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The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Four: How to Miss a 15km Long Canyon

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Four: How to Miss a 15km Long Canyon

Getting lost in southern Kazakhstan

Heading out of Shymkent via Sairam

After a later start than I had become accustomed to, we started our day with a short drive to Sairam, a small town on the outskirts of Shymkent.

While in Sairam we took in the Sairam History Museum, to find out about this small towns influence on the history of the Silk Route, as well as a mausoleum built over the tomb of Ibrahim-Ata, the father of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, whose place in Kazakh history you can read about in my day three blog.

I am sorry to say, though, that I found the Sairam History Museum a little disappointing. There seemed to be only a few items within the museum, though everything is well kept. As is common, there was no language other than Kazakh on any of the signs, and the museum guide only spoke in Russian, although our tour guide did translate everything for us. I would not necessarily recommend visiting. I will admit, though, that my view may be coloured somewhat because I prefer to explore museums in my own time which, due to the language barrier, was not possible.

Our next stop was the Mausoleum of Ibrahim-Ata. It was the smallest of the mausoleums we had seen at this point, and after the grandeur of day three’s architecture it was a little underwhelming. Though, in reality, it isn’t really the architecture that is important, it is the meaning and significance of the mausoleum to people. If you are interested in the history of Islam in Central Asia and Kazakhstan then it is an interesting stop as a monument to the father of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, but otherwise it is perhaps not worth venturing to.

Once we had finished in the, underwhelming, Sairam we set off for Aksu Canyon, something I was significantly more interested in, despite my fear of heights.

The Search for Aksu Canyon

Once we left Sairam, the day became much more interesting. First we were to head to an area that our itinerary called ‘Devils Bridge’, though I can find no mention of this name online, before heading to see a section of the 15km long Aksu Canyon.

'Devils Bridge' near Shymkent, Kazakhstan

'Devils Bridge', complete with unfortunately placed gas pipe!

We found ‘Devils Bridge’ without too many problems. It is so called because a 30 metre drop has been carved into the land by the river below, leaving a half metre gap where it is possible to jump across. I didn’t. My fear of heights won the battle with the jumping ability of my legs, and so I took the actual bridge across the gap. The view was very nice, provided you stood with your back to the road bridge across the gap, as it had a bright yellow gas pipe running alongside it. The highlight of ‘Devils Bridge’ was an elderly gentleman riding on the back of a donkey, herding goats. Not something you see every day.

Goat herder near Shymkent, Kazakhstan

A goat herder on donkey-back near 'Devils Bridge'

As we were taking in the scenery it turned out that our driver, who had driven so confidently and at breakneck speeds on day three, did not know the way to Aksu Canyon, and any local he found to ask could not help him. So when we left ‘Devils Bridge’ we started to drive around looking for it. You would think a 15km long canyon carving open the view would be quite noticeable! Over an hour later, upon learning the directions, we were finally able to make our way to the canyon. Where was it you ask? Well, the road that led to where we were planning to view the canyon was about 15 metres away from ‘Devils Bridge’, with around five minutes of driving from that point. So it took us well over an hour to travel five minutes further along the canyon it seems we were already at. Something to remember if ever you visit! Like I have mentioned before, tourism is not big yet in Kazakhstan, so there are not sign posts to every view of note!

Our driver regained his confidence at this point as, with several hundred metres of clear ground to his right, he decided to drive within inches of the edge of the, at this point, 50+ metre drop into the canyon. My stomach turned cartwheels. Thankfully, we parked up a few metres after this and I was able to escape and put a few metres between myself and the edge, enabling me to fully appreciate the view.

And what a marvellous view it was; from the green pastures on either side of the canyon, down through the varied, and colourful, layers of rock making up the canyon walls and to the fast-flowing, and incredibly blue, river at the bottom. While the weather didn’t live up to its end of the bargain, it at least managed to not spoil things by raining.

A view across Aksu Canyon, Kazakhstan

The view across Aksu Canyon

The scale of Aksu Canyon, Kazakhstan

The gentleman in the top left of the photo shows the scale of Aksu Canyon

Like many of the excursions on our tour of Kazakhstan, time was not on our side, and so we only had a short time to explore this small part of the canyon. Eventually we found a well-worn path down to the river at the base of the canyon in the distance, which was quite exciting, but, by the time we had walked to it, we were called back to the minibus to move on.

