In the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned… The four worlds formed again and yet again… Time and the pure essences of Heaven, the moisture of the earth, the powers of the sun and the moon, all worked upon a certain rock, old as creation. And it became magically fertile… Elemental forces caused the egg to hatch, and from it came a stone monkey. These words – from the introduction of the late 1970s TV hit, Monkey Magic – are what I keep hearing in my head as I gaze upon the weird, ovoid boulders in the Valley of Balls in the Mangistau Region of western Kazakhstan.
Valley of Balls
The Ryn Desert, setting for the Valley of Balls, is primarily a barren, featureless wasteland. Or it is, until it isn’t. The Valley of Balls is one of the places where it isn’t.
To get here you have to travel through a great deal of empty wilderness, then you crest a low ridge, and there in front of you is a collection of giant stone marbles, spilled from the pocket of a passing giant many aeons ago.
The stone spheres are thought to be concretions, wherein a foreign body (a stone monkey perhaps?) or a naturally occurring nucleus triggers the minerals in the surrounding soil (or rock) to precipitate and cement together, forming a dense, hard spherical mass.
Other well-known and much-loved examples include the Moeraki Boulders in New Zealand, and the small stone spheres that Bowling Ball Beach is named after in California.
Concretions aren’t always perfect spheres, as you can see in the photo above. Some are mushroom-shaped, others UFO-shaped, or kidney-shaped, some look like they once might have been spherical, but have since been dropped from a great height and hit the ground with a mighty splat.
Now leave the Valley of Balls behind and continue through the Ryn Desert aways. You’ll pass through much empty, sandy wasteland.
Not much to look at around here, the desert largely devoid of life, apart from the odd passing camel – owned by the nomads, and goat herders, and pilgrim’s huts (there are several important underground mosques in the Ryn Desert; see my post on Shakpak Ata) that frequent the region.
Eventually, on the horizon, you’ll espy Lion’s Mountain, another dramatic geological attraction in this surprisingly feature-packed, featureless desert.
Lion’s Mountain, or Sherkala as it is locally known (which means Lion’s Mountain in Farsi), rises 300 odd metres above the surrounding desert floor. The mountain is said to resemble a lion at rest, or a sphinx – if you squint you might be able see what they are getting at.
Access to the top of the mountain is possible via a tunnel/shaft – if such a tunnel exists, we didn’t spot it.
At the top of the plateau are the ruins of a small fort, built by Dzuchi, the eldest son of Genghis Khan, who, when his father got around to divvying up all the lands he had conquered, received the Kazakh steppe as his to rule.
The Mangistau region of Kazakhstan is a remote and rarely visited part of the world. There is no public transport to the Valley of Balls or Lion’s Mountain (although you may be lucky and find a marshrutka heading to Shakpak-Ata).
The best way to get to the Valley of Balls and Lion’s Mountain is to hire a vehicle for the day in regional hub, Aktau. A 4WD is not essential, but it will make things easier. Finding a driver in Aktau who is willing to take you to Valley of Balls should be easy enough, finding a driver who knows how to get there will be a little more challenging. There are no signposts to direct you, so local knowledge is crucial.
A trip to the Valley of Balls and Lion’s Mountain can be combined with a visit to Shakpak Ata, Beket Ata, and the Karagiye Depression, making a long but worthwhile full day excursion.