South Kazakhstan: Silk Road Mysteries, Unique Nature and Vibrant Culture

They say South Kazakhstan is a place where antiquity meets modernity. The region’s ancient culture, dating back thousands of years, ravishes with its unique complexes of archaeological sites and medieval architecture.

A multifaceted region, it brings together a historical heritage of two very different civilisations, the settled urban one and the nomadic one of the Steppe.

The latter was created by the social, economic and cultural exchange at the time of the Silk Road, with a primeval and wonderful nature combining ever-snowy mountain peaks with vast steppes, hot deserts and cool rivers. The region is also the most populated one in the country, with a living traditional culture and a vibrant local economy attractive to traders and investors.

For many, South Kazakhstan is considered to be a land of ancient civilisations. Sitting at the crossroads of the Silk Road, the area became home for specific cultural traditions, religious beliefs and scientific and architectural achievements. The towns of Otrar, Turkestan (Yassi), Taraz, Sairam (Ispidzhab), Shymkent, Suyab, Sauran, Balasagun and others were not only places for trade, but centres of culture and knowledge.

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Among a few scattered historical sites which managed to survive are the ruins of the fortress of Otrar, which lie about 150 km northwest of the region’s largest city of Shymkent.

The history of Otrar dates back nearly two thousand years. In 1219, the town was sieged and after a long battle, overrun and burnt by Ghenghis Khan. Once one of the richest cities along the Silk Road and a centre for arts, sciences and philosophy, today Otrar is a fascinating place with its remains of ancient structures and unique evidence relating to its glory days of the past, including a bathhouse, well and stone basin with inscriptions in old Arabic. The city is also home to the Otrar mosque and dazzling pieces of ancient pottery in various colours.

Otrar is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Since 2004, the government has operated a revival of the ancient Otrar programme, which aims to transform the remains of the town into a medieval town-museum.

Another ancient town on the Silk Road was Turkestan, which was founded as early as the 5th century AD. For hundreds of years it was known as a spiritual and political centre and served as a capital of the Kazakh Khanate from the 16th-18th centuries.

Situated 165 kilometres northwest of Shymkent, Turkestan is now a popular site of Muslim pilgrimage. Scholars even see some similarity between its importance for local Muslims and what the Holy City of Mecca is for the entire Ummah. Pilgrims throughout Central Asia visit the town because of the mausoleum commemorating the earliest great Turkic Muslim theologist and mystic Khoja Akhmed Yassawi, who founded the Yassawiya order of Sufis, followers of a mystical tradition in Islam. His ardent sermons attracted a large number of pilgrims and his poems were very popular in medieval Central Asia and beyond.

Built in the late 14th century by a decree from Timur (Tamerlane), the mausoleum represents a masterpiece of medieval architecture and amazing complex of palaces and temples. In the central part of the building is a Tai Kazan, a large bowl made of an alloy of seven metals.

In the 16th century the Kazakh khans chose Turkestan as their capital, making use of the city’s symbolic dominance in the region. Such prominent Kazakh political leaders as khans Abulkhair, Yessim and Abylai and Judge Kazbek-bi, among others, were buried inside this complex. Since 2004, the mausoleum has also been included in the UNESCO list of world cultural heritage.

As for Taraz, it was known to have been established more than two millennia ago and recognised as the “city of merchants.” Today, it is a significant regional centre of 350,000 people. Not far from modern Taraz one can find the mausoleums of Babaja Khatun and Aisha-Bibi from the period of Karakhanid Empire (10th and 11th centuries).

Shymkent is also one of the ancient towns of Kazakhstan, dating to the 12th century. Founded as a small caravan settlement on the Silk Road, it is now an administrative, cultural and industrial centre of the South Kazakhstan Oblast and the third largest city in the country, with 900,000 people calling it their home.

Shymkent is included in the state cultural heritage programme as one of the objects for study and preservation of historical monuments. The aim of this project is to convert the ancient settlement in the heart of the modern city into a historical and cultural park.

The South Kazakhstan region is famous not only for its historical memorials but also for the unique and wonderful nature of theWestern Tian Shan Mountains. Established in 1926, the Aksu-Zhabagly State Nature Reserve was the first to be created in Central Asia and is the only UNESCO biosphere reserve in the region. It offers gorgeous scenery – a mix of green valleys with rushing rivers, snow-capped peaks and high-level glaciers with a territory of more than 850 sq. km.

The area hosts 1,279 recorded species of flora, 57 of them registered on the Red List of Kazakhstan including the Greig’s Tulip, which is a symbol of the reserve. There are also 238 species of birds and 42 species of mammals, including many endangered ones like the Egyptian vulture, Golden Eagle (berkut), black stork, blue bird, brown bear, urial (arkhar), paradise flycatcher, snow leopard and Central Asian lynx.

Among the natural treasures of the region remarkable for their unique beauty are the Burgulyuk Gorge, the Kyzyl-kol and Balyktin lakes fed by two powerful underground springs, the Akbiik karstcave with stalactite and stalagmite galleries extending towards an underground lakeand the Kelte-Mashat Gorge, a 10 km-long canyon featuring the Crying Cave, a unique natural attraction. The Karatau (Kazakh for “black mountains”) range contains some of the world’s most interesting vegetation.

Tourists are offered activities such as trekking, rafting, hunting, fishing, educational tourism, bird watching, folklore tours and horseback riding. It is possible to visit any time of the year, but the best months to come are April-September.

There are other natural resources in the region that can be used for treatment and rest, including mineral spas and springs. The Saryagash resort, one of the most widely-recognised recreational zones and resorts in Central Asia, is situated on the banks of the Keles River, 130 km south of Shymkent. The mineral water plus healing environment are very effective in treating various cardiovascular and digestive system diseases.

The best time to visit South Kazakhstan is mid-August to mid-October, when the daytime temperature varies from +25 C to +35 C and the night-time ones around +15 C to +25 C.

Shymkent is a convenient starting point for travelling around South Kazakhstan. The local airport has daily flights to/from Astana and Almaty and twice a week to/from Moscow, Atyrau, Aktau and Kyzylorda. One can also get there in 11 hours on a comfortable overnight Talgo train from Almaty or cover the same distance in eight-10 hours by car.

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