Why you need to visit South Kazakhstan - Part 1
Kazakhstan is a large and attractive country. We have a lot to see: nature, historical places and people. And the country itself is very diverse. People living in this country are very different in terms of characters and even person’s appearance. Natural landscapes in various regions of the country are very different and that is why it is beautiful. Cities in this huge country are very different in their own way, because people who are living there are different too. In general Kazakhstan is a country of contrasts. Every region in the country in its own way is beautiful and different. There are no uncomely places in this country, there are no uninteresting people.
I shall try to explain by comparing Almaty city and Almaty region. It would seem that it is one region and one place. But Almaty city is different from Almaty region as heaven and earth. Paradoxically, the city and the region are in the same place, but people there are very different, history and nature are different. Almaty city is the largest megapolis in Kazakhstan with its modern urban culture. It is a melting pot of cultures and peoples. Its people are consumers of goods and services. The city is a cosmopolitan, urban center, which is tightening and pulling human energy. And of course, Almaty city is, above all, surrounded with beautiful mountains that are almost situated at arm's length.
On the other hand, the Almaty region is a different world. This region, in my opinion, the most comfortable place in Kazakhstan in all aspects. We have everything in the Almaty region. A variety of natural landscapes: mountains, steppes and even deserts, large lakes and large rivers. And people here are not like in Almaty city. Like in many cases, they are much easier, softer and kinder, not so tired. Almaty region is still a province; it is place of the villages. And this is very good.
South Kazakhstan: Shymkent city
But I would like to talk about South Kazakhstan. What is interesting in South Kazakhstan? Why it is necessary at least once in lifetime to come here? South Kazakhstan, of course, is very different from other regions of the country. Everything is different here: land, people, air, culture, history and food. Almost everything. Shymkent city and its region have their own advantages and disadvantages. Just like others. And that is why this region is very interesting.
Let’s start with Shymkent city. There are many persons who speak very well about the city, and who does not like the city. Perhaps both are right. I remember when I was young that the city was called Texas as the American state. I was very disappointed. It was called such for different reasons. Because it is South of the country, because people here are more practical and inventive. But we are Shymkent city, we are not Texas. Now Kazakh government is planning to make it as a megalopolis with population more than one million. In my opinion this is very big mistake. In this case the city will lose its original face. But it is city with its ancient and rich history. The history of the city according to conservative estimates has about 1000 years. In terms of history Shymkent among other regional centers is only younger than Taraz city. And not so younger. By the way, who does not know, Shymkent means “city of a sward, turf”. In old days people built their houses from clay and for the roofs they used “Shym” - turf. Such natural and eco-friendly roofs. Construction of the house from the natural clay bricks is the most eco-friendly and most economical method of construction. It was such and remains today. Today the roofs from a turf nobody use, but the houses made from adobe are still very popular here. Shymkent is still, as in ancient times, low-rise city. Despite large population it is not a megalopolis, it looks very different. There are few large and really high buildings. I like that fact, that they are few.
Rivers of Shymkent city: holy water
In old times people have extracted turf on the banks of small rivers, because good turf – “Shym” grew on the banks of the rivers. Therefore our city was the city of many rivers. Many small springs. And the city has been very green because of these small rivers. Then most of these small rivers disappeared, they are continuing to flow somewhere under the ground.
Now there are several rivers that are flowing in the city. The biggest of them is Badam river, which flows from the mountains of Talass Alatau. The mountains are very close to the city – just 60-70 km or 40-minute drive away. The word Badam from the ancient Turkic language means Pistachio tree. This tree is growing in the local mountains. Still people are gathering and eating nuts of this tree, a very healthy local product.
Koshkar Ata and Kara Su rivers are other well-known rivers, which are flowing in the city. Kara Su (“Simple River”) is a very small river, which originates just in the city. Koshkar Ata River means Ram Farther in Kazakh language. Do not be ironic about this name. The river was named after the saint Koshkar Ata, a person who lived a very long time ago. This saint was well known not just only in our region, but all over Central Asia. Several rivers, mountains, regions were called after his holy name. This person was not just an ordinary person; we can say he was a historical outstanding person.
