The old men in the carriage are asking us questions, but they are not particularly interested in us. Instead, their queries are to fact check their conversation about world politics and history. What is the capital of the Czech Republic? Prague. Who was the prime minister of Britain? Erm… Tony Blair? After that. Gordon Brown. No, before that. John Major? No. Thatcher? Ahhh, Thatcher. Satisfied, they return to speaking Kazakh. Our journey to Turkestan is punctuated with such queries.
Anička asks whether they preferred life under communism or as it is now. She receives a reply she didn’t expect: communism.
There was no unemployment, everybody had enough money and no one was jealous of each others’ belongings, he says.
She disagrees – there will be no persuading her of any benefits of leftist politics.
One of the men, younger than the others by perhaps forty years, bumps into us as we exit the train station the next morning. We are surrounded immediately by a horde of taxi drivers screaming for our attention.
He yells back and they scream even louder.
Everyone starts gesticulating and swearing – it looks as if a fight may break out.
The man pushes us back to where his wife and daughter are waiting and tells us to hop into his car. He will give us a lift to our hotel. We drive off with his arm shaking out the window and his curses echoing in our ears.
There is working air-conditioning in our room in Hotel Edem and the restaurant is relatively good.
From our balcony we can see the blue dome of the sight we have travelled five hundred kilometres to see – the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi.
It is forty-five degrees outside so we decide to wait in the cool room until late afternoon before we visit.
Turkestan is an ancient city and one of the former capitals of the region. It dates back to the fourth century, but it is best known for the fourteenth century mausoleum that stands in the city centre.
Turkestan means Land of the Turks, and it used to be called Hazrat-i Turkestan – the Saint of the Land of the Turks. The mausoleum is dedicated to that saint, Yasawi.
Yasawi was a mystic who belonged to the Sufi branch of Islam. He is considered to be the man who brought Islam to Central Asia and spread it throughout. He based himself in a mosque in Turkestan and was buried here after his death.
Two centuries later Timur, or Tamerlane in the West (Timur-the-lame), the conqueror who ruled from Iran to China, built the mausoleum in Yasawi’s honour over his mosque.
We walk through the ancient city walls and down a narrow path. The walls are full of little nooks for long closed shops and stables. At the end of the path, we can see the two blue domes resting upon the huge mausoleum.
First, we walk around the mausoleum’s walls. They are covered in blue Persian tiles from top to bottom. Quotes from the Qur’an and the Hadith are written around the base of the domes. Giant arches cover the entrances, but the tiling is unfinished. At the front, where the larger arch is flanked by watchtowers, the original bricks are bare. The mausoleum was never finished after Timur died.
The main hall is whitewashed from floor to ceiling. The bright room is as high as the building itself and dwarfs a huge bronze cauldron lying at its centre. The cauldron is full of holy water. At the end of the hall, it is possible to see Yasawi’s sarcophagus through a wooden trellis that stops entrance to his burial chamber.
Because of Yasawi’s mausoleum, the city of Turkestan is considered by many Central Asians to be a second Mecca. In the region many think that three pilgrimages to the city are equivalent to performing the hajj even though this is blasphemous and there is no mention of it in the Qur’an or the Hadith. Still, thousands make the pilgrimage every year hoping for a divine blessing.
Of the many rooms inside the mausoleum, including a mosque, the most important may be the cell into which Yasawi withdrew to think at the end of his life. Unfortunately, this appears to full of much more recent artefacts – black and white photographs and printed books that appear to be of Kazakh leaders from the early twentieth century.
Behind a smaller mausoleum, dedicated to Timur’s granddaughter, we walk through the gardens in full bloom. Birds sit and sing in the trees as we slowly walk through towards the bathhouse. It is an old, defunct Turkish bath. The stone-walled hamam is small but it looks perfect for a massage. Copper jugs wait on stools to be filled with steaming water as light pours through little chimneys.
We take another walk through the gardens looking for a kiosk or somewhere to find a drink. It is still incredibly hot and we are in the early stages of heatstroke. A local takes pity on us and leads us to a restaurant where we gulp down litres of juice.
Refreshed, we wander towards the Friday Mosque where people gather every Friday morning for prayers. Much more recent than the mausoleum, it has huge windows and a dome in the same blue. A daylight moon hovers over one of its minarets as we leave.
Back at the hotel, we drink another few litres – the effects of the sun hit us again as we returned. We turn on the air-conditioning and, as we begin to arrange the next day’s activities, the bass drums of a party start outside. Our balcony hangs over what turns out to be a dance floor for the hip young things of Turkestan. Until 1.30am we must listen to Russian house music.