Kazakhstan

Turkestan, Kazakhstan

Drawing on years of experience as an academic, journalist and general enthusiast of the Central Asian region, P exited our train in Turkestan and spoke thusly:

“Holy f*&#, this is the crappiest place we’ve ever traveled to on purpose.”

To be fair, you’ll rarely find an inspiring part of any city around its train tracks. And there was nothing wrong with the station in Turkestan, exactly, but as we looked out over the dusty town that tapered off on all sides into endless steppe we both felt a little underwhelmed.

Wandering around town in search of lunch, I felt more conspicuously foreign than ever before in Kazakhstan. In clunky walking shoes and a windbreaker the color of radioactive peas, I wasn’t doing myself any favors. But I also felt the absence of the Russian minority population that disguises me, at least until I open my mouth, in bigger cities.

We stopped for lunch at a shashlik shack whose only indoor component was the kitchen. An older woman smiled warmly at us and motioned us towards a plastic table and chairs near the door. As we worked our way through a freshly baked lepyoshka, a bowl of lagman, two lamb shashliks and a pot of pitch black tea for less than I’d spend on a sandwich back in Almaty, my feelings towards Turkestan improved tremendously.

The rest of our afternoon was set aside for the star of the show and Turkestan’s raison d’etre, the mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yassawi. I had no regrets about going 200 miles out of my way to see it because it’s one of the only impressive examples of Silk Road architecture left in Kazakhstan.

 

Visitors At Yasawi's Mausoleum, Turkestan

 

When people want to get whimsical about this region, they call upon the lore of the mighty Silk Road. The Silk Road is used, with mixed results, to entice travelers to the area, and to brand pretty much everything from food stalls to shopping malls for locals. More importantly, the Silk Road plays heavily into Kazakhstan’s national identity. It holds together the idea of a shared history; A distinct Kazakh culture that existed before the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and today’s Republic. Whether or not it’s useful to superimpose modern national borders over maps from a time when most people were stateless and lived nomadic lifestyles, the symbol of the great Silk Road remains.

So with Uzbekistan getting the lion’s share of Islamic architectural masterpieces from the heyday of the Silk Road, Yasawi’s mausoleum is a jewel in Kazakhstan. Although it was never finished, it bears the signature stunning tile work and onion-shaped domes of all the great monuments of the day. Built for Yassawi, a prominent Sunni Muslim poet and scholar who helped spread Islam throughout Central Asia, the site provides a deeply religious experience for many of its visitors. It is said that for (Central Asian) Muslims who can’t realistically afford to go to Mecca, three trips to Yassawi’s mausoleum are an acceptable substitute.

As we started across the archeological site towards the mausoleum, we were still the only ‘Westerners’ on the scene. But we were joined by people who had clearly traveled farther and wider than us to be there: Urban Kazakhs speaking the textbook Russian of Almaty and Astana, Uzbeks from both sides of the border, Tajiks, Azeris, and a large group from Afghanistan. Entrance to the mausoleum was free, but an attendant kept watch over the visitors, handing out head scarves to underprepared women and smiling serenely at each person to enter the door.

The inside is unfinished. There is no decoration, the walls left startlingly white. I admired instead the tapestry of sound drifting out of the tomb chamber, woven from the combined prayers of thirty people each murmuring their own verses at a respectful volume. Without the rigidness and custom of a mosque, or a church or temple for that matter, I worried less about what I was supposed to do, where I was supposed to go, and how my presence would be received. It was one of the most peaceful and organically spiritual places I’ve ever been.

The outside of the mausoleum was easily the grandest thing I’ve seen in Kazakhstan, a satisfying symbol at last of the empire that existed before Russia reached down into Central Asia. A not unworldly friend of mine was delighted when I showed her the pictures.

There it is.”

“There what is?”

“That’s what I imagined when you told me you were going to Kazakhstan.”

 

Back Side Of Yasawi's Mausoleum

 

For more on traveling in southern and western Kazakhstan, check out Nauryz Kutty Bolsyn and Clouds Of Kyzylorda

8 Comments

  1. Kazakhstan is on my list of places to go and loved reading this article. It reminds me a lot of similar architectural wonders I have seen in Iran. I was wondering if Turkestan was wirth it, but this post convinced me I should include it.

    • Yes! Absolutely find time for Turkestan. It’s really the only place in Kazakhstan where you can see this type of architecture. I’d actually recommend Uzbekistan for wall-to-wall Silk Road masterpieces on the level of Iran’s mosques and mausoleums, but it’s a much harder country to get into. Kazakhstan, on the other hand, is rapidly becoming so much more foreigner friendly!

  2. Wow! Sounds incredible. Definitely on my bucket list! Thanks for sharing!

  3. This is definitely a part of the world I’d love to explore. The architecture looks incredible! How budget-friendly a destination is it?

    • I can’t say the architecture in the rest of Kazakhstan measures up to Yasawi’s mausoleum, but there are other Silk Road masterpieces in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. In general Central Asia is an amazing place to visit and is dirt cheap to get around in (buses, trains, taxis) but accommodation is a little more. In the town of Turkestan we got a really nice hotel for about $30 a night. But in the big cities (Almaty, Astana) you’d have to triple that.

  4. Such intricate design and architecture! Im not surprised that you were the only Westerners there..its not a place most people would think to go. Exactly why I like it and am interested to go!
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  5. I’ve always wanted to visit Kazakhstan, but I’ve always wondered how safe I would feel since I usually travel alone. You’re pictures are breathtaking.

    • Kazakhstan is very safe! I spent 9 months in Almaty (the former capital) and it was a great place to live. No street harassment, very little violent crime, and to speak frankly, if you look east asian or white, most people wouldn’t even peg you as an outsider. Knowing some Russian is important (a few phrases at least, even if you’re only staying a week), but otherwise Kazakhstan is probably the most accessible country in the region. I hope you get there one day :)

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