ignore the strike through. I’ve no idea where that came from or why…The train trip from Shymkent north to the new regional capital – Turkistan – is uneventful. The scenery is the same yellow, dry, flat, dusty land. We pass through a few tiny dusty dilapidated villages. It all seems a bit grim. We are excited about seeing Turkistan as it is promised to have many glorious sights for tourists. The train arrives an hour late into a dusty crumbling depressed looking town. We negotiate for a taxi. There’s the usual yelling men jumping in our faces “Taxi. TAXI.” Pat hates these guys and gives them the stink eye. They back off. We eventually pick a fellow we can communicate with – in German – he can’t read a map but we assure him we can give him directions. We booked our accommodation through booking.com. We direct our driver to the address given. OMG it’s a dreadful looking slummy part of town. We can’t find the address. The driver talks to various passers by – shoulders are shrugged. Our negotiated fare climbs. Finally we are practically shouting at him to just let us out at an Internet cafe. He stops and asks again and almost by magic a fellow in a shop produces the business card of our accommodation. We recognize the place from its picture on the card. We are on the wrong side of town.
The driver drives us back past the train station to a location as far from the address given by booking.com as one could get and still be in Turkistan. One of the most alarming things about this whole business is that we have now driven around town quite a bit and it is ….. simply awful. A dusty, run down town of small shops and dilapidated dusty streets of dilapidated dusty badly maintained homes.
Our hostel tops the scale of dilapidated.
A young boy admits us and shows us up rickety, loose, wobbly stairs to our room. Our room is really just an open space at the top of the stairs. No door and one wall open to the stair well. We ask to see other rooms. They are disgustingly filthy tiny closets jammed with the most rickety tiny bunk beds I’ve ever seen. It is appalling. We check out the one shower toilet room. It is clean. The boy manages to assure us that no one else is coming. We take the open space at the top of the stairs. Of course it’s not true, others do arrive. They cram into the gross closet rooms. The boy disappears. There is no front door key. There is no room door or key. Pat and I leave Helen on guard and go out to find a grocery store. There are very slim pickings but we manage to bring back water, beer, Lays potato chips, stale bread, barely passibe cheese and yogurt for dinner.
At about 8:30pm a young man arrives. “Make yourself at home. My home is your home.” Blah blah. He’s an optimist. However in the morning he will drive us out see the atmospheric ruins of Sauron about an hour out of town. We hunger for some indications of the Silk Road history so accept his offer.
The beds – cots really – are atrocious. Metal framed, with rusty worn springs. Helen’s is like a hammock. Pat and I have random boards stuck under ours so we only sag between the rock hard bits. Surprisingly, we sleep well.
Our young man drives us out to the ruins first thing in the morning. The cool air is pleasant as we tramp around and admire the crumbled remnants of ancient walls. The space within the walls is vast – and largely un-excavated. No interest? No money? Kazakhstan is a rich nation due to vast oil fields. Our guide exudes delight in the burgeoning tourist industry that is going to bring thousands of tourists here. We don’t really share his optimism.
Back in town he wants to continue his guide role to show us around an enormous mosque and mausoleums complex. We assure him we’d rather explore on our own.
First we go to an Internet cafe because our accommodation has such limited internet it could only cope with one of us being online. That problem was blamed on our devises. Of course we were able to get online with no trouble at the cafe.
The complex grounds are getting a major facelift. Three pilgrimages here are said to equate to one pilgrimage to Mecca. In an attempt to create a pleasant visiting experience the weedy wastelands between all the mausoleums is now being park-scaped. The result is mausoleums sitting in a dust bowl with metal fences, machinery and sweating labourers surrounding them. We pick our way through the dust, which in places is several inches thick, to see mausoleums, an underground mosque, and an ancient hammam. Without the dust and construction it would all be lovely. At 2 we hear the call to prayer. Men come streaming from all directions into the mosque. We see no women going there so just watch from the shelter of a latticed porch by the hammam. So it has likely been for hundreds of years.
We stop for a meal along the Main Street then walk the several kms back to our hostel, buying a few snacks along the way for our dinner.
We have been underwhelmed by Turkistan. Tourism here is really pilgrimage. Expectations are clearly not the same. However the expectations for receiving thousands and thousands of pilgrims will not be met without improvements to all forms of infrastructure. Roads, accommodations, grocery stores, restaurants……
The next morning we happily get a drive to the train station. Our visit to Kazakhstan started out in Astana – now called Nur-Sultan. We were impressed. We found Almaty a bit rundown but still a vibrant interesting city. Shymkent and Turkistan have been completely different experiences. It’s all part of travel, the glorious with the mundane but we’re glad to be moving on from Kazakhstan.