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June 2011
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Turkistan, From Bishkek

You need a long weekend to visit Turkistan.  In fact, a four day weekend would be ideal.  And spring or fall would be best, as summer is going to be very hot.

Turkistan, lying in South-Central Kazakhstan, is one of the major silk road cities.  Not too far from Samarkand, it is no surprise that some of the architecture from Samarkand and Bukhara bled over into Turkestan.

The Unfinished Mausoleum of Khwaja Ahmad Yasavi behind the Rabii Sultan Begim Mausoleum

Turkestan is not too inaccessible.  Still, it is some 390 miles from Bishkek, so if you are driving yourself, you better like driving.  My suggestion would be to stop at Chimkent on the way to and from Turkestan.  A Turkestan stop is also a reasonable addition to a trip to Tashkent or Samarkand, taking you some 100 miles out of your way (200, round trip).

One of the interesting aspects of Turkestan that sets it apart from Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva, is its active religious use.  Four pilgrimages to Turkistan are considered by some to meet the requirement for Muslims to travel to Mecca once during their lifetimes.  For that reason, Turkistan is sometimes called the “Second Mecca.”

‘Hazrat-i Turkistan’, the full name of the town, which literally means “the Saint (or Blessed One) of Turkistan” and refers to Khoja Ahmad Yasavi, the Sufi Shaikh of Turkistan, who lived here during the 11th century and is buried in a mausoleum in the town.  Construction of the mausoleum was commissioned by Tamerlane, but he died before it was completed (in 1405) and construction ended then.  The mausoleum still stands uncompleted.

Several other religious buildings were built around the Yasavi mausoleum, including the (completely rebuilt) mausoleum of Rabii Sultan Begim, an underground mosque, oriental bathhouse, and Friday mosque.  All in all, the complex is well worth the trip.

Also, some 30 miles further up the road are the ruins of another Syr Darya Valley town, Sauran.  Mostly just the walls are left standing, but they are certainly worth the 30 minute drive.

The Ancient Walls of Sauran

Getting There

The first leg of the trip takes you to the Aysha Bibi Mausoleum, and is described in my report on that trip.

From Aysha Bibi, continue along the same road, E40, down to Shymkent. Here’s the .gdb file, you can use in your GPS or in Google Earth. Upon reaching Shymkent you will have traveled some 300 miles, and could probably use a rest (we made it to Turkistan in one day, but I probably wouldn’t do it that way again).  What’s more, the accommodations and restaurants at Shymkent are probably superior.

From Aysha Bibi to Shymkent and Turkistan - click to enlarge

If you do spend time in Shymkent, you should probably check out the town of Sayram, which is only a few miles away and is one of the oldest settlements in Kazakhstan (no surprise, then, that the population is mostly Uzbek).  According to the guide book, it is well worth a walk through, but we didn’t make it there.

From Shymkent, it is a straight and easy shot to Turkistan, up M32 about 100 miles.

To the Yassy Hotel, in Turkistan - click to enlarge

Off to the south of the road as you approach Turkistan, are the ruins of Otrar, which we did not visit, but you might.  Keep your eyes out for camels along the road, and as you approach Turkistan, there was a stand selling camel kumis, certainly something we all need to try, at least once.

We stayed in Turkistan in the Yassy Hotel.  According to our guide book, it is the best.  Still, you should not expect spotlessness or luxury.  It was OK, and the location was perfect, but we had to first dispose of the plastic bag with a moldy chunk of bread inside, which was resting on the night table.  We stayed in one of their “premium rooms,” for about $60.

We continued on with our adventure by cutting across country down the Syr Darya valley to Uzbekistan.  I’ll write that up when I get the time.

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