Valley of Death
Journeying across the Siberian taiga in search of the strange 'cauldrons' said to have been left by alien visitors - or ancient demons
By Ivan Mackerle, december 2007
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.
Mysterious cauldrons in Siberia´s “Valley of Death”
On the web pages of mystery lovers, we read about strange objects “guaranteed” to be of extraterrestrial origin and made out of an unknown material which scientists have not yet classified. Right away, one wonders—is such a thing still possible these days? The answer seems simple. Although these mysterious objects often bear detailed descriptions, no one knows their exact location and there are no photographs. It seems as though it’s all fantasy.
The Siberian taiga is perhaps as unspoiled and unexplored as the Amazon jungle. More than 100,000 square kilometers of western Yakutia are completely uninhabited, devoid of any sort of trails. The human foot treads on this area very rarely. It’s a thick forest growth with uprooted trees and sprawling swamps with swarms of mosquitoes. In short, an ideal birthplace for myths and legends about strange creatures and anomalous zones where bizarre things happen. The local wild man Chuchuna may not even be anything exceptional; the most attention is given to a peculiar legend about the Valley of Death and its “cauldrons”. Nomadic Evenki, Yakutians and lone hunters who happened to wander into these territories have for long discovered odd houses shaped like red hemispheres protruding from the perpetually frozen ground. The formations were smooth, with an opening at the top, with a winding stairwell leading to a circular gallery with numerous metal rooms. Despite outdoor temperatures of forty below, it was pleasantly warm inside.
Cauldrons that kill
The Yakutians called these mysterious houses “olguis”, or cauldrons. They are said to have been forged out of an unknown metal, copper-like in color, but incredibly hard, with razor-sharp edges. No one has ever been able to cut off even a fragment. Over time, the natives began to notice that the cauldrons are slowly sinking into the frozen ground and disappearing, leaving behind large circular stains of dissimilar vegetation. These places have always signified danger for all living things. A person’s head would start to spin, and he would be struck by an unknown, but fatal illness. For this reason, the elders prohibited the others from coming to these parts, declaring the region cursed and naming it Uliuiu Cherkechekh—Valley of Death.
In 1936, one geologist found a cauldron that was not completely submerged in the ground near the Olguidakh (“place with a cauldron”) River. A smooth, metal hemisphere with razor-sharp edges and reddish in color protruded out of the ground. Its walls were about two centimeters thick. Barely a fifth of it was above ground, but the opening in the dome vault was accessible by a person sitting on a reindeer. The geologist sent its description to the capital city Yakutsk, but no one paid it any attention.
There are numerous tales of travelers who stumbled upon the taiga cauldrons. Some sound plausible, others seem outrageous. Mikhail Koretsky from Vladivostok wrote to the newspaper Trud that he’d been to the Valley of Death three times. The first time was in 1933, when he was ten years old, the second time in 1937 and finally in 1947 with his friends. He saw a total of seven cauldrons; all looked mysterious and measured six to nine meters in diameter. The vegetation around them seemed oddly unnatural, more lush than the surrounding plants. Giant burdock leaves, long stalks and weird grass twice as tall as a human. They spent the night in one cauldron and nothing major happened to anyone, but one member lost all his hair after a month and two small pustules that never healed appeared on the cheek on which Koreckij slept.
These places were located in a distant region, accessible only by helicopter, and the cauldrons never fascinated anyone enough to warrant an expedition. The discovery of one old Eveni hunter met with similar disinterest. In 1971, he found in the ground an iron burrow, in which there lay skinny, black, one-eyed beings in iron costumes. No one believed him, despite his willingness to show them to anyone. In the meantime, he unfortunately died. Only in 1979 did an archaeological expedition set out from the capital city Yakutsk. Despite the fact that it had a guide—an old settler who saw the cauldrons in his youth—the expedition was unsuccessful: it didn’t locate the cauldrons. The area where they were found had changed dramatically over the years. The vegetation is so thick that one can’t see more than ten steps ahead, so any discovery whatsoever is more or less a question of coincidence. Nobody has had the time or money for such a demanding expedition, and so only rumors remain. Who built them? For what purpose? And do they even exist?
No eyewitnesses survive
The completely novel and still unsolved mystery of the Yakutian Valley of death and its cauldrons mesmerized me. To find and explore the mysterious metal hemispheres before they all forever disappeared deep beneath the earth would be a worldwide sensation. Photographs still don’t exist; metallurgists would surely appreciate samples of the rigid yet strangely unyielding metal. The illnesses and hair loss of Yakutian hunters who visited the cauldrons would imply heightened levels of radioactivity in the area. But no one knows what’s in question and how dangerous “it” is. Russian ufologists rushed to present the theory that the cauldrons are the remains of flying saucers wrecked in a mass accident or battle. Russian researcher Dr. Valerij Uvarov even alleges that they are technical istallations generated by a power plant located deep inside the Earth fiery “plasma spheres” made to protect our planet from danger in outer space. Extraterrestrials built them in ancient times and now they operate automatically, he says. They shot down a Tungus meteorite in 1908, a Chulym meteorite in 1984, and most recently, a Vitim meteorite in 2002. Today, the radiation levels there are allegedly on the rise again and the wildlife is leaving the woods, as if in preparation for something. We didn’t believe in UFOs or the black, one-eyed beings: we only wanted to know whether the cauldrons truly exist, and if so, find out what they are.
Specific information about the location of the cauldrons does not exist. Only a vague idea that they’re somewhere near the river Olguidakh, a tributary of the Viliuy, deep in the Taiga. The only thing left for us to figure out how to locate the cauldrons in such a vast area of the impenetrable taiga. Eye witnesses who could lead us there were suddenly nowhere to be found, and blindly blundering on foot in a skirmish line was bound to be a failure. The only viable solution was a birds-eye exploration during a time of year when the snow had melted and the trees were still barren of leaves that would obstruct the ground view. A pilot could explore in an hour what would have taken a month on foot. He would fly over a selected area and videotape the landscape below him. After landing, we would sift the taped material for anomalies in the landscape. But we couldn’t afford a helicopter. One hour costs 1500 dollars. Jirka Zitka, our pilot had acces to a powered hangglider , but after much deliberation, we rejected this option. How would he be able to take off in such a thickly vegetated region, or land the craft in an emergency? In the end, we decided on motor paragliding--that is, flying in a motor-propelled parachute, which allows for takeoff and landing in a small area.
Over the taiga in a parachute
The automobile took off down a dusty road for the town of Mirnyj, abandoning us under a bridge over the river Olguidakh with a heap of equipment and 14 days worth of provisions. I sat on a stuffed field rucksack and gathered my thoughts. What we were about to do was really the only way to penetrate the taiga and while probing both sides of the river. We couldn’t carry the immense load on our backs and even the best-equipped off-road could not traverse the pathless jungle, so 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 transported the excessive gear and supply on a second smaler inflatable boat.
We sailed through the eerie, dead land with its bare, broken and upturned trees, accompanied by local guide Sláva Pastuchov, a materialistic person who did not believe in legends and who came with us to fish, duck hunt and, most importantly, to help us survive in the taiga. But even he did not feel well in those places and hurried away. Then the land became friendly again an animals reappeared, but another deadly area would follow. They say that the Valley of Death is really a whole chain of valleys around the riverbanks. In order to explore the entire 200-kilometer patch 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 in an uneven marshland full of giant roots and deceitful holes with 30 kilograms on the back required strong legs and lots of experience. Hardly anybody could manage it. No one had ever flown in a motor-operated parachute, and for Pavel Štìpán, our other pilot, the occasion represented a unique athletic achievement.
“I found something!” Pavel yelled to us seconds after landing his parachute, with some bravado. “I saw a strange circle over there,” he said, pointing eastwards of the river. We clustered around the camera and played the taped recording. He was right: In the middle of a monotonous landscape was a strange annulus. With the help of a computer, we compared the taiga photo we obtained from the parachute video recording with Google Earth satellite images to determine the exact coordinates of the circle’s location. Overjoyed at the prospect of finding the first cauldron, we opened a bottle of vodka.
Secrets of the swamp
Despite it being June, we were unfortunate enough to be surprised by a night of snowfall. When the snow didn’t recede by the second day, we lost our patience and went to search for the mysterious spot. We climbed up a low hill, GPS in hand, and scraped through a snowy thicket to a clearing at the top, where we stiffened with surprise. We’d never seen anything like it. It wasn’t the long-sought, smooth, protruding hemisphere, but a circular pond about 50 meters in diameter. In its center, a circular patch of land, approximately 30 meters in diameter and with a flooded opening in the middle protruded from the water. This didn’t look like an ordinary natural formation. Pavel broke off two dry, bare branches and, using them as long poles, headed for the snowy island, wading in fishermen’s boots through the half-frozen water. He climbed onto the snow in the annulus and used the poles to test the earth below him to make sure it wasn’t a treacherous quagmire. Beneath the snow and a thin layer of mud, the pole hit something solid. Was it just ice? Carefully, he continued to the center of the circle, halting in front of the opening. The almost three meter-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 snowy annulus could be the last visible remnant of a smooth hemisphere not yet sunken below the ground, with a flooded entrance in the center.
