The Siberian taiga is a vast stretch of mainly barren coniferous forest as unspoiled and unexplored as the Amazon jungle, and more than 100,000 sq km in western Yakutia are completely uninhabited. Devoid of any sort of trails, the terrain is mostly thick forest, full of uprooted trees, sprawling swamps and swarms of mosquitoes. In short, it's an ancient wildwood - an ideal setting for myths and legends about strange creatures and anomalous zones where bizarre things happen. Even the local wild man - Chuchuna - is far from exceptional here, and the most fascinating mystery of all is a strange legend about a terrible 'Valley of Death' filled with unnatural, dome-shaped structures.
Local traditions record that lone hunters from the nomadic Evenks and other Yakutians who wander into these weird valleys - there could be more than one - have described odd hemispherical 'iron houses' (kheldyu) that proturude from the perpetually frozen ground. These smooth, reddish formations often have an opening at the top, with a winding stairwell leading down to a circular gallery with numerous 'metal' rooms. Despite temperatures of 40 below outside, the interiors are said to be pleasantly warm. The old Yakutians do not know the origin of these 'houses' or to whom they belong. They vaguely associate them with the ancient demons of the taiga, Niurgun Bootur and Tong Duurai (see 'Yakutian Legends', below).
These mysterious structures - the locals also refer to them as olguis, or upturned 'cauldrons' - are said to be forged out of an unknown metal, copper-like in colour, incredibly hard and with razor-sharp edges. No one has ever been able to cut off even a fragment. Over time, the Yakutians have noticed that some 'cauldrons' are gradually sinking into the frozen ground and disappearing, leaving behind large circular stains of odd vegetation. These places are dangerous to all living things. Stay too long and your head will spin; you'll be struck by an unknown fatal illness. For this reason, tribal elders long since proscribed such areas, declaring them cursed. The region is called Uliuiu Cherkechekh - the Valley of Death.
There are modern tales of travellers who stumbled upon the taiga cauldrons. Some sound plausible, others more outrageous. Mikhail Korecky from Vladivostok wrote to the newspaper Trud that he’d been to the Valley of Death three times. The first was in 1933, when he was 10 years old; the second in 1937; and finally in 1947 with some friends. He saw a total of seven ‘cauldrons’; all looked mysterious and measured 6–9m in diameter. The vegetation around them was peculiar, more lush than the surrounding plants, with giant burdock leaves, long stalks and weird grass twice as tall as a man. On the last visit, Korecky and his companions spent the night in one ‘cauldron’; although nothing dramatic occurred that night, one friend lost all his hair within a month and Korecky developed two small pustules on his cheek which never healed.
In 1936, a geologist visiting the Olguidakh River (the “place with a cauldron”), found a ‘cauldron’ that was not completely submerged. A smooth hemisphere of metal 2cm thick and with razor-sharp edges, it was reddish in colour. Barely a fifth of it was above ground and the opening in its vault was accessible to a person sitting on a reindeer. The geologist sent its description to the capital city Yakutsk, but no one paid any attention.
A dis covery by an old Evenki hunter met with similar lack of interest. In 1971, he claimed to have found an “iron burrow” in the ground in which he saw the bodies of skinny, black, one-eyed beings in “iron costumes”. No one believed him, despite his willingness to show them to anyone who was interested. Unfortunately, he has since died.
Not until 1979 did a serious archaeological expedition set out from Yakutsk. Despite the fact that it had a guide - an old settler who had seen the 'cauldrons' in his youth - the expedition failed to locate them. The area where they were said to be had changed dramatically in the intervening years. The vegetation had grown so thick that one couldn’t see more than 10 steps ahead, making discovery a matter of luck.
Russian ufologists have proposed that these ‘cauldrons’ are the remains of UFOs, wrecked in an accident or an ancient aerial battle. Russian researcher Dr Valerey Uvarov argues that they are connected to a power plant located deep inside the Earth, a weapon to protect our planet from dangers in outer space. Extraterrestrials built them in ancient times, he says, and now they operate automatically, having shot down the Tunguska meteorite in 1908, the Chulym meteorite in 1984, and most recently, the Vitim meteorite in 2002. Today, he alleges, the radiation levels in the area are rising again and wildlife is leaving the woods as if in preparation for some imminent event.
