Just off the highway from Turkestan to Kyzylorda, in the province of South Kazakhstan, lies an intriguing reminder of times past. Sauran was once the biggest city in Kazakhstan, but history abandoned it for a new lover.
Today, a large, romantic ruins remains.
When entering through the large gates of the city, it’s immediately clear that Sauran was at one point a major node on the Silk Road.
The expansive grass-covered ruins have been partly dug out, revealing a sophisticated system of underwater canals that kept this oasis thriving. Some restorative work has been carried out, clarifying the lay-out of the ancient city.
The city shifted its location on several occasions due to the changing course of the Syr Darya, on which it depended for water. Sauran has been mentioned in writing since the 10th century, but this location seems to have been inhabited from the 13-14th century until the 18th century.
It was one of only a few cities that survived the Mongol onslaught. The city administrators must have learned their lesson from nearby Otrar, which taunted the Mongols and was subsequently razed to the ground, with all inhabitants killed.
As empires waxed and waned, Sauran adapted, becoming the capital of the Mongol White Horde, and later, a military fortress under Tamerlane.
In the end, people gradually abandoned it, probably because of a lack of water. Nearby Turkestan gained in importance.
The walls itself are still many meters high in places, crumbling elsewhere, providing an intimate atmosphere where you will be alone with birdsong and turtles, free to let your imagination feel up the passage of time. For now, you will be the only visitor.
Unconfirmed claims that Tolkien got the name of the evil lord Sauron (from the angels of Ainur, which is a local Kazakh tribe) from Lord of the Rings from here have not yet led to a boom in hobbit houses.
How to visit
The road towards the ruins is new. Pavement for a walking path makes it easy to get to the gates for everyone now, including elderly and disabled travelers.
To get there from Turkestan, drive northwest on the highway to Kyzylorda for 47 km. The walls of Sauran can be spotted on your left side, about 2 km from the road. Ignore the signs pointing to the village of Sauran, the site is still more than 10 km after those signs. From Kyzylorda, it’s a 245 km ride. The highway is in excellent condition.
Without your own transport, you can get a taxi driver (ask for Krepost Sauran) for 3000 tenge to go there and back from Turkestan. It is cheaper to get a bus to or from Kyzylorda, and ask to be dropped off at the site. Hitching a ride back to Turkestan should not see you more than 20 minutes by the side of the road. Expect to pay 500 tenge for the ride back.