In South Kazakhstan, we have two different rivers in different areas and both were named after him. We do not know a lot about him, just that he was follower of Sufism, mystic. His life was associated with Islam. We do not know exactly what he did. This fact is one of the mysteries of the Southern region, which is waiting to be discovered. But it is clear that the saint did a lot of good things for ordinary people. Otherwise they wouldn't call him a holy man. Even now his name helps to so many people with health problems. The river, which originates just in the heart of the city, is named after him. Its water is healing (contains a lot of minerals) and treats different diseases: skin, nervous and other diseases. People from many places of Kazakhstan and abroad are coming to Shymkent to heal with the water of this river. The water is really healthy, very tasty and pleasant. It really helps, I am using it for my health. If you're interested, I can tell you more about it. In the 19th century, elite people of Tashkent city, the capital of modern Uzbekistan, came to this river to drink its mineral water and took a bath. This is our truly holy resort in the heart of the city. The fact that right in the center of the city, the holy river is born from many springs is also a unique fact. I have traveled a lot around many countries, but nowhere I've ever seen something similar.
The unique history of Shymkent city
The city itself is very interesting with its unique and ancient history. It doesn’t look like an ancient city. It has still more architecture of the bygone Soviet era. Unfortunately, as in many cities of our country, you can’t see so much of the really ancient architecture in the streets. Yet it is an ancient city and you can feel it, when you walk in the streets. There is an Old Town, there is also a New Town - Yangi Shahar. It is amazing that all the residents of Shymkent until now are pronouncing the name of Old Town in Russian language and the name of the New Town - Yangi Shahar in Uzbek language. Although the majority of the residents in the city speak the Kazakh language. Such an interesting mix of the languages. There is also an old citadel, but it is not in a good condition.
In the old times, there was a very busy city center. Rich and noble people of the city lived in the citadel. Now it is abandoned, just wasteland, unfortunately neither the city residents nor local authorities care about it. It is really pity, because even today it is the highest point in the city. And this is the most historical place of the city. We have also Woman’s Bridge – Katyn Kopyr. Although the bridge has disappeared, the bridge existed in old times. Now the city has grown, and the river and bridge have almost disappeared. But the name of the bridge is left. Now we have only old names of different districts and areas of the city. Very interesting names. The city today is still green; there are a lot of parks. It used to be more trees in the city.
As in any oriental city, in the old times the water in Shymkent flowed in small canals around the city. A quite developed irrigation system existed in the city. Its main goal was watering the trees and conditioning air in the city. Now water in that canals has almost disappeared and green areas in the city are decreasing. It is very hot and stuffy in the city in the summer. This is the result of urbanization and asphalting everywhere. Everything is mixed up in this city: antiquity, Soviet era and new history. If you wish to visit Shymkent, please see the tours here in my profile.
People of South Kazakhstan and their character
People in the South are very different from people who are living in other regions. Residents of Shymkent city, because of the excessive sun and warmth, are probably the most energetic and hectic people in Kazakhstan. They are very practical people; they know how to make money. And it is also understandable. A special culture has developed here during many centuries. It is a mix of ancient urban settled trading cultures of the East and wild steppe cultures of the nomads.
The first culture nowadays is represented by the Uzbek population. They are very good traders, farmers, cooks and builders. They are descendants of ancient residents of Turkestan and Sayram cities. The second culture is represented by Kazakh people who are descendants of ancient nomads and some Kazakh people who were living in the towns. They are children of wild steppes, they are children of warriors, who besieged ancient Otrar city with Genghis Khan troops, and who defended the city from other sides of the walls. There is also the Russian people, who later in the time, when this region became part of the Russian Empire, moved here and became part of the local people. And they also made their own huge contribution to the culture and history of the region and the city.
The proximity of the Silk Road and ancient centers of Eastern civilization such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent also had an effect. Tashkent city, the capital of Uzbekistan, is just 120 km from Shymkent, not far from the state border. In Soviet time during the Great Patriotic War plants and factories and, of course well educated people, were evacuated to Shymkent city from the European part of the Soviet Union. There were people, who have also changed our city. Such a great mix of cultures and people’s characters has appeared. These factors had constituted the character of the city resident.