INTO THE VALLEY
The little-known and still unsolved mystery of Yakutia’s Valley of Death and its ‘cauldrons’ mesmerised me. Were they natural formations? If they were artificial, who built them and for what purpose? The strange illnesses of those who linger near the ‘cauldrons’ suggested heightened levels of radioactivity. It was little wonder that so few ventured in search of them; the shortage of real information and the remoteness of the region added expense to the danger. But, to explore the dreaded Valley and find the mysterious metal hemispheres before they all disappeared deep beneath the earth would surely be a worldwide sensa ion. My team didn’t believe in the UFOs or the black, one-eyed beings: our first concern was to discover wheth er the ‘cauldrons’ truly existed, and if so, what they were.
Our biggest problem was figuring out how to locate the ‘cauldrons’ in the vast, impenetrable taiga. The best information we had about the location was a vague notion that they lie somewhere along the Olguidakh River, a tributary of the Viliuy, deep in the taiga. Eye witnesses who could lead us there were suddenly nowhere to be found. Blindly wandering on foot was bound to be a failure. The only viable solution was a birds-eye exploration at a time of year when the snow had melted and the trees were with out obscuring leaves. A pilot could explore in an hour what would take a month on foot. He could fly over a selected area and videotape the landscape below him for any anomalies.
But we couldn’t afford a helicopter; just one hour would cost USD 1,500. Jirka Zitka, our pilot, had access to a powered hang-glider, but after much deliberat ion, we rejected this option. It would be too difficult to take off in such a thickly wooded region, or to land the craft in an emergency. In the end, we opted for a motor paraglider – in practice, a motor-propelled parachute – which could take off and land in a small area.
Our transport abandoned us under a bridge over the Olguidakh and took off down the dusty road towards the town of Mirnyj. I sat on a stuffed field-rucksack, wondering how we were to penetrate the taiga while probing both sides of the river. We couldn’t carry the immense load of equipment and 14 days’ worth of provisions on our backs. Even the best equipped ‘off-road’ could not traverse this pathless jungle. Instead, we chose a well-tested mode of wildwood transportation – the river. We blew up an inflatable raft, which was soon to become our most irreplaceable companion, and put all our gear and supplies on a second smaller inflatable boat.
Our guide was Sláva Pastuchov, a materialist who did not believe in legends and who came with us to fish, hunt and, most importantly, help us survive. An experienced hunter, even he felt uneasy as we sailed through an eerie, dead land of bare and broken trees. He soon left us, hurrying away.
They say that the Valley of Death is really a whole chain of valleys around the riverbanks. In order to explore the entire 200km stretch of the river, we split it up into several parts. In each of them we stopped for a few days and, if the overgrown, swampy banks permitted it, set up camps from which we would embark on expeditions.
Launching a parachute in the taiga was no easy feat. Breaking into a sprint while trying not to trip on uneven marshland full of giant roots and hidden holes with 30kg on your back required strong legs. We had no previous experience of flying a motor-operated parachute, and for Pavel Stepán, our other pilot, success was a unique athletic achievement.
“I found some thing!” Pavel yelled to us seconds after landing his parachute. “I saw a strange circle,” he said, pointing eastwards of the river. We clustered around the camera and replayed the recording. He was right! In the middle of a monotonous landscape was a strange annulus. With the help of a computer, the taiga image and our Google Earth satellite images, we determined the exact coordinates of the strange circle. Overjoyed at the prospect of finding our first ‘cauldron’, we opened a bottle of vodka.
Despite it being June, we were surprised by a night of snowfall. When the snow didn’t recede by the second day, we lost patience and set out, searching for the mysterious spot. We climbed up a low hill, GPS in hand, through snowy thickets to a clearing at the top and stopped in surprise. We’d never seen anything like this. It wasn’t the long-sought, smooth, protruding hemisphere, but a circular pond about 50m in diameter. At its centre was a circular patch of land approximately 30m in diameter. It didn’t look like a natural formation; it was a ring with an opening at its centre, also flooded with water.
Using two long branches to test the earth below him to make sure it wasn’t a treacherous quagmire, Pavel braved the half-frozen water in his fisherman’s waders working towards the snowy annulus. Beneath the snow and a thin layer of mud, a pole hit something solid. Was it just ice? Carefully, he continued to the centre of the circle, halting in front of the opening. The almost 3m-long pole disappeared beneath the surface. What could he have been standing on? If the hemisphere were made of ice, the current would have melted it. Could it be a giant ‘cauldron’, by now almost completely submerged in the frozen earth?
The snow melted and we were once again fortunate. A few kilometres downriver, we found a similar spot. In a perfectly circular pond, this time only 10m in diameter, was a smooth, solid, gigantic and slightly curved dome, covered in a layer of mud. With the help of a pole, we probed its shape, but unfortunately lacked the equipment to expose it. We would have had to drain the water and remove the mud – and for that we’d need a better equipped and funded expedition.
