Our six weeks in Almaty are flying by. We knew we wanted to get out of the city to learn more about life in the rest of Kazakhstan, and when one of the KazNU students, Zhan, invited us to visit his family in the historic city of Turkestan, we jumped at the opportunity. Turkestan is a silk road town and home to world heritage site, the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi.
Much like living in the Midwest, nothing in Kazakhstan is particularly close to anything else. Getting to Turkestan involves a ~14 hour bus or train ride, or a flight to Shymkent followed by a 2 hour minibus ride to Turkestan. Given our limited time for adventure, we choose to go with that option, though all of our Kazakh friends scoffed at our profligacy. As we were getting ready for bed on the night before our departure, Zhan messaged to say “Just so you know, there’s a wedding on Saturday and you’re invited!” Some repacking was called for!
Our travel went smoothly – our prebooked airport taxi in Almaty cancelled a few hours before our 5:15am pickup (not cool Welcome.taxi) but Yandex came to the rescue. We got to Shymkent (more on Shymkent later) around 9am, took a city bus to a bazaar and bus depot. At the bus depot, a row of 12 passenger vans is lined up, each with a sign listing their destination and a driver barking out for passengers. We picked on headed to Turkestan, climbed on board, and waiting for it to fill. Once we’d fully booked, we were off. All went super smooth, and two hours later we were at the Turkestan bus depot and bazaar.
We were met at the terminal by Zhan, who immediately took us on a tour of the sprawling bazaar. It’s the heart of the city, where you can find anything you could possibly need. One of the more pleasant markets we’ve ever visited – there’s no expectation that tourists will come through, so there’s no high-pressure sales pitches. Zhan took us to his shop, which sells children’s clothes. His younger sister was working, as she works to save money for her upcoming trip to Prague. Most of the folks in Zhan’s family seem to have the travel bug. His brother is currently studying in Seoul, and Zhan has studied in Poland and travelled all through Europe. He’s currently planning a trip to the US, assuming he can get a visa (a source of frustration for many US-leaning Kazakhs, and a reminder of the long-term impacts of our current administration’s ruinously stupid and racist policies).
After dropping our bags at Zhan’s shop, we grabbed some lunch at the bazaar and took a rapid-fire tour of the city. The mausoleum is the main focus. It’s an important pilgrimage site, and draws many visitors from Uzbekistan (it’s an easy day-trip from Tashkent). It was begun in 1397 or so on the burial site of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, an important poet and Sufi mystic. But its construction was halted around 1405 when Timur (Tamerlane), who commissioned the project died. The Kazakh Khanate later setup an administrative headquarters nearby, and the mausoleum helped to provide legitimacy. During Soviet times, it was restored and promoted as a heritage (but not religious) site.
Near the Mausoleum are a number of mosques, including an underground mosque dating to the 12th century. There’s also a bathhouse said to have been in continuous operation from the 15th century until 1975, the architecture of which was enchanting. With little-to-no English information available about some of these sites, it’s a little hard to know what’s a recreation and what’s authentic. Regardless, it was fun to explore.
We enjoyed wandering the pedestrian mall near the sites, marveling at the tulips and blooming trees. Then we took a bus back to the bazaar to pick up our bags and head to Zhan’s house. One of our other Kazakh friends had sent us a video tour of her family’s village house, so we mostly knew what to expect. Kazakh houses are inward looking – from the street, there are relatively few windows and a big entrance gate. Inside the outer wall, a few buildings are arranged around a central courtyard and garden. A separate set of rooms provide a “summer house” with outdoor sleeping and eating spaces. Zhan has at least 5 brothers and sisters (we got a little confused about who was a brother and who was a “brother”), along with his parents. The house has huge open rooms with high ceilings. Throughout the day they get transformed for different uses, as Kazakhs tend to sleep on bedrolls instead of beds, meaning it’s easy for a bedroom to become a playroom during the day.
The family was busy helping with prep for the upcoming wedding, and we were exhausted from a very early start, so we grabbed a quick nap. When we awoke, the younger kids had gathered and we enjoyed some play time – monopoly, knitting, and a whole series of traditional games based around the use of sheep kneecaps (assyk).
For dinner, we made manti, a delicious traditional dish in which finely chopped meat, potatoes, carrots, onions are tossed with spices and rolled into a spiral of a very thin, elastic dough. We got to help with the assembly. They’re steamed for about half an hour, resulting in delicious buns, bursting with flavor. The whole family gathered to eat – dinner was accompanied by endless cups of tea and various homemade pickled salads, along with bread from the bakery next door.
After dinner, we took a nighttime stroll. Along the way, we popped into a small market where a cousin was working – it turns out the whole family lives nearby. We played games for a while longer, before we had to tap out and go to bed (Kazakhs tend to stay up late – even the kids!).
