Petroglyphs in Central Asia – exploring the past

Cholpon Ata Petroglyp szene: Hunting with tame Snow Leopards

The petroglyphs in Central Asia offer a marvellous glimpse into a distant past. At a time when people did not have a script to write down their ideas and beliefs they used stone tools to carve idols, gods and animals into the rocks. And some of the most outstanding petroglyphs can be found in Central Asia. They are however not always easily accessible or well-known.

Westwards travelbloggers hiking to petroglyphs in Central Asia: here in Beldersoy, Uzbekistan

During our extensive travels in the Stan countries we have visited some of them (there are still a lot more to explore!). Some of the petroglyphs in Central Asia are located near settlements and easy to reach, occasionally they are even tourist attractions that the locals know. By contrast, others are not even properly indicated on maps, or you will have to walk for hours or days to reach the petroglyph sites. Searching for these petroglyphs as just a curious traveller can be quite an adventure!

It is also worthwhile to seek out the old Silk Road towns in the area, like Paikent and Varakhsha in Uzbekistan and Akyrtas in Kazakhstan.

A short history of the petroglyph sites of Central Asia

The oldest petroglyphs in Central Asia are 5000 years old. But most of them date back to the time of the Scythians. The Scythians were nomadic people, famous for their riding skills. They lived during the 8th/ 7th century BC on the vast Eurasian steppes. Some of the petroglyphs in Central Asia are relatively new, from the pre-Islamic or even beginning of the Islamic times.

The early petroglyphs were literally carved into the stone with primitive stone tools while newer ones are often more scratched on the surfaces of the rocks.

The motifs are often animals, mostly ibex. The ibex was associated with different gods in the Indo-Aryan culture. Ancient communities of hunter-gatherers hunted ibex for food and also used them for sacrifices. Some scientists believe that our ancestors even domesticated the ibex, because some of the petroglyphs show a row of ibexes with a dog.

Another animal quite often seen is the aurochs. The wild ancestor of modern domestic cattle is today extinct. In Central Asia the animal vanished around 1000 BC, thus making it easier for archaeologists to date such images. Deer and later horses and camels are other animals recognisable in the petroglyphs in Central Asia. Besides animals our ancestors also frequently depicted humans, often in hunting scenes, to a lesser extent in religious rituals. Very likely there was a sun cult prevailing in Central Asia in pre-Islamic times.

The Cholpon Ata Petroglyphs in Kyrghyzstan

Ibex drawings in the Cholpon Ata Petroglyp site, one of the biggest in Central Asia

Some of the most impressive and easiest to reach petroglyphs are in the outskirts of Cholpon Ata in Kyrgyzstan. In an area of almost 100 acres numerous rock carvings are found. Cholpon Ata has been used by several cultures. It was very likely a ritual place. Scientist agree that the rocks were not moved to the site – but that it must have been a vast field scattered with huge rock slabs from the beginning. It is likely that the people sought out such conspicuous geographic features as worship places. All the carvings are aligned to the south, i.e. towards the sun. In between the rock carvings there are tombs and memorial stones in the shape of humans, so-called balbal. The most famous scene you will find in Cholpon Ata is a large-scale Scythian hunting scene with snow leopards and ibex.

How to get to the petroglyphs of Cholpon Ata

Cholpon Ata is situated on the north shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, 250 km from the capital Bishkek. Mini buses run frequently between Bishkek and Issyk-Kul. The petroglyph open air museum is in a walkable distance from Cholpon Ata village. There is a not very helpful overview plan near the entrance but no signage to the important rock carvings. Sometimes there is a guide available on site. If you only visit one petroglyph site in Central Asia, make it this one as it is easy to reach and quite impressive.

Tamgaly Petroglyphs in Kazakhstan

Sun-headed person, one of the petroglyphs of Tamgaly, Kazakhstan

The Tamgaly petroglyphs make up the only site of petroglyphs in Central Asia inscribed as a UNESCO site. These petroglyphs in Kazakhstan include some of the oldest ones you will find in the region. The earliest of them are dating from around 2500 BC. Moreover Tamgaly is the place to see depictions of the famous sun-headed persons. Obviously this also refers to some kind of sun cult. Also unique is the depiction of a sort of cart with wheels and spokes. So, it might actually have been Central Asians who invented the wheel more than 4000 years ago!

