Kazakhstan: Turk on Me

Despite being Kazakhstan’s third city, not many tourists venture to Shymkent to sightsee in the city itself (in fact I don’t think many tourists venture there at all). Instead it is used as a base to visit nearby Turkistan which has much more to satisfy the average sightseer. In my original plan way back when, I had wanted to visit Uzbekistan along with the other two stans I’d been travelling round. Excitingly, Uzbekistan announced visa free entry for UK citizens in 2017… and then changed its mind (EDIT: As of 2020, it has changed its mind again and UK citizens can enter visa free). I could have gone through the long and stressful visa application process but I really just couldn’t be faffed on this occasion so I decided to save Uzbekistan for next time.

To get a flavour of the amazing Uzbek architecture though, there is Turkistan, about a 2 hour drive from Shymkent. It is home to a beautiful 14th century mausoleum and tomb which give a hint of what’s to be expected a few hundred kilometres away in Uzbekistan. Getting to Turkistan is theoretically easy. Marshrutkas (much fancier than I was used to at this point) drive there regularly from Shymkent’s Samal bus terminal (the same place the Taraz marshrutka drops you off). Getting to Turkistan wasn’t a problem. Getting to Samal was.

Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

First I got on the right bus in the wrong direction. Then I went to the wrong bus station and then finally I jumped on the smallest minibus I’d ever seen for a painful and uncomfortable ride to the correct bus station. My luck did then turn as the marshrutka only needed one more person and I was soon on my way. The fare from Shymkent to Turkistan was 800 tenge.

The bus station is about a half an hour walk from the mausoleum though you could probably request to jump off earlier since I think the marshrutka passes by it. I opted to walk and was struck by how much more “together” Turkistan felt in comparison to Shymkent. With proper pavements and a bit more structure to it, it felt a bit less hodge-podge than its neighbour.

It wasn’t long until I reached a nice little park with the mausoleum situated behind. By this point, it was midday and was very hot. After cool Kyrgyzstan, I was still adapting to the heat of the Kazakh desert. I staggered into the mausoleum grounds caked in sweat. This was soon forgotten though as I was struck by the beauty and intricacy of the mausoleum. If you’ve travelled to the likes of Iran and Uzbekistan, it would probably be underwhelming but for me it was my first taste of the striking Middle Eastern architecture I’d seen so much of in books and online. It certainly whetted my appetite for visiting other countries in the region and seeing more of this sort of thing.

The mausoleum and grounds

There are all sorts of historical sites around the mausoleum, including a cool fort which gives you a nice view of the city. Ordinarily, the entry fee is 500 tenge but there was no ticket booth when I walked in. I’m not sure if it’s because it was Ramadan or they’ve just stopped charging. After spending a couple of hours wandering round, I hoisted my sweaty body back to the bus station where a marshrutka was waiting. The fare back to Shymkent is just less than the outgoing journey at 700 tenge.

I’d say if you’re in the area, Turkistan is well worth a day trip. After the striking nature I’ve seen in Central Asia it was great to do a bit of good old fashioned sightseeing and ignite a passion inside me to travel round more of this fascinating and unpredictable part of the world.

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