After crossing the border north of Tashkent, we spent the night in a pleasant mid-sized city called Shymkent. Although it has some history as a stop on the Silk Road, Shymkent was so fully destroyed in Mongol times that it is now just a faceless soviet town.
Our real goal was the town of Turkistan two hours to the northwest. This sleepy town has been a great pilgrimage center since the early days of Islam in Central Asia, when Kozha Akhmed Yasaui made the religion accessible by translating the core texts into local languages. Local people insist that three pilgrimages to Turkistan equals one to Mecca.
When Timur conquered the area in the late 14th century, he left his mark with a monumental mausoleum. Although the structure’s facade was never completed, its 40-meter (130 foot) arch and dome were the largest in Central Asia. The original structures are still intact with relatively little restoration.
Like most Timurid structures, the walls are covered with tessellated patterns, which are in fact Arabic writing, repeating the names of Allah and his prophet Mohammed across the whole structure. Hidden in the center is the ancient swastika pattern, perhaps a throwback to early Hinduism or Buddhism.
After a few hours, we returned to Shymkent and caught an overnight train to Almaty, the largest city of Kazakhstan.