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The Upper Tsagaan Gol Complex is located in a high, glacier carved valley in westernmost Mongolia. The valley is broken by two rivers-Khar Salaa and Tsagaan Salaa-that rise in the snows and glaciers of Tavan Bogd, the knot of mountains at the juncture of Mongolia, Russia, and China west of the Upper Tsagaan Gol. From Tavan Bogd, the rivers flow east around a sacred mountain, Shiviit Khairkhan, and join to form the east flowing Tsagaan Gol. The complex includes approximately 5,000 compositions with each composition including between one and 100+ images. In addition, there are hundreds of surface monuments in the complex dating to the Bronze and Early Iron Ages, as well as to the Turkic Period. Many of these monuments appear to have been deliberately oriented by reference to the sacred mountain in the center of the upper valley or to the eastward flow of Tsagaan Gol.
The rock art in the Upper Tsagaan Gol is found on glacier-polished outcrops on both sides of the rivers and along the slopes of Shiviit Khairkhan as well as on boulders scattered over the moraines filling the valley. The rock art here is petroglyphic rather than pictographic; it is pecked, engraved, or scratched on hard sandstone outcrops and cliffs, as well as on sandstone and granitic boulders. In addition to rock pecked images, several rare Turkic inscriptions (engraved) have been found in this property.
Pecked surfaces in the Upper Tsagaan Gol include several large outcrops with images of argali, aurochs, and elk that by style and execution indicate dates earlier than the Bronze Age. The complex, however, is particularly rich in imagery from the Bronze Age, the Early Iron Age, and from the Turkic period. This material includes many individual images but also, and more significantly, thousands of elaborate compositions reflecting the hunting of large and small animals, the movement of people on foot, with yaks, in carts, and on horseback. Among the most interesting compositions are those reflecting household life, with domesticated and wild animals, women and children, and men accompanying the caravans with the weaponry and attention of hunters. Many compositions are done with such care that they allow us to recreate the intricacies of the way in which Bronze Age herders harnessed horses to carts or the details of weaponry and dress. There are even a few images from the post-Turkic Period that represent figures riding reindeer; this material, supported by oral reports regarding reindeer on the Ukok Plateau in the late 19th c., carries particular historical interest.
The imagery in the Upper Tsagaan Gol Complex is outstanding in terms of its quantity and documentary value, but also because of the expressive quality of much of the material. The earliest animal imagery reflects a period well before the Bronze Age, when humans represented animals through rough, direct blows to the rock and positioned them in large, static profile postures. Most of the material here, however, reflects several momentous changes in human economy and culture over the several thousand years of the Bronze and Iron Ages: from the most ancient dependence on hunting large animals to the emergence of cooperative human hunts with a variety of strategies and weapons; the gradual appearance of herding of large and small animals in the Bronze Age; the appearance of transhumance facilitated by beasts of burden (yak) and wheeled vehicles as increasing dependency on herding demanded expanded pastures; and the final appearance in the Early Iron Age of horse-dependent nomadism-the quintessential economic and cultural character of the Eurasian steppe zone. Expressed in terms of subjects and styles, of individual images and compositions of a narrative complexity, the rock art here reflects cultural traditions that must have deeply valued pictorial representation and expressive pictorial style. In terms of expressive style, techniques of execution, and the purposeful exploitation of unusually beautiful rock surfaces, the quality of the rock art found in the Upper Tsagaan Gol complex is outstanding; but quality is not the only distinguishing characteristic. Considered within its high mountain context, this property and its imagery and surface monuments tell the story of human culture in this harsh and magnificent region, over a period of many thousands of years.
No action has ever been taken in this property to detract from the expression of outstanding universal value: no significant part of the whole has yet been moved, destroyed, or damaged in such a way as to diminish the whole. Impacts such as modern inscriptions and the building of herders' winter dwellings are limited; but, in light of increasing tourism to this alpine region, the potential problem they present must be addressed in the management plan. Existing tracks (roads) do not impact any of the rock outcrops on which are found pecked imagery. Moreover, many of the finest concentrations are in relatively isolated or unrecognized locations.
In this property, there are instances where later artists (e.g., from the Late Bronze Age or Turkic Period) pecked their own images over those of an earlier period. Although this unusual practice may seem to negatively impact the property as a whole, in fact it offers the kind of overlay of subject and style that facilitates the understanding of the development of surface patina and the dating of imagery. For that reason, it would be inappropriate to consider such actions as representing a diminishment of the property's integrity.
The only rock art property already inscribed in the World Heritage List that might serve as a comparison is Tamgaly, in eastern Kazakhstan. This is particularly true in the case of Early Iron Age imagery. The differences, however, are more significant. Tamgaly is, by comparison, much smaller than the Upper Tsagaan Gol Complex, and the cultural extent represented by its imagery is significantly more limited (Mid-Bronze Age to Early Iron Age). A more appropriate comparison from outside Mongolia is offered by the many sites included in the Yelangash Valley in the Russian Altai Republic. That complex, however, is considerably more damaged by human activity, and existing documentation indicates that it is neither as old nor as inclusive of outstanding Turkic Period imagery as is the Upper Tsagaan Gol.