If I had to point out any negative to the whole trip it was the amount of time that my group and I were given in places such as this. We were given 30 minutes to an hour in areas you could easily spend whole days walking around. Because of this we only scratched the surface of what this incredible country has to offer. A good excuse if ever there was one to go back! Though it was all understandable to an extent, as our hosts where excited to show us as much as their fantastic country as possible.

A Home Cooked Kazakh Meal

Our final stop for the day was to have dinner, with a difference. We had been invited to eat at the home of a local family. If you ever get the chance to try this, in any country, take it. The food tastes immeasurably better, and the experience is head and shoulders above what a restaurant can provide. I would suggest, though, going with a group smaller than the 15/16 people I was with. In such a large group the intimacy of this kind of experience is lost a little.

As we arrived we were all greeted by the patriarch of the family who introduced us to his family, and extended family, including a young girl (perhaps around four or five years of age) who seemed utterly bemused/perplexed by all these foreigners invading her home.

Local Kazakh family outside Shymkent, Kazakhstan

Our gracious hosts

Following these introductions we were led to the dining room where we all sat cross legged, or tried anyway, on the floor with a full spread of food laid out before us; a veritable feast. And that was before the main course of beshbarmak had even been served!

Local family dinner outside Shymkent, Kazakhstan
I promised yesterday to tell you about beshbarmak. Well, it is a relatively simple dish of meat (traditionally horse), potatoes, carrots, onions and pasta-like sheets, that is meant eaten with your hands; hence the name beshbarmak, as this means ‘five fingers’. Traditionally it is served alongside a sheep’s head, which is set before the most honoured guest, from which different parts are served to the other guests, each part with a different symbolic meaning. For instance, if my notes are correct, and if I can decipher them, ears are served to children to help them listen.

Traditional Kazakh Beshbarmak

Traditional Kazakh beshbarmak

As is traditional, most of the meal was prepared fresh by the daughter-in-law, Kellin; this even includes things such as the butter, which was made from the milk of their neighbour’s cow. We were lucky enough to watch her make the pasta for the dish, by rolling out balls of dough until they were incredibly thin.

Once we had finished eating, the father read a section of the Quran to give thanks for the meal, before we all thanked the family for their fantastic hospitality and headed back to our hotel. After a very average morning, Aksu Canyon and the family meal were something special. Two more reasons you should visit Kazakhstan.

And so our time in this area of Kazakhstan was complete. In the morning we were to board a plane in Shymkent heading for Aktau on the Caspian Sea, via Almaty; but that is a story for another day.

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The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Three: On the Road to Shymkent – Part Two

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Three: On the Road to Shymkent – Part Two

The second part of the longest day on tour, featuring staggering scenery and a unique cave

Day three proved tricky to sum up with only one blog post, so here is part two of my third day in Kazakhstan. If you missed part one on Monday, a) you are forgiven, and b) click on the link below to catch up.

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Three: On the Road to Shymkent – Part One

The Arystan Bab Mausoleum

Following the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, our exploration of southern Kazakhstan continued with a visit to the Arystan Bab Mausoleum. It is a much smaller, and newer, building than the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, having been rebuilt numerous times, due to flooding and earthquakes, since its original construction in the 14th century. Most of the current building is only around 100 years old, although there are elements inside that are significantly older, including a pair of wooden pillars dating back several hundred years.

It is said that Arystan Bab was in fact the teacher of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, and legend suggests that this mausoleum was built in order for Emir Timur to find success in his efforts to create a mausoleum for Khoja Ahmed Yassawi.

Arystan Bab Mausoleum

Arystan Bab Mausoleum

Having spent 30 minutes at the site, including viewing the tomb of Arystan Bab and his students itself, we moved on, heading for Otrar.

The Silk Route fortress of Otrar

Otrar was an ancient Silk Route fortress and city, much like part ones Sauran, which was destroyed by Genghis Khan’s troops in 1219. Eventually it regained its status as a key stop on the Silk Route, but unfortunately, as with Sauran, it was slowly abandoned for other settlements before being reclaimed by the surrounding countryside and wildlife.

