Location – Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, Ishkashim district. 47km from Khorugh along the road to Ishkashim, KuhiLa’l Valley.
The legendary mountain of La’ls – Kuhi-La’l – is located on the left side of the valley of the same name, on the south slope of the Kuhi-La’l range and on the right side of the Panj River. Midway between Khorugh and Ishkashim, you need to turn left off the main road and climb the slope of the mountain towards Kuhi-La’l village, which is located 200m higher than the Panj River.
About 8km from the village, after several bends in the road, you reach the mountain. It is easily visible from the highway and, if you look closely, you can see the tracks of mining galleries: stripes from old roads and dump areas. In ancient times, stones of a pink-red colour were mined “somewhere in the east” and called la’ls. The stones were well-known as balakhshi or balashi. But the stone has another name – precious spinel. This name is widely used today in modern mineralogy and the jewellery business. Spinel looks like ruby or sanguine garnet (carbuncle), and it always was the most respected of the red precious stones in Middle Eastern countries. It continues to serve in some languages as a synonym for something beautiful and perfect.
Poets have compared it to sparkling red wine or the beautiful lips of the beloved. Numerous legends are connected with spinels from this area. One tale is of two brothers who came here from Afghanistan to try their fate in la’l mining. They were lucky, and after long and hard work they found many spinels. However, one of the brothers decided to keep all the spinels to himself, so he killed his brother, took all the stones, and fled.
On his way home he decided to look at his wealth. When he untied his cherished packet, he was greatly disappointed – the precious stones had become ordinary black coals. He was so shocked that he went mad and died. The locals connect the legend with the saying that the La’l is such a pure stone that it cannot bear treachery, envy, or unworthy people. Anyone acquiring it by wrongdoing will die. When valuing red gemstones, there has often been confusion due to the similarity between spinel and ruby. History has many stories of famous and rare stones being taken for rubies for a long time, when in reality it was actually spinel. About 10,000m3 of rock were extracted here. Traces of work done with hacks, wedges, chisels and awls are preserved on the walls. In the late 1950s, geological work began in the deposit, extracting precious stones, boring galleries, and using a variety of means to remove rocks containing the crystals.
It was not a long wait for the results: in July 1985 a 5,880g precious spinel crystal, without comparison among any other stones discovered in KuhiLa’l and other deposits, was extracted. This unique precious stone was named “60 years of GBAO” (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast). In the Pamirs today, precious raw materials are not only extracted but also processed. In Porshnev village near Khorugh, there is a stone-processing plant which produces jewellery and industrial goods for sale. To see the legendary mountain it is necessary to drive to Ishkashim from Khorugh.
After a Y-intersection near Andarob village, from where a road goes to the famous GarmChashma hot spring, you need to continue on the main highway and turn to KuhiLa’l after approximately 5-6km. After the Y-intersection to GarmChashma the turn to KuhiLa’l is the second one. (The first one leads to Dasht village – it is important not to take the wrong one!)
The most intensive work in the KuhiLa’l mine was done in the 9-15th centuries. At that time mining of minerals, including spinel, was professional, and miners knew how to prospecting for new deposits. In the 19th century, some primitive-looking extraction took place, with many interruptions. The “fire” method was used for the process. Very often, rock containing precious stones was broken into small pieces, and then the precious crystals were beat out of the shards, resulting in the stones being damaged and relatively small.
However, some larger and better-quality samples were produced as well.
The level of ancient mining is surprising. About 500 old mines, located in 5-6 rich zones, were recorded in the deposit. The horizontal and vertical workings join 50 halls, the biggest of which was about 12m wide, 22m long and 8m high. The total depth of the mined space is 40-50m. The works were carried out on three levels. The total stretch of the visible workings is about 500m.