In which Maki and I spend a week and change introducing both sets of our parents to Kazakhstan, together, for a set of adventures in South Kazakhstan Oblast. We’ll save our adventures around Almaty for another post, since there are just too many pictures!

Despite the fact that Maki and I have both spent quite a bit of time in the former Soviet Union, we had yet to have our parents visit while we were living there. Though Maki’s parents have both been to Ukraine on several occasions both during and after Soviet rule, my parents had never even made it to the Soviet Union or its successor states, and we decided it was high time for a visit. With our encouragement, they made plans to come visit us last May, both in conjunction with a trip to Germany before (my parents) or after (Maki’s parents) the visit. And thus, separated by only about 18 hours, we suddenly had an onslaught of parental visitors. My parents arrived a day ahead of Maki’s, fresh of visiting my brother in Berlin, so we showed them around a little, sent them off to a museum and for lunch on their own while we attended to archives and writing, and then met them for coffee and dinner with a couple friends. That evening, we sent them to bed while Maki picked his parents up, fresh of their travels from the States. And the next morning, May 9, we set off to explore the city, starting at our favorite cafe, and moved on towards the celebrations taking place in Panfilov Park.

Victory Day celebrations in Almaty.

Victory Day celebrations in Almaty.

Victory Day (May 9) is one of the most celebrated holidays across the former Soviet Union. In most places, it ranks among New Year’s and Women’s Day as about the most important day of the year, in part because Soviet citizens suffered disproportionately during the war, since Soviet territory saw the worst of the fighting, and Soviet citizens, particularly those in Belarus and Ukraine, saw their areas pass back and forth between Soviets and Germans. But I digress. After we had had our fill of the rainy celebrations, we continued on towards the Green Bazaar, where we had our parents try shubat (fermented camel milk) and Kumys (fermented horse milk) and introduced them to both Uyghur food and our Tajik fruit and nuts guy. And we then headed back to our apartments to get ready for our overnight train trip to South Kazakhstan.

Images from the train.

Images from the train.

Our parents were such troopers! Within 48 hours of arrival (even less for Maki’s parents, who had come directly from the States), they tried some of the biggest specialties of Kazakh cuisine (including some fermented milk products that are not for the weak of stomach), traipsed all over Almaty in a rain storm, ridden in several cars pulled over from the street, and boarded an overnight train for Kazakhstan. And the adventures only continued. Our hosts for the weekend met us at the station early the next morning, collected our suitcases, and put us almost immediately in a bus for a day-long driving tour to Turkistan, between 3 and 4 hours away, with a couple stops on the way. First up was Otrar, a geological site from a city flattened under orders from Genghis Khan.

Ruins of Otrar, in various states of renovation and excavation.

Ruins of Otrar, in various states of renovation and excavation.

And then, after a brief stop at Aristan-Bab, another holy site in the area, we found ourselves approaching the great Khoja Ahmet Yassawi Mausoleum, one of Kazakhstan’s most stunning tourist attractions. The kitsch factor was turned up when we arrived and saw a camel crossing along in front of the mausoleum. The mausoleum itself is a 14th century reconstruction, commissioned by Tamerlane/Timur of a 11th century tomb to an important Sufi saint and founder of the Yassawi order. Construction was never actually finished, however, since work on the building was halted when Timur died in 1405. But since I’ve already written about the history of the building in posts of my last two visits (Exhibits A and B).

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Though the trip made for a long day, I think our weary travelers enjoyed seeing the mausoleum, particularly as no one had seen anything like it before. Since it was my third trip to the mausoleum, I will also casually mention that local lore claims that three visits is the equivalent of a pilgrimage to Mecca, perhaps a lingering reminder of times where travel to Mecca was much more difficult (or even banned) — and still remains out of reach of many Central Asians.


True to my last experience in Turkestan, I even found a little opportunity to use my Kazakh out of necessity, as we found ourselves at a small little restaurant with staff who only spoke a little Russian. Five months of Kazakh justified for a single portion of meat-free plov! We were also sure to get one good group picture of all of us.

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Sufficiently exhausted from both a morning of driving and a few hours in the hot, beating sun of South Kazakhstan, we returned to our van and started again on the long trek back to our guesthouse, dropping off our fellow passengers in Shymkent on the way back. We got back pretty late, but our guesthouse hosts put together a wonderful meal for us, and even surprised us with a cake and bottle of cognac, a tribute to the fact that it was Maki’s and my first anniversary (Hey, remember when we got married last year? That was pretty fun!). We retired pretty early, exhausted from the short night of train-sleep, a long all-day excursion, and (for the parents) jetlag. The next morning, after a good breakfast, it was time to hit the road in the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve, one of Kazakhstan’s biggest national parks. The 45-minute drive was bumpy, but the scenery was pretty fantastic.

Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve.

Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve.

Since it was May, we were just getting the end of the beautiful tulip season. Tulips, in case you didn’t know, originate in regions that are now in Kazakhstan. The tulips themselves were pretty stunning!

Nature in the national park.

Nature in the national park.

Our main activity for the day was hiking down the Aksu Canyon — a part of our continuing scheme to test out our parents’ limits. They performed admirably!

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The way down, of course, was the easy part. Pretty quickly we reached the Aksu river below. The waterbaby even got to dip her feet into the frigid water.

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Then, of course, came the hard part: the return up the hill. But we all made it, with Maki’s mother leading the way. We continued the drive to a beautiful spot for lunch. The views over the canyon were pretty spectacular.

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We headed back towards our place, encountering several typical traffic jams en route.

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I also took perhaps my two favorite pictures of the whole trip. I present:

Zhabagly Nature Reserve.

Zhabagly Nature Reserve, South Kazakhstan Oblast.

From there, we headed back to our guesthouse, where we had a nice dinner and a lovely sunset walk.

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The sunset was especially spectacular.

Sunset over Zhabagly Village.

Sunset over Zhabagly Village.

Our guest house, let me take a second to say here, was really great. If you’re looking for a weekend in South Kazakhstan, I highly recommend you look them up. They were professional, helped us organize great excursions, prepared excellent food, and even accommodated my vegetarian preferences! Plus, cute kids and cute dogs. And questionable post-Soviet interior design. A total package, and totally worth every tenge!


Ruslan Guesthouse: with adorable children and dogs, and really, truly spectacular wallpaper/bed sheet combinations. #onlyintheformersovietunion

But anyway, I digress. The next morning, we headed out for a hike on their own property, which was almost equally stunning.

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We had a nice day, taking a comparatively easy walk through the beautiful grounds.

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We had a lovely final evening before heading towards the station to catch our train back to Almaty to enjoy a few days of showing them around our favorite haunts. But since I’ve already run through a picture quota at this point, I’m going to leave it here and finish the saga of the parental travels in another post. In short, a wonderful trip to South Kazakhstan, and a fantastic introduction to the country for our guests.


2 thoughts on “The Parents do Kazakhstan

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