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krisek Turkistan - A travel report by Krys
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Turkistan,  Kazakhstan - flag Kazakhstan -  Ongtüstik Qazaqstan
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krisek's travel reports

Great Silk Road. Kazakhstan. Awesome Turkistan.

  8 votes
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Turkistan on UNESCO's World Heritage List was the main reason why I decided to go to Kazakhstan. When I got there, I was truly impressed. The size of the mausoleum was immense, easily rivaling Egyptian temples!

Turkistan travelogue picture
This is what UNESCO said about the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi when listing it as a World Heritage Site in 2003: "The Mausoleum (...) is an outstanding achievement in the Timurid architecture, and it has significantly contributed to the development of Islamic religious architecture. The mausoleum and its site represent an exceptional testimony to the culture of the Central Asian region, and to the development of building technology. It was a prototype for the development of a major building type in the Timurid period, becoming a significant reference in the history of Timurid architecture."

This structure alone was the very reason why I decided to go to Kazakhstan while I was planning a trip in the area. I tried not to pay too much attention to what UNESCO said. I wanted to come to my own conclusions.

The mausoleum exceeded my expectations by far. First of all, I did not expect it to be this massive. The front of the structure, which resembled a fusion between a Mughal and Sahel architectural styles, was so huge that it rivaled gigantic Egyptian temples. It was remarkably free from colourful decorations revealing the earth-colour brickwork, and the wooden logs sticking out. Then, the domes were classical mosque. Emerald, with stalactite style decorative motif at the lower rim of the dome, and the cream or coffee-&-cream colour neck with Quran calligraphy decorations below. The second, lower dome, had the ice-cream style Samarkand-style effect, decorated with colourful tiles. Astonishingly, the back door to the main building was where the majority of elaborate decorations could be found. The small portal was glittering with multiple colours of the meticulously laid out ceramic tiles. In addition, all sides (except the front of course) were tiled over creating colourful patterns. That was something unusual as the majority of the Islamic buildings I knew of had only the main iwans decorated and the back and sides were usually undecorated.

Favourite spots:
Turkistan travelogue picture
The memorial was built at the time of Timur (Tamerlane), from 1389 to 1405. The construction was aborted and the mausoleum had been left partly unfinished. The Persian architects experimented with various and rather pioneering architectural and structural solutions later used in the construction of Samarkand, the capital of the Timurid Empire at that time. The mausoleum remains one of the largest and best-preserved constructions of the Timurid period. It is truly gigantic. There are no words to describe it adequately. There is no structure like it anywhere else in the world. And inside, it surprisingly feels small and almost cozy. This is because there are several rooms inside. There are two places of worship (there are likely to be mosques, but I do not want to speculate) and a few rooms with remains of very important people, and even rooms-cum-museums with antique furniture.

What's really great:
Turkistan travelogue picture
The park surrounding the complex, planted mainly with roses made a superb impression, particularly due to its unprecedented scale. It was like a sea of roses. It was excellently managed and the rose bushes looked impressive. Red colour flowers dominated.

On the approach to the main site, there was a pedestrianised alley with benches under small trees. At one of the sides, a number of small businesses opened, including shops, cafes, a photographic shop, etc. It was very convenient and the lack of traffic made the spot really pleasant, apart from a few beggars specifically targeting foreigners. If you gave them too little money, they would toss it on the pavement! I could not believe my own eyes when I saw that. Not a pleasant episode in this otherwise utterly magical and unrivaled place. Luckily it was enough to look the other way to quickly recover from the displeasing situation.

Turkistan travelogue picture
Apart from the centerpiece UNESCO-listed memorial, there were a couple of very old baths right next to it, which received a fair number of visitors, who trickled in and out in streams of single lines of people. Like ducks. I am not very fond of public baths, except the very ancient Roman ones, so I did not go inside. From the outside, interestingly, the sites of the baths offered rather good views of the entire complex, except the walls of the perimeter of the entire complex, which meant excellent spots for taking photographs.

There was little to see in Turkistan otherwise. I saw a few intriguingly looking mosques and churches, architecture of which indicated that they might have been erected fairly recently. I did not have time to explore them.

