The Legend of Barsa-Kelmes
Travel with me now to the plains of central Asia, to these seemingly endless expanses of sand and brush and wind. Formerly sunken beneath the now-dry Aral Sea, these wastes are now the domain of wild burro and antelope. Here and there a low prominence rises above the desert floor, and one of these was once the uninhabited island named Barsa-Kelmes. It was the largest island in the Aral Sea, measuring 23 by 7 kilometers, and being a barren spot in a now nonexistent lake in one of the most barren parts of the world, it would never have been particularly noteworthy — were it not for one of the most astounding collections of paranormal and unexplained phenomena said to have taken place there. Everything from pteranodons to missing time to vanishing populations has been associated with the island, and today we're going to find out how much of it is true, and what the source for the rest of it might be.
The Aral Sea itself is a lake on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. It's an endorheic sink, meaning a low spot that water drains into and that has no outlet. For about 20,000 years, it was the fourth largest lake in the world, kept full by the rivers that flowed into it. Since the 1800s it had an active fishing industry taking advantage of its rich populations of both native and imported fish species. But in the 1960s, the Soviet Union decided that it needed agriculture more than it needed a lake, and the rivers were all diverted to nourish the new Soviet farmlands. Ever since, the Aral Sea has been progressively drying up. Today it consists of about four small lakes totaling only a twentieth of the former sea's size, hopelessly polluted and salty. The many former islands like Barsa-Kelmes are now just part of the arid landscape; today you might speed right across them in your Land Rover and never know it.
Being in a part of the world so far removed from Western literature and culture, it's not surprising that many listeners may not have heard of Barsa-Kelmes. But mentions of it are out there, few and far between though they may be. One of the only sources that's commonly found in these mentions is a book by Nicholas Roerich called Heart of Asia. In this book, they say, Roerich tells a few of the yarns. In one, a group of several Kazakh families decided to move onto the island, but once they did so, no trace of them was ever again found.
Most of the island's stories come out of Russia. One of these is from Vladimir Babynin, a radio operator for a geodetic survey on the Aral Sea. Set ashore on Barsa-Kelmes with a party, he set up his radio equipment and checked in with the ship, though he was unable to reach anyone at the schedule time for contact. Finally he did, but only after 15 minutes of trying; and once contact was established, the ship accused him of being a full day late with the contact, and the whole party charged with being alcoholics. Other party members who had logged observations found the times of their entries disagreed by hours.
A stranger tale came down from Nurpeis Baizhanov, who told what happened to his father in the 1830s or 1840s. He was fishing on the lake with his crew when strong winds damaged their sail and forced them to land on an unfamiliar shore of Barsa-Kelmes. Along the low bluffs the elder Baizhanov found a cave, and in it, a large egg that he took at first for a stone. Upon being disturbed, the egg hatched and a black creature crawled out of it. It was the size of a calf and had claws and wings as large as the boat's sail. Its head was a terrifying beak, longer than the creature's whole body, and filled with teeth. They called it a shaitan, a sort of devil in Islamic mythology.
Returning to the island on a later trip, he found an abandoned yurt, and inside the yurt he was shocked to find the long dead corpse of the shaitan. He did collect a tooth from it, which his son had kept, and had it identified by a paleontology museum as being that of a Jurassic-era pteranodon.
The island's association with time slips or changes in the speed of time is also showcased in a traditional tale called "Koblandy-batyr and Seven Brothers". It concerns a great hero named Koblandy who fights to defend a young woman against seven brothers who wish her to marry against her will. He battles them but is compelled to retreat to Barsa-Kelmes, where he rests for three days and three nights. So refreshed, he returns to the shore to resume his battle, whereupon he finds the seven brothers now all old men, 33 years older than before. So terrified are they by what seems — to them — to be Koblandy's ability to defy old age that they immediately surrender to him, and he takes their best horse in prize and rescues the girl — who had spent those same 33 years waiting on a mountaintop for him.
