Caves of Kazakhstan.

 What springs to mind when you hear the word cave'? For some it might be the famous subterranean caverns of the Alps or the Pyrenees; La Pierre Saint-Martin is an impressive sight at over 1,000 metres deep, but it is dwarfed by Jean Bernard, which plunges over two kilometres at its lowest point. Others might think instead of Aladdin's fairytale cave, containing immense riches which can be yours for the taking if you pronounce the magic words: "Open, sesame!" When it comes to the former Soviet Union, the Caucasus was a hot destination for speleologists in Soviet times and specialists from all over the world used to gather there to explore the region's caves. Kazakhstan is still largely terra incognita for most speleologists since many areas were closed to outsiders in Soviet times, but nowadays the country presents a challenge for cave explorers, given its immense territory and the large dispersion of areas formed by a geological process known as karst, when water dissolving on certain types of rock creates unusual topographical features - including complex cave systems. From the speleological point of view, Kazakhstan offers multifaceted opportunities - and only a fraction is known about what lies under this beautiful land, because serious research only began in the 1970s.
One major speleological area in Kazakhstan is the Boraldaytau plateau, which was where cave exploration really began in this country. The plateau is located near the Karatau mountains in Zhambyl Region and is characterised by a tough semi-desert climate. It's difficult to imagine the  hardships that faced explorers who went there in the 1970s: heat of up to 50 degrees centigrade in the daytime, with temperatures plunging to 10 degrees at night and a lack of water and firewood. These are hard conditions just to survive in, never mind work in, but the speleologists just got on with it.
After several years of hard work the first caves were located, and the names of 64 newly-discovered caves started appearing on maps, from the Leninskaya (Lenin) cave to the Vesennaya (Spring) and the Zhemchuzhnaya (Pearl) to the Simfoniya (Symphony). Not even half of them have been studied to date - who knows what secrets are hidden in their depths?
The first person who was brave enough to seek out the secrets of Kazakhstan's caves was Vladimir Tolmachev, a hydrogeologist who later became a famous speleologist. He studied the Boraldaytau plateau in detail and made a wealth of discoveries, and he was honoured for them later by his colleagues when a plateau discovered in 2006 by a speleological expedition in the central Tian Shan was named after him. Tolmachev was aware of the existence of the plateau, which is 40 kilometres from Khan Tengri peak, but didn't actually manage to see it with his own eyes; once during an expedition in 1985 he stopped just five kilometres short of it.
Almaty speleologists later found a huge karst area in this region; years will be required to explore it and reveal the secrets of the caves that may be lurking below.
Another cave discovered in recent years is the Uluchur in the western Tian Shan mountains. This subterranean space has seriously tested the strength not only of Kazakh speleologists but also of explorers from Russia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bulgaria, France and the Czech and Slovak republics. There are many legends about this cave, and no-one ever has a calm pulse before an assault on it. It requires serious effort and good skill to explore; it's full of pools and waterfalls, twisting streams and small river channels. Nothing can scare a speleologist after they've explored this cave: it's one of the most complex in Kazakhstan - and possibly the most loved and hated one in the country. It's said that people conquer peaks and caves, but actually this is not true: they are impossible to conquer. You can only visit them if the mountain or the cave itself allows you to. The petroglyphs in some caves prove that they were used by people in ancient times, and there are caves and grottos containing paintings along the channel of the ancient River Uzboy and on the Ustyurt Plateau. At various times people are thought to have lived or hidden from invaders in caves; the Konur-Auliye cave in East Kazakhstan Region is believed to have been used to shelter from Dzhungarian raids. There are also rumoured to be caves in Kazakhstan which contain immense wealth from bygone times, but the inhabitants of this country would do well to remember that the real treasure is the land they are living on. 

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