Friday, 19 September 2014

Sept. 3-6: Almaty-Shymkent-Turkistan

On the 16-hour train journey from Almaty to Shymkent I had a similar experience to the night before, with a kindly Kazakh woman taking me under her wing and sharing her food and tea with me as I chatted with her and her 20-year-old son. When I mentioned that I hadn't tried horsemeat since I'd been in Kazakhstan (it's a staple here) she immediately whipped a horse sausage out of her bag and cut me a chunk - delicious! Until nightfall the landscape we passed through was steppe indistinguishable from what I'd passed through all the way from Semey to Almaty, but the next morning I woke up to see the snow-capped peaks of the Tian Shan mountains that line the border with Kyrgyzstan to the south, and these views accompanied me the rest of the way to Shymkent.

Shymkent (AKA Chimkent) is Kazakhstan's third largest city, with a population of 640,000. It was founded as a Silk Road caravanserai in the twelfth century and although there are no architectural remnants of this history, the city does retain much of the archetypal Central Asian bustle. It certainly felt much more Asian than Semey or Almaty: the incredibly dusty, potholed streets were jammed with beaten Ladas whose drivers honked their horns at the slightest provocation; men in traditional hats and women in headscarves were commonplace; and the highlight of the city, the labyrinthine Upper Bazaar, had heaps of exotic atmosphere, with sheep heads and cow tongues sold alongside kymyz (fermented horse milk) and shubat (fermented camel milk), tools and toys, ornate rugs and pirate DVDs. Relief from and contrast with the hectic city streets were provided by several pleasantly spacious and shady parks, where old men huddled around chessboards and card games. The population, though very diverse as in all of Kazakhstan's large cities, is indeed much more Asian than in Almaty or Semey: 65% Kazakhs, 15% Russians, 14% Uzbeks, 2% Azeris, 2% Tatars, 1% Koreans and 1% Ukrainians. Although everyone seemed to know Russian, I didn't hear it in the streets very often (unlike in Semey and Almaty, where even Kazakhs often speak Russian as a first language) and signs were often only written in Kazakh.

After two nights in Shymkent I took the three-hour bus west to Turkistan (AKA Turkestan and Turkiston), a settlement that was founded in the fourth century and flourished as a stop along the Silk Road. Unlike Shymkent, Turkistan is rich in architectural remnants of its former glory. Most notably it's home to the enormous and beautiful, UNESCO-protected Yasaui Mausoleum, where twelfth-century Sufi and poet Khoja Akhmat Yasaui is buried. The mausoleum is a popular site of pilgrimage for Muslims from across the Turkic-speaking world, and although it's laid out very much like a musuem, inside the line between tourist and pilgrim was blurred as people took photos and then prayed. Although Shymkent has officially been within the borders of Kazakhstan since Stalin divided Central Asia up in 1924, it's historically been a meeting point of Kazakhs and Uzbeks and today its population of 160,000 is 64% Kazakh, 33% Uzbek and only 1% Russian - as such it's the only place in Kazakhstan where I felt conspicuous being white.

After spending a few hours exploring the mausoleum and other nearby historic monuments I hurried back to the station to get the 19-hour night train back to Almaty. Although my reception by the other passengers was as warm on this train as on the previous two, this time the conductor tried to hassle me, snatching my passport and leading me to his little cabin, where he gave me a grilling similar to what I'd got from the policemen in Almaty. Eventually he got bored of insinuating that the photo in my passport wasn't me and he let me go, but I did see another passenger - a woman with a Tajikistan passport - slip him a bribe.

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