Then, unexpectedly, we were hit by odd health problems which manifested after we spent a night near a sunken ‘cauldron’. The next day, I was suddenly overcome by dizziness leading to fainting, a complete loss of balance, choking and chills… just as the old Yakutian legends warned. I couldn’t stand, my vision went and I was unable to eat or drink anything. The crisis lasted all day as our tents were buried by another snowstorm. After more frost and a northerly gale, we were all soaked. It was as if the evil demons of the taiga conspired against us trespassers. But, as I was the only one affected, we didn’t blame it on some ancient radiation residue. When my condition didn’t improve by the following day, we boarded the raft and spent all night and the next day drifting down the river, fleeing the Valley of Death as fast as we could.
A GEOLOGICAL TREASURE TROVE
While we didn’t find any proof of the legendary metallic ‘cauldrons’, we didn’t flee quite empty-handed. We had discovered something else, something just as significant – a pocket of titanium ore.
While conducting our aerial search for the ‘cauldrons,’ we had found yet another peculiar place – a perfectly circular field of rusty brown boulders where the compass needle went wild. A magnetic mountain? Probably. From a geological standpoint, the entire region is peculiar. We trod on sturdy, igneous Siberian peaks which had originated in the Archean Era. In places, the peaks are pierced by vents filled with diamond-bearing mineral deposits. The largest diamond mine lies in the town of Mirnyj, the regional centre from which we had embarked on our mission into the taiga.
When we got back to Prague, we showed a rock sample to a geologist. He confirmed that it was magnetite and ilmenite, an iron and titanium ore. I’m told that we could sell the coordinates of that magnetically anomalous patch to the Russians for a very favourable price. Accounts of our expedition caused quite a stir in the Russian media. It was even said that we were frightened off by the Valley of Death, but the truth is that lack of finance is the real obstacle to returning to hunt for the ‘cauldrons’. We’ve already advised two different exploration teams based in Mirnyj. One of them, led by Andrey Yevteyev, will take along a water pump to drain the central pool and then dig out the rest. The other group, led by Yury Krivoruczko, will probably set out next spring.
We know of unusual geological formations such as iron caps, gossans, lava balls, giant spherical concretions, and geodes. What if the legend-shrouded ‘cauld rons’ are an unknown geological formation? While the descriptions of interior stairwells, galleries and rooms might have been imagined by superstitious hunters and embellished by fantasists and ufologists, it seems clear that the Siberian taiga conceals great wealth as well as many secrets, including the nature of the ‘cauldrons’ – a disquieting mystery that still remains unsolved.
WEIRD GUIDE TO SIBERIA
By Jen Ogilvie
In 1953, geologist Victor Tverdokhlebov and a companion spotted a huge creature swimming quickly and jerkily across Lake Labynkyr in eastern Yakutia. When reports of the sighting emerged, public curiosity was piqued, and expeditions embarked on largely fruitless hunts for the Labynkyr "Nessie". Locals weren't surprised by the sighting, and speak of animals pulled down into the water never to be seen again. Suggestions as to the true identity of the mystery monster include a gladiator dolphin somehow stranded in a freshwater lake miles from the nearest ocean, and a giant pike.
A Study Guide to UFOs, Pyschic and Paranormal Phenomena in the USSR, Antonio Huneeus, 1991, p98-99.
Sergey Sememnov was climbing in the Altai Mountains in September 2003 when he found a furry limb with a padded paw. It was said that the bones were several thousand years old, and that the mummified limb "looks very human". Despite talk of it belonging to a yeti - there have been many reported sightings of the hairy hominid in the area - FT's Karl Shuker suggested it was most probably just a bear's paw.
FT179:12; www.gazeta.ru, 8 Oct; BBC News, Sky News, 9 Oct 2003.
In 1927, the 75-year-old 12th Pandito Hambo Lama (spiritual leader of Russia's Buddhists), Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, told his followers that he was going to die. He instructed them to look at his body in 30 years, and then, meditating and chanting a prayer for the dead, he died. His corpse was duly exhumed as directed and found to be still in the lotus position and incorrupt. Given the restrictions on the practice of Buddhism under the Soviets, his coffin was then packed with salt and reburied, before being dug up again on 11 September 2002. The corpse was still perfectly preserved, and now sits at a table surrounded by candles and bowls of oils in Ivolginsk Monastry. Believers credit its incorruption to Itigilov's heightened state of existence achieved through meditation.
FT184:26; NY Times, 1 Oct 2002.
