Turkestan (Kazakh: Түркістан Türkistan) is a small but ancient city in the Kazakh Desert. Kazakhstan largely lacks the kinds of Central Asian historical towns that make Uzbekistan a popular travel destination, but the exception is this one, relatively well preserved, 1600-year-old city. In the 11th century AD, the great Sufi Sheikh Khoja Ahmad Yasavi turned the city into the region's principal centre of learning, drawing scholars from across the steppe. In the late 14th century, Timur commissioned the creation of a massive mausoleum in his honour, which is to this day Kazakhstan's most prominent historical attraction, a major Muslim pilgrimage site, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Although historically part of the Kazakh Khanate, Turkestan is mainly populated by ethnic Uzbeks.
Both due to Khoja Ahmad Yasavi's highly revered status among Turkic Muslims and the Soviet-era restrictions on international travel, Soviet Muslims have for long considered the city "the Second Mecca of the East", and have believed that a visit to Yasavi's mausoleum is equal to the Hajj to Mecca.
Turkestan is also one of the few places in Central Asia you will find a minority community of Uzbeks claiming Arab descent, supposedly from Yasavi himself. Ask locals, they will know and will be more than happy to discuss it.
The nearest airport is in 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 on the latter line takes place around midnight, and speaking one of the local languages or Russian will certainly help in communicating with the officials.
From Shymkent Tauke Khan, 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 to/from Shymkent in a 20-passenger minivan (as of April 2019).
From Shymkent Tauke Khan, 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 (as of September 2017).
Public transport in Turkestan is by minibus or taxi. Minibus 1 or 1A go from Mausoleum to Merek bus station. The cost is 40 tenge (September 2017). 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. Marshrutkas to both leave from the main Avtovokzal, near Merey. Ask around, the marshrutkas often aren't named. For Otrar, ask for Talapty village, as this is closer to the main ruins. Marshrutkas may not run back to the city late in the afternoon; you might have to hitch-hike or look for a taxi.
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 Avtovokzal 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, electronics, etc.
There is a string of relatively smart hotels between the Mausoleum and Merey Avtovokzal. Alternatively, 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 marshrutka 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 coming into the city. The hustlers are ridiculous and might initially 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, 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.