The village of Zhidebay is closely associated with the life of the Kazakh writer Abai Kunanbaev, and houses the huge modern mausoleum of Abai and his nephew, Shakarim Kudaiberdiev. To get here, continue south along the road towards Karaul. Some 23km south of the turning for the cave of Enlik and Kibek, there is a signposted right turn to Zhidebay, which lies 10km down this side road. The twin white towers of the Abai and Shakarim mausoleum complex are visible across the steppe from tens of kilometres away.
Two white towers point skywards from the steppe on the edge of the aul of Zhidebay, 180 kilometres south of Semey. They are visible from up to 20 kilometres away, but coming nearer, the entire complex of monuments, including the double mausoleum for the national poet Abai Kunanbayev and the philosopher Shakarim Kudayberdiyev come into view. Both men's fate is closely linked to Zhidebay: Abai spent the winter months here during his childhood, while his younger relative Shakarim was brought up by his father's family.
Zhidebay was the winter residence of Abai's father, a wealthy Kazakh who had been authorized to act as administrator with the title of sultan over a large area between Karkaralinsk and Semey. It was a very lively home; the family was closely intertwined and Abai liked to invite his Russian friends from Semey. After his eldest son Ospan had married, the Kunanbayev patriarch gave him the estate and moved with the rest of the family to the Akshoky Valley 50 kilometres away. After Ospan's death, Abai took over the estate and went to live there with his three wives, Dilda, Aygerim and Erkezhan. His marriage with Dilda had been arranged without his agreement and in spite of the fact that he was in love with another girl. Aygerim was his great love in later times and this marriage had been his dearest wish. As for Erkezhan, she had been Ospan's wife and, in line with steppe tradition, came under her late husband's brother's care. Mukhtar Auezov gives a wonderfully gripping and colourful description of Abai's life in conflict-ridden 19th Century Kazakhstan in his renowned book Abai's Way (also known as The Path of Abai).
Today, the house of the Kunanbayevs is a museum in which numerous objects of the family's daily life are displayed. The books in particular show many interesting aspects of the lifestyle of a wealthy Kazakh family during the second half of the 19th Century. The mausoleum stands a kilometre off the road. Evven on days when it is supposed to be closed, there is always someone in the aul ready to open it and invite visitors on a guided tour.
In 1995, the double mausoleum, designed by architect Bek Ibrayev, was opened in the presence of President Nazarbayev and 20,000 other guests. It is 180 metres long and 60 metres wide. It is crowned by two elegant, tower-like mausoleums: the biggest is 37 metres high and nine metres in diameter, and dedicated to Abai; the smaller one, 35 metres high, is in honour of Shakarim, who perished in Stalin's purges in 1931.
The mausoleums stand on a structure shaped like a pyramid and composed of three stone plates on top of one another. The dark one on the bottom symbolises the ancient history of the Kazakhs, the pink middle stone stands for the life and times of Abai and Shakarim, and the white sandstone plate on top represents the present. An extraordinary library has been built inside the mausoleum's foundation. It receives daylight from above and forms a ring around an amphitheatre embedded in the foundation. Each year a recital competition is held here, for schoolchildren from the eighth to eleventh school years. The record was set by a schoolgirl who recited-by heart 400 poems and songs by Abai.
This unusual architectural complex is completed by a futuristic mosque, designed with moving simplicity and consisting of four round spaces, each crowned by a conical tower with the obligatory mihrab as their sole decoration.
Abai House Museum - The road ends at a car park, at the back of which stands the Abai House Museum. Abai was born in 1845 at a spring called Kaskabulak, not far from Borli. The single-storey house at Zhidebay, which now accommodates the museum, was passed on the death of Abais father Kunanbay to the poet's much loved younger brother Ospan. But Ospan died young, in 1892, at which point, in accordance with Kazakh tradition, Abai and his family moved into the house, taking Ospans widow Erkezhan under their wing. Abai wintered in this house for the rest of his life.
There is a large stone bust of Abai in the garden. The poet's carriage is preserved in a glass case in the stables. Inside the museum, Abais family tree is set out in the foyer. The kitchen contains samovars and wooden utensils, including a large wooden bowl for serving kumiss. A sitting room follows, and then Abai's study, in which is exhibited a beautifully decorated bed which belonged to his wife Dilda, as well as the poets dombra. Two games are displayed here, a chess set and the board for the Kazakh game togyzkumalak, illustrating the role of both local and external cultures in Abai's life. In the room occupied by Erkezhan are elegant bone-decorated wooden chests. A display in the corridor contains personal items belonging to Abai, such as his pocket watch. There is also a larder room, or toshala, similar to that in the Auezov museum in Borli. Meat could also be cured in this room, for which the hole in the roof would be closed. Also in this room is a fierce-looking metal trap targeted at wolves.
At the side of a car park outside the museum is a stone circle on which stands a small pyramid. This is the Monument to the Geographical Centre of Eurasia, which appears rather conveniently to have been determined to lie almost at the door of the former home of Kazakhstan's greatest writer.
Mausoleum of Abai and Shakarim - To the right of the Abai House Museum, standing 1km or