The snow melted and we were once again fortunate. A few kilometers downriver, we found a similar spot. In a perfectly circular pond, this time only ten meters in diameter, was a smooth, solid, gigantic and slightly curved dome, covered in a layer of mud. With the help of a pole, we groped its shape, but unfortunately lacked the equipment to expose it. We would have had to drain the water and remove the mud. Our expedition was not funded by wealthy sponsors and so we couldn’t afford to load the plane with proper equipment and exceed the weight limit.
Our investigation was further impeded by odd health problems, which manifested themselves after we spent a night near the “sunken cauldrons.” On the following day, I was suddenly overcome by dizziness leading to fainting, a complete loss of balance, choking and chills. Completely without cause. Just like the old Yakutian legends and warnings about the Valley of Death. I couldn’t stand, I was losing my vision and was unable to eat or drink anything. The crisis lasted all day, our tents were buried by another snowstorm, the frost was complemented by a northern gale and we were all soaked. It was as if the evil demons of the Taiga conspired against us. We didn’t have a doctor with us, and when my condition did not 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.
But we weren’t leaving with nothing. We didn’t find proof that the places we found contained the mysterious metallic cauldrons. But we found something else, something just as significant. A pocket of titanium ore!
Coordinates for sale
While searching for the cauldrons, we found yet another place that from a bird’s eye view looked very peculiar. A light-colored, almost perfectly circular plain that turned out to be a circular field of rusty brown boulders. The compass needle went wild there. A magnetic mountain? Probably.
From a geological standpoint, the entire region is unique. Unlike elsewhere in the world, we didn’t have geest and sedimentary deposits underfoot; we trod on the sturdy, igneous Siberian peaks, which originated in the Archean Era. In some places, the peaks are pierced with vents filled with diamond-bearing mineral deposits, which makes them extraordinary. The largest diamond mine lies in the town of Mirnyj, the local regional center from which we embarked on our mission into the Taiga. The now-abandoned crater is 525 meters deep and has a diameter of an incredible 1200 meters. Diamonds, gold, rare elements…with a bit of luck, you can find it all here. Geologists rejoiced at the sight of a rock sample that I lugged from that magnetically anomalous zone in my backpack all the way to Prague. It was magnetite and ilmenite—iron and titanium ore. A very useful stone. Allegedly, we could sell the deposit’s coordinates to the Russians for a very favorable price.
What if the legend-shrouded cauldrons are just uncommon, or, in such measurements, unknown geological formations? Iron caps, or gossans, lava balls, giant spherical concretions, or geodes? The described interior stairwell could well have been imagined by fantasists and ufologists. What’s certain is that the earthly innards beneath the Siberian taiga conceal great wealth and many secrets, not just about precious diamonds but also about cauldrons--a disquieting mystery that remains unsolved.
by Ivan Mackerle
Old Yakutian legends described a series of destructive explosions and fire balls blasting from the earth during a battle between the gods Niurgun Bootur and Tong Duurai. Smooth, dome-shaped “iron houses” were left in the ruined taiga after the battle.
1853. Russian Siberian explorer R.K. Maak writes in his book Viliuysky okrug (The Viliuy Region) that the side of a giant, submerged metal cauldron protrudes from the ground near the Vilyuy tributary, but only the rim is visible and there are trees growing out of it.
1908. A yet-to-be-explained fiery ball known as the Tunguzs Meteorite exploded over Siberia. The so-called Chulym Bolid followed in 1984, copying the path of the Tunguzs Meteorite with surprising precision.
1989. N.D.Arkhipov, a researcher into ancient cultures of Yakutia writes in his book Drevnaya Yakutia (Ancient Yakutia) that among the population of the Viliuy basin there is a legend from ancient times about the existence in the upper reaches of that river of bronze cauldrons or olguis.
1996. A small Russian magazine publishes an article by ufologist A. Gutenev about the mystery of the cauldrons and the Valley of Death, which he attributed to extraterrestrials.
2004. Dr. Valerij Uvarov published a longer, more in-depth English version of the article on the internet, making the mystery known to the rest of the world.