I’m so excited to be in Kazakhstan! I arrived late last night, was met at the airport by Zhanar, my guide, and she drove me to the guesthouse and I went straight to bed as it was around midnight by the time I was settled in. Zhanar was shocked by my attire as I emerged from the plane; half laughing at how cold I was going to be and half scared that I might freeze to death in her care. It’s -10°C here and I turn up wearing leggings and a hoody (but I do have warmer clothes in my bag). Zhanar dropped me off at Interhouse Hostel which is a fair drive from the centre but it’s a great house.
The guesthouse owner is lovely! Her name is Elvira and she is speaking to me in Russian and walking around singing while she is serving breakfast. I replied to her in Russian and she now knows I’m learning so she is being really helpful for me to practice. There’s an older man in the kitchen too but he is also a guest. He’s not acknowledged me but that’s fine because I get to listen in to his conversation with Elvira about all sorts. Breakfast was a feast! My favourite bits were the potato fritters and the mini pancakes.
Zhanar picked me up at 10am and suggested we go to the State Museum of Kazakhstan, which is exactly where I wanted to see today. Off to a great start.
The museum is really interesting. The lower floor has an exhibit of the Kazakh wildlife and then an amazing history of humankind in the region. Hominid species have been here for so many thousand years and they predate Homo Sapiens. There are models of some of the most impressive buildings in South Kazakhstan too. Then in the middle floor there is an ethnographic museum with items from traditional Kazakh life and all the clothes that allowed people to survive out on the steppes. The snow shoes used by some people were unbelievable – almost an entire sheepskin wrapped around each shoe as an outer layer. There is a history of all of the dynasty lines that ruled the area and Zhanar really brought it to life with much more detail than is held in the displays.
The top floor holds the World War Two and Diaspora exhibit; there are people of many nations living here due to displacement through war and through Soviet forced migration.
Zhanar said that tourists hardly ever show much interest in the museum and often only visit the middle floor but I found it really interesting and had lots of questions. We spent a couple of hours here but you could see most things in an hour. Entry for non-Kazakhs is 500 Tenge (£1).
From the museum we went for a late lunch at a popular local canteen called Tafam where there is a huge variety of choice, just like Lido in Belarus. It was difficult to choose what to have and Zhanar was encouraging me to try different things so we got plenty of half portions and it was excellent!!
Zhanar looked up what time my friend Kat’s flight was due to arrive and the internet lied so we thought it had landed an hour early so we drove straight to the airport and had a couple of hours to kill as it was actually delayed. I bought us some coffee and had a look around the souvenir shops to work out prices for comparison at markets.
When Kat arrived we all went to the hostel to allow us to repack for a three day excursion out west. Kat brought me my Antarctic jacket, expertly packed up by my ship mum, Barb, in Australia, so now I’m snug as a bug in a rug. I guess we packed a little too hastily as we left plenty of useful stuff behind but we did manage to take two Santa hats and a Christmas decoration, so it wasn’t a total loss.
We went for some more food at a different branch of the local canteen where we both had a delicious beef with five spice dish with a dumpling and then Zhanar took us to the railway station and put us on our train. She came back a few times with information or treats for our trip and then we were off on our 13 hour overnight train journey to Turkestan.
The journey was great and we saw hundreds of miles of the snowy Kazakh steppes. The train was on time until we suddenly stopped inexplicably for two hours outside of Turkestan.
We were met at the station by our guide for this part of the trip, arranged by Zhanar. Islam is a nice gentleman with a very extensive English vocabulary but he is very difficult to understand! He gave us a delicious packed lunch of homemade plov (rice, chickpeas, carrots, onion and lamb) as we were driving along to our first destination.
The main attraction in the area is the Yasawi Mausoleum complex. Islam gave us a tour lasting two hours and we first visited the ancient underground bathhouse, at the moment it is disappointingly only 11°C inside so it really wasn’t brought to life at all! Plus Islam keeps giving dramatic pauses mid sentence so it’s difficult to listen and understand the explanation he is giving about what we are seeing. And he kind of cuts you off if you walk more than one pace away from him so it’s difficult to take photos or have an explore. So the bathhouse wasn’t impressive. Then we went to an underground madrasa and into an old, non-functioning mosque, both pilgrimage sites but neither were well explained. Zhanar had told me a bit about this place. This is where a devoted preacher decided to move underground once he reached his 60th birthday because the prophet Muhammad died at that age and this preacher didn’t think he deserved to see the sun for any more days than the prophet. We saw the top of the staircase that led to his underground chamber.
Next we visited the pièce de resistance; the huge and beautifully decorated mausoleum of Yasawi, completed in 1405. It’s stunningly tiled on the outside and inside, in the main chamber, the ceiling has interesting patterns. We had a tour around different rooms but I didn’t really understand the significance of most of them, some had pretty furniture or old books and one was full of tombstones. The place is impressive, especially the outside.
Next we drove to another mausoleum which held lots of historical significance and is a pilgrimage site. The history is complicated and involves famous characters in Uzbek/Kazakh history. The mausoleum was set in a huge graveyard and is also quite beautiful.
We drove quite a long way from Turkestan, close to the archeological site of Otrar, an incredible fortified town that was destroyed in the time of Genghis Khan. Instead of Otrar, we visited a mausoleum that is part of the pilgrimage trail in the region; the faithful spend one night at this mausoleum/mosque in prayer and then they go to Yasawi Mausoleum the next day. Islam sang us some verses from the Quran and then the man who looks after the site carried on for a while until we left.
