by Guljamal Pirenova


What do you know about Kazakhstan besides perhaps something cursory about Almaty and Astana, Bayterek, or the Caspian Sea? But do you know anything about the underground mosque, the mosque that will never be finished or about the thermal resorts of Saryagash? If not, welcome to the region of Southern Kazakhstan. Although most of the traditional tourist routes miss the region, it is definitely worth a visit. We took up the challenge earlier this year in the spring. 

The South Kazakhstan region is the southernmost part of the country and also the most densely populated region, sharing its border with Uzbekistan. It was a part of the Great Silk Road and therefore has a number of fascinating historical places.The capital city is Shymkent, (previously Chimkent) and it is the third city after Astana and Almaty in terms of economic, social and cultural importance. If you have been to Shymkent before, then it is time to discover its surroundings. You сan start at the nearest town, named Turkestan, which is full of ancient architecture and wonders.

For example – Baydybek cave. This is a huge, underground natural cave on the way to Turkestan. It is one of the mysterious places in the region. The cave is massive – 25 metres in height, 65 metres in width and 154 metres in length. You cannot fail to be impressed at first sight. The entrance is 10 metres above ground and there are tiny stairs that take you inside the cave. One of the legends says that it was the place where a dragon lived; but the local population believes it was a shelter for their ancestors where they could hide from Jungar Mongol invaders.

Nowadays the cave is a popular pilgrimage site – the day we visited, dozens of women, children and old people were inside the cave praying to be cured. They were sitting on special benches, touching the walls of the cave or just taking pictures of stones. People call the cave Ak-Meshit meaning “White Mosque”. It is curious that there are no trees for many kilometres around the cave, only beautiful steppe. However, entering the cave, right in the place where the dragon is said to have slept in the sunshine, there is a real oasis – a small and wonderful garden of mulberry trees, grapes and briers literally growing under ground with songful birds living there. In summer, when it is extremely hot in the steppe, it is cool inside, but warm during the winter, a natural shelter.

After the cave visit, we made a move to the ancient Arystan Bab mausoleum, which is located near the famous ruins of the ancient town of Otrar. The mausoleum is an architectural monument of the fourteenth century and is the mosque and the tomb of Arystan Bab, who was an Islamic preacher. Arystan Bab was the spiritual mentor of Khodja Akhmed Yassavi, another famous Sufi preacher and poet. As a result, pilgrims first go to the Arystan Bab mausoleum, and then to the mausoleum of Khodja Akhmed Yassavi.

Khodja Akhmed Yassavi was born in 1093, and died in 1166 in Turkestan. He was a Turkic poet and early Sufi mystic who influenced the development of mystical orders throughout the Central Asia. According to legend, he received God’s blessing from his teacher, the prophet Arystan Bab. The mausoleum was built in fifteenth century by the order of Tamerlane to show his respect to Khodja after having conquered this land. Tamerlane brought his workers from Samarkand, and they created a mausoleum with similar turquoise domes and wall covering to those seen in Samarkand and Bukhara. However, right after Tamerlane’s death in 1405, the construction of the mausoleum was stopped and the front facade remained unfinished. Local legend says that the mausoleum will never be finished until Khodja Akhmed rises again.

The building and the complex itself, called Khazret Sultan, are always full of tourists and pilgrims. It is located in Turkestan near many warmly welcoming hotels and guesthouses.

As for the final destination of our sightseeing, we visited the Saryagash village that is mostly known for its mineral water. This village has many thermal resorts – it is represented by big and small sanatoriums, 5 star hotels and private residences and guesthouses that are ready to welcome local and foreign tourists. Most treatments use hot mineral water originating from 1400 metres underground and which is said to cure diseases of the musculoskeletal system, peripheral nervous system, digestive system and skin diseases. Saryagash sanatoriums and resorts are popular among patients of every age and social status, including elderly people, children, locals and even the president of the country. We asked some of the visitors, why they chose Saryagash, the answer was “You do not have to pay to go abroad and it is better to undergo natural treatments at home”. The sanatorium staff tried to convince us that there was enough mineral water to treat foreigners from all over the world.

This was only a snapshot of some of the things South Kazakhstan has to offer. You could spend months exploring all it has to offer, but hopefully this has given you the inspiration
to go and Open Central Asia for yourself!

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