There is not one silk road. The famous trading route from China to Europe, that Marco polo once travelled on, knows many ways. One of these ways went through southern Kazakhstan and the cities of Turkestan, Shymkent and Taraz. The bustling bazaars in these cities still give a taste of its rich trading history.
Nowadays it is not silk on offer but cheap chinese products such as clothes, shoes, electronics and toys. The only truly central asian twist left are the sections of dried fruits and the stolovaya’s.
A stolovaya is a russian invention, a canteen offering cheap food for the common man. In Kazakhstan they serve central asian dishes such as shaslik, lagman, plov, beshbarmak or manti. All of them are based on horse or mutton meat. Washed away with a glass of kymyz or shubat. Fermented mare’s or camels milk. Honestly, the latter is not my cup of tea.
To get a real taste of the old silk road you should visit Turkestan. Once one of the most important trade and religious centers in this region. Sufi poet Kozha Akhmed Yasaui lived here in the 12th century and when he died his tomb became a popular pilgrimage site for sufi muslims.
King Timur built a large mausoleum in 1390 but died before it was finished. What can still be seen today is impressive with blue tilework everywhere, except for the front facade.
It is an easy day trip from Shymkent. I left my hostel early in the morning and took a marshrutka for the two hour journey.
The mausoleum was clearly visible once we arrived in Turkestan. There was even a tourist office in a fancy big building. I was the first foreigner to visit them this week, despite the mausoleum still being a popular pilgrimage site for muslims from both Kazakhstan and nearby Uzbekistan.
Citizens from the far abroad are rare and according to the pricelist we have to pay 500 tenge entrance compared to 300 for neighbouring countries and 200 for Kazakhs. Fair enough and I duly gave the officer the money that was the equivalent of 1,5 euro. For an additional fee I could ride a camel or take a selfie with a peacock. Again, not really my cup of tea.
Instead i headed straight to the mausoleum. It reminded me a bit of the architecture i have seen in Iran. The same blue tilework and dome structure. A small beauty.
There are some more smaller mausoleums, a bathhouse and an underground mosque. The poems of the sufi poet Yasaui are nowhere to be seen. All signs are in Russian and the english translation on every board is limited to: ‘this is a site of national importance’.
Kazakhstan is proud on its history and Turkestan is the oldest man made architectural masterpiece in the country. There is even a free museum displaying all the historical artefacts and the obligatory praises to president Nazarbayev with pictures of him posing before the mausoleum. Dont forget this is a site of national importance.
If it is up to Nazarbayev Kazakhstan will become once again a great nation and trading partner in the world economy. The modern silk road of cheap chinese products, gas and oil.
For me it was time to take the minivan back to Shymkent. Just in time as dark clouds were gathering at the horizon. On the road through the grasslands the clouds were getting darker and darker untill we drove through a thunder and hailstorm. I was glad our driver was not as suicidal as some other drivers on the road, who continued to drive on full speed. We slowed down and our driver kept a safe distance from other cars.
But even when the storm was over our van refused to return to normal speed. With a screeching sound we came to a stop. The driver got out and did not look happy. Something told me that there is no such thing as the ANWB in Kazakhstan. Then another van stopped and came to our rescue. Our driver took out a hook and a rope and with some handmade knots they attached our car to the other van.
Slowly we continued our journey untill one of the knots broke down and we got loose again. The 2 hour journey became a 4 hour journey. Still much faster than on a camel. The original means of transport on the old silk road.
The Travel Guide to the best things to do in Shymkent & Turkestan
1. Shymkent bazaar
The bazaar in Shymkent is one of the liveliest in Kazakhstan. There is an abundance of cheap Chinese goods, but also large sections with dried fruits and vegetables. There are in fact several bazaars in Shymkent. The most convenient is the central bazaar in the middle of town. There is another larger bazaar, called Samal bazaar 4 kilometers out of town.
2. Alley of Glory & Museum of Victims of Political Repression
More than 140,000 people from the Shymkent region lost their lives while fighting in the Soviet army during the second World War. Alleya Slavy is Shymkent’s War memorial with plaques bearing all the names. It shows the massive scale of loss in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. It’s a sober monument and there are some smaller memorials with the names of lives lost of soldiers fighting in the war with Afghanistan.
Opposite the park is the small museum of victims of political repression. Another emphasize on Kazakhs complex history during the Soviet Union. Shymkent was one of the most important cities in Kazakhstan during the second World War when 17 factories were built to produce spare parts for tanks, shells and metal lead.
3. Central Park
Shymkent is a city full of parks that are very nice to walk around in. As a center of education, there are many young students wandering around, eager to practice their english. It’s a great place to meet Kazakh people.
4. Ken Baba Park
Another park, but more for families with children, is the Ken Baba Park. There are some nice restaurants here such as the Bar Karavan.
Sayram is another small silk road city 10 kilometers south of Shymkent and is nowadays more like a suburb of Shymkent. There is a mausoleum and some minarets, but they are not as impressive as in Turkestan. You can read more about Sayram here.
6. Turkestan Yasaui mausoleum
This mausoleum is the main reason most tourists travel to this region. And for good reasons. The Mausoleum of the sufie poet Khoza Ahmed Yasaui is beautiful and gives you a glimpse of what to expect in Uzbekistan if you haven’t been there yet.
Near the mausoleum is Turkestan’s small history museum that is free of charge. It’s not very special, but worth a quick look. Turkestan also has a small bazaar that is quite similar to the bazaar in Shymkent.
7. Aksu Zabaghly Nature Park
For nature lovers there is also the mountainous Aksu Zhabagly Park nearby Shymkent. In spring this is the place to see wild tulips. Not many people know that tulips actually come from Kazakhstan, but they are in fact coming from this region.
The park is also very famous among birdwatchers for the different species of birds. NGO Wild Nature from Svetlana runs ecotours in the park and offers homestay options in Jabagly village.
Zhenya and Luda are a good alternative. From Shymkent’s Aina bazaar there is a daily marshrutka to Jabagly at 11 AM.
Places to eat on a budget
1. Blinchiki (Tauke Khan 72)
One of my favourite restaurants in Shymkent for cheap and good russian food. As you can guess from the name they have excellent Russian pancake’s called blini’s. I can recommend the blini with honey and walnuts. Besides pancakes they also serve other Russian dishes such as borsht and beef stroganoff.
2. Bar Karavan
Bar Karavan is not the cheapest budget option, but prices are still reasonable. They serve excellent central asian dishes such as plov and shaslyck.
Your cheapest option for eating out in Shymkent is the bazaar. The bazaar in Shymkent has several stolovaya’s and restaurants serving Kazakh and Uzbek food such as beshbarmak, laghman and plov. There are also several streetfood options and it is the best place to buy bread. You can try manti and samsa’s.
Places to sleep on a budget
1. Shymcity hostel (Tauke Khan)
Shymcity is a very friendly hostel in Shymkent with a friendly Russian owner. It’s a bit difficult to find, because it is in a sidestreet rather than the main street called Tauke Khan. If you walk on Tauke Khan then continue towards Gogol street. Turn left into Gogol street and then take the first unpaved sidestreet to the left. The hostel will be at your ridehand side.
Logistics: How to get to Turkestan and Shymkent
It’s best to travel to Shymkent by train. There are overnight trains to most cities in Kazakhstan including Astana (20 hours high speed) and Almaty (13 hours high speed). From Astana there is a daily nighttrain leaving at 23:35 and arriving 15:30 the next day. Read more about Backpacking Kazakhstan by train.
To get to Turkestan from Shymkent is very easy and it makers for a perfect day trip. From Tauke Khan take bus number 69 to Avtovokzal Samal. At this busstation there are frequent marshrutka’s (minibusses) to Turkestan. Ask the bus driver to drop you at the mausoleum once it comes into sight. Lost With Purpose offers another detailed description on how to get to Turkestan by public transport.
Ellis is a travelblogger from the Netherlands with over 20 years of experience as an independent budget traveller in more than 50 countries. She has a Master degree in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health with a specialization in South Asian cultures and the Caucasus.