Where is Turkistan? (And why would you want to visit?)

Turkistan, the city, lies around 160 km northwest of Shymkent in Kazakhstan.

It’s the capital of the Turkistan region of Kazakhstan and the home of the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi. Yasawi was the 12th-century head of a regional school of Sufism, a mystic movement in Islam, which began in the 9th century.

The mausoleum is a UNESCO World Heritage site and in 2021, the Turkic Council proclaimed it the “Spiritual Capital of the Turkic World.” I’ve also read that 3 pilgrimages to Turkistan are the equivalent of one hajj to Mecca. And in the Islamic world, that’s a very big deal!

And while you’re there, there’s also a very good Ethnographic Museum.

You can stay in Turkistan, but it’s a fairly easy day trip from Shymkent on either public transport or a tour.

Keep on reading to see how our day went…

Road Trip to Turkistan City

We didn’t get up quite as early as we thought we would, and by the time we had breakfast, it was already getting pretty hot for our road trip to Turkistan. The average daytime temperature in Shymkent in July is around 35 degrees celsius (95 Fahrenheit.) Warm even for us Aussies from outback Australia.

We checked with the receptionist to make sure we needed the same local bus to get to the bus station as is mentioned in the Lonely Planet. That part of the journey was easy as the bus station is right by a very busy bazaar.

We wandered through the bus station deciphering the Cyrillic on the signs until we found one with the equivalent of Turkistan written on the front. By now it was 10 am and it was getting very warm. The guys shooed us off to buy a ticket from an office up the back and Tim braved the line to do the purchase. 400 KZT each ($2.70) and we even had seat numbers. The only problem…it didn’t leave for another hour. Oh well, get some cold water, find a shady spot and wait.

We crowded onto the bus with all the other passengers at about 10 to 11. It was quickly obvious there was no aircon. Lucky for us there was a skylight thingy just above our seats. Hopefully, we would get a breeze going once we started.

The road out of town was a disaster area. Most of it was torn up and we had a multitude of detours to negotiate. The heat in the bus rose rapidly as the day wore on. We didn’t have enough speed up to get a breeze going and as usual, there is always room to pack more people into the aisles. That in conjunction with the bumps and turns soon had my guts doing backflips. I barely had the overwhelming urge to puke. coordination to pull out my new friend “Smecta“, mix it in some water, and slowly sip it to quell the urges. Thankfully, within half an hour, all was under control again….Looooovvvvveeeee SMECTA (See why HERE!)

We finally made it into Turkistan at about 2 pm and got dropped not far from the Yasawi Mausoleum. Built in the 14th century, it’s the largest and most important pilgrimage site in Kazakhstan and the resting place of the first great Turkic Muslim Holy Man…Kozha Akhmed Yasawi.

Unfortunately, quite a bit of the building was covered in scaffolding which didn’t make for great photos. The outside was quite impressive, with tall mud-brick walls topped by a beautiful blue dome. The interior was somewhat less so. Under renovation, the walls were stark white and the interior was full of scaffolding. There were a number of rooms surrounded the main chamber, but many of which were closed off. Some contained small artifacts but on the whole, the overall significance was lost on me. I guess it was one time when a guide would have been handy but I’m pretty sure there was a lot of stuff missing because of the reno’s.

Outside the sun was baking, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. We headed off down a side road in an attempt to find the Historical Culture Ethnographic Center which we had heard was quite good. In a fairly new building, it wasn’t bad with a very comprehensive history of the area, over three floors, covering everything from BC Turkistan through to the modern-day culture. Some of the exhibits were subtitled in English but even the ones that weren’t were generally obvious enough to know the gist of what they were about.

By the time we’d finished in the museum, it was about 3.30 pm and time to find transport back. That consisted of a short taxi ride (200KT) to the Mashruskas (800) and then a 2.5 hr ride back through the back roads to avoid all the road works. Back at the bus station, we jumped on another local bus and by 6.30om we were sat up at a restaurant having Turkish Pide and an icy cold coke.

Was it worth it…Hmmm. We can tick it off and can say we have experienced most of the forms of public transport available in Kazakhstan. So for that experience, I guess it was.

The tomb itself was OK but I’m sure it will be far more spectacular once the renovations are finished (In 2013 apparently).

And, if you’re out there, the museum is definitely worth a visit.

Handy Hints

  1. In summer, take a hat, sunscreen, and a water bottle with you. It can get HOT!!! 🥵 🌡️
  2. The Lonely Planet – Central Asia had all the directions to get to and from Turkistan, along with a map and a description of the highlights, and entry fees, etc. However, it’s worth confirming with your accommodation as to whether things might have changed.
  3. The LP also has some recommended places to stay should you choose. But check other options for accommodation HERE. Availability and prices change quickly in this part of the world.
  4. All four Intrepid tours stop off in Turkistan if you don’t fancy traveling in this part of the world independently or prefer to travel in a group: