A pleasant but rather provincial town of 200 000 souls on the banks of the Syr Darya, there is no direct reason for tourists to visit Kyzylorda. Despite the slanderous gossip you might hear in other parts of Kazakhstan, it’s not horrible either, and Kyzylorda can work well as a staging post for visitors heading to Baikonur and the vanished Aral Sea, or those on the long road to Russia or the Caspian.
The region of Kyzylorda, slightly bigger than Belarus, has a 95% ethnically Kazakh population, and a long history of patriotism. The town birthed basmachi fighters opposing Russian power and an indigenous intellectual movement led by Mustafa Chokai. Kyzylorda punches far above its weight in the output of national singers, akyns and wrestling champions.
While most of Kazakhstan was inhabitated by Scythians around 3000 years ago, southern Kazakhstan was occupied by a different nomadic confederation: the Iranian Massagetae, most known for their warrior queen, Tomyris.
Iranians continued to dominate the region in ever-shifting political constellations, until they were gradually displaced by Turks arriving from the east. Between 750 and 1055 the city of Yangikent was the capital of the Oghuz Yabgu state. The Oghuz Turks founded it after getting kicked out of the more fertile Zhetisu region around Issyk-Kul by a tribe of Uyghurs.
Harried by the Kipchak Turks, a sub-tribe went on to found the Seljuk empire and conquer much of Persia and Asia Minor. Today ethnic Turks, Azeris and Turkmens are descendants of Oghuz Turks and their language belongs to the Oghuz group of Turkic languages.
Throughout history, settlements along the Syr Darya rose to prominence to serve as trade emporiums for caravan routes on the Silk Road, only to fall into disuse when the river changed its course. Syganak was the most long-lasting of these. Thoroughly destroyed by the Mongols in 1219, Syganak was reinvigorated when the White Horde moved their capital here from the shores of Lake Balkhash. It became the capital of the Kazakh khanate in the 14th and 15th century, after which a slow decline set in.
In 1817 Umar Khan, ruler of the then-powerful Kokand khanate, founded the fortress of Ak-Mechet (White Mosque) on the left bank of the Syr Darya. A year later the fortress was moved to the right bank of the river, to secure it against the extensive floods of early summer.
Yaqub Beg became commander of the fortress in the late 1840s until its capture by Russian troops under General Vasily Perovsky in 1853. The wily Yaqub Beg fled to Bukhara, and later managed to capture the whole of Kashgaria from the Chinese. His story is brilliantly told in Peter Hopkirk’s book The Great Game.
Strategically situated on the gathering point for caravan routes from Tashkent, Bukhara and Khiva towards Russia, the town, renamed Perovsk after its conqueror, flourished, especially after the arrival of the Tashkent-Orenburg railway in 1905. Hardy Cossacks and Russian settlers moved in.
Following the arrival of Soviet rule, Perovsk was renamed Kyzylorda (Red Horde). The next 4 years represented Kyzylorda’s moment of glory, when it served as the capital of the Kazakhstan ASSR, attracting a Kazakh intellectual elite including Saken Seifullin and Ilyas Zhansugurov. After the arrival of the Turksib railway in Almaty in 1929, the capital was moved to that city.
Agriculture, most famously rice, was the region’s raison d’être during Soviet times. The region was also the main dumping ground for Korean deportees under Stalin (Viktor Tsoi’s dad was born here). It seems logical the 2 were connected, but it’s still unclear to us which came first: Koreans or rice production.
Post-independence, oil exploitation from the Chinese-owned Kumkol field has surpassed rice farming as the main source of income.
Kyzylorda’s harsh climate and dust-blown villages have given the place a bad reputation. The stereotype was established when Soviet rock star Viktor Tsoi partly situated his 1988 movie The Needle here, the first of many depressing art-house films from Kazakhstan that tend to do well at European film festivals.
However, substantial investment and a general raise in Kazakhstan’s living standards mean that in Kyzylorda too, you can now get a decent cappuccino.
Even if you are just passing by on the train, take a moment to get out and have a look at the grand Tsarist railway station from 1904, adorned with bold Soviet murals (the stations of nearby Arys, Turkestan and Kazalinsk are also impressive).
