Thursday, February 14, 2013

Otrar - Ruined City of the Silk Road

Sunday was our big day.  We woke up early and left at 8 am.  The taxi driver whom we'd met at the airport was wonderful; he had taken us to the Nature Reserve on Thursday, and we really liked him.  He's quiet (rather than inquisitive or flirtatious), and he's mostly a safe driver.  If we ever thought he was driving a bit fast, we could ask him to slow down, and he would, no problem.  (Some taxi drivers will laugh at that suggestion, and many driver rather crazy.)  He also was quite willing and ready to stop whenever we wanted to--for apples sold on the side of the street, for Sophia's stomach to calm down (motion sickness!), for me to take a photo.  So we hired him to drive us to Otrar and Turkistan.

These two cities are northwest of Shymkent and made up part of the Silk Road.  Otrar was founded most likely about 2000 years ago and was seiged and destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1219.  It was rebuilt, but by the 18th century it was mostly empty, and is currently a "ghost town" under excavation by UNESCO.

It took us about 2 hours to get there (I didn't do a good job keeping track of time) and the driver let us out in front of a fence; beyond the fence were some buildings spread out on the desolate steppe, with paths leading to the buildings and tall grass between the paths.  The wind was fierce, and although it was bright and sunny and above freezing, and I was dressed quite well for this temperature, I soon became quite freezing and felt like my fingers would become frostbitten.

We soon learned that all the buildings were mausoleums, and we went into one.  Two older men were caretakers there and they let us in and talked to us.  Their ancestor was someone well-known in the area and important in the Muslim religion (at least locally) and this was a mausoleum to him.  There were plaques on the wall for each of his children, and my friend R. told me that some of the names were rather rude words in Kazakh.  Every culture, I have learned, has people who give their kids odd names.

We then left and went to the biggest mausoleum.  We saw some people taking water (most likely holy) out of a well.  We were told we could enter and an imam could give us a blessing.  But we had to take off our shoes, and we were cold and not in the mood.

Then we learned that this was not Otrar, this was a holy site with mausoleums, but Ortrar was somewhere else.  Absolutely freezing by now, we hurried back to the car and explained to our driver that this was not it!

He asked directions of someone and off we went, down a small dirt road that ended at another dirt road in front of a large, dusty hill.  Right or left?  He turned right and as he sped down this road, I could tell that he wasn't sure where he was going.  R. talked to him, and they decided to turn back and check out that hill.  R. remembered reading in my Lonely Planet that Otrar is a mound, and she thought that hill might be it.

She was right, and we noticed that the hill was surrounded by a fence, and we soon found the entrance.  R. and the driver got out and it took about 5 minutes for them to find and wake up the guard, asleep in a small guard house.  He then opened the gate and we went up a dusty, wind-swept path.  Soon we were near the baths, and we got out to explore.
The Baths
After we we'd had enough of being outside (that wind!!!) we got in the car and drove up more.  We got out near some other ruins.  R. said that much of Otrar had been underground, and we could see trenches or hallways or whatever dug out below us.  I can't describe it, so I shall put up pictures.  We wandered around this for quite a while.  There were bits of pottery and bones strewn around all over the place.  It  was exciting and fascinating to be somewhere that had once been a relatively thriving city, and to wonder what it must have been like to be on the Silk Road, traveling across this desolate steppe, with this fierce wind, and coming to one of these cities.

Finally I was so frozen I had to return to the car and my fingers burned as they slowly regained their warmth.  (I had been wearing gloves!)  We drove back down and paid the 500 Tenge entrance fee.  Then off it was to Turkistan.

Part of the ruined city of Otrar

Looking at our car from the ruined city

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