We could go on devoting whole shows to the rest of the lore about the island, such as that it's claimed to exist on one of the Earth's metaphysical "ley lines" proposed by paranormalist Ivan T. Sanderson; plesiosaurs and their bones; or stories of fishermen having explored the barracks of a secret military base on the island, manned by soldiers wearing unmarked uniforms and carrying laser weapons. These tales go on ad infinitum.
But I was most eager to find one strange tale in particular, the one said to be in Roerich's book Heart of Asia: Memoirs of the Himalaya, so I managed to get my hands on a copy, which wasn't easy. It tells all sorts of poetic tales from various cultures throughout the Himalayas, and is quite a lovely book. But my version was a 1990 edition, and I noticed the author Nicholas Roerich died in 1947. Looking more closely at what I had, I found it was an English translation of two books, Heart of Asia and Shambala, both written much earlier under his original name Nikolaĭ Rërikh; Heart of Asia in 1929 and Shambala (or Shambhala) written in a year I could not immediately determine. But Heart of Asia is where the story is said to come from.
So I went through the entire book carefully. And guess what I found: Nothing. Nothing at all, nothing even remotely resembling the story of people visiting an island, or missing time in any capacity; Roerich's narrative of his travels never even came within thousands of kilometers of the Aral Sea or either Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. Apparently, someone either made something up, or got something very wrong.
So the red flags start flying. The next thing I did was to go back to the translation of Barsa-Kelmes, which is consistently reported to mean something like "Island of No Return" or "Who goes there will not return" or "You will not return" in Kazakh. Google Translate is a very helpful starting point to see whether a claimed translation is on the right track or not, but of course we always go to a native speaking community for the final verdict. So I took it to two Kazakh language groups on Facebook. Barsa-Kelmes literally translates to something like "I don't want to go," and my best distillation of the discussion around its common interpretation is that it's similar to English phrases we'd use like "Badlands" or "No Man's Land", a place you probably don't want to go, which is a perfectly reasonable name for such a barren island so far from anywhere. The whole idea of "Island of No Return" is just a dramatization invented by the storytellers.
And in this case we know who the storytellers were, because they wrote up the whole case and published it. It stemmed from Grigory Neverov, president of KLF, a prominent club for science fiction fans at Moscow State University. In 1990 he put out a call for local stories of the paranormal that anyone might know. Stepping up to answer the call was Sergey Lukyanenko, then just a young student but today a very famous Russian science fiction and fantasy author. Lukyanenko remembered an article published in 1959 titled "The Mystery of the Island of Barsa-Kelmes" by journalist G. Novozhilov. In that article, Novozhilov told the story of the pteranodon, from the perspective of a narrator in conversation with the late fisherman's son.
Lukyanenko thought that idea sounded pretty good, but also that it could use some more beef. And so he wrote up the basics of some of the other stories surrounding Barsa-Kelmes, sourced from his own imagination, and submitted it all to Neverov. Neverov was hooked, and asked Lukyanenko for more. He supplied more, but also finally let Neverov in on the joke. But that was OK, as they wrote science fiction, not science fact. Together they expanded the lore of Barsa-Kelmes, and Neverov published it in 1991 under the title "Island: You Will Not Return" in the magazine Tekhnika Molodyozhi, sort of a Soviet version of Popular Science. It went crazy viral. The article inspired fan bases and clubs of its own, and was a ravenous black hole sucking new fan fiction and new additions to the story from anyone who would contribute them. In a 1993 letter to Lukyanenko, Neverov noted with pride that they had succeeded in "The birth of a new myth."
Toward the end of 1992, Lukyanenko managed to arrange a meeting with Novozhilov himself, who was then 90 years old. He published an account of their meeting in KLF in 1994. They enjoyed a chuckle over the whole episode. Novozhilov even showed an old letter he'd received from the Academy of Sciences of Kazakhstan, in which they asked if he still had the pteranodon tooth! At that point, Novozhilov freely confessed that he made the entire thing up, saying:
But it is Novozhilov's final words that Lukyanenko took down that perhaps best capture the history of the Barsa-Kelmes legend, teaching a lesson so relevant to so much of what we hear today:
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