The Cupp-Coutunn Karst Cave System, located on the western slope of the southern edge of the Kugitangtau Ridge, is the largest karst system in limestone on the territory of the former USSR. The system deserves its place among ten of the most interesting caves in the world, both for the variety and the uniqueness of its mineralogy, as well as in the aesthetic value of its formations. The geological formations of the Cup Coutunn System are included in the draft of the new publications of the UNESCO World Heritage List in the section of objects of nonclassified importance. Today, the total extension of the cave system exceeds 80km, and the length of its largest cave ( the Cupp- Coutunn II cave) is 56km. The caves suffered a hard fate during the periods of industrial exploitation of marble onyx (striped flowstone) which was stopped by the public in 1981. In addition, the system has endured periods of invasion by collectors and "barbaric" tourists, as well as battles between powerful local authorities for control over the caves. Nevertheless, the speleologists conducting research on the cave system have managed to keep the most interesting areas safe and sound.
The mineralogy of karst caves is in principle a very interesting and specific field of knowledge. The characteristics of this field are determined by a few main factors, such as: (1) the role of theoretical modelling. This role prevails over the role of analytics, in which the use of nondestructive methods of field diagnostics is a priority. It is quite natural that these atypically mineralized caves are a great rarity, and their complete destruction might take place literally after only a few savage visits; (2) the absence of state support. The lack of struggle for state money and scientific degrees between researchers creates very specific, simple, and pleasant interrelations; (3) joint activity concerning research on the caves among mineralogists and speleologists of various interests who are broadly educated people possessing a good dose of romanticism (otherwise they could not possibly have chosen such a hobby) and giving extremely interesting and sometimes fruitful ideas "on the side"; (4) the absence of hurry. The results of research are published only when the author really wants and in the way the author wants (sometimes even in the form of the naked ideas). The technique of writing the article is rather curious. The majority of researchers from various cities and countries meet each other only in the caves themselves, having brought all the necessary material with them. Hence, if the writing process of a particular article has matured and especially if the article has more than one author, then the train from Samarkand to Moscow is a standard place of the publication's realization. The record-breaking achievement is a 65-page survey written in English by C.Self and me during two and a half days for the Proceedings of the Bristol University Speleological Society.
Unfortunately, recently the above described idyll has been slightly disturbed by amateurs organizing "international scientific expeditions" to the Cupp-Coutunn Cave System on a commercial basis. The amateurs on these types of expeditions do not even have topographical materials, not to mention other necessary things. Naturally, there is no sense in such expeditions, but the fuss is so great, even if one put aside the direct damage to the caves. For example, it was recommended for fifty participants of the Russian-Kirghiz-English "expedition" in 1990 to use carbide lamps in the caves, which are particularly sensitive changes in the thermal regime and where no light ecxept electric light is acceptable to use. The amateur investigations had another interesting effect. In the time of stagnation in the USSR, it was so difficult to publish a large scientific paper which did not concern the official "thematics" of one's institute that people often were too lazy to become entangled with the process. As a consequence, only brief articles on the Cup Coutunn Cave System were published in Russian, and the main survey articles were printed abroad. As a result, this paper is the first large article about these caves to appear in a Russian publication. I have chosen this periodical in particular because of its character, which allows the promotion of a somewhat different balance between proved and working hypotheses (which are abundant due to the above described peculiarities of the field) than the balance presented in a purely scientific publication. Naturally, the contents of this paper are slightly subjective and in a few places even debatable. It is specially noted everywhere in the text where geological-mineralogical formations are discussed. I adhere to the conceptions of the scientists in my circle, from whom I have permission to publish ideas which were jointly formulated in the majority of cases. Such remarks are absent in those parts of the text where philosophical and political categories are discussed, though the debatable and even apocryphal conceptions are present. For example, usually in the speleological world, any discussions on the removal of samples from caves are taboo; therefore I present only my own point of view supported also by my closest colleagues.