Otrar is very similar to Sauran, and of the two, my preference is definitely Sauran. I cannot explain to you why, sometimes you just like the ‘feel’ of a place, and I liked the ‘feel’ of Sauran. Otrar is certainly the more active though, archeologically speaking; with numerous excavations ongoing, including of what are believed to be bath houses. Even if my preference lies elsewhere, this does not diminish the view and the incredible history that lies there.

Walls of Otrar

The walls of Otrar, still standing after hundred of years

The Surprise Stop, Ak-Mechet Cave

Our last stop for the day was a surprise trip to Ak-Mechet Cave, quite some way off what seemed to be the beaten path, at the suggestion of our driver. In fact, it is so far off of the beaten path that if you Google Ak-Mechet Cave, you will find practically nothing. Currently, two of the three top results are a blog and photos by a member of my tour party.

On the winding drive to the cave I think I feared for my life like I never have before in a vehicle. I think the whole group felt the same! Our driver was, admirably, doing his best to get us to the cave before sunset, and so was channelling the spirit of any number of Formula 1 drivers; the last thing that you would want in a minibus that was almost certainly not designed to go around corners at more than 10 miles per hour, let alone 25!

The hair-raising drive was worth it though. The views from our parking place on a hill overlooking the steppe were stunning, and the cave itself was something else.

The view from above Ak-Mechet cave

The view from our parking space above Ak-Mechet Cave

For someone with a fear of heights, descending the stairway into the cave was horrible. I am sure the stairway is perfectly safe, but I felt like it could come away from its moorings at any time. It even had a slight inward tilt. If you ever go, do not make the mistake I did and hold onto the handrail. The cave is home to many bats and birds, something that adds enormously to its atmosphere, but also adds plenty to the grime covering the stairway.

Once inside, Ak-Mechet Cave is incredible. It is considered to be a spiritual place, and so you will find stones piled up by Shamans for the spirits that reside within, and it is said that if you walk around the small mound inside and find a place to sit in silence that you can ‘feel’, and ‘connect’ with, the spirits and energy of the cave.

Now, I am not someone who generally believes in spirituality and mysticism, outside of fiction anyway, but I will admit, the cave did have a certain undefinable something. Between the cawing, tweeting and chittering of the bats and birds, the drip-drip of water from the caves ceiling, the setting sun pouring through the cave entrance and the stillness inside, it was a unique experience. I have added a photo here (my digital camera did not deal with the dark very well) but it does not begin to capture the experience. If you are ever nearby I would highly recommend taking the road less travelled to visit the cave.

Ak-Mechet Cave

The view looking out of Ak-Mechet Cave

We had little time to see Shymkent on our arrival, as we went straight for a late supper of bishbarmak (a Kazakh dish I will tell you more about another time), before a short drive to our hotel ready for bed. From what I did see, it seemed like a city that was flourishing, with many new developments and an active nightlife.

I will add a little about our hotel before I finish, though, as a ‘heads up’ for anyone planning to visit Kazakhstan in the future. The hotels in Kazakhstan do have star ratings, but do not expect them to match up to what you may have experienced elsewhere. We stayed at what was, optimistically, called a ‘four star’ hotel. I may be no hotel expert, but it wasn’t what I would ordinarily expect a four star hotel to be. I think two stars may have been more accurate. I had to smile, though, when I went to plug in the bedside lamp in my room, only to find that there was not actually a plug socket in which to plug it in. The nearest one was across the room, in use by the air conditioning. I can only surmise it was there as decoration, though a vase of flowers would have been just as functional given the circumstances, and much more pleasant to look at.

Check back soon for day four, in which we failed to find a 15km long, 500 metre deep canyon that was sat right under our noses.

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The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Three: On the Road to Shymkent - Part One

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Three: On the Road to Shymkent – Part One

A fantastic journey across southern Kazakhstan taking in spectacular scenery, ancient towns and lizards!

I found myself writing so much for day three I felt I would split it in two to make it a little easier to read. So, presented here for you, is part one. Come back tomorrow for part two!