How to get to the petroglyphs of Tamgaly

Tamgaly Tash is 160 km away from the Kazakh capital of Almaty. From the parking area it is a 15-minute walk on clearly marked paths. It will bring you close to the sun-headed person and to the beautiful oxen, horses and camels. There is no public transport to Tamgaly Tash, you will have to rent a car. While a 4 WD is not really necessary, a car with a high undercarriage is advisable, as the last 10 or 20 km are on a very bad road.

Sarmishsay Petroglyphs in Uzbekistan

Dancing figures in the Sarmisch Say petroglyphs of Uzbekistan

Sarmishsay is the biggest petroglyph site in Uzbekistan. While it lacks the spectacular depictions of Cholpon Ata and Tamgaly Tash it offers a lot of different animal depictions. In addition, it is relatively easy to reach. The oldest carvings in Sarmishsay are some petroglyphs of aurochs that are more than 3000 years old. But there are also images of sheep, goats, and dancing figures.

How to get to the petroglyphs of Sarmishsay

Seeking petroglyphs in Central Asia (here in Sarmish Say), we often have to hike

The closest town to go by public transport is Navoi between Bukhara and Samarkand. The petroglyphs are around 30 km northeast of the town of Navoi. A taxi for a half day trip should cost around 30$. The petroglyphs are along the walls of a 3 km long gorge, where you will have to walk.

Chimgan Petroglyphs in Uzbekistan

Beldersoy ibex Petroglyphs in Uzbekistan

While you can get to the above-mentioned petroglyphs fairly easily you really have to walk (i.e. hike!) to reach the petroglyphs in the Chimgan mountains in Uzbekistan. The petroglyphs are situated high up in the mountains at 2450 m. They consist only of two larger rocks with deer carvings. However the setting high up on the mountain is spectacular and getting there is really an adventure.

How to get to the petroglyphs on Mount Chimgan

First you have to make your way from the capital Tashkent to Beldersoy in the Chimgan mountains of Uzbekistan. From there it is a 15 km hike up into the mountains, with an altitude difference of 1350 m. You can use an old soviet chairlift instead of hiking up (but have to climb down a few hundred meters then). We have marked the petroglyph site and the path on Openstreetmap. Be aware that this is a mountain hike – you will need proper equipment.

The Langar Petroglyphs in Tajikistan

ibex in the Langar Petroglyphs (Central Asia)

Langar is the biggest petroglyph site in Tajikistan and situated in the Gorno-Badakhshan region. Around 6000 petroglyphs are dotted on a hillside high above the village of Langar in the Wakhan Valley at the confluence of the Wakhan and the Pamir River. Most frequently you will see the ibex but there are also some hunters with bows (that look more like guns). The area has been inhabited for a long time. Indeed, a large group of petroglyphs show Islamic motifs or religious text in Arabic and Farsi script from the 8th century. But there is also a growing amount of 21 century graffiti at the site.

How to get to the petroglyphs of Langar

From the village of Langar it is a nice half day trek up to the petroglyphs. They are scattered around a vast area and are rather small. As there are no signs to indicate the location it is advisable to hire a guide in Langar. The region of Gorno-Badakhshan itself is rather difficult to reach compared to other petroglyphs in Central Asia, however, and you need a special permit.

Should you visit the petroglyphs in Central Asia?

Travel blogger Isa studying some petroglyphs of Central Asia

Yes! Especially if you like non-touristy off-the-beaten path destinations that give you an explorer feelig. We have personally visited all the above sites and some more. For easy access we would recommend Cholpon Ata in Kyrgyzstan and Sarmishsay in Uzbekistan. The Tamgaly petroglyphs are more for specialists as renting a car with driver will set you back at least 150$.

Central Asia is not the only place where you can find petroglyphs. We also have visited petroglyphic sites in by camel in Jordan and by Jeep in Eritrea. Have you visited any petroglyph sites around the world? We are curious about your experiences and impressions!