If you decide to alight, make your way to the bazaar. It’s where everything happens in a town like Kyzylorda. The Russian Orthodox church nearby is far and away the most pleasant place in the city. Away from the bustle of traders and covered by the shade of densely planted trees, it’s an oasis. The hellish frescoes on the inside recall the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, a sharp contrast to its picturesque outer design.
There’s a promenade along the Syr Darya; Baku it is not, but it’s pleasant enough for an evening stroll (bring mosquito spray), even if the lackluster flow of the shrimp Syr Darya is a constant, gloomy reminder of our global ecological crisis.
Urban explorers can find more reminders of Tsarist times, Modernist apartment buildings, a Soviet frieze of the Young Pioneer movement, and a number of statues commemorating the region’s history and notable personalities. The astronaut is worth seeking out.
The regional museum is large and has seen a substantial recent renovation; it has the best displays we have seen so far in the country. It still follows the classic chronological structure of all of Kazakhstan’s regional museums, with rooms dedicated to prehistory, the natural environment, and then history from medieval times to the present, ending in the obligatory Nazarbayev hagiography.
But there is a substantial difference, true to Kyzylorda’s patriotic stature. The museum is monolingual; all exhibits are signed exclusively in Kazakh.
That’s too bad, because it’s an interesting museum, especially seeing its focus on local resistance to Russian imperialism and early Soviet power under local hero Mustafa Chokay, and later, its period as the ASSR’s fledgling capital. You might for instance encounter many Kazakh-language documents in the original 1920’s Latin script.
- Location: Auezov str 20, cnr of Tokmaganbetov str. OSM / Gmaps
- Entrance: 200 tenge
- Open Tuesday-Sunday 9-19, siesta 13-15. Closed on Monday and last Friday of the month.
The white sun of the desert gets really tiring in summer. If you have been driving or sitting on a train for a while and are now stuck to your seat by sweat-glue, consider cooling off at Aray Aquapark. Using an oxbow lake of the Syr Darya, there are slides, indoor and outdoor pools, a clean beach and a range of additional services.
- Expect to pay around 2000 tenge for adults.
- Opening hours: 10-23
- No website, only Instagram.
- Location: Abay street. Gmaps
Kyzylorda is connected by direct train, westwards with Aqtobe (13-18 hr), Uralsk (20-25 hr) and Saratov (39 hr), Atyrau (19 hr), Aktau (31 hr) and Moscow (52 hr). To the east, trains run to Astana (32 hr via Shymkent, 42 hr via Zhezkazgan), Shymkent (8-10 hr), Bishkek (21 hr) and Almaty (18-27 hr). Less comfortable, more expensive long-distance buses to most of these destinations are available as well.
Kyzylorda airport connects directly to Almaty, Astana, Moscow Atyrau and Karaganda.
Around Kyzyl Orda
Aralsk & the Aral Sea
Barsa-Kelmes was once an island in the sea but now a plateau in the desert where a number of near-extinct species survive.
Kazalinsk was the first big port on the Aral Sea with shipyards and fishing cooperatives, with a big population of Old Believer Cossacks that persists to this day. The Russian town is apparently very well-preserved, since it never grew beyond its original size of 7000 inhabitants. We say apparently: access is restricted because of its proximity to Baikonur, so we haven’t been to check.
Most of these archaeological sites are not well-preserved. Sauran is the one that has gotten the star treatment.
Chirik-Rabat was a settlement of the Massagetae, dated 14th century BCE, located near the Uzbek border (map). A kurgan named Beltam is also nearby.
Syganak, 20km from the present-day village of Zhanakorgan, was a major trading centre of the Silk Road and one-time capital of the White Horde. Sauran was also the capital of the White Horde for a while. Its convenient location near the Kyzylorda-Shymkent highway means this is the best site to visit.
Other sites in the region that have seen archaeological digging are the Zhetyazzar and Altynassar groups of cities.
Wanna meet a Kazakh? A real Kazakh? Living in a yurt, milking camels and muttering to ancestors? There aren’t many and they don’t live in the center of town, but you can find them in the more remote areas of Kyzylorda region.