Ordabasy Hotel, Room no.303.
Ordabasy Hotel, Room no.303.
There was at least one decent hotel in Turkistan, Hotel Edem charging $45 per night. I eventually did not end up staying there due to the delays at the Uzbek/Kazakh border. Instead I stayed in Shymkent. Ordabasy Hotel was located across the roundabout where the old mosque with golden dome stood, next to the monument of the old Mig Soviet aircraft fighter. My single room (#303, $40, incl. breakfast) was light, had a balcony overlooking the mosque and the aircraft, double size bed and sat TV with Russian-dubbed channels plus CNN. Bathroom was however a little horrifying. The bath tube was old and really dirty. Toilet bowl was European style but wobbly and cried for some heavy-duty bleach. At least the air-con worked well and the bed sheets were clean. I did not spot any bugs anywhere either. The hotel was well located and the receptionist was very helpful. It was her who told me about cheap buses to the airport, and good value places to eat.

Turkistan travelogue picture
Turkistan did not see much action at night. Had I heard about something spectacular, I would have decided to stay overnight in the city, and not in Shymkent.

Shymkent was a much larger city and a better place to go out, but even there venues were not that obvious. In the park by the cinema, there were a few cafes, which sometimes put a loud music on or even a live band. The quality of the bands was... to put it lightly from questionable to very bad. If the singers were no miming, then the live singing was excruciating. Sometimes it was of an average karaoke quality, but my problem was that the bands seemed to hate their act. There was no enthusiasm in their singing and playing at all. Almost as if they were forced to do it. Anyway, there was no shortage of drinks, which normally contributes to a better appreciation of the nightlife. Even if the drinks contained only fruit juice or a combination of spices from around the world, caramel and water.

Turkistan travelogue picture
The walls near the mausoleum looked really solid. Perhaps in the past, the wall surrounded the entire complex. When I visited, a part of it (fair length actually) was in a very good condition. It had a nice gate, through which a path led directly to the entrance of the main mausoleum. Steps led onto the walls, from which one had a nice view or could take decent photographs. This was one of the favourite spots for the local visitors (I was the only foreign tourist around that day) who strolled along the walls in pairs, holding hands and admiring the site and killing time, I guess.

A little cafe right by the walls, probably in the spot where the wall would have continued if surrounded the mausoleum, had several tables at their shaded terrace. Regular fare of teas, coffees and sodas were served, plus some sweets. The view of the rose gardens and the mausoleum's huge portal was splendid from there.

Tomoris Cafe & Restaurant
Tomoris Cafe & Restaurant
Tomoris Cafe & Restaurant, located in a small park near the Town Hall and next to the Shymkent Cinema, had a menu of relatively expensive dishes. Their tented area in the park, with lacquered brown wooden tables with benches, popular with beer drinkers, played loud Russian semi-contemporary music mixed with newish pop hits from the US and UK until a live band started playing Russian, what I politely call 'easy listening'. Or should I have said an attractive but mediocre vocalist singing to a computer-generated music, exclusively in Russian.

I had a beer there and pielmieni ($2.50), which were really nice, if a bit oversalted, but with plenty of chives and dill. The restaurant automatically included 15% service charge.

Along many streets, small restaurants served simple foods, mainly shashliks, of varied quality. Prices ranged from 90 KZT to 250 KZT, depending on the type of shashlik and restaurant. Many places were completely empty, clearly indicating the quality of their shashliks.

Other recommendations:
Turkistan travelogue picture
The taxi driver from Shymkent drove like crazy. I was so glad the safety belt worked. He was making about 140 km/h (90 mph) on a single lane road, overtaking in a heart-stopping last second. This way, the distance of about 160 km he made in about 1h15'. I do not want say how many times he had to abandon the overtaking due to a vehicle approaching fast from the opposite direction! Probably at the same speed. I did not want to count how many lives I might have had in this game. And I did that trip twice, plus I had to pay him. At least it was a good value - KZT 10,000 ($85) - which, came at about $0.26 per kilometre. Of course, there was a cheaper option as well.

There was a large public coach running between Shymkent and Turkistan but it was sporadic and often overbooked, leaving people having to use shared taxis like me. Obviously they were paying less than me since I was an Englishman (alien) in Shymkent. But, seeing the mausoleum was definitely worth the cost.

Published on Wednesday October 1th, 2008

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Fri, Oct 03 2008 - 05:16 PM rating by rangutan

You could write a brilliant report on almost any place, even a grave yard :-)

Fri, Oct 03 2008 - 04:38 AM rating by pesu

Krys, do you like Sting? I like this report drawn from life.

Wed, Oct 01 2008 - 03:53 PM rating by eirekay

Your descriptions of the colors and shapes are marvelous! They add such a personal touch to the report. This whole series has been a real treat to read!

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