were produced by the some of greatest artisans of their time.
There’s also a small museum near the tower, which contains a few interesting archival photos of the early restorations, a collection of artifacts recovered from the area, some neat paper-cut diagrams, and a fantastic 3D topographical map of Kyrgyzstan. All in all, the site is definitely worth the visit, even for those just passing through the region.
How to visit
By public transport, marshrutkas to Tokmok (50 som, 1 hour) leave frequently when full from Bishkek’s Eastern and Western bus stations. The Eastern bus station is better since you won’t have to cross all of Bishkek.
From Tokmok, it’s still 7 km to the Burana tower (Gmaps). You can take a taxi (~300 som return) or try to get on an infrequent marshrutka to Burana.
To visit the Ak-Beshim dig site (Gmaps), best to get a taxi.
Entry to the site and museum costs 150 som. An hour will do for most tourists, but the fields are conducive to pick-nicking: a good idea to spend some more time in the shadow of history.