In the 11th century CE, the great Sufi sheikh Khoja Ahmed Yasawi lived and preached here. At the end of the 14th century, Emir Timur ordered the creation of a large mausoleum, mosque and madrassah on the site of his grave. Later, it became the capital of the Kazakh Khanate, and a large number of Kazakh khans, batyrs, generals, and well-known statesmen of the Kazakh Khanate were buried here. Now this place has become a tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Although historically part of the Kazakh Khanate, Turkestan used to have a majority population of Uzbeks, who constitute a large minority. Turkestan was the seat of the Kazakh khans up to the occupation of Kazakhstan by the Russian Empire. Archaeological excavations often take place in the city and in the suburbs. If you are lucky in the summer, you can witness these excavations by archaeological expeditions.
Due to Khoja Ahmad Yasavi's highly revered status among Turkic Muslims and the Soviet-era restrictions on international travel, Muslims of Central Asia have for long considered the city "the Second Mecca of the East", and traditionally have believed that a visit to Yasavi's mausoleum is equal to the Hajj to Mecca. In line with this tradition, the Turkic Council, an international organization of Turkic-speaking countries, proclaimed the city "the spiritual capital of the Turkic world" in 2021.
- Hazrat Sultan International Airport HSIA IATA (Kazakh: Халықаралық Әзірет Сұлтан Әуежайы). FlyArystan airline flies from Almaty. Qazaq airline flies from Aktobe. There are also flights from Astana Uralsk, Istanbul, and Kuwait City.
- Alternatively, you can fly to Shymkent, from where you can take quite frequent minibuses (costing about US$2), trains or taxis.
There are also train connections available from Almaty and the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. The border crossing and customs inspection on the latter line takes place around midnight, and Russian communicating with customs officials might be inconvenient.
From Shymkent city, Tauke Khan str., take bus #26 to Bekzhan Bazaar (Бекжан). Marshrutkas 87 and 47 also run there. With the blue/orange Bazaar building to your right, go past a yurt. Go through a car park and a building with parking underneath. You can also use the smell of samsa to help guide you. The minivans are parked across from the Toyota and Hyundai dealership.There should be men yelling out their destinations as they stand next to their vans. Drivers go when the van is full. There will also be signs on the van with its destination on the windshield. The trip will take about 2 hours and will drop you off at Merey (мерей) bus station in Turkestan. It's also possible to be dropped off near the Yasawi mausoleum. The cost to Turkestan is 800 tenge from Shymkent in a 20-passenger minivan (Apr 2019).
From Shymkent city, Tauke Khan str., you can also take bus #93 to Samal Bazaar. Walk across Samal Bazaar to Samal bus station, there are minibus to Turkestan. The cost is 800 tenge if you take the minibus from Samal Bazaar to Turkestan (Sep 2017).
Public transport in Turkestan is by minibus or taxi. Minibus 1 or 1A go from Mausoleum to Merey bus station. The cost is 50 tenge (Sep 2019). A taxi from the train station to the Mausoleum should cost about 600-1,000 tenge.
- 1 Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi (Мавзолей Ходжи Ахмеда Ясави). Commissioned in 1389 for the 12th-century Sufi poet and mystic Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, but never finished. This mausoleum is nevertheless a major destinations for pilgrimages from across Central Asia and has come to epitomize the Kazakh national identity. Since this is a religious place dress accordingly. Men should not wear shorts and cover your shoulders. Headscarves are handed out at the entrance of the mausoleum for free. 500 tenge.
- The ancient city ruins of Sauran and Otrar. Sauran is about 70 km north-west of the city and Otrar 70 km south. The line mini buses to both leave from the main bus station Merey (Avtovokzal Merey). Ask around, the line mini buses often aren't named. For Otrar, ask for Talapty village, as this is closer to the main ruins. The line mini buses may not run back to the city late in the afternoon; you might have to hitch-hike or look for a taxi. Alternatively, hotels should be able to book you a taxi there for around 15,000 tenge return (Sep 2023).
The area around the Yasavi Mausoleum has a number of historical buildings and a large mosque. It's a nice park to walk around if not only for the monuments. There isn't a huge amount to do in Turkestan outside of the centre.
The main bazaar is on the road to Merey bus station (Avtovokzal Merey) from the Mausoleum. The local kurt (hard, salty balls of dried sour cream that taste a little like parmesan) is very good; there are lots of villages just outside the city where it is made. Otherwise, the usual market fare is offered; fresh fruits and vegetables, hot snacks like samsa, dairy, and electronics. The market is not very touristy and does not sell many nicknacks rather what locals need in their day to day lives.
- 1 Al-Fatih Restaurant (Әл-Фатих), ☏ . 11:00–23:00 daily. Large restaurant with many different types of food: fruits, crackers and traditional Kazakh bread. There is also an entrance for wheelchairs.
- 2 Karavan Saray (Караван сарай), Tauke Khan Ave, ☏ . 10:00–23:00 daily. Another large restaurant with traditional Kazakh architecture. It serves organic food, fast food and children's food.
- 3 Bayterek Restaurant, Tauke Khan Ave (near the Atf Bank and Forte Bank), ☏ . 08:00–00:00 daily.
Turkestan is much more Muslim than the rest of the country, meaning that many venues do not serve alcohol, and most minimarkets do not stock alcohol. It is possible to find alcohol only in big supermarkets. Areas such as the Caravan Saray do not serve alcohol, despite being touristy in other regards.
- Edem Bar (Эдем), Kozhanov St, +7 702 000 9066, open until 23:00 and serves alcohol.
- 1 Dastan Coffee Shop (Кафе " Дастан "), Tauke Khan Ave (179 m northeast of Bayterek), ☏ . 11:30–22:30 daily.
- 2 Khalal Shashlyk Ortalygy, ☏ . 11:00–23:59 daily. A small coffee shop.
- 3 Global Coffee Shop (about 384 m southeast of the Yasavi Mausoleum). 09:00–21:00 daily.
- 4 Impul's Lounge (Импульс Лаунж), 186 S. Yerubayeva Street, ☏ . 13:00–01:00 daily. Serves a wide variety of beers and wines.
- 5 Arbat Bar, ☏ .
There is a string of relatively smart hotels between the Mausoleum and Merey bus station (Avtovokzal Merey). Asking around should yield a local or two with a spare room.
Some western-style cafes around offer Wi-Fi, but not many. In a pinch, ask at any large hotel and offer 100 tenge or so for an hour's use.
Shymkent - The line mini buses cartels going to Shymkent have a sort of monopoly and it's more expensive from Turkestan than the opposite. Even locals all seem to pay 1,000 tenge (Apr 2019) rather than the 800 tenge coming into the city. The hustlers are ridiculous and might try to charge you 10,000 tenge. Just scoff "nyet" at them and tell them what you paid to get there; they'll fold quickly.
Arrival at Samal station but it is also possible to be dropped at Bekzhan bazaar, where the majority of long-distance buses leave from. Takes about 2 hours. There aren't many buses going further east than Shymkent so you might have to change there and catch a second one.