On Saturday morning, we lounged around the house sipping tea and snacking on freshly made baursak (fried dough puffs). Mid-morning, we visited the bakery to see them loading dough into the tandoor oven. Then we popped down the street to visit a camel farm. There were a number of camels, including two babies (one only a day old), along with horses and cows. From the street, it looked like just any other house!
After snuggling the camels, Zhan took us to a coffee shop. He was going out of his way to be a wonderful host, but we knew he had responsibilities to take care of for the wedding, so we dismissed him from babysitting and struck out on our own. We decided to walk back to the bazaar to do some more snack-scouting. Even though Turkestan has a bit of a “frontier town” feel, it’s still remarkably pedestrian friendly. Most of our walk was along protected, flower-lined pedestrian paths with murals and freshly cut grass.
Back at the market, we were in our element. We had some filled, chili-coated dough packets, and bought all sorts of chocolate covered cookies and cakes. Digging deeper into the bazaar, we followed our noses to a series of market restaurants. Each one has a person out front calling out their specialty, and one lady had a particularly emphatic “Shashlik! Shashlik!”. We stepped in, she sat us down, and we had some fantastic shashlik (meat skewers), lagman noodles, and coffee and tea. One of the best meals we’ve had, made better by the setting.
After our lunch, we walked back to the house and hung out with the kids while we waited for the wedding festivities. The first step was to drive to a nearby town (Kenthau), though we arrived late and missed whatever it was we were supposed to be participating in. Nobody seemed particularly troubled by this. The drive back to Turkestan was an exciting experience. The bride and groom were loaded into a Hummer limo. Members of the wedding party were in a fleet of rented Mercedes G-Wagons (black, of course). Various other participants followed in other cars. What proceeded to happen can only be described as a combination of car chase and car tag. Everyone speeds off, honking all the time, and jockeying for position – each car trying to be as close as possible to the limo. G-Wagons aren’t known for their high-speed stability, but they were weaving with aplomb. Part of the game is, if you’re in front, you swerve madly to try to keep anyone from passing you, including into oncoming traffic in necessary. It was not a particularly calming experience. One imagines this must descend from an activity that involved horses?
In any case, we made it safely to the Mausoleum, where photos and the requisite drone shots were captured. We hung around for an hour or so, before setting off for the wedding venue. Turkestan is a regional center for weddings, and has over 50 large venues. They need to be large, because a Kazakh wedding is typically around 500 people. Guests poured in and settled themselves in for the official entrance. A series of traditions were carried out, in which the couple receives money from the community in a cute yurt-shaped box, the bride is officially revealed to the groom’s family and then is accepted by the family. There were professional dancers and singers, wedding games and a camera crane. Then it was, of course, time for food.
We’re now seasoned professionals, and we know not to fall into the trap of overeating, even when a table is groaning under the weight of delicious foods – prepared for the event by the family. The night went on for a few hours, with speeches, songs, dancing, and snacking. Around 10, we started thinking we’d misjudged – maybe there wasn’t going to be a massive deluge of meat? Maybe we should eat some more? Ah, that’s just what they want you to think! Suddenly, waiters came rushing out bearing plates loaded high with beshbarmak. Even our Kazakh table-mates were pretty tapped out on snacks by this point, but everyone dutifully ate at least some. Another great Kazakh tradition is that, at the end of one of these meals, bags are handed out and everyone heads home with loads of leftovers.
We helped with some cleanup and took lots of selfies with the teens and tweens who were excited to chat with us. We made it home a bit after midnight and thoroughly crashed. Our first Kazakh wedding was a total blast!
Sunday morning, we slept late, and lounged over tea and leftover wedding snacks. Around 11, Zhan took us to the bus depot, where we caught a minibus back to Shymkent. We’d had some uncertainty about our day – our original flight was delayed until around 2:30am, which wasn’t a great fit for teaching Monday morning. We ended up rebooking a slightly later flight on a different airline, once again embracing our decadent western profligacy. This meant we had an afternoon and evening to kill in Shymkent.
Shymkent is Kazakhstan’s third biggest city, though it doesn’t have the national presence of Almaty and The Capitol City. We were feeling a bit overextended from all the socialization of the past two days, and a little carsick from the minibus, so we took the city bus into town and settled at a coffee shop for a few hours of quiet work. We got some doner and a burger for dinner, and then wandered up to an ice cream stand we’d scoped out earlier. We waited our turn, and meekly pointed at the cones we wanted. The fellow working replied (in English) – “What country are you from?” “America..” “You’re American and you’re being so quiet? What’s going on?” We explained that we were embarrassed about not knowing Russian, and he helped us practice our words for ice cream cones (important stuff) and then gave us our cones for free!
In the late afternoon, we wandered through the large World War II memorial park, and then settled in at another café with an outdoor terrace for some lemonade and reading. As our day wound down, we stumbled upon a gorgeous riverside park cutting its way through the city, with a water wheel, swimming areas, tons of pavilions and beautiful paths. A real treat to wrap up a fun day and a fun weekend. Our travel home went smoothly and we got back to our apartment just a bit after midnight.