I’m in the middle of a busy metropolis, in a peaceful oasis with over 600 different plant species, towering magnolia, pine, and birch trees, a lake with ducks and geese, and routes for bicycling, walking, and boating. Locals love to use it for picture shoots, especially newlywed couples. Slices of watermelon, cheese, and bread are brought out for a picnic on carpets on the lawns by mothers with infants, college students using laptops, and couples. One of the eight parks in Shymkent, South Kazakhstan, Dendro Park is a 120-acre arboretum that was developed in 1979 on the site of a former garbage dump.
The third-largest city in Kazakhstan, Shymkent, which translates to “green city,” is located in southern Kazakhstan and is only 100 kilometers from the Uzbek capital Tashkent. It is flanked with parks and tree-lined boulevards. It is located on the border of the Kazakh desert and was once a thriving town along the well-known Silk Road that connected China to Europe. Initially, Shymkent served as a caravanserai to guard Sayram, an old town 10 miles away. Genghis Khan and other conquerors repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt it over its turbulent history. Shymkent was developed by the Khan of Kokand into a significant fortress, but in 1864, the Russian Empire captured Shymkent and destroyed it.
The vast Abay Park, Shymkent’s Central Park named after a local poet and philosopher, is the first place I go when I arrive in the city and need some fresh air. Here, locals stroll, mingle, and families with young children in strollers enjoy the open space and clean air while enjoying ice cream and boiled corn. This is a terrific way to get to know the city because it has playgrounds for kids, strolling routes, fountains, and lush gardens. Many areas of the city, like those with tree-lined streets and outdoor cafes and restaurants, have a distinctly European feel to them. I see Kazakh families with apple-cheeked children everywhere, enjoying park picnics and fountain splashing.
This Silk Road city is full of historical echoes. I go to the Museum of Victims of Political Repression to learn more about the troubled past and independence struggle of the city. This tiny museum, which features a statue as its focal point depicting men, women, and children trying to liberate themselves, is a stirring example of the resilience of the Kazakh people. The museum provides information on the many labor camps and Stalin’s totalitarian rule that had a negative impact on locals’ quality of life. There are images, artifacts, and personal items of persons who were subjected to repression. A hunger killed more than 3 million people, more than 1 million Kazakhs left their nation, and wives of oppressed public leaders were sent to a prison camp.
When as many as 17 manufacturers produced spare parts for tanks and shells during World War II, Shymkent was one of the most significant cities in Kazakhstan. Many residents of the area died while serving in the Soviet army. Plaques honoring their services can be found in the Alley of Glory. I observe an eternal flame glowing at Independence Park, as well as a monument with 137 pillars, which stand for the number of nations in the nation.
The Citadel, a hilltop fortification in the middle of Old Town, has been excavated in stages since 2007 to indicate continuous occupation for more than 2,200 years and the discovery of Bronze Age artifacts. It is Shymkent’s main attraction. The public was allowed access to the rebuilt stronghold in 2021, complete with citadel walls. According to our local guide, it developed into a crucial garrison to defend the old silk road city from attackers coming from the steppe. When the new city center of Shymkent was constructed a few kilometers away during the Russian Empire, the fortress’ significance diminished. Today, this archaeological open-air museum features mounds that have been excavated underneath tents, habitation units, artificial irrigation, and an on-site museum that displays pottery, ceramics, beautiful saddles, candlelight holders, and pottery.
I drive up to the Baidibek statue’s observation booth to obtain a bird’s eye perspective of the city. The famed Baidibek Bi, who unified the nomadic tribes and roused them to defend their native land against foreign incursions, is shown in a 75-foot statue with arms raised to the sky. On Kazybek Bi Street, which stands in contrast to the rest of the modern city, are old Soviet-era structures that were constructed during the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Old wooden buildings border the streets of pre-Russian Shymkent, which are visible across the Koshkar-Ata canal.
I go to the Samal market to get a sense of the local way of life. There, I find aisles of fresh fruits and vegetables, dried fruits, spices, locally made salted and smoked cheeses, enormous discs of crusty bread, and kumis (fermented horse’s milk). The national dish of Kazakhstan is local horse meat, and thanks to a sizable Korean diaspora, Korean noodles and components are widely available. Although the majority of Kazakhs prefer black tea, some cafés also provide pastries and sandwiches along with many kinds of coffee from across the world. There are many meals that represent the nation’s ethnic diversity on the menus of nearby eateries, including the well-known Beshbarmak horse meat dish, Uzbek pilaf, kebabs, Uyghur Lagman noodles, Kazakh breads like baursak, and Turkish mezze.
I travel to Sayram, a historic city with mosques and ruins of a Silk Road metropolis that once stood here. A well-known Sufi saint named Khoja Ahmed Yasawi was born here. Streets with no view of Soviet-style buildings or contemporary homes are lined with mud cottages. I saw ancient samovars, prayer carpets, traditional Kazakh robes, ceramics from digs, a reconstructed yurt that was once the home of nomadic people, often constructed of birch or willow and lined with felt, at the neighborhood museum.
In order to see the 500-meter-deep Aksu canyon, I take a trip outside of the city over extensive tracts of deserted steppes. The Aksu River gets its name because, in Kazakh, Ak is white and su is water. In the summer, the river takes on the color of milk. I reach a secluded area of the canyon that is tough and deserted while off-roading with Dosjaan, my driver, across rocky roads. A deep valley that stretches for up to 15 kilometers is created by the azure blue glacial waters of the Aksu river slicing through the rocks. Ibex, brown bears, and golden eagles can be found in the nature reserve bordered by the Western Tien Shan mountains and alpine meadows.