On a more general note, Kyzylorda region should be your first port of call if you are interested in Kazakh culture.
Korkyt Ata monument
About 175 km out of Kyzylorda, along the road to Aralsk, the Korkyt Ata Monument plays its eternal mournful song. It’s an astonishing site, a fitting tribute to the strong connection between the people of the steppe and their music, and to the zhyrau that brought it to life. Zhyrau like Korkyt Ata were Kazakh bards; at once priests, historians and government advisors, who transmitted their knowledge orally through epic rhymes called zhyr, similar to Manas or Mahabharata.
From Paul Brummell’s Bradt Guide to Kazakhstan:
In 1980, a huge complex of monuments was built beside the Syr Darya, 18 kilometres beyond Zhosaly. The Khorkhyt-Ata Monument is dedicated to Khorkhyt (or Korkut), the legendary musician, philosopher, narrator and inventor of the kobyz, who is known to many Turkic nations. The architect Bek Ibrayev joined forces with physiologist S. Isatayev to construct an ingenious musical image in concrete. Comprised of four identical, eight- metre-high “half-tubes” made of reinforced concrete, each section of the monument points in a different direction, towards the four winds. The shape of this modern stele recalls the kobyz – but in more than simple form.
The wind, which never fails to blow here, is caught by the concrete sections and produces a moaning tune, which can often be heard from far away. This is facilitated by the organ-like interiors of the four sections, which consist of a sound box made of 40 metal tubes. The stele is decorated with ornaments that symbolize the cosmic images of the ancient nomadic peoples.
A mausoleum is said to have been located on this spot until 1950, about which legend tells the following story: in the 9th Century, a woman in an aul along the Syr Darya bore a child, the sight of whom made all the women who had gathered in the yurt shriek and run away, since the newborn creature looked like a shapeless sack. But the mother opened the amniotic sack and a tiny baby appeared and immediately started to cry. On hearing this, the women returned to the tent and were reassured. They recommended that the mother name the child Khorkhyt, meaning terrifying. The boy grew up a clever and perceptive child, with a remarkable level of sensitivity. This characteristic remained with him, and when Khorkhyt was 20 years old, he had a bad dream, in which white-robed figures told him that he had only 20 more years to live.
Khorkhyt decided to search for immortality. He roamed the world on his female camel, Zhelmaya, and one day he met some people who were digging a grave. They answered his question by telling him that this grave was meant for Khorkhyt. He understood that he would not find immortality here. Restlessly he travelled to all points of the compass, but everywhere he met signs of death. Finally, he returned home. He sacrificed his camel Zhelmaya, built a musical instrument and covered its sound box with his beloved camel’s skin.
Thus was born the kobyz. Khorkhyt drew sad melodies from the instrument made front the hide of his beloved animal. This “sound from the afterlife” turned into a magic force. Death appeared but could not take Khorkhyt, who sat on the banks of the Syr Darya and played the song of life on his kobyz day and night. But eventually he fell asleep and death appeared in the shape of a poisonous adder and took him after all. The kobyz is said to have lain there for a long time, the wind drawing soft tones from it. Ever since, music has been successfully fighting death. Where it resounds, death has no power.
Not far from the monument there is a museum and a small amphitheatre. Sitting on its stone benches, groups of travellers can see and hear prearranged performances by musicians and dancers – the melancholy sound of a kobyz at sunset makes a deep impression.
Near the ancient shores of the Aral Sea stand 2 of the earliest examples of tower mausoleums in Kazakhstan, both built in the 11th century: Sarman-Khodja and Begim-Ana.
Plenty of minor mausoleums are spread throughout the steppe. Locals visit and pray here. Examples are the mausoleums of Sunak Ata, Aikozha Ishan, Karasopy, Okshy Ata, Dosball be and Esabyz.
The Baikonur Cosmodrome is the oldest and biggest space launch facility in the world. It is a fascinating place, but expensive to visit. We have not raked together the cash to do it ourselves, but we can organise a Baikonur trip for you.