Halfway to Turkestan from Shymkent in Southern Kazakhstan, the highway is alive at night.
Dusty engines rest, families settle around, mud ovens are set up, and a busy city is improvised. The smells of beshbarmak, manti, pelmeni, shashlik and every other food in the country dance in Kazakh, Russian and Turkish.
And amidst all this, me bouncing about, “thank you, but I already ate 4 times tonight. Okay, I will eat again. Thank you. Yes, it is delicious, jaqsı, jaqsı. No, no, I will finish everything, of course, I like it, yes… raxmet!! Oh, hello! Thank you, but I already ate, raxmet. Oh, okay, yes, yes, thank you, this is delicious, thank you. Yes yes okay I will finish the entire dish, raxmet…”
Come 5AM, back in the bus, a friend shows me his phone screen, where a translated sentence reads “You must get out now”. Apparently, the bus was not reaaally going to Turkistan, just passing somewhat nearby.
So before we go too far away, the bus stops, and everyone looks at me while I get out in the middle of the highway, in the middle of nowhere. “Will you be okay?” “Да, да…” Too early to call my CouchSurfing host and ask for help, I walked East, and I walked a lot.
The city of Turkestan
Eventually, I reached the actual city of Turkestan via Tynyshkulov Street and then Kozhanov Street, which passes by the majestic Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmet Yesevi. East from there, I walked Bekzat Sattarhanov Avenue.
This big avenue is the batch of the M32 intercity route that goes through the entire city. The main city life takes place along Kozhanov and Bekzat Sattarhanov: landmarks, banks, restaurants, supermarkets, clubs, and also the Ahmet Yesevi Univerity.
Ahmet Yesevi was a Muslim poet and philosopher who practised abstinence from the pleasures of life as a way to achieve the purification of own’s soul (aka Sufism). He spread Islam throughout Central Asia and heavily influenced literature and religion in the region. The bits of his poetry that I could get my hands on were heavily religion-themed.
Outside of those roads, it’s all mostly residential and family life. Houses are low, have big walls and fences around their garden, and seem very isolated from one another.
I am not sure how much neighborhood life really takes place outside of the main roads. In these neighborhoods there are hundreds of houses grouped in a grid layout, but the streets seem empty of life. In the morning, though, I came across the kids going to school.
I wondered if they would discuss “that homeless-looking European dude with the big backpack” between them, since most of them stopped to check me out in detail before resuming their pace.
Student life in Turkestan
My host Güzide shares a flat with two other university students, and they live at the south-eastern tip of Turkestan.
Past the big fence, there is a beautiful garden larger than the house. They have set up a platform in the middle of it, complete with carpets, cushions and a low table. After leaving my stuff and having a well-deserved shower, they dropped me at the mausoleum and went to class.
We got together again in the evening, and they were not busy, so I got my wish of chilling on the garden. We made a run for drinks to the supermarket on the big avenue. We were denied any alcohol because it was past 10pm, so my friend Emre stepped up and asked the seller “Do you know who I am?!”
Apparently she knew, so she took us to the back of the shop and let us take as much alcohol as we wished for.
Around the place, youngsters were just getting started with the night, drifting and skidding on the main road to the beat of Sub Piela Ma at full volume, “wop, heroina, wop wop, heroina wooop, heroina maaa”.
Empty as the city seemed during the day, the streets were full with shouting and laughter come midnight. That night, we relaxed under the stars in the garden. We exchanged our dreams and expectations, and they briefed me on the machinery of life in such a remote and dry land.