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19 Comments

  1. I find this fascinating window into the ancient past unbelievable. To think thousands of years ago that people would have created these stories for us to see today. I think I would definitely want to visit Sarmishsay as the biggest and oldest petroglyph site in Uzbekistan. I would want to see the images of sheep, goats, and dancing figures.

    1. These petroglyph sites in Central Asia are such amazing art records from the ancient times. The animal figures of extinct aurochs, sheep, goats and sun headed person’s is so fascinating. It’s hard to believe these intricate art work dates back to as early as 5000 BC

  2. It’s absolutely amazing how well-preserved this ‘graffiti’ is – and just mesmerizingly beautiful, too. I’d love to travel those countries that used to be part of the former Soviet Union since there is so much forgotten beauty and hidden culture to discover. On the other hand, this charming seclusion is the reason why I didn’t go yet – as a solo traveller, I imagine that it can be a bit difficult at times. But still, the ‘Stans’ are way up high on my list!

    1. Dear Renata, if you decide to go – let us know! We have travelled extensively in the area – and maybe can answer some of the questions you have.

  3. Wow these petroglyphs are fascinating and so different to the ones I know of here in Hawaii. These definitely look more exotic and unusual in comparison and beyond just stick figure carvings. I would love to see these in person some day

  4. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan are not very popular among tourists. They have not been trampled by mass tourism. These are, in fact, countries for explorers, historical researchers, and scientists. It’s great that there are perfectly preserved petroglyphs in Central Asia and you had a chance to explore them. I would like to see some of them one day. Petroglyphs of Langar and Sarmishsay Petroglyphs look amazing.

  5. We have seen interesting petroglyphs in different areas on our travels. The petroglyphs from Central Asia look more distinct and well preserved than many we have seen. The open area museums are a great way to wander on your own to discover the treasures. If we ever get to this region, your post would be a great guide to some great petroglyph sites. And good to know some are easy to visit without hiring a car and driver.

    1. Dear Linda, I think you would enjoy a visit to the petroglyphs in Central Asia. The site in Cholpon Ata in Kyrgyzstan is really easy to access and there is a lot to explore.

  6. I have seen petroglyphs in Morocco the same age, but there were not so well preserved as these ones. This Central region of Asia seems so rich and interesting to visit. I had never considered traveling to any of these countries before but it could be worth to give it a try, as I am so fond of visiting historical and pre-historical sites. Thanks for putting all this information together.

  7. This is so interesting to see as I witness some in the Northern Areas of Pakistan just last week! I guess Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are so near there would be movement of people in those early days. I would love to do a trip like yours, so interesting!

    1. Dear Amalia, where in Northern Pakistan did you see petroglyphes? And were they difficult to reach? I am sure there was a lot of migration in the area back then.

  8. This is amazing! And beautiful! We have seen petroglyphs but mostly in the U.S. We did see few in Finland as well but they were not so visible as the ones we have seen elsewhere. I feel like it always lets us step back in time when we see them. And they have so much information in them. I would love to visit Uzbekistan someday!

    1. Dear Paula, I am fascinated by petroglyphs. However, I feel, they are not easily accesible – usually I try to read up as much as possible before I go.

  9. This first form of street art is a wonderful glance into past times and storytelling. It is incredible to think that somebody stood and carved these designs into the rocks, and they are still there in the 21st century to give us an insight into life back then.

  10. It’s so cool that even ancient cultures found ways to record and pass on what was important to them. And if you think about it, images are better than words because anyone can understand a picture better than a foreign language. I’ve seen petroglyphs near Zion National Park, at Capitol Reef National park, and at the Valley of Fire state park. So interesting!

  11. Wow! I have visited several sites and the images have never been that clear. I will definitely check out Cholpon Ata and Sarmishsay when the opportunity presents itself.

  12. These petroglyphs are fascinating and they are way older than the ones I’ve seen in the U.S. It’s interesting how ancient people anywhere in the world are mostly sun cults. I think they thought the sun was the source of life. The petroglyphs look clear and clean, I guess because there’s no pollution there. And I also found the balbal captivating!

    1. Dear Umiko, the petroglyphs in Central Asia are a fascinating piece of history. Not many people go there and visiting them gives you really an explorer feeling.

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