Search This Blog

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


On the last day of our trip to southern Kazakhstan, some of us went to visit some sites in and around the historic city of Turkistan (also spelled Turkestan).  Our choices were to be taken hiking in a canyon or go to Turkistan, and while both options sounded tempting, Turkistan won out in the end since Scott is a historian, and particularly since he has been teaching a class on the history of Kazakhstan.

The place where we were staying arranged transportation, so early in the morning, those of us going to Turkistan loaded up in a minibus.  Our first stop was at the local train station to pick up some other travelers who were joining us.  There isn't much to say about them.  It seemed clear to me and all the people I had been traveling with that they were experiencing some sort of awful tension among themselves.  There might well have been a good reason for it, but suffice to say that this won't turn into one of those cheesy stories about making lifelong friends out of people we met on a daylong tour.

We rode in the bus for quite a while, enjoying views of red poppies and small local mosques from the window.  The first stop we made was to see the ruins of Otrar.  According to one of the Russian speakers in our group, the minibus driver commented that there was nothing to see there, just a pile of rocks.  Truthfully, to the uninitiated, his comment seemed rather apt.  Scott told me to think of it as evidence of Chinghis Khan's destruction.

Our next stop was the Aristan-Bab Mausoleum, for an early mentor of the Turkic sufi scholar Kozha Ahmed Yasaui.  There was a well there from which people were drinking, but I never learned the story behind that water.

Then, it was on to Turkistan for lunch and for the Kozha Ahmed Yasaui mausoleum, which built by Tamerlane in the 14th century.  Tamerlane died before it was completed, so while the back side is adorned in colorful tiles, the main facade remained unfinished, to the extent that the scaffolding poles are still there.

Unfinished main facade

Close-up of the scaffolding poles

Beautiful tile work in the back

Close-up of some of the tile designs.  Some of the tiles looked pretty old, while some looked very recently restored.
Most of the women who visited this mausoleum covered their heads, but quite a few of them had bare arms and legs.  This interested me because at many religious sites in the Middle East, you can rent long, hooded cloaks to wear.  I was also interested to see that shubat, or fermented camel's milk, was being sold right outside, despite being alcoholic.

Of more general interest, there was also a very cool furry camel right outside.  The poor critter was making sort of disgruntled sounding noises.  It was a pretty warm day, and I imagine he might have been sort of uncomfortable.

We didn't see too much of the town of Turkistan, but what we saw seemed to be on sort of hard times.  Not everyone in Astana is wealthy by a long shot, but quite a lot of money there is spent on modern buildings and the like.  Despite Turkistan's historical importance and relatively large population (112,000 according to my Lonely Planet guide), it did not seem like a particularly affluent town.

Then it was on to Shymkent, where we were to eat dinner and catch a flight back to Astana.  Our group had to decide whether we wanted to either (a) go directly to the Shymkent airport and have a long wait, but not worry about making our flight, or (b) going to a restaurant and then making our way to the airport.  We decided on the latter option, and I'm glad we did.  The restaurant was air conditioned, a pleasant change after a day spent on a hot, crowded minibus.  The food was very good, it was a good chance to chat and unwind.  Also, it turned out that the Shymkent airport was quite small, and relatively lacking in both seats and food options.  On top of that, it also had a wide swath of unguarded wet cement inside, as we found out when Scott stepped in it on our way to the security line.  We heard a guy screaming "Nyet, nyet!" when it was already too late.  We spent enough time in that airport to make our mark; no additional time there was necessary.

I'm glad we saw the sites in and around Turkistan, but I think the day demonstrated some of the difficulties of travel in Kazakhstan.  For one thing, Kazakhstan is a very large country, and distances between sites can be quite long.  They seem even longer when you are in a hot, crowded minibus.  Infrastructure is also not evenly developed throughout the country.  Some of the roads we traveled were extremely bumpy, and toilets seemed to be quite few and far between.  Then there was the language barrier.  We were lucky to always be in the company of at least one Russian speaker, which helped tremendously, but Kazakh seemed to be the more dominant language in parts of the south.  (I would actually love to learn some Kazakh, particularly since my students are always telling me about words Kazakh and Arabic have in common, but I haven't had a good opportunity, and it isn't all that widely used in Astana).

We arrived in Astana sometime after midnight.  We had a wonderful time on our trip to southern Kazakhstan, and we're so happy we were able to see a new part of the country with friends.

No comments:

Post a Comment