Turkistan and Otrar: Exploring Kazakhstan’s deep south

We arrived in Turkistan on a Thursday. It was our first day in Kazakhstan; after an overnight train journey from Bukhara to Tashkent, we took a private bus to the border. Kazakhstan was a shock to the system right away; very different from Uzbekistan, less Islamic and less developed, the wide open spaces and long distances were immediately striking.

The drive north took us along roads that were tarmacked but in poor condition. Sitting directly behind our bus driver, I was hypnotised by his sprung seat bouncing up and down with the movement of the vehicle on the road, seemingly catapulting him towards the ceiling with every bump. The journey took us through the city of Shymkent, a major hub in this part of southern Kazakhstan, and then across the steppe northwards. Stopping at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Otrar (Otyrar), we sighted our first camels of the journey. Brown, mostly single-humped dromedaries rather than the bactrians I was expecting, they meandered along the road as though they owned it.

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Camels wander along the road at Otrar

Otrar is an incredible sight. A fortress city in the middle of the steppe, it was built on a knoll of high ground which gave it a panoramic view of the surrounding area. Unfortunately, this panoramic view simply allowed them to see Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes coming. It was Otrar’s own fault, on balance; having beheaded Genghis’s peace envoy the previous year, the attack can’t have been unexpected. But the citadel was no match for the hordes, who lay siege to Otrar for five months in 1319, before storming the walls and executing its governor.

Nearly a century later, Timur (Tamerlane) breathed his last in one of Otrar’s palaces, en route to wage war on the Chinese border. Now Otrar stands in ruins, only the entrance gate having been reconstructed. With no other visitors there, we had the site to ourselves. Spread over a large area are the remains of mosques, palaces and houses; pottery pieces are spread across the ancient city just waiting to be picked up and pieced back together. The whole site sits above a sandy, grassy plain, and was a spectacular introduction to Kazakh history on our first day in the country.

Driving on, we eventually entered the city of Turkistan. Not to be confused with the country of Turkmenistan (which is easy to do, at least from a name point of view), Turkistan lies some 170 miles inside Kazakhstan’s borders, deep in the steppe. Our hotel was the Eurasia, a huge Soviet legacy lying on the main square. Massive rooms held equally massive beds, but the hotel had no coffee, no food and, more worryingly, no beer. Exhausted from an intense few days touring Uzbekistan, I called it an early night, but others headed out to a restaurant, where the coffee had to be bought in sachets from the shop down the road. Coming from well-developed Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan was proving to be something of a culture shock.

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Hotel Eurasia in the heart of Turkistan

Next morning, after an eccentric breakfast in the hotel restaurant, which had finally opened its doors, we headed out to explore the reason we had ventured north to Turkistan in the first place. Directly across the square from the Eurasia Hotel lies the entrance to the historical complex of Azret-Sultan, and the jewel of the complex is the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi. Never finished (you can still see the wooden scaffolding used in its construction in the 14th century), it is nonetheless a work of art, with the turquoise domes and mosaic decorations we had come to expect in this part of the world, and a fascinating labyrinth of chambers and exhibits inside. However, our visit was made somewhat more of a challenge by the stiff wind that had suddenly put in an appearance. The mausoleum is an Islamic site, and it is respectful (although not required) for women to cover their heads when they enter. For an infrequent wearer of headscarves like me, trying to keep a modest Islamic scarf on my head when the wind was whipping up a frenzy gave the whole exercise a great deal more excitement than I had expected.

One thing that was notable about the Azret-Sultan complex was the number of foreign tourists. In short, there weren’t any. Our group aside, all the other visitors (and there were many) were local people, varying from young modern families to wizened old men in robes and beards. Ladies in utilitarian dresses and headscarves used brooms to sweep the tiled forecourts, while others chatted on benches in the shade. As a slice of local life, it was hard to beat.

[Above: Locals are by far the majority in Turkistan, whether working, visiting or praying.
Below: the crenellated walls and gateways of the citadel.]

Leaving my group behind for some alone time, I explored other buildings in the complex before climbing the steps of the old fortress walls. Classic battlements, they give a panoramic view of the domes of the madrassahs on one side, and the modern city of Turkistan on the other. Wandering back to the hotel along the more modern streets of the town centre, I admired the pools and statues in the recently redesigned main square, which demonstrate a clear pride in the local heritage. And Turkistan must surely be the only town in the world with a monument to the sport of buzkashi, a form of polo using a headless goat carcass as the ball, complete with six bronze players on horseback.

[Above: The new main square in Turkistan is a place to show off local pride, along with some eccentric artwork.
Below: Possibly the world’s only buzkashi monument?]

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On the way out of town later in the day we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant. Waitresses proudly handed out double-sided menus, but it turned out that there were only three or four options which were actually available. The only side dish was mashed potato, which later turned out not to be mashed potato, but rice. A vegetarian for whom the options were limited at the best of times, I ended up with cheese soup with a side of the plain rice – one of the more eccentric meals I ate on the trip. Since food was in limited supply, and tourists were few and far between, the waiting staff were friendly but unused to foreigners, and didn’t know quite how to cope with us. What should have been a quick bite to eat took 2 hours in total. But the restaurant had Coca-Cola. And beer.

 


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3 Comments

  1. Omg I live for ruins like Otrar. *-*
    I never thought of visiting Kazakhstan, I had no clue it looked like that but after reading your post and looking at the pictures, I might consider visiting somewhere in the future.

    1. If you like ruins you’d definitely need to check out Sauran as well, which is just an hour or so north. (The post was getting too long to include everything!). They are still working on getting it ready for visitors, so you can wander round and see it before it’s tidied up! This is a fascinating area – nearest major airport is Tashkent in Uzbekistan but you could fly to Almaty as well. Definitely give it a think!

  2. Omg what an adventure. I love your writing and applaud you for going to off the beaten track places like this. I hope to do the same!!

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