This post is a travelguide about the best things to do in Shymkent and Turkestan. Two cities in the south of Kazakhstan that were once part of Kazakhstan’s silk road.
There is actually 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 on the bazaars are the sections of dried fruits and the food.
Even though Shymkent itself is not a very special city, there are some interesting things to do that will give you a reason to visit this city.
Besides the bazaars there are many other remnants of the silk road left in the area, such as mosques and mausoleums. Then there is the spectacular nature that lies at Shymkents doorsteps. There are enough things to do in Shymkent and Turkestan, especially if you love history and nature that makes it a worthwhile destination.
The best things to do in Shymkent
1. Shymkent bazaar
The bazaar in Shymkent is one of the liveliest in Kazakhstan and one of the top things to do in Shymkent. 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 & War memorial
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.
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.Museum of Victims of Political Repression
Opposite the War memorial is the very small museum of victims of political repression. Another emphasize on Kazakhs complex history during the Soviet Union.
Unfortunately the two rooms showing the pictures and names of victims have no explanations in english, but you will be given a brochure translated by the British Council with some background information.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. Koshkar Ata river
The Koshkar Ata river starts in Shymkent not far from the train station. For locals this is a spiritual place and the waters are believed to have healing properties.
People come to the origins of the river to bathe, to pray or to fill their bottles. It is a peaceful green space in the city and a nice 2 kilometer walk along the embankment between the river spring and the Ordabasy Square
Every year with Nauruz there is the Koshkar Ata Sail with local performances, handicrafts and food.
7. Independence park
The most popular park in Shymkent is the independence park that was built on the 20th anniversary of the independence of Kazakhstan in 2011.
The central monument has 137 steel pillars that represent the 137 nationalities in the country. This park also has a musical fountain show in summer.
The best things to do near Shymkent
Sayram is another small silk road city 10 kilometers south of Shymkent and is nowadays more like a suburb. There is a mausoleum and some minarets, but they are not as impressive as in Turkestan. You can read more about Sayram here.
9. Aksu Zabaghly Nature Park
The mountainous Aksu Zhabagly Park is among the top things to do near Shymkent for nature lovers. 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.
I stayed in the mountain guesthouse of Ruslan and I can really recommend it. It has a spectacular location and is right besides the park. He organises jeep tours, horse riding and hiking trips into the park. We hiked to a waterfall and it was absolutely beautiful.
Besides Ruslan, the NGO Wild Nature from Svetlana runs ecotours in the park and offers homestay options in Jabagly village.
Zhenya and Luda are another good alternative.
How to get thereFrom Shymkent’s Aina bazaar there is a daily marshrutka to Jabagly at 11 AM. It may or may not run depending on demand. If the bus is not running you can take one of the frequent marshrutkas to either Tulkibas or Turar Ryskulov (Turarkent) that are also leaving from Aina bazaar. From there you can take a shared taxi to Zhabagly.
10. Sairam Ugham Nature Park
Sairam Ugham is less known then Aksu Zhabagly, but offers similar nature beauty near Shymkent,but doesn’t charge the high park fees that Aksu Zhabagly does and is therefore cheaper.
There is a community tourism programme with some nice homestays and guesthouses in the villages of Lenger, Dikankol, Kaskasu and Tonkeris. From Shymkent (Voenkomat bus stop on Tole Bi) you can take a marshrutka or shared taxi to Lenger. For Dikankol, Kaskasu and Tonkeris public transport leaves from Tashenov near Shymkent’s Central Bazaar.
The Ugam Public Association can also help with transport and accommodation.
The best things to do in Turkestan
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.
1. 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.
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 the 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.
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’.
2. Turkestans History museum
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 former president Nazarbayev with pictures of him posing before the mausoleum. Dont forget this is a site of national importance.
3. Turkestans bazaar
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.
Turkestan has a small bazaar that is similar to the bazaar in Shymkent
The journey back to Shymkent
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 best time to visit Shymkent and Turkestan
Spring is a great time to visit Shymkent. At the end of march Kazakhstan celebrates the spring festival of Nauryz. Shymkent has the biggest celebrations in the country with traditional horse games at the Hippodrome.
In April and May it might rain, but this is also the time when Aksu Zhabagly is in bloom and you can see wild tulips.
Summers can get hot, but autumn is another great time to visit and see the beautiful autumn colours in the trees.
Winters are cold and it will be difficult to visit the nature parks.
The best budget restaurants in Shymkent
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.
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, samsa or manti. A lot of them are based on horse or mutton meat and often washed away with a glass of kymyz or shubat. Fermented mare’s or camels milk. Honestly, the latter is not my cup of tea.
Best budget hostels in Shymkent
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
How to get to 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.
How to get to Turkestan
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.