Singing Songs about the Southland

in which work takes me to the country’s third largest city, I visit the country’s most important religious site, and I struggle through a hike with a case of food poisoning.

The Hodja Ahmet Yassawi Mausoleum in Turkistan, South Kazakhstan Oblast.

Before I came to Kazakhstan, I had one goal for my time here–everything else would be secondary, but I needed to get to Shymkent one weekend to visit a college friend on a Peace Corps assignment there.  Luck had it, when I took over the human trafficking portfolio, that I actually ended up with a reason to head down there on official business (which brought with it the benefits of paid-for travel and hotel rooms, not to mention per diem).  And thus, last Wednesday, I traded north-central for 120 miles from Tashkent (sadly on the Kazakh side).  From the minute I walked out of the airport with co-workers Erik and Lena, it was clear, from the unrelenting heat and cows roaming the parking lot we were in a completely different place.  The taxi driver smiled and informed us that we were very lucky; the weather had cooled down a bit before our arrival.  Yikes.  (Note: Weather in Shymkent frequently hits close to 50°C in the summer (120°F)).

He dropped us off at our hotel, and after settling in quickly, Erik, Lena, and I headed out to meet my friend Becca, the Peace Corps Volunteer friend of mine that Erik had met the previous week.  After a nice dinner, we parted ways and Erik, Lena and I had beer at a café adjacent to our hotel and called it a relatively early night, as we had a long day of meetings the next day.  I met our embassy’s second-in-command the next morning at the airport, and after a short interlude at the hotel, we set off en masse for our meetings.  I won’t go into details, except that the meetings, on child labor, served to confirm what we had noticed from the minute we got off the airplane.  South Kazakhstan Oblast (the region for which Shymkent is the capital) is a completely different world.

At the NGO Sana Sezim. The four Embassy employees are on the left--Lena, Erik, me, and Pamela (the DCM).

After a productive day, we headed off for a nice meal at an Uzbek restaurant, and Becca and her co-worker Ainur joined us.  The food was delicious.  Best of all?  I completed the second of my three culinary goals for my summer (The first: mare’s milk.  The second: horse meat.  Then still to come: camel’s milk).  Actually, the horsemeat sausage was quite good, just as my Uzbek teacher told our class repeatedly senior year.

The DCM came to Shymkent accompanied by two of her friends from a past tour--Mattie (on the left, in purple) and Mable (on the right, in pink). Becca is sitting next to me, and Ainur is between Erik and Lena.

Sadly, Lena and Erik headed back to Astana the next morning (Friday, August 13).  But my trip was not yet over.  Ahead of me was accompanying the DCM on her trip to Turkistan to meet with the local mayor and visit Kazakhstan’s most holy site.  So, the next morning, after a filling breakfast, we made the trek three hours north to Turkistan.  The way up there was fascinating–to repeat the point again, it was a very different world than anything I had experienced in Kazakshtan to date.

South Kazakhstan Oblast (SKO) is predominantly agricultural, so even on the main road, this is a regular appearance. Melons for sale!

We got there, did our official meetings, and toured the famous Hodja Ahmed Yassawi Mausoleum, easily Kazakhstan’s most significant religious site.

Me, Mattie, Mabel, and Pamela at the Mausoleum.

Local tradition claims that three visits to the 14th century mausoleum are the equivalent of a hajj to Mecca.  Yassawi was an important Sufi mystic and teacher, and he died in what is Turkistan in the 11th century.  His tomb was converted into a great mausoleum during the Timurid period (that is, under Timur/Tamerlane in the 1500s), though construction stopped with Tamerlane’s 1405 death (note the plain side on the picture at the top of the post).  Hence the resemblance to many of the holy sites in Uzbekistan, which are characterized by their Timurid architecture.  The place was stunning.  And goodness knows it’ll be a while before I get to Uzbekistan, so this is as close as I will get for a bit.

Look at the detail!

The next morning, we returned to Shymkent, stopping at a couple sites along the way.  The first was the mausoleum for Arystan-Bab, the teacher of Yassawi.

I have no idea why I have such a tendency to make my feet look so awkward in pictures.

And we stopped in a well done (but so Soviet!) archeological museum after that.  After our return to Shymkent, I took off to crash a party with Becca and some of the people she worked with.  This made for a rather pleasant evening (with the exception of a piece of bad meat, which I would regret the next day).  The party was at the house of a friend of Becca’s.  The house was lovely, and the people were wonderfully friendly.

While I don't generally endorse the post-Soviet tendency to pose with flowers, I thought this garden definitely merited the photo shoot.

Karaoke. Luckily, I knew enough Кино songs to have something to contribute. 🙂

The next morning, I saw the DCM and her friends off in a taxi to the airport and headed off by local bus to Becca’s residence, where I would stay for my final night in South Kazakhstan.  The plan was a trip out to the nearby mountains.  The day was lovely, but hot.  But already I was feeling signs of food poisoning.  In typical fashion, I tried to ignore the signs, trying to convince myself I was feeling fine–especially since Becca and her friends had organized a short trek out to the mountains because I had indicated special interest. Sigh.  I did fine at first, and the mountains were certainly loved.

We had a nice dinner, which I sadly barely touched, and then we took a short walk in the mountains.  Basically until I decided I couldn’t go further.  Still, it was very much worth it.  The setting was gorgeous.

Becca and I.

We headed back, and Becca and I spent the rest of the evening chatting before I called it a night (and a long, painful one it would be, despite having to wake up at 4:45.  Oh the joys of food poisoning!).  By 9:15 the next morning, I was back in my (new) apartment (more on that move later), and though feeling a lot better, I took a nap for a couple hours before reporting to work after lunch.  Though there was something strangely but wonderfully familiar about returning to Astana, I knew that I had really preferred the wild South to my northern residence.  It had been a wonderful weekend–with wonderful company, interesting scenery, and plenty to do.


8 thoughts on “Singing Songs about the Southland

  1. Was so good to have you here!!!! Only I’m sorry you were sick, but yay for still getting to see quite a lot of SKO 🙂 We can do a complete photo exchange when I get up to Astana!

  2. good to read more about your trip–sorry about the food poisoining. Maybe best to stick with the melons…
    take care, Mom

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