Inhabitants of the remote, mountainous Southern Altai region blamed a series of earthquakes starting in September 2003 on the exhumation of a mummified Caucasian woman dubbed the 'Ice Maiden' as her corpse had been preserved by water seeping into her burial chamber, then freezing. Suicides and sickness have also been blamed on the exhumation, and locals campaigned for her reburial in order to lay the spirits to rest. Even the archaeologists spoke of a strange foreboding among the team, and of nightmares; a helicopter crash-landed while transporting the mummy to Novosibirsk, and when it arrived there it was almost ruined by fungi it developed as a result of having been put in a freezer previously used to store cheese.
FT186:09. [AFP] Times, 2 April; D.Telegraph, 17 April 2004.
On the evening of 13 August 1996, it is said that in a small village near Kyshtym, Chelyabinsk, pensioner Tamara Vasilievna Prosvirina heard a voice telling her to go to the cemetery. There she found a 25cm tall creature in a grave. The being, which she named Aleshenka, had claws, large eyes and holes instead of ears, and was grey with brown spots. The woman looked after it until she was taken to a psychiatric hospital; after her departure, the creature died. It was eventually discovered and examined by doctors. Despite speculation that it was an alien, and that it was later taken away by a UFO, it seems most likely that it was a premature female infant with severe deformities. Tamara Prosvirina was killed in a car accident trying to escape hospital.
Pravda, 18 Feb 2004.
Drilling to Hell
A 1989 article in a Finnish monthly claimed that geologists in Siberia had found their drill spinning wildly, and recorded temperatures of 2,000 degrees F, at a depth of 14.4km. Microphones were lowered and picked up the sound of screaming voices. Later reports added that luminous gas and a “brilliant being with bat wings” came out of the hole. The story of Hell’s discovery turned out to be a hoax that was picked up and propagated by the American Christian funda mentalist press.
“Stone Age family”
A team of Soviet geologists flying over southern Siberia in 1978 saw a gap in the forest below; closer inspection revealed a wooden cabin, the home of Karp Lykov, 80, and his family. In spired by his fundamentalist Orthodox beliefs, Lykov had left society with his wife and two children in 1936 and set up home near the Abakan River, 220 miles of dense forest away from the nearest village. The family had no other human contact for 42 years and lived a primitive lifestyle. Two more children were born in the wild. Lykov’s wife died in the Fifties; the rest of the family, except one daughter, succumbed to infection after discovery, having no immunity against disease.
FT45:52, FT126:10. D.Telegraph, 9 Mar; Guardian 14 Mar 1999.
TUNGUSKA METEOR HUNT
By Paul Sieveking
In August 2007, Russian police were searching for a meteorite weighing three tons that had been stolen from a space display in Krasnoyarsk, northern Siberia. According to the AFP report (11 August): "The rock is believed to be part of a meteor that exploded in 1908, flattening 2,000sq km of Siberian forest." This refers to the celebrated Tunguska event of 30 June 1908, when something - meteor, asteroid, comet, black hole or spaceship - hurtled through the atmosphere and is believed to have detonated some three to six miles above the ground with an energy equivalent to about 20 million tons of TNT. The explosion was so bright it lit up the sky in London. Small fragments of the body should have survived the airburst and made it to Earth; oddly, however, no crater or even the slightest trace of the impactor has ever been found - this at least is the general consensus. So what had been stolen from Krasnoyarsk? Could it possibly have been one of several large iron meteorites that fell at Sikhote-Alin in Siberia in 1947?
According to Vladimir Shaidurov, an expert on mathematical modelling, the Tunguska blast was the trigger for current global warming when it fundamentally damaged thin, high clouds, letting in more solar energy. No one appears to agree with him. Even wilder speculations come from Yuri Lavbin (or Labvin), president of the state-funded Tunguska Phenomenon Research Foundation, concerning quartz boulders allegedly found in the Podkamennaya Tunguska river, near the site of the blast. "On the surface of the rocks were strange signs, apparently caused by technological means, possibly with the use of plasma," he said, adding that analysis of the boulders showed impurities that didn't come from this planet. He believes that an "information container" from another galaxy broke up as it was attempting to land on the Earth, leaving behind a few fragments. Three years ago, his Foundation discovered a 50kg rock that it claimes is the first substantial debris from the explosion. The scientific community remains singularly unimpressed.
In June 2007, Italian researchers announced an interesting discovery from the 50m-deep Lake Cheko, five miles north-north-west of the centre of the Tunguska destruction. "When we looked at the bottom of the lake, we measured seismic waves reflecting off things," said Giuseppe Longo, a physicist at the University of Bologna. "Nobody has found this before. We can only explain that and the shape of the lake as a low-velocity impact crater."
During an expedition to the lake in 1999, Longo's team was looking for meteoroid dust in its submerged sediments. While sonar-scanning the lake's topography, they were struck by its cone-like features. "Expeditions in the 1960s concluded the lake was not an impact crater, but their technologies were limited," Longo said. During their latest exploration, the team took 1.8m core samples from the lakebed, revealing fresh mud-like sediment on top of "chaotic deposits" beneath. "To really find out if this is an impact crater," Longo said, "we need a core sample 10 metres into the bottom" in order to investigate a spot where the team detected a "reflecting" anomaly with their seismic instruments. They think this could be where the ground was compacted by an impact or where part of the meteorite itself lies. If it exists, the object could be more than 10m in diameter and weigh almost 1,700 tons.
Dr Gareth Collins, a research associate at Imperial College, London, pointed out that the Cheko feature was "anomalously" shallow and lacked the round shape of most craters - being more elliptical in form. Such craters only occur if the impactor's angle of entry is less than about 10 degrees. "We know from modelling of the Tunguska event that the angle of entry must have been steeper than that," he said. Long's team plan to return to the lake next summer, close to the centenary of the event.
Scotsman, 15 Mar 2006; Irish Times, 20 April; SPACE.com, BBC News, 26 June, Times, 11 Aug 2007.
Yakut legends contain many references to explosions, fiery whirlwinds and blazing spheres rising into the air, and all of these phenomena are associated with the mysterious metal constructions found in the Valley of Death. Much of this is recounted in epic poems about events in a remote time when the area was inhabited only by a few Tungus nomads.
Once upon a time, their distant neighbours noticed that Yakutia was suddenly shrouded in impenetrable darkness as a hurricane of terrible force shook the land with a deafening roar, and lightning crossed the sky in all directions. Later, when the darkness dispersed, the nomads beheld an utterly strange sight; set on the scorched land was a towering structure, glowing in the sun and visible at a distance of many days' journey. Over a long period, the structure gave out unpleasant, ear-splitting noises as it gradually sank into the ground. In its place was an immense, yawning, vertical "orifice" which, according to legend, contained three tiers of "laughing chasms". The pit was said to contain an underground country with its own sun that was "waning". No one could go near it because of a choking stench, but, from a distance, people sometimes saw a "rotating island" above the opening (which they also called a "banging lid"). Those whose curiosity got the better of them never returned.
Centuries later, there was an extraordinary concurrence of an earthquake and a thin "fiery whirlwind" topped by a dazzling fireball. With a trail of fire and a "succession of thunderclaps", this sphere flew beyond the horizon where it exploded. The Yakut nomads reasoned that the "demon" must have been a protector as it did them no harm, only destroying the lands of a hostile neighbouring tribe. A few decades later, the same events recurred, so they called their "demon" Niurgun Bootur, "the fiery champion". Later still, he failed them terribly as a gigantic fireball emerged from the pit over the sunken tower and exploded overhead, affecting the land for 1,000km around. Quakes shook the ground and cracked the hills, and the centre became a "raging sea of fire" with a disc-like "rotating island" above it. Tribes fled in all directions from the devestation, many of them succumbing to a strange illness that could be inherited.
Six hundred years later, after these events had become legend and people had returned to the area, the great cataclysm happened yet again. Niurgun Bootur's fireball appeared above a fiery whirlwind and again flew off to explode beyond the horizon. After a few decades, another fireball rent the sky; this time it was called Kiun Erbiie ("the gleaming aerial herald" or "messenger"). Finally came the devastating explosion that the legends record as Uot Usumu Tong Duurai, roughly translated as: "the criminal stranger who pierced the Earth and hid in the depths, destroying all around him with a fiery whirlwind."
The epics note that on the eve of the flight of the antihero Tong Duurai, the champion Kiun Erbiie crossed the firmament as a "falling star" or "dashing lightning" to warn Niurgun Bootur of the coming battle. Ambiguously, the legends also speak of Tong Duurai bursting forth from the depths to do battle with Niurgun Bootur in a melée of fireballs and fiery whirlwinds. Such was the havoc wrought by their battle that the region remained lifeless for a long time afterwards.
The above information is taken from Dr Valery Uvarov's article 'Mysteries of Siberia's Valley of Death' in Nexus Magazine, Vol.11, No.1 (Dec 2003-Jan 2004), which cites a 1996 account, written in Russian, by Russian ufologist A Gutenev.