A visit to Sauron Sauran

After finally arriving back at our hotel around 1am of day two, we were up again early to have breakfast and be on our way. The early start was certainly necessary, as we had numerous stops to make along our 500km drive to Shymkent. If I remember correctly, our ETA in Shymkent for dinner was around 8pm; I don’t believe we arrived much before 10pm, such was the amount that was squeezed into the day.

Our first stop on this epic cross-country adventure were the ruins of the ancient Silk Route fortress and city of Sauran. That is Sauran, not Sauron; there are no Hobbits here, though the incredibly well preserved fortress walls do look like they could withstand an orc attack!

The ruins of this once great city are only partially excavated, and are a perfect illustration of where the tourist industry in Kazakhstan is at present. In many countries the excavation would be much further along, if not complete, with everything fenced off and a visitor centre built around it charging entry fees and selling tat. In Sauran, as in many of the places we visited, there is none of that. The site is completely open. There are no gates or fences, no refreshment stands or ice cream vans and no people; though there is a car park a five minute or so walk from the entrance, so it is not completely without modern convenience. This means that when you visit, it is just you, the ruins, the wildlife and the view. A wholly refreshing experience when compared to the, often, overcrowded tourist traps of Western Europe.

The fortress walls of Sauran

The fortress walls of the city of Sauran

The ruins themselves are not on the original site of the city, as it often moved to stay close to the changing course of the Syr Darya, a river that originates in the Tian Shan Mountains. The town and fortress itself was thought to cover a total area of around 200 hectares, though very little of this has so far been explored and excavated. Eventually other local towns rose to prominence, and Sauran itself was abandoned, leaving the surrounding steppe to reclaim it as its own. That the fortress walls are still in as good a condition as they are in many places, so long after the city was abandoned, is a testament to how well they were built to begin with.

At busy tourist locations there is often a lack of wildlife, the huge numbers of people having scared it all away. This is where Kazakhstan comes into its own. Its tourist spots are so rarely visited that the wildlife has yet to flee, meaning you can view eagles, horses, lizards, tortoises and (what Google suggests may have been) great gerbils among many other animals, birds and insects in their native habitat.

While in Sauran I took a number of wildlife photos, some good, some terrible, so here are a few of my favourites.

Sunbathing lizard at Sauran

I am not sure if this lizard is sunbathing or snooty …

Crested Lark at Sauran

A crested lark having lunch

Grazing horses at Sauran

Horses grazing among the ruins of Sauran

The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Unfortunately our time at Sauran had to end, so we moved on to Turkestan and the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi. Commissioned in the late 14th century, the mausoleum remains incomplete today, though efforts are ongoing to complete, and renovate, sections of the building. It is one of several UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kazakhstan and it is easy to see why.

UNESCO Sign at the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

The mausoleum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The building itself is both visually impressive and imposing, standing at 42 metres, with some very intricate blue patterning around sections of the building and a huge archway leading into the central chamber.

Quick side note, as part of the continuing renovation/building work they tried to match the blue of the older tiling, but were unable to. So when you walk around the sides of the building you can instantly tell which of the tiling is new, and which has been there for many years.

The main archway has become an unofficial aviary, home to hundreds of birds nesting in every nook and cranny available, turning the archway into a wall of bird song and adding to the arresting nature and feel of the mausoleum.

Side note number two, from the side, the mausoleum was designed to look like ‘Allah’ written in Arabic.

The archway into the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

The main entrance, and unofficial aviary, of the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

Side view of the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

The side view of the mausoleum, designed to look like 'Allah' in Arabic – الله

Inside the mausoleum there are many small rooms used for a variety of purposes, such as prayer and teaching, and in the middle is an enormous cauldron, made of seven different metals and used to distribute holy water to pilgrims.

While we were not requested to remove our shoes, and we were allowed to take photographs, as this is a holy site it is best to ask permission for this first and to remember that this is not a museum, it is in active use and so respect should be shown.

After a short walk around the grounds, visiting the excavation of several chambers 100 metres or so from the mausoleum, we headed for lunch, and then hit the road again to continue our journey towards Shymkent.

Check back tomorrow to see what other incredible experiences were left for me during the rest of day three.