That was it for the day and as we sped east towards Shimkent, I spent the time looking out of the rear windscreen at one of the most lingering and beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. The sky was on fire and the sun seemed reluctant to leave us.
The drive was a long one and when we reached Shimkent we nipped into a shopping centre so I could buy a phone charger then we had dinner at a convenient place outside. We had a delicious traditional southern Kazakhstan soup with meat and chickpeas and were then deposited in Home Sweet Home Hostel at 7pm. The host apparently speaks English and Greek as well as Russian but she was so keen to leave us to it that we never really got a chance to say more than hello!
I think an afternoon was long enough to see the Yasawi Mausoleum but I’m not sure if there was anything else in Turkestan to see. It would have been nice to have a bit longer there.
This morning when Islam picked us up he asked what we wanted to see and he told us that we could see parks and historical monuments in Shimkent, which we said sounded great and also requested to visit a bazaar. As a side note Islam also offered to show us a medieval mausoleum, to which we said yes, and then the day immediately became a tour of medieval Islamic history around Shimkent. It feels like it would be very disrespectful to not show utmost interest in this.
I find it hard to recall the details as we are getting lots of information but the first mausoleum is fairly old and is near a battlefield where thousands of Muslims and Christians died in a great battle. Kat hasn’t seen much snow before so it was just nice for us to be out and enjoying it!
Our next stop was the site of the oldest mosque in Kazakhstan (destroyed) and a snowy minaret (reconstructed). We had to make wishes and walk three times around the minaret before crawling up the narrow windy staircase to the view at the top. I can’t imagine what it must have been like when it was built, because now there are buildings encroaching on it but it looks beautiful from the ground, covered in snow.
Near the mausoleum of a woman with black hair in Sayram an ancient city now on the outskirts of Shimkent, is the oldest market in Kazakhstan; it’s been operating for 1200 years on this crossroad. We had a little look around but it felt a bit like we were in a rush. Some lovely ladies let us try as many salads as we wanted and we bought some noodles and Korean spicy fish (there’s a large Korean population in Kazakhstan) to take with us on the train back to Almaty.
We had some excellent samsa (filled pastries) and delicious sweet black tea for lunch in an authentic canteen near the ancient market. Apparently these are the best samsas in Kazakhstan and they were delicious. One was lamb and the other was pumpkin.
Then we hopped back into the car and visited the 10th Century (reconstructed) Mirali Bobo mausoleum in a picturesque snowy graveyard.
We had a quick drive back through the city and saw a big statue of Baidibek Bi, an important historical figure, then walked down a big hill past a symbolic pyramid and a large set of statues depicting a camel caravan before having a look around a small ethnographic museum.
Kat’s first ever snowball sitting on my head..
Islam gave us a whirlwind description of the different nationalities in the city and then we moved on to visit the Dendropark, the largest arboretum in Central Asia, with 500 species of trees from all around the world. It was nice to have a walk in the snow even if Islam spent much of the time telling us about how many important contacts he has in the UK and Australia; I guess he doesn’t mean to gloat but it just wasn’t very interesting!
We bought Christmas snacks for our overnight train journey and then we went to a traditional Uzbek restaurant where Islam ordered food for us again. He always chooses nice food, but it’s still strange not to have any say in it after so many months of independent travelling. Anyway, he doesn’t steer us wrong but he just spent a lot of time explaining how we westerners don’t know much about this region (despite both of us having extensively travelled the region, but he doesn’t really listen to us). He means well and the food was great in a nice setting.
We were dropped off at the hostel at 7pm and told we would be collected at 11:45pm by a taxi to take us to the train station.
The train was delayed so we had quite a wait, but it was warm inside the station. When our train arrived it was easy to find our cabin and we were lucky to have it to ourselves!! We had a good sleep, waking up to a white winter wonderland passing by the window and we celebrated Christmas day on the train with some Asti, crisps and chocolate. A really relaxing day listening to carols and wearing santa hats.
The train stopped a few times and we got off to buy some food from a nice lady who sold us noodles and manty (steamed dumplings) for 600 Tenge (£1.30).
The train arrived late again but Zhanar was there on the platform and spotted Kat immediately! She took us to the start point of an interesting self-guided city tour – one of the metro system.
Almaty Metro Trip
She dropped us off outside the first station and we bought tokens for 80 Tenge then had a look at Raimbek Batir station and each of the 9 stations on the line, waiting about 10 minutes at each station for the next train. The Silk Road (жібек жолы) station had a cool mosaic.
Auezov Theatre station is my absolute favourite; it’s named after a Kazakh poet there’s an excellent mosaic and some giant coins depicting Kazakh tales.
Baikonur Station was a little disappointing! We thought it would be super space-agey but it was just blue and white plastic with some lights. There’s a TV screen showing a rocket launch though so that does make it a bit better.
We had agreed to meet Zhanar at Moscow station but had definitely not agreed which exit! So by the time we crossed the city, we had no idea where Zhanar was. We walked around for about 45 minutes checking the carparks around all of the exits but we ended up going to a cafe to use the WiFi to send Zhanar a message! She eventually joined us and we had tea and then set off for dinner.
We went to an Italian restaurant and I had spaghetti carbonara for Christmas dinner. It was tasty and certainly very different to a usual Christmas meal.
It’s been an amazing trip so far! And next up we are off on day trips with Zhanar in the area around Almaty.