The Mongol Rally: The Southern Cities
The southeastern region of Kazakhstan is a cluster of historic cities that make up the cultural and commercial heart of the country. Pre-Soviet heritage is better preserved here than in other areas and the concentration of ethnic Kazakhs is highest in this region.
A couple of hours after leaving Aral we could see the first signs of increased prosperity – herds of sheep and cows grazing and some land cultivated for agriculture.
The main city in this area is Almaty, which was the capital of Kazakhstan until 1998, when the northern city of Astana replaced it. However, Almaty is still the country’s economic centre.
We hoped to reach the city by nightfall.
On our way to Almaty, we decided to stop in two towns along the way – Turkestan and Shymkhent.
Turkestan is a bustling, dusty place with little to tempt tourists except that it is home to the elegant but unfinished Yasaui Mausoleum.
The mausoleum is the resting place of Khoja Ahmed Yasaui, the 12th century Turkic poet and sufi mystic. It was built in the late 14th century by order of the Mongol Emperor Timur.
However, construction ceased after Timur’s death in 1405 and the mausoleum was never completed.
We could see the impressive turquoise domes of the mausoleum from a distance and three of the outer walls are covered in bright tiles. But the facade of the building is made of exposed brick. This is the part of the mausoleum that was never completed.
Further south lies Shymkhent, the busy transit hub on the Uzbek border. Here, we visited the hectic main bazaar, which locals in Turkestan say was one of the best in Central Asia.
The wholesale market was indeed a sight to behold – melons and watermelons grow abundantly in Kazakhstan and rows of traders were loading these huge fruits onto trucks bound south for Uzbekistan.
After Shymkhent the road turned northeast towards Almaty. The road runs along the northern edge of the dramatic Tian Shan mountain range, which forms a natural border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan.
The Tian Shan extends from the Pamir in the south to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of Western China and is an exciting destination for trekking and mountaineering.
As we climbed higher, the rolling slopes became grassy and we could smell the sweet, fresh scent of wild herbs and flowers. The different shades of green and yellow glowed in the afternoon sun.
At first appearance Almaty is a grey, concrete city with wide boulevards of fast-moving traffic. However, the central district is leafy and lively with beautiful parks and street-side cafes.
We visited the exquisite wooden cathedral in Paniflov Park. The yellow walls and painted domes were reminiscent of ice cream colours and the singing inside was so beautiful that we stayed to hear the whole service.
In the Old Square, the now unused buildings of the old government still stood grandly, surrounded by fountains and wide pedestrian avenues. Retired men sat in small groups and played cards while young people walked arm in arm.