Burana Tower

Historic Building in Tokmok

Burana is a popular side-trip when driving between Issyk-Köl and Bishkek. In the fields south of Tokmok, the Burana Tower is the 24m-high stump of a huge brick minaret, supposedly 11th-century though what you see dates predominantly from a 1950s Soviet restoration. You can climb it from 9am to 5pm (6pm in summer), or admire the slightly leaning structure with its distant mountain backdrop from a grassy mound to the northwest. This is all that’s left of the ancient citadel of Balasagun, founded by the Sogdians and later a capital of the Karakhanids, excavated in the 1970s by Russian archaeologists.

Arguably the site's most interesting feature, on the other side of the citadel mound, is a collection of 6th- to 10th-century balbal (Turkic totem-like stone markers). There's also a small museum with 11th-century Christian carvings, Buddhist remains and Chinese coins, as well as info on local literary hero Haji Balasagun and his masterwork, the Kutudhu Bilik. Next door are the foundations of several mausoleums.

The Shamsy Valley that leads south from Burana has also yielded a rich hoard of Scythian treasure, including a heavy gold burial mask, though the greatest treasures were all either spirited away to St Petersburg or to Bishkek where much is in storage in the bowels of the National Historical Museum.

By public transport from Bishkek, take frequent marshrutka 353 to Tokmok (40som, 45 minutes), then a taxi for the last 24km (700som round trip).