March 2013 – Turkestan, Kazakhstan

An entrance gate to Yasaui Mausoleum

There is one main draw to this medium-sized somewhat off-the-beaten-track town: The Yasaui Mausoleum, Kazakhstan’s greatest architectural marvel and a very popular site for Muslim pilgrims. However we soon found that this is not the town’s only drawing card as, at least from our experiences, the residents are some of the most friendly and outgoing we’ve found, which I guess shouldn’t be a surprise given that this part of Kazakhstan is predominantly composed of ethnic Uzbeks.

We arrived to Turkestan after a long train ride from Tashkent, which included Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan borders crossing between 12-3am. We were lucky to have an English speaking compartment mate on the train, and she helped to guide us thru the customs process.

We dozed off through the process as the customs agents collected passports and entrance or exit cards and then later returned to each cabin to question and/or search luggage.  We had heard horror stories about Uzbekistan’s border crossing, but outside of some questions about what we were transporting (ie money or porn), this s was about as easy as a 1.5 hour midnight border crossing can be.  At first they told us the were going to search our bags, but when Brett opened his bag and the agent saw how difficult it may be to search, he merely asked us to “show me something interesting that you did not report”.  Brett jokingly tossed a towel and a hat on the bed, as if to say “is this stuff interesting to you?” and the border guard relented.  We did have a brief laugh after this as Brett remembered that he had merely shoved his dirty undies in the bottom pocket of his bag, which potentially would have given the guards more than they’d bargained for had they gone ahead with the search.

The Kazakhstan border guards were a bit more active verbally, but didn’t pretend to have any interest in searching our bags.  A fat guard with the face of an idiot, his hat perched carelessly on his head, was having a bit harmless yet unhelpful fun.  This jon daly lookalike was walking up the hall and suddenly banging loudly on each cabin’s doorway so as to wake the dozing inhabitants.  When the inhabitants awoke suddenly, he released a stupid, loud laugh.

The head guard was a pleasant man with some English and he told us his sister had lived in New York for a summer and had also visited Mean beach, which she ‘very very like’.  Later, as we dozed off, a loud yell rang down the hall “Breeett Doooglas”. We were asleep, but the man in the cabin next to us came and woke us (his cabin mate had earlier been kicked off the train by the guards, screaming “no militsia!”, hoping not too be returned directly to the Uzbek police).  Brett stumbled down the corridor to the room on the other end of the car where the head guard sat checking passports.  “No trouble. Sit down, practice my english”. And a groggy half-asleep Brett sat there listening to the guard’s stats about Kazakhstan – population, resources, etc.

Our ticket stated that we were to arrive in Turkestan about 8.40am, so we were quite surprised when the carriage assistant woke us at 5am.  And then again at 7am, initially indicating our stop was near only 10 minutes away.  We were very confused, though perhaps not as confused as he – when 40 minutes had passed after our 7am wakeup with not sign of Turkestan, we asked the assistant again and he replied ‘Turkestan, 1 hour’. And so between border crossings and a confused carriage assistant, we really didn’t sleep much.

When we eventually reached Turkestan, we immediately set out to  purchase train tickets to Almaty for the following day. Again, we were extremely fortunate to meet a very friendly Kazakh man who spoke English and helped us buy tickets. Unfortunately for us, tickets were sold out for the next few days – the only ones available were on a train leaving tonight/tomorrow morning at 2am. We reluctantly bought those tickets, foregoing a much-needed shower for at least another day.  Still, we assumed a day around Turkestan would be more than enough to see the town.

The Kazakh man who had helped translate as we bought tickets was very friendly and gave us a warm welcome to Kazakhstan. He insisted on giving us a ride to the mausoleum 6km away, even though it was out of his way, and proceeded to give us a quick tour of the town on the way.

Yasaui Mausoleum

Yasaui Museum and Mausoleum
The Yasaui Mausoleum was built in the late 1300s for Kozha Akhmed Yasaui, thought of as the first Turkic muslim holy man and a poet of sorts who’s words are still cherished by the locals.  In reality, this is he second mausoleum for Yasaui, the original built for himk after his death in 1166 was replaced by the current large building on the orders of Amir Temur in 1390. Amir Temir died during construction and the facade of the mausoleum was never finished, the straight logs used as scaffolding during construction still protruding horizontally from m openings in the brick face.  The glazed brick sides and flare and fluted blue domes were completed prior to Amir Temir’s death, and the blue still blazes in the sunlight.

Domes of Yasaui Mausoleum

Fluted dome of Yasaui Mausoleum

Soon after construction, Yasaui’s tomb became a pilgrimage site and at one time three trips here equaled one pilgrimage to mecca.  There is an old bathhouse built for weary pilgrims to bath themselves before entering the holy mausoleum, and this bath building now houses a remarkably informative little museum of is own.

The main museum near the mausoleum holds artifacts and some information about the area, although there was very little information in English leading us to mainly observe the artifacts sometimes without fully grasping their purpose or significance. Still, there are some interesting prices here.

Yasaui Mausoleum’s unfinished facade

The museum’s facade did not have any tile work, but the combination of the horizontal scaffolding, which served as perfect perches, and the holes in the brick facade, which were perfect nesting sites, has allowed the arched entranceway to become something of a large birdhouse. The outer side and back walls were covered in colorful, patterned tile work and the turquoise and blue domes were brilliant. The interior of the mausoleum was undergoing extensive restoration and most of the walls where whitewashed and bare of decor. The large central domed hall just inside main entrance contained a massive cauldron for holy water, though scaffolding was surrounding the cauldron making it difficult to properly view its detail. In other rooms there were many tombs, as ruling elite in the area often had loves ones buried here to be near Yasaui. Some of the rooms were closed off due to the work taking place.

There were other buildings around the mausoleum, however most were closed and we could not visit them. However the aforementioned bathhouse museum was open and contained very interesting information about the cold and hot baths and the sauna and extensive English language placards described exactly how the temperatures were regulated 700 years ago.

Turkestan’s People
We’d seen the mausoleum and had an late lunch and it was only 4.30 pm. Considering that our train did not leave for another ten hours, we decided we may as well walk the 6km back to the train station rather than take a bus.

On our way we ran across two kind, friendly people. First we were approached by a lady who taught English in the local school, and who promptly invited us to her school the following day and also to her house for dinner the following night. We were keen to meet the children but told her that we already had train tickets for tonight, and her response was to apologize for having plans and being unable to invite us to her home tonight.

Later on our walk, a slender man jogged across the street to catch up to us introduced himself as Muskat and exchanged a few short phrases in what little English he had. Soon he too was inviting us to his house for dinner. While we hesitated to answer he said he’s get his wife who spoke English and, before we could say anything at all, he sprinted around a corner down a sidestreet.

He returned with his wife, Araylym, and she asked just to come in for a short time, mentioning her son who was in his first year of English at school. We talented and told them we’d come in for a brief while. We ended up staying for seven hours.

Muskat, Araylym, and their four children served us food and drinks, allowed us to just sit in their living room and visit, and were incredibly kind and welcoming. We stayed at their home till about 12.30am, at which point Musk at walked us to the train station to ensure we made it safely. They were very kind, feeding us, even allowing us to shower and conversing. Araylym spoke quite goo English and did a lot of translating, but we thoroughly enjoyed the time with them. They informed us that they enjoy meeting foreigners and learning about different places, and indeed they were full of questions not just about Australia and the US but also the other places we’d been. It was a really nice evening.

Click here to see our photos


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