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It is a scenic drive to Turkestan from Shymkent in Southern Kazakhstan, about 680 km from Almaty, the country’s largest city. The sepia landscape is stark and generally unpeopled, with camel caravans lumbering along. Turkestan, the spiritual centre of Kazakhstan used to be home to the 11th-century Sufi mystic, Khoja Ahmed Yasawi. Once the hub of art, science and culture which straddled the crossroads of the ancient  Silk Route, it later became the political pivot of the Kazakh steppes. It is believed that the Turkic people, an ethnic group with a global population of approximately 160 million, originated here.

Most visitors head to the mausoleum of Yasawi, a poet and philosopher who was Rumi’s contemporary. With bulbous domes, brickwork, colourful tiles and mosaics in a brilliant shade of turquoise adorned with geometric patterns and Islamic calligraphy, the mausoleum was commissioned by Timur in 1389. It was, however, never finished since the conqueror died in 1405.

Only its gigantic south portal has stood the test of time, with its brick masonry exposed to the elements and scaffolding like the ribs of a prehistoric beast. Besides the original carved wooden doors, the mausoleum’s massive interiors are adorned with alabaster stalactites known as muqarnas. A huge cauldron standing in the centre is made of an alloy of seven metals and sports inscriptions from the Koran. Close by there is the tomb of Rabigha-Sultan Begum, Timur’s great-granddaughter.

The founder of the Timurid Empire brought in mosaic workers from Shiraz and stucco workers from Isfahan to work on the mausoleum. Its vaults, domes, axial symmetry and turquoise floral decorations that boast Chinese and Persian influences—with colours taken from precious stones and minerals, including lapis lazuli—became the prototype of buildings in Central Asia. The mausoleum structure decayed under Russian rule; it was used as a military depot at one point. It was restored in the 90s and is a UNESCO world heritage site today. 


Known as the second Mecca of the East, three pilgrimages to Turkestan are considered equal to one Haj. Naturally, pilgrims far outnumber tourists. History is a mix of the subtle and the banal; as worshippers prostate before the tomb, eyes closed in meditation, tourists ride Bactrian camels or buy prayer beads and scarves from the small stalls around. The lawns of the mausoleum are manicured, adorned with flower beds with trellised walkways, and benches on which visitors sit and sip black tea and chat. 

Not far from the mausoleum is the 12th-century Hilvet Semi-Underground Mosque—a site for a 40-day cleansing ritual, where human contact was negligible. Yasawi spent his last few years living in seclusion, contemplation and prayer here. The atmosphere is one of tranquil antiquity: its carved wooden pillars and mats are jewel-toned; old copies of the Koran are kept behind glass cases. Not far from here, is an ancient 16th-century brick-walled bathhouse, where old vessels have been preserved. According to locals, one candle was enough to warm up the entire heating system.

Not all of Turkestan is ancient, though. In a bid to attract more tourists, the Kazhak government pumped in a lot of funds to construct a new city with modern apartment blocks, malls and a state-of-the-art airport. The centrepiece of this development is the sprawling Karavansaray complex owned by the Rixos group; it was opened in 2021. A Silk Road fantasy world with luxury hotels, shopping malls, an amphitheatre and restaurants, the whole Disneyland-like resort complex offers boating on waterways with bridges.

Their idea was to create a desert version of Venice. In an evening extravaganza replete with dancing fountains, performers on boats enact the Kazakh version of Romeo and Juliet. The gold-coloured egg-shaped Flying Theatre becomes a magical aerial carrier that enables tourists to fly virtually over famous places in Kazakhstan like the Tien Shan mountains and the futuristic skyline of its capital Astana. A highlight of the flying visit is the mystic bird Samruk, which according to local legend laid a golden egg that turned into the sun. 

A short drive from the city along ochre stretches of flat desert terrain takes you to the Arystan Bab Mausoleum, a brick building with carved wooden columns embellished with calligraphy. Located near the ancient city of Otyrar,  Arystan was Yasawi’s mentor and spiritual advisor. A drink at the well here is supposed to give one wisdom and eternal blessings. That should be enough for any Rumi reader.

Getting there: Travel by the low-cost carrier Fly Arystan from Delhi to Shymkent
Do: Visit the mausoleum, underground mosque, bathhouse, local market, the tomb of Arystan Bab and the medieval ruins of Otrar
Eat: Try local Kazakh specialities like horse meat, breads like bursak, Ughyur noodles, Turkish mezze and sweets like chak chak

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