The region of Zhambyl, in the South of Kazakhstan, is nestled between endless plains and the Tian Shan mountain range. It’s 6:20pm. The skies above the mountains have that yellow-orange tint of a late October evening. The Bombardier CRJ200 operated by SCAT airlines approaches Taraz, the region’s capital, located near the border with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
“Voulez-vous un autre bonbon?” asks the stewardess with a surprisingly clean French accent as she points toward the basket of sweets.
I oblige. The rest of the passengers onboard the aircraft – some 20 people maybe – is composed of what seems to be locals who travel rather frequently between Taraz and Almaty. I am the only foreigner onboard apparently.
Taraz used to be an important city along the Silk Road: a place where merchants from near and far would come to trade goods, before continuing further East or West. Although the over 2000 year-old city is attracting a growing number of scholars who come here to study the vestiges of the past, the region’s capital is still full of mysteries. Mentioned in both Chinese and Arabic writings dating back to the early Middle Age, shortly after the collapse of the Roman Empire, recent excavations have managed to unearth some pieces of the puzzle. Taraz is slowly rediscovering its past but a lot of questions remain unanswered.
Diana picks me up at what is – without a doubt – the smallest airport I have ever seen: a little house next to the runway. Zhambyl’s capital is modernising its infrastructure and the new airport will start operating in June 2016, but for now, this is it.
After less than 15 minutes from the airport by car, we enter Taraz. I hear people greet each other with “Salam aleikum” as I make my way to the hotel. Islam is the country’s largest religion. Ethnic relations in Kazakhstan are complex. During the Soviet Union era and in order to create a mutual bond that would unite the various ethnic groups of the USSR, Moscow promoted the use of Russian as a common lingua franca for some 60 years. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the independence of Kazakhstan, the country’s ruling powers decided to change language policies and made Kazakh compulsory in public institutions, education, politics as well as in other areas of society. However, due to the intense Russification, full implementation of Kazakh as the “per default language of communication” is a process that will require some more time. Switching a country’s entire population from one language to another doesn’t happen overnight.
Diana is a Taraz born and raised Russian. She knows the city in and out. There is one place though, some 40 kilometers outside of town, that she has never been to:
The ruins of Akyrtas.
Akyrtas, one of the eight Kazakh Silk Road objects on the UNESCO World Heritage List, is a place filled with the remains of large red sandstone blocks of several tons, larger than those of Egyptian pyramids. The site is slowly being dug out and more and more pieces are coming to light. However, archaeologists are still unsure about who ordered the construction of these structures. What is clear, though, is that a high level of engineering was required to transport the massive stones. And with about four hectares, the site is also gigantic in its scale. Larger than the area dedicated to one of Egypt’s most famous wonders: the Cheops pyramid.
Unknown builders created here a structure with over one hundred rooms of varying size connected to each other through passages. With a thickness of up to five meters for its outer walls, this city was massive in every sense of the word.
How did these large red sandstone blocks get here? Why was this specific location – so far from any source of water – chosen? Who financed this gigantic endeavor? Some of the stones are decorated with fish symbols – a reference to Christianity?
Questions without answers.
Akyrtas remains a mystery.
Maybe some things are better left unknown. After all, the mysterious is one of those fascinating experiences from which imagination is born. The “fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science” in the words of Einstein.
This must have been a magnificent caravan resting station, lost in the plains of the world’s ninth largest country. Merchants would halt here, communicate in different languages and exchange goods before moving on to new lands: a crossroad of cultures. The air was probably filled with the noises of people speaking, of animals breathing heavily because of the weight of the merchandise on their backs, of children playing around.
All that can be heard now is the sound of the wind.
Diana is not used to taking a time-out from work since she opened a studio and has become the go-to person for all things photography in Taraz. Although the capital of the Zhambyl oblast is rather quiet and has a relaxed provincial feel to it, life here can be tough. She knows this and therefore works seven days a week. Tirelessly.
„In order for me to get out of my daily routine and discover this place, all it took was someone from Europe to come all the way to my city“ says Diana cheerfully as we head back to Vova, our driver, who will now take us to one of the city’s most famous sites, the mausoleum of Aisha-Bibi.
I am somewhere in the steppes, in a country whose languages I don’t understand and where different ethnicities and cultures have influenced and enriched each other for centuries. The Tian Shan mountain range rises up out of the prairie. Steppes and mountains. A fine scenery.
This is Kazakhstan.