Kazakh Countryside

The weekend before last, my husband and I made our fifth and final trip to Kazakhstan. It seemed only fitting that we should bid farewell to Shymkent now that spring has bloomed, and we have less than six weeks remaining here.

Shymkent is a medium-sized Kazakh city about two and a half hours north of Tashkent (including international border crossing time). Oddly, it is also one time zone ahead of Tashkent, despite its proximity and similar latitude, which we’ve always found kind of funny. Since our first outing there last November, Shymkent has served as our winter retreat and grocery shopping haven. This time, we pushed the road trip limits, not only enjoying Shymkent on Saturday, but on Sunday driving an additional 2+ hours northwest to Turkestan to see a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Khoja Ahmed Yasawi Mausoleum, before heading back southbound for home.

Kazakhstan is enormous, with land mass about four times the size of Uzbekistan. So taking a proper road trip around the country would take much longer than a two day weekend. I wouldn’t mind doing that at some point in the future, but our goal here has been more to capitalize on the ability to get away to nearby and different places for one night only… no matter how unlikely!

When we went to Almaty in February for a three day weekend, we obviously flew, rather than driving 22 hours round trip. From what little I’ve seen, Kazakh highways tend to be smooth and well maintained, with the startling exception of the first 20 or so miles of the A-2 once you cross the Uzbek border at Jibek Joli. Having good roads to drive on has definitely encouraged me to spend more time driving through the Kazakh countryside.

When we arrived in Shymkent this last time, we were elated to see how different and green everything looked once not covered with snow. It appears that the spring symbol of Shymkent is a tulip, because they were planted all over the city. It was so inviting that Saturday we opted to spend the day walking around in the sun…

…indulging in sushi and fresh seafood at our favorite pan-Asian restaurant, and…

…walking through two different malls, where we got cold drinks and visited a pharmacy, but mostly just gawked around and smiled.

Everywhere people were calm, polite, allowing pedestrians to cross the street *all the way* before making their turns, and using their turn signals. (!) There were also ATMs all over the place, and credit cards are widely accepted.  (I have not used plastic inside Uzbekistan but once, and it took them about 20 minutes to run it, with a lot of head-shaking and confusion. With the largest denomination of currency until very recently being worth about $1.75, I’ve been rolling with Bank of Ziploc for 24 months.)

Between the amenities at the Rixos, the warm weather, the calm and civilized public behavior, and feeling well enough to walk around a little bit more than usual, I truly enjoyed this visit to Shymkent, maybe more so than any other. Usually after dinner my husband has a swim and I go for a massage – this time, we went outside for a long (albeit haltingly slow) walk around the city instead.

On Sunday morning after breakfast, we made our way north to Turkestan. Below is a map that shows Tashkent to Shymkent (around 70 miles), and then Shymkent to Turkestan (around another 101 miles).

I’d read a review of the mausoleum complex, and I knew that it is a religious pilgrimage destination for both Kazakhs and Uzbeks. Built in the late 1380s,  construction ceased upon the death of Amir Timur (Tamerlane) in 1405. The complex remains unfinished to this day. It’s supposed to be one of the greatest examples of Timurid construction – outside of Uzbekistan, of course.

I don’t particularly recommend going on Sunday, because it’s the most crowded day of the week (Saturday in Central Asia tends to be a work/school day). There were a lot of people there, including lots of teens running around. I was especially surprised to see people posing for photos with camels and exotic birds. Since it was only about $2.25, my husband and I thought, Why not? I almost immediately had mixed feelings about it, and not just because the camel smelled shockingly bad!

You have to admit, it is kind of a cool picture though.

The walls around the complex could only be climbed via steep staircases with no handrails, but with help from V. I managed fine.

All in all, I wouldn’t necessarily go back, but it was worth the trip. And the highway leading up there was very well maintained for Central Asian standards.

Something special also happened afterwards on the way back to Shymkent – my Hildegaard reached 50K miles on her odometer, at the precise age of 7 years, 3 months, and 1 week!

We made it back to Shymkent, had a goodbye meal at our favorite German bierhaus, and hit up the best local grocery store once more.

Happy with my Brie and other imported goodies, we set off for home. I am going to miss Kazakhstan.  I find it odd that Borat picked Kazakhstan to make fun of, of all places. Obviously folks don’t know one ‘stan from another. Most Americans may not be able to immediately find it on a map, but it has a lot of things going for it! Maybe someday in the future we will be posted there, which we agreed would be fine with us.

Сәтті сапар – Kazakh for something like “Lucky travels!”

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