Our night bus ride from Bishkek to Shymkent is without excitement although not overly comfortable. The border crossing is quick. A young soldier helps us with the paperwork as we can’t read the Cyrillic scrip.
We arrive in Shymkent at 5am. This seems a bit early to be waking up our hostel hostess so we hangout in the bus station for a while then a young woman at a coffee shop phones for a taxi and negotiates the price for us. The hostel is on the edge of town, maybe not in the best location. About a 1 km walk to the nearest feasible restaurant.
Once at our hostel – shortly after 6am, we snooze for a while, then set off in 30 degree heat to the train station to book onward tickets. That done, we check out coffee shops and a large rose garden park. The park seems to commemorate 20 years since independence from the Soviet Union. We think.
As we leave the park we see a Big Red Bus and decide we will ride it the next day. We wander – find a restaurant for lunch – wander – find a grocery store and buy dinner snacks and beer and return to our hostel. It has a somewhat rundown but pretty garden with table and couches so we settle in for a picnic and then an early night.
We spent some of our wandering time looking for an elusive tourist info place without success.
The next morning our hostess tells us the only tourist info in town is at the Hotel Shymkent, right across the road from where the Big Red Bus departs. Perfect.
We haven’t been able to find a bus schedule so take a taxi – cheap – out to a regional museum at the other side of town. Getting a taxi here is a mysterious process requiring an app. We always have to get someone else to order one for us. Once ordered the person monitors the taxi’s arrival on their phone, they can see where the taxi is. The destination and price seem to be negotiated at the time of ordering – maybe. Taxis seem to be just about anyone driving just about anything. Another taxi takes us back into the town centre to the Hotel Shymkent. We melt into seats and have lunch after discovering that the tourist info desk is no more.
Who needs tourist info? Various people we meet wonder what we’re doing in Shymkent.
“Why are you here. There’s nothing here.”
They are right. There is little of touristy interest in this town. Until last year it was the regional centre but that title has been moved to Turkistan. Infrastructure here is a bit on the crumbly side. Many of roads, buildings and parks are showing signs of neglect. Neglected or not, the city’s parks abound with roses. The shrubs crowd together in profusions of bight scented blooms. deep red, orange, yellow, white, pink. The shrubs are strong hand healthy and covered with blooms.
The Big Red Bus only runs in the evening. We bide our time in a convoluted search for a tour company with which to travel a few kms out of town to see some local sights. We could have flown around the world with greater ease. Finally we find an office where the women are willing to help. They call another office and get us a taxi to take us there. At that office we manage to cobble together an excursion to a cave and a couple of mausoleums and a Silk Road important town of Sairam for the next day.
Once on the packed with local families Big Red Bus – where we have assigned seats – we realize we’ve already seen most of the highlights. The commentary is only in Kazak.
We have four more days here. Yikes. Our vision of seeing ancient historical walls, buildings or even ruins are dashed.
Our tour day. Hmmm. Despite being assured the drive out to this amazing cave would only be an hour, it was longer. The countryside makes our Canadian prairies look hilly. Flat dusty expanses of sparse brown grass land. Our guide tells us this is where the Soviet cotton fields used to be. The cave is really just a massive underground cavern with a fallen in roof. Trees grow in the huge hole and we climb down some metal steps into the cool space. The hole is enormous. Birds fly around and nest in crevices. We’ve driven a long way to see this.
Our next stop is the mausoleum of a holly woman who was a healer. Or was it the mother of a poet? I forget. The memorable part of the visit is sitting in the cool of the interior listening to a man with a beautiful voice chant a Muslim prayer. We don’t need to understand the words to feel the peaceful message.
We are supposed to be having a picnic, but the guide and our horrid-old-man driver get into their fourth argument of the day. He clearly doesn’t like taking directions from a young woman. He wants to stop at a garbage-infested beach along a filthy river in the broiling sun. She says otherwise. So do we. We eventually stop at a seedy restaurant and sit outside on mats at a low table by the river. Garbage floats by while filthy once-pink gauzy draperies keep most of the sun at bay. We enjoy our picnic and just before we leave, half heartedly nibble at undercooked bits of barbecued beef.
Once back at our hostel, we dismiss the driver with no tip and invite our guide in for a tea. She needs the reassurance after yet more arguments from the front seat. We call the tour manager, extol our guide’s virtues and suggest the driver be fired.
I’m deliberately not using our guide’s name because she told us some interesting things that likely go against the grain of what a tour company’s representative should have been telling us.
“Don’t bother with more tours. There is nothing to see.”
She explained that the mausoleums are really places of worship, not tourist stops. She had clearly not been comfortable parading in and out with three poorly scarved tourists in tow. The other places listed as sights of interest are all further than advertised or not as advertised. For instance Sairam – a must see for us due to what we’d read about it’s history – had absolutely nothing to see except a few dusty streets of rundown homes tucked in behind dilapidated fencing.
We do manage to enjoy the rest of our time in Shymkent. We explore a little deeper and meet many friendly people. No one understands why we are visiting. We visit every park in town, thus see thousands of glorious roses such as we’ve never seen anywhere else on any of our travels. As our expectations fall, the sights seem less shabby. We stroll along a pretty – and clean – canal through the centre of town. We visit several shopping malls. I know – hardly our style, but as I said, we were digging for interesting moments. In so doing we discover an art museum with some dreadful and some wonderful paintings. The staff follow us around, seemingly stunned that someone is visiting.
By the time we leave Shymkent we are glad to see it fade into the distance but feel we’ve had more than a surface view of the place. As for its ancient history? Read about in books. As the locals insist – “there is nothing here.”