Hospitality in South Kazakhstan
People in the city have changed in our time, just like everywhere. Over the last 25 years of independent history other people of new generations were born. But they have absorbed the previous history and previous generations. One thing has remained unchanged, this is the Southern hospitality.
In general, people in Kazakhstan are quite hospitable by their nature. But in Shymkent city they are probably the most hospitable in Kazakhstan. This also comes from ancient times. Shymkent always has accepted a lot of people. The city has accepted them warmly, hospitably and cordially. And many people have stayed here to live. People in Shymkent are always very friendly, responsive and kind. They never let the guest stay hungry. They are ready to help guests.
Many of the new residents of Shymkent have moved from the countryside and, fortunately, they have not yet become real modern citizens. They have not yet become very busy, hurrying on business, indifferent and selfish like people in the big cities. People who are living and working in a soulless concrete and glass boxes. They are still provincials, and this is very good. These people have not yet lost their humanity and simplicity. There are some small flaws of such provincialism, but it is not so critical.
Celebrations and Cuisine in Southern Kazakhstan
Shymkent residents really love to celebrate. Weddings, birthdays, graduations, beginning of work, transfers, etc. They find a lot of reasons for "Toiys", celebrations. In Shymkent people love even to show how they can celebrate. And even make a competition whose celebration is richer and cooler.
The biggest Toiyhanas (special wedding restaurants) are in Shymkent, the most pretentious wedding are in Shymkent. The most modest weddings invite up to 200 guests, while the richest weddings invite more than one thousand. That's really cool.
People also love to eat tasty and hearty. People here know a lot about food. They eat a lot and plentifully. Bless them! Local cuisine is the tastiest in the country. Because local food culture has its long history and has been developed since ancient times. Mix of settled Uzbek, nomadic Kazakh and European Russian cuisine cultures gave that very rich and tasty blend. One more factor why Shymkent food is so delicious is that the products are local. It is also very important. As well as blend of local meat and vegetables played its role.
Ancient cooking traditions also remained and they have been developed. For example, such a phenomenon as tandoor. Tandoor is a clay oven, the progenitor of all modern electric furnaces. I think, the place of origin of tandoor has always been Central Asia. And South Kazakhstan was not the last in this matter. Tandoor is the most eco-friendly and healthy method of cooking. Because food is prepared in a clay oven with firewood and without microwave, gas and electricity. Even now tandoor is widely used among the population of South Kazakhstan. A lot of people bake bread at home with the help of tandoor. Most of the bread traded in South Kazakhstan is baked in private tandoors.
And of course very famous all over Kazakhstan is tandoor Sam(u)sa. A sort of small meat pie. I have found some references to Samsa in the poems of Jami, medieval Persian Sufi poet and philosopher. The most delicious Samsa is traditionally made by our Uzbek brothers from ancient Sayram near Shymkent city. Some local families bake Samsa for centuries. There are many kinds of Samsa which are baked there. I don’t think we can find any other fast food, which can compete with our tandoor Samsa. Generally, tandoor is a multipurpose stove. You can cook almost any food in it.
Cooking a pilaf in Shymkent is also a separate story. It is genuine pilaf cooked on firewood. It is important to cook pilaf on a natural fuel. Taste of such pilaf is much softer and flavored than pilaf which is cooked on gas. Every Spring, pilaf festival is conducted in Shymkent, where the best cooks of South Kazakhstan compete in cooking of pilaf. At the end of festival pilaf is distributed to everyone for free. I have very happy reminiscences from my childhood. I remember how my parents for special family events invited the best local cook – Ustaka to make pilaf. He cooked pilaf in the backyard of the house. The master was an old Uzbek person with national hat, always in a white coat, very neat and with its own set of tools. He cooked Pilaf on such family events at least for a hundred people in a big cauldron. Many children helped the old Master with the firewood to cook in huge cauldron. And this was the most delicious pilaf in my life.
To be continued ...