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.
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.”