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November 1, 2014 / oneworld82

Steppe, Nomads, and Mausoleums: from Shymkent to Turkistan

Kazakhstan doesn’t possess many historical sites. Most of this immense land is steppe, and the cities dotting this huge continental mass have, more or less, been built in the last two centuries or so. But Turkistan is a notable exception.

Yet, before getting to Turkistan I had to get to Shymkent. This is the biggest city in southern Kazakhstan, and one of the least Russian-influenced ones – in fact, it’s very much a Turkic city. My taxi run between the border and Shymkent was nothing short of interesting. First of all, the driver and the other three passengers spoke no English whatsoever (the passengers looked pretty Russian-Kazakhs, the driver more 100% Kazakh); second, all three Russian passengers were big – think football player big!; third, they decided to squeeze me in the middle seat in the back. Oh boy – I thought to myself – here we go on an unforgettable 2 hour drive to Shymkent. After a few minutes, one of them started to speak to me and asking me things in Russian; he was very disappointed when you saw I could not speak any Russian – and I believe the all the four other people in the car started making fun of me. Such is life. But this big fella did not give up in his intent of establishing communication channels with me, and he asked me what I thought was “where are you from?”. I inferred that because he started to name countries in Russian, so I just said “Italy!”, and brought out my passport. Magically – just as it had happened half a hour before at the Uzbek border post – these three Russian men started laughing and naming Italian singers that I myself barely knew and soccer players that I thought were known only in Italy. It was all very bizarre, but it sets the mood right for the ride (and definitely put me at ease).

The two-hour drive to Shymkent cuts through some hills but it’s, overall, monotonous. It’s not farmland but not steppe either. The road is in good condition and pretty trafficked, and we reached Shymkent in time. This city is bustling with activity, and it’s not a small place (600,000 people call it home); here, my Italian passport saved me once again.

As we were approaching the city, the driver started asking the various passengers where they would like to be dropped off. The guy next to me asked me which hotel I was staying at (Hotel Altair), and when I told him the name I only got a blank stare in return. Great. I gave him my phone number and he called the hotel for me to get direction. Next thing I know, I was going to be dropped off at another hotel – the Bellagio (sic) because my original hotel was sold out. The guy figured everything out and without any hassle I got to my new hotel. I later found out that my original hotel was full, and so they had re-accommodated me at a comparable hotel ( would later refund me the difference between the two hotels – great customer service). I can only imagine what I would have done without these folks helping me out! Since in this part of the country almost no-one (I am not even exaggerating) speaks anything but Kazakh and Russian, their help was invaluable!

The Hotel Bellagio was a rather new property, but nothing fancy really. Rooms were clean and big, and wifi was fast. The staff had very limited English skills, a pity given how pretty the woman working at the check-in desk was (grin). There is no doubting that Russian women are, on average, among the most beautiful out there. Period. I wasn’t particularly hungry when I got to the hotel, and I did not have any Tenge with me since I had used them all to pay my driver; since there was no ATM to be found nearby, I just decided to stay in surfing the net. Needless to say, by 9pm I got pretty hungry, but I was too lazy to do anything about it and just called it a night early.

After a decent breakfast in the morning, I met my driver for my day trip to Turkistan. This modest town was once a stop along one of the many Silk Road trading routes connecting East and West, and it was thriving on commerce. Then Timur came, and he decided to build in Turkistan what’s today the most astonishing architectural monument in the country: the Yasawi Mausoleum. Khoja Ahmed Yasawi was the head of  a regional sufi order and he was the one who spread sufism across Central Asia. As such, he is revered among all Turkic people, and his mausoleum is a pilgrimage spot for all Central Asian people.

Turkistan is about 180 km away from Shymkent – roughly a 2-hour drive. the highway is mostly in excellent state – bar a few stretches under renovation. What’s impressive of this drive? The scenery. The more we went northwest, the more we entered the famous Kazakh steppe. The landscape was neither arid nor prairie; it was something in between – which is what the steppe is, after all. I saw not many settlement and not many farms; the soil is too poor to sustain agriculture, but it’s fertile enough to allow bushes and low vegetation to survive. This is the land that the renowned Kazakh nomads call home – and I saw a lot of them long the way indeed: herds of horses, camels, sheep came and went one after another in what certainly is a unique, surreal landscape.

This building was erected by Timur, who died before its completion. The interesting thing is that his death halted the construction of the monument, which still today remains only partially built. This is the only attraction the town has to offer – but it’s definitely worth the effort to come here for a visit.

Once parked outside the complex, I walked towards the mausoleum through an ample boulevard lined by vendors and souvenir shops. There were a lot of pilgrims visiting, and as it was a very hot day retailers were busy selling water to the visitors. Once I reached the end of the lane, I could admire the mausoleum in all its beauty. The building is truly grand, in pure Timurid style. It reminded me of the equivalent of a Romanic cathedral – solid, well-planted, massive – but with the distinctive Central Asian tileworks that added a unique touch to the ensemble.

Next to the main temple lies the Mausoleum of Rabiga-Sultan Begum, Timur’s great-granddaughter and wife of Abylkayyr Khan, a 15th-century leader of the then-nomadic Uzbeks.

The fortified walls of the complex still stand in a great state of conservation.

It’s no wonder that this site has been declared UNESCO World Heritage – it’s just too bad that, for now, getting here is not that easy.

Back to the car  Ifound my driver waiting for my two-hour drive back to Shymkent. The entire drive was rather awkward, given that he didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Russian/Kazakh. Imagine sitting two hours next to a person you cannot even say good morning to…! But I got absorbed into the scenery, dozed off a little, and in no time we were back to Shymkent. I somehow managed to get dropped off near the city center instead that at the hotel, as I wanted to explore the city a bit. Shymkent doesn’t lack tree-lined boulevards and interesting Soviet-era buildings, and a fair amount of construction work is going on aimed at fixing the city’s streets.

I got dropped-off on Tauke-Khan, not far the Mega Shymkent Mall. The area was bustling with activity.

The Mega Shymkent Mall is a modern and air-conditioned space with lots of stores and a food court. ATMs, a bank, a grocery store, and an ice rink are among the attractions. Here, the most bizarre thing ever happened to me. I was wearing my red Cornell t-shirt that day (go Big Red!), and while I was minding my business I hear someone calling “hey, Cornell!”. I turned around and, to my surprise, I saw a group of young Americans standing in the middle of the mall. It turned out that was the US Wrestling National Team that was in Shymkent training for the Wrestling World Championships that would be held in Tashkent the week after. A rather odd encounter for sure.

Mega Mall

Mega Mall


Ayran – Fermented camel milk

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Laghman - so delicious!

Laghman – so delicious!

I then walked back to the hotel – around 30 minutes away – and spent the night blogging and watching a movie before going to sleep. My long journey back home would begin the next day.

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All in all, Turkistan was amazing and Shymkent was worth a stop; while the former possesses an incredible architectural wonder, the latter provided me with a view onto a big Kazakh city removed from the glamour of Almaty or Astana. While Shymkent is not a pretty city, it’s definitely a vibrant place; what I was interested to see was how average Kazakh city dwellers fare in a big city. While not rich yet, it’s palpable that living standards are on the rise and that, sooner rather than later, this country will be a fully-developed nation with high living standards. Putin permitting, that is.


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