Underwhelming Turkestan and my first impressions of the “Borat country”

Kazakhstaaaaan, greatest country in the world.
All other countries are run by little girls.

I’m aware that it’s the cliché of clichés to start my blog about this country with some Borat lyrics… but then it is the only song I could think of while crossing the border, and I had to try really hard not to sing it out loud. I’m pretty sure Kazakh people don’t like it… and they a have good reason. As soon as my little Marshrutka escaped the hectic border land, I could see that their country is nothing like the Borat movie (which is in fact recorded in Eastern Europe).

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The new mosque in Turkestan

The mini van drove me through endless, waving plains that reached as far as the eye could see. They had a golden brown colour, dotted with the green of lone trees and the dark shadows of herds of cows and horses. It was an amazing sight, especially for someone who loves the endless horizons as much as me. The landscape reminded me of the Spanish Meseta – but bigger – and my spirits lifted as I gazed out of the dirty window. In between vast fields like these, my heart can breath freely and all the world seems lighter. I started dreaming about Kazakh Camino’s, and arrived in Shymkent much sooner than I had expected.

In my hostel, which is located in a beautiful house filled with very friendly and helpful people, I met Pau, a guy from Barcelona, and Veslamö, a women from Norway. After I was done feasting on the wifi (which is the first decent connection I’ve found since leaving Russia), today the three of us went on a day trip to the ancient mausoleum town of Turkestan.

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The main mausoleum is fronted by a colourful rose garden

It rained in Shymkent when we left, and it was a good 15°C colder than it had been in Uzbekistan. I hadn’t at all expected such a huge drop in temperature from one day to another and so, even though I had brought an extra jacket and rain coat, I was pretty much freezing in the early morning hours.

Luckily the weather in Turkestan was nicer than it had been in Shymkent, with occasional sunshine and no rain. Came lunchtime, the temperature felt a lot more tolerable – although still far from hot.

We started the day by sitting down in a little cantina, ordering a nice pot of tea and a bunch of pancakes with honey. Turkestan on the other hand, didn’t impress me. After the grandeur of Uzbekistan, it’s mausoleum and mosque aren’t much special and the whole place feels strangely sleepy and a bit awkward. There is nothing in terms of nice surroundings; the views from the old fortification wall are rather poor and apart from a colourful rose garden in front of the main building, the grounds are bare and unattractive.

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Good company is worth gold though. I look forward a lot to seeing Pau and Veslamö again in Almati, since we had a great, laid back day among the ruins. We watched together as Kazakh pilgrims prayed at the many tomb stones and walked around the buildings – touching the walls with the palms of their hands and muttering worlds we could not understand. By the time we arrived back in Shymkent, it was already dark (and again annoyingly cold). It looked like it had been raining all day in the Southern city, which confirmed we made a good choice travelling north to escape the clouds!

My first impression of Kazakhstan is a surprisingly relaxed one. When approaching the Marshrutkas in the bus station, we weren’t swarmed by drivers trying to lure us in their car. More over, the first price quoted was a reasonable one and the same as any local paid. What a joy! When I arrived from the border yesterday, one of the taxi drivers even suggested I’d take the bus to my hostel, as it wasn’t that far. After all the touts in Uzbekistan, that advice confused me so much I declined. I couldn’t understand why a taxi driver would put me in a bus when he could get some money out of me. Now it turns out it were probably genuine good intentions… while in Uzbekistan, taxi drivers used to lie about their being no public transport so you’d be more tempted to get in their car. What a difference indeed!

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Camel waiting for tourist that weren’t really there

On top of that we didn’t see one French (or any) tour group for the whole day! We were the only Western people around but at the same time, none of the locals really seemed to care. They just treat you like any other, without batting an eye.

In the city, fancy bars and restaurants are everywhere. In fact, there is a trendy Korean place right across from our hostel that serves delicious Bibimbab – probably the best I’ve ever had outside of Korea. Food in general had been great so far. Although a little more expensive than Uzbekistan, I get the idea it’s far more easy to find decent quality here.

On the other hand I haven’t seen many sights that blew me off my feet yet. Shymkent is – in essence – not a pretty city, and neither is Turkestan. The mausoleum had a few very simple exhibitions inside, mostly portraying old pots and pans with labels that say “pot” and “pan”, but that’s not very interesting isn’t it? The actual room with the tomb was not even open for the public, one had to stare inside through a tiny fenced window.

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Same same but different 🙂

On the other hand, transport to the site (which is about one and a half drive away) is cheap due to the fact that it doesn’t need to be bargained about, and the entrance fee at the mausoleum includes most of the other sights in Turkestan as well. Foreigners (or as the toll booth said: visitors from the far abroad) pay more than double than locals – but it’s still a reasonable price given that the buildings are still under renovation and the money is probably much needed for their conservation.

As a conclusion to my first day, it seems that, by crossing the border, I have traded grand touristy architecture for a relaxed local city life and – to be fair – I’m fine with that change. Broader landscapes, mountains waiting, and a dorm room for eight that I have all to myself tonight. I will not complain!

 

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