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Runes of the Ancient Altay

Runes  of the Ancient Altay, the Chuya steppe
A runic scripture in the Altay mountains  

Altay runic scriptures (or if more academically: the Yeniseian writing system) is the legacy of the ancient Turkic people (6th-10th centuries AD), who were the ancestors of the modern Altayans, Khakas, Kirghiz and other world nations speaking the Turkic languages..

«I who lost my way and is looking for a true way have written this» is a translation of actual runic scripture in the ancient sanctuary of Kalbak-Tash (see the picture with a rider). The runes can be seen in the right bottom corner of the picture (they are vertically oriented and shall be read from the top to the bottom). You must admit that it is not easy to see if there is anything written at all — it looks like noise…

The thing is that the Altay runes are not an object of sightseeing known to every tourist or even guide. They are a mystery. They belong to an ancient Siberian ceremony — runes were written in special places not intended for mortal people, as they were written to the gods. The gods in response lest them drawings on rocks — petroglyphs (as the ancient thought). Gods had listened to people, so the cattle would live, hunters would be successful and children would be healthy(according to I. Kyzlasov).
Nowadays there are tens of thousands of such drawings (petroglyphs) found in the Altay, and only a couple of dozens runic scriptures.
Only a couple of dozens…
When I came across a book in archeology about runes, which I bought in a shop of Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences, I was immediately inspired. It was the very thing I looked for — an idea for an interesting journey, for an expedition. I set to work the same day: I needed to develop the route, and not only to look at the runes, but also to include many other places of interest in the Altay, and for that purpose I had to learn tons of scientific references, read the ocean of data, and, which is the most important, to find the crew, the team members — the most difficult task in such enterprises.
Finally, the crew is gathered, and it is a real All-Russian team: two scientists from Akademgorodok, pleasant and smart girls from Ekaterinburg and Moscow, a young artist and well-known Vladimir Chulyshman, the driver of a ferocious UAZ nicknamed «Kuzya».
Of all Altay locations, we’ve chosen the Chuya steppe as the most unexplored and most «different» area. It has already became a tradition that the Chuya steppe for all travelers is like a transit station, some point for adaptation before going to Mongolia or Ukok, and it is to be driven through in shortest possible time, since allegedly there’s nothing to see there. And see why such travelers are completely wrong…
Martian-like landscapes,  stromalite exposures, the Altay mountains
I feel like the eyes of participants behind my back get rounder and rounder. Truly, an inhabitant of midland, who is accustomed to green hills, can hardly stay clam while looking at a rich color range that appeared before us in Kyzylchin. Red mountains, Martian-like landscapes, and we are like astronauts: we leave our footprints in this strange colorful clayish soil. It is almost the mid-summer, and there are no other footprints except for ours. The area is completely wild and unexplored. It would be great if there were more places like this in the Altay.
«Let’s gather all possible colors in glass jars», one of the participants suggests. I smile:
«Yes, the idea is great. It’ll be like a sand souvenir they bring from Egypt.» Everyone wants to memorize more of this unearthly place.
The Elangash, petroglyphs, the Azhu pass, the Altay mountains.
«Excursions around places of power»…
«What are these places of power?» I wonder while looking a hastily drawn advertisement in an Altay village. Here they are.
The valley of the Elangash river. The main center of the Altay petroglyphs. However, it is not so easy to find them without a guide and a thorough search, though it is written to be more than 30 thousands of drawings. But we do find them, and not only just drawings, but an ancient sanctuary overlooking the valley and decorated with numerous images, some of them truly tremendous — the ensemble in Kalbak Tash is rather small in comparison.
We all go somewhat crazy: go for lonely walks around rocky slopes surrounding the valley, we experience a trans-like feeling while watching local lakes. Nikita tries to «break through the Earth with his voice, so that it would hit him in the back.» Without extra thought, we sit side by side and start screaming together with him, trying to make the whole body sound…
When I searched for people for an expedition team, I wrote as a post scriptum: «Your eyes will become different» And they did. There, in the Elangash.
Ancient fortresses of the Altay mountains, Bolshiye Shibety valley
If you know a bit of the Turkic language, you can learn a lot about the Altay from its toponyms. For example, «shibe» means «a fortress» in the Altay language. Seriously? Fortresses in the Altay? Yes, the idea is new even for the science, but the researches are active now.
So, here we are, in Bolshiye Shibety valley (do you hear a mystery in the name itself?) I’ve taken extracts from the book by Soyonov, where he describes the results of his search of ancient fortresses in the Altay. Well, let’s try and repeat his path.
We go and search whole day long. There are a lot of vultures frying around, and the scenery doesn’t look like the Altay one. And despite of having a detailed map, we cannot repeat the achievement.
«I got it, Tatyana tells, there’re no fortresses, the landscape itself is a fortress».
Yes, it does look like one: as if the remains of walls and towers these outcrops rise above bald hills. They are even built like fortresses — of some cracked blocks and stones. Even I start to believe in it after several hours of fruitless search. But Soyonov in his book told…
As it usually happens, after giving up and returning to the camp, I just step on the remains of an ancient fort wall. They do exist still. I smile.
Kindyktykul, the Altay mountains
Why so many people go traveling to Mongolia? One of the answers is to have a look at the nomad lifestyle, almost unchanged since the Middle Ages. But Mongolia starts not at Mongolia border, but here in Russia, in the valley Yustyd.
There are gradient landscape like in the pictures of Roerich, herds, numerous yurts here and there. Giant, just enormous drawings of rocky mounds (and why everyone goes to Ukok to have a look at mounds?) – these are all features of Yustyd. I buy koumis (mare’s milk) in a yurt, and get acquainted with its owners. They live in the village Kokorya in winter, and stay here in summer. They are nice and cordial people.

We stay overnight at a tributary to the Yustyd, the river Naryn Gol (the name is Mongolian already) at the lake Kindyktykul. There’s also a yurt erected here. We take our last sweets and go for a visit to get acquainted with the nomad lifestyle.

«My children are in Kosh-Agach, work at the construction site, the daughter is in Almaty… And the herd you’ve seen are small. When I was the kolkhoz chairman, the number of camels alone was more than 10 thousand animals, and now they are few in comparison… Have you seen camels?»
We shake our heads..
«Yes, everything’ changed now…»
And we thought the Chuya steppe is just overpopulated with herds, and it happens to be almost empty in comparison with earlier times.
«Snow leopards? Yes, they live just in those mountains, steppe cats also. Last year scientists came to watch them. They walked right there, over the hill. They steal our herd, the Tyvin and the Mongolian do, like jackals they come, at night. And you are good folks. If you were poachers, I would deal with you myself. Wolves? Yes, they live here. Also, like the Tyvin, they come at night.»
Confirming his words, the same night wolves cried at the opposite bank. The Tyvan together with the Mongolian stayed at their homes, thankfully.
The Turkic runes on mount Dzhangyz-Toby, the Chuya steppe, the Altay mountains
Wait a bit, where are the runes? They are truly difficult to find. But we managed to.
«Animals are saddled and packed, we only have to start our journey and sell goods (thus making packs lighter) for a decent money» says a genuine commercial parting words at mount Dzhangyz-Toby not far away from Kosh-Agach.
Many of participants hadn’t believed me till the last moment when they finally saw with their own eyes these ancient Altay scriptures simply left at a rock exposure in the mountain. We haven’t found other scriptures, but they are there, waiting for explorers and translators.
And our meeting with the ancient was successful.

written by Rodion Zhitin

All materials are gathered during
the expedition to the Chuya steppe in the Altay mountains in July 2012


The article is published in the magazine STATUS, in September 2012
(Click on images to enlarge)
Runes of the Ancient Altay, an article in Status magazine Runes of the Ancient Altay, an article in Status magazine
Runes of the Ancient Altay, an article in Status magazine  
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