26th – 28th July
After Aralsk, the roads thankfully improve and we make good time through the towns of Kyzl-Orda and Turkestan en-route to Shymkent. The former have little to report, barring a vast 14th century mausoleum in Turkestan - Kazakhstan’s most important historic monument and the only ancient edifice of interest that we discover on our route through the country.
The scenery being unchanging, we arrive in Shymkent a day early.
The name might conjure up romantic images of an ancient Silk Road stop, but the reality is the city was mostly rebuilt during Soviet times. But despite the identikit blocks it is a bustling city and we happily wander its streets and enjoy the nightlife, with a pleasant guilt-free air that comes of being somewhere of no great cultural or architectural interest.
Our evening here is embellished somewhat by an impromptu encounter with some locals, fired up on a mixture of Shimkentskoye lager (fiery stuff) and the local vodka. They are certainly friendly and one in particular is full of love for Nina (see photo…) and more startlingly, me as well. Their friends apologetically decide that many photos are in order but eventually, we manage to politely extricate ourselves and head back to our hotel, giggling at this particularly random and sudden experience.
The next day, after a wander round the frenetic, pungent bazaar, we head out to the mountains south of Shymkent – we are tired of the relentless heat and dust of the plains, and have arranged two days staying in a yurt with a local family, plus some hiking.
We are met by Askar, our English speaking agent, at the bus stop in Lenger, outside Shymkent. All seems well as we follow him into the mountains, rejoicing as the air cools and the scenery becomes greener, more fertile and an inviting mountain stream guides our way.
A lack of yurts?
These things never quite go to plan. We arrive at the entrance to the Sayram-Ugam National Park and whilst Askar attempts to resolve a lack-of-yurt issue with the park guards, we are immediately whisked off by a local family to join their picnic, true Kazakh style, replete with shashlik, kymyz and a little surprisingly, cognac. The shashlik is welcome and delicious but the kymyz (fermented mare’s milk) is certainly an acquired taste. On this occasion, best washed down with cognac.
Later we find Askar, who with a wry, sheepish smile that in Central Asia seems to herald a form of bad news, informs us that there are no yurts. This is no great surprise, since we hadn’t seen one anywhere since our arrival. But food is also apparently problematic and Askar disappears again, leaving us wondering quite what he had actually brought us up here to do.
But there is no great concern on our part: the air is cooler, the scenery stunning and with the crystal clear glacial stream a few feet from where we have parked, we have everything we need to fend for ourselves here for a few days.
Eventually Askar returns: food, he says, will be provided by the guards. They will also act as our guides tomorrow when we will hike up to the Keskusa Canyon. We have met the guards - a shabby, toothless bunch mounted on old ponies and armed with older rifles - so these revelations raise an eyebrow, but we are content to accept them without further question.
Needless to say, by dusk there is no sign of impending food from anywhere and when we wander up to the little house we understand the guards to inhabit, there is not one in sight.
A little gentle knocking eventually wakes the inhabitants: a local family of herders and beekeepers who are as surprised to see us as we are them. They speak no English and are understandably surprised at our initial expectations of supper. Nevertheless they are hospitable and produce some flatbread and kymyz, which we guess may be our lot for the evening.
Eventually, however, we manage to explain that we have paid someone, from a long way away, for three meals a day for the next day and a half, which we are expecting to appear from some non-existent guards. This elicits much consternation but eventually, a daughter appears who seems to know of this. Some frenetic activity in the kitchen follows, we are furnished with a delicious mutton stew, tomato salads and green tea. So much for a few days of not having to think for ourselves so much…
They are a charming family and we spend two happy nights here, learning Kazakh and more Russian in equal measure, sleeping in our car (it is wonderfully cool here) and enjoying the scenery. Our guide never materialises the next day, so we accompany their son, mounted on a scruffy donkey and accompanied by a loyal, scruffy hound, into the mountains to take one of their cows to join a herd at a higher pasture – which provides us with the exercise we were after, plus the same views that we suspect may have been afforded by a trip to the canyon we were supposed to visit.
The highlight of this excursion comes on our last afternoon: whilst reading our books in the shade of an orchard near the stream, we spy two minibuses of locals from Shymkent turning up for a picnic. They produce the usual array of rugs, cushions and food but also a live sheep. We watch, fascinated – although we don’t need to spend too long debating the fate of the sheep. Within minutes it is slaughtered, skinned, expertly butchered and diced and before we know it is being marinated in a huge bucket ready for the evening’s shashlik.
We genteel Brits may content ourselves with bringing a bottle of reasonable plonk along to a barbeque, but for the wilder Kazakhs, bring-a-sheep appears very much the done thing. Whilst the logistics of such a thing make the reality unlikely, it gives us both great amusement to imagine attempting to introduce the same practice in Fulham…
Refreshed by our days off, we spend the following day in a variety of garages in Shymkent and Taraz, fixing the injuries our car has sustained on the dreadful Kazakh roads, before heading east again towards Kyrgyzstan.