Friday, 6 July 2007

Silk Route: Almaty-Taraz, Shymkent, Otrar and Turkestan



The Team: Suin, Bob and Erlan just before dawn 0n 4 June

Silk Route: Almaty-Taraz, Shymkent, Otrar and Turkestan

Time may have moved on along this part of he Silk Route and dynasties have come and gone, and cars and trucks are slowly replacing camels, horses and mules/donkeys, but the character, excitement, colour and lust for trading hasn’t changed at all.
On this 900 km trip from Almaty-Taraz-Symkent-Otrar to Turkestan, we dined like Khans in old caranvan serais, visited 2000 year old cities, saw roadside dancing girls competing to sell honey to passers by, drank camels milk in a Yurta, sacrificed three sheep in Turkestan and after being blessed by the Mullah, distributed the meat to poor families.

The most moving moments were visiting the Ancient Silk Route city of Otrar, situated at the confluence of the Syr Daria ( Jarxtes) and Ayras rivers, and walking through an excavated city of over 200 years. And later, Turkestan. (I’ll keep that for another dispatch) .


We left Almaty at 2.00 am on 4 July. My guides and Kazakh brothers-in-law, Erlan and Suin driving a new Lexus 4 wheel drive with good music playing. A cool start.After two hours we crossed an ancient pass on the road from Almaty (Verny) to Bishek. Around 4 a.m. we could see the lights of Bishkek as we skirted the border of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Shortly after first light we found a caravan serai at Aspara. We sat cross legged on a tapchan

(an elvated platform with cushions and a table on it) and drank tea served in a bowl, lagman soup - Central Asia’s spaghetti which Marco Polo took back to Italy -followed by a mountain of sheep meat. The waitress flashed her golden teeth as she filled our bowls with tea, a legacy to Soviet dentistry.

We set off again and slowed down near Merke where the Honey girls, scantily dressed, beckoned customers to buy their Honey. We counted at least 7 stalls and made a note to get some honey on our return trip.

We travelled close to Tokmak, Bishkek and Talass just on the other side of the border in Kyrgyzstan, places made famous by Hsuan Tsan the Chinese Buddhist Monk who travelled this way on his marathon journey from 627 -643 AD.

From sunrise at 4,45 am to 8 am we had splendid views of the Heavenly Mountains (Tienshan) rising to almost 5000 metres.

Erlan and Suin love music and the most appropriate song we heard was a local radio station playing Hurrah, Hurrah, have a happy, happy holiday, no doubt about it, we were starting on a happy holiday..


Mid morning we arrived in Taraz, now proudly displaying a new Mosque with the traditional Lapis coloured cupola. From Taraz to Shymkent the local name for this portion of the Tienshan Mountains is Talass Alatoo, the highest point 4,500 metres. On this this stretch of the road people were harvesting the wheat crop and many camped in Yurtas, the tradition circular Kazakh tents. Made it to Shymkent just before mid-day

From Shymkent we turned north towards Otrar and Turkestan, driving close to the Amu Darya. We soon passed a town named after Timurlan and Torlkol an area growing enormous melons, and camels, horses and mules becoming more prevalent.

Soon we reached Arystanab just a kilometre from Otrar. For Kazakhs, visiting Otrar and Turkestan, it is a very sacred pilgrimage, and the town of Arystanbab, has a famous Mausoleum, built after the death of the Sheik of Sheiks, Arystanbab, Although Christian, Erlan and Suin treat me as a brother and a fellow Muslim. We met the Mullah who is in charge of pilgrims and explained we had to do full ablutions before praying for us. That completed we selected a sheep each. I choose the blackest of a flock ranging from white to brown to grey and black. My elder sister once referred to me as the ‘black sheep of our family’ so why not live up to the reputation.
As the sheep were slaughtered one by one, the Mullah prayed for each of us and our families.

While the sheep were being cut into pieces for distribution to the poor later, Mullah Jan took us the Arystanbab Mausoleum-Mosque which was rebuilt in 1907, and said prayers in this very Holy place.

Mullajh Jan told us we were now ready to visit Otrar proper and Turkestan

The ruins of Otrar, once one of the leading cities on the Silk Route, occupies 20 hectares. The greatest intellectual of them all, Abu Nasr Al-farabi (870-950) the scientist who build on the creative heritage started in Otrar a thousand years before his birth, became a school pf learning for scientists, philosophers, poets, astronomers. Otrar had a enormous library and had links with similar libraries in Greece. Links of the Otrar learning can be found in Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, Iran and Greece.

Otrar was a place where many caravan roads joined, one branch led to Taraz, Balasagam and to Eastern Turkestan (China), the other to Tashkent, Samarkand and Merv, Nishapur (Iran). Otrar was also linked with Urgench, the Volga area, the Caucasus, the Black Sea Coast, through Betpak-dala, right through to Siberia. Otrar is mentioned in all the travel notes of Arab and Persian travellers who visited Otrar.

It was with a huge sense of awe that we visited the huge mound that was the main fortified city of Otrar. An archaeologist who cares for the city, guided us around half excavated parts of the city
And there were houses, wells, fire places and irrigation systems, store house: for a moment my mind was 2000 years back in history trying to visulaize this early central Asian civilization from which the Kazakh people of today have come from.

Geerting from Otrar and Torkestan. Posted in Shymkent.

Will update tomorrow on the marvellous Turkestan tomorrow. Bob, Suin and Erlan

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