Tash Rabat is a well-preserved 15th century stone caravanserai in At Bashy district, Naryn Province, Kyrgyzstan located at the altitude of 3,200 meters. As early as in 1888, a Russian doctor and traveler Nicolay Lvovich Zeland suggested that it was originally a Nestorian or Buddhist monastery. Researches undertaken in the end of 1970-s and beginning of 1980-s by the Institute of History of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences concluded that Tash Rabat was originally built as a Nestorian monastery in the tenth century, although no artifacts sacred to Christians have been found during excavations.
Tash Rabat is located somewhat east of the main north-south highway. To the south is Lake Chatyr-Kul and Torugart Pass. To the north is Koshoy Korgon, a ruined fortress of uncertain date. The area is a center for hiking and horse-trekking. You can stay at the caretakers house, that has 5 or 6 kyrgyz houses ‘boz uy’.
The structure consists of 31 rooms including cavities in the central hall. The rooms are dome-shaped; transition from a quadrangular frame to a dome is by a squinch. Tash Rabat is completely laid by crushed stone on clay mortar with sealing joints by gypsum mortar.
This remote, high valley on the north side of the At-Bashy range, about 75 kilometres south-west of At-Bashy, must be one of the prettiest in Kyrgyzstan. With its lush velvety pastures, winding streams and occasional yurts, it is an idyllic place to camp before or after crossing the Torugart pass.
Tash Rabat is probably Kyrgyzstan’s most remarkable monument; indeed, it is one of the most interesting sites in the entire central Asian region and its presence is in complete contradiction to the popular tenet that Kyrgyzstan is all about landscapes rather than historical sights. Tash Rabat is a Silk Road monument par excellence: a small but perfectly formed 15th-century caravanserai that sheltered an array of merchants and travellers along one of the wilder stretches of the Silk Road. Its location is even more remarkable: tucked away from sight, half-buried in a hillside, up a valley at 3,530m above sea level.
This surprisingly level valley, surrounded by lush corduroy hillsides that for centuries have been offering shelter to well-to-do travellers in a fortified caravanserai (9am-5pm mid-May–mid-Oct), which looks like a mausoleum, sunk into the hillside. A 15th century caravanserai bears solitary witness to the massive Silk Road trading caravans that used to pour through these inhospitable mountains.
The origins of the caravanserai, which underwent some restoration work in the 1980s, are not clear. There is apparently some archaeological evidence that the site was occupied as early as the tenth century. Local sources say it dates from the 15th century, although some sources say the site dates from the 10th century, when it was a Christian monastery. Either way historians agree that at one time Tash Rabat (Kyrgyz for stone fortress) must have had significant Silk Road political and trade importance to justify the investment of the labor required for its construction.
The building is entirely stone-built, half-sunken into the hillside from which it emerges almost organically like a rocky outcrop. It is a broad rectangle in shape, measuring 36m long but looking smaller from the outside because some of its internal structure lies beneath the hillside. The front entrance leads into a central hall that is surrounded by a network of small rooms, about 30 in all, which were used as bedrooms, prison cells, pantries and prayer rooms. A dome stands above the central hallway and this still bears faint traces of plaster and decorative paintwork. Facing the entrance just beyond the dome is the khan’s seat, where the local ruler would have sat, and behind this is a small room that would have probably served as a gaol, as there are two deep, covered holes, one of which has been subsequently filled in, in which prisoners may have been confined. There is also a well for supplying water. Local rumour suggests that there was also a tunnel leading from the building through the hillside to a lookout post on the other side of the hill. The chambers on either side of the entrance each have a broad, raised ledge, which is said to be a communal bed used by the caravanserai’s soldiers, who were garrisoned here to protect against bandits.
A few fragments of the original central mosque are visible in the main chamber; leading off this are many other chambers, including a well (some say a treasury) in the far left corner and a dungeon (in the central right chamber). An opening in the far right corner leads to what the caretakers say is a tunnel, explored generations ago for as far as about 200m, and perhaps once leading to a lookout point to the south.
The site may have been originally used as a monastery by Nestorian Christians, or even possibly by Buddhists, who lived in the region before the 13th-century Mongol invasions took place, and well before Islam came to the region. There is some archaeological evidence to suggest that the building may have been occupied as early as the 10th century, which would support this theory. Whatever the true historical facts, there is no denying the atmosphere of the place, which seems to be imbued with ghosts of the past and authentically redolent of the old Silk Road. The cold, dank atmosphere inside the building and the altitude-rarefied air both help cement this impression.
It’s irregular shape and improbable location has fuelled a number of local legends. One relates how a ruling khan devised a test for his two sons to see who was worthy to inherit his throne. One son, determined to prove that he could provide for his people, pursued the development of education, agriculture and industry. The other son amassed armies and built fortresses. Tash Rabat stands as a silent reminder of a war-mongering man who lost a khanate to his philanthropic brother.
The Soviet restoration that took place in 1984 was carried out in an uncharacteristically sensitive way and, apart from some mortar added to cement the stones together, has done little to damage the integrity of the structure, the only gripe being the need to position the car park directly in front of the entrance, thus blighting photo opportunities from this direction.
Part of Tash Rabat’s timeless appeal is thanks to its location in a high, velvet-green valley far away from anything that vaguely resembles civilisation. Another clement of its wow factor owes much to the journey taken to reach the site. Tash Rabat lies 125km from Naryn and 90km short of the border at Torugart. After turning off the main road to the border just after the stretch of aircraft runway, it is another 15km along a small but very beautiful valley, the Kara-Kojon gorge, before the caravanserai is reached.
Tash Rabat is 3,530 metres high and so can be bitterly cold, despite its relatively sheltered location, so take warm and waterproof clothing. In winter and spring the wolves come right down into the snow-covered valley at night to prey on livestock; they took 45 horses alone in the winter of 1999-2000. The altitude is high enough to produce symptoms of altitude sickness, such as headaches, breathlessness and tiredness. If so, take it easy for the first day or two and give your body time to adjust before undertaking any major treks.
From Tash Rabat a six-hour horse ride or hike will take you to a broad ridge overlooking Chatyr-Kol; if you continue for a couple of hours you can stay the night in a yurt at Chatyr-Kol before returning to Tash Rabat the next day. Neither Tash Rabat nor Chatyr-Kol are in a restricted border zone. There are two more yurtstays located 1km back downstream. There’s no public transport here and because of snow the road is closed from mid-October to mid-May. It is also possible (and recommended) to include Tash Rabat as a side trip en route to the Torugart Pass, although this involves setting out an hour and a half earlier and an additional $ to cover the extra kilometers.