Travel guide to Turkistan

Basics

Turkistan (also spelled Türkistan) is a city in the Kazakh Desert, in the South Kazakhstan Region. The name Turkistan or Turkestan also refers to the whole region between Siberia and Tibet in Central Asia, covering a number of countries. This guide is for the city.

There is a Tourist Information Center (+7 7253333388, located at 43.297715N, 68.276089E) where they’ll be happy to help you with anything. They have maps and plenty of flyers. However, think twice about booking tours or taxis with them, as they are overpriced (about 4x what you one would pay).

As of July 2017, 1 EUR = 363 KZT.


Transportation

Turkestan can be reached by bus or minibus from all nearby towns and cities.

By bus or minibus:

  • From Almaty: night bus for 2,000 KZT. Be aware that the bus will probably not stop in the city (unless there are many locals going there), so keep an eye on your GPS app to know when to ask the driver to stop the bus and let you get off. Catch the bus from Sayran bus station (Автовокзал Сайран). You can chill at the Sayran reservoir beach while you wait for your departure.
  • From Shymkent: minibus for 500 KZT. The easiest way is to get on a minibus from the minibuses station, though it is also possible to stop them on the E32/M38 road outside of the city.
  • Out of Turkistan: the easiest way to get out of Turkistan is to stop a minibus on the main road. Prices should be the same as above for the way back.

By train:

Several trains run daily from Almaty (Alma Ata (1 or 2) stations) to Turkistan, and prices start at 16,500 KZT. If booked from Shymkent, the train ride is half the time and half the price. From the west, the train from Kyzylorda costs about 7,000 KZT.

Turkistan is also connected by train from Tashkent (Uzbekistan). Check out Caravanistan’s entry on trains in Kazakhstan for more information.

Walls of the Mausoleum complex in Turkistan, Kazakhstan
Walls of the Mausoleum complex

Sleep

There are not many accommodation options in Turkestan. I personally couchsurfed in a shared student house in the residential south eastern part of the city. Other than that, typical options are:

  • Hotel Edem: cheap hotel close to the mausoleum and the city center. Its bad reviews come from travelers who couldn’t sleep because of the lively party that takes place in its backyard. You can always ask for a room that’s on the opposite side of the building. (from 5000 KZT)
  • Homestay Battey’s B&B: about one hour from the city center (and the mausoleum), it is a mid-budget accommodation in town. Typical Central Asian bed&breakfast home-stay setup and style. (around 7700 KZT)
  • Hotel Khanaka: the expensive option in the city, in case other options fall through. Location right at the center of the city. (around 15,500 KZT)

Hotel Edem was the choice for some travellers I met. Other than these, there are a handful of hotels and inns around the city center with Russian banners and no online presence that might offer cheaper deals.

Side walls of the unfinished mausoleum

Food and Drinks

Shelpek, pitas, baursark and other bread-based take-away food can be bought in street food places along the main road, around and east of the mausoleum. South of the mausoleum there is an area with some restaurants, fast-food places and stores.

If you plan to go on trips to nearby landmarks around the region, make sure to stash some food as there will not be stores outside of the city.

For drinks and nightlife, you might want to see what the youngsters are up to at night, or just go to Hotel Edem and see if there’s a party. Just don’t Google “turkistan party” because that is a terrorist group.

The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

Activities

The biggest attraction in Turkistan is the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, a top destination in the country and a major Muslim pilgrimage place. A lot of the travellers visit Turkistan for this, and then find out there are other things to see and do.

  • The mausoleum is an impressive building that absorbs your attention. It is unfinished, but that doesn’t matter, it is still regarded as the best piece of architecture in the country and the beginning of the architecture style of the Timurid Empire (14-16th century). A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is surrounded by flat grassland and no other tall buildings inside the mausoleum complex, which highlights its majestic aura. The mausoleum is dedicated to Khoja Akhmet Yassawi, a religious poet and mystic that inspired many Islamic scholars. The construction was stopped when the khan Timur, who ordered its building, died in 1405. The front side of the mausoleum is the most obviously unfinished part (the scaffolding structure is still intact), while the back and the sides of it shine with its turquoise tiles placed to form mosaic shapes and scriptures in Arabic. Entrance is 500 KZT, and you cannot enter wearing shorts (though they don’t really check).
  • Mausoleum of Rabiga-Sultan Begum: beautiful smaller mausoleum that accompanies the big one, this was built for the wife of the khan.
  • You can also visit the underground mosque and the oriental baths in this mausoleum complex.
The Mausoleum of Rabiga-Sultan Begum

After visiting the Mausoleum and all its annex buildings and structures, get a taxi to drive you outside and around the city of Turkistan, where you can explore the ruins of ancient cities who were big and important until the decline of the Silk Road.

The two most prominent ones are Sauran and Otrar, north and south of Turkistan, respectively.

  • Sauran (35 km north-west of Turkistan)
    • The fortress of Sauran (or Krepost Sauran) is still standing and worth a visit.
    • Ruins of the Sauran city, where the walls of some of the houses of the ancient city are still standing. Not a big attraction on its own, but the settlement is located next to the Sauran fortress anyway.
  • Otrar complex (95 km south of Turkistan)
    • Arystan Bab mausoleum
    • Otrartobe ruins: only a few centimeters are left of the house walls, but the whole grid allows for a precise understanding of how the city looked like back in the day.

As different from the rest of Kazakhstan as it is, there are some daily life attractions worth checking out in Turkistan, namely the city market and the Akhmet Yassawi University.

Check out travel blog entries on Kazakhstan here!

Path to the fortress of Sauran

Do you know other must-see places in Turkestan?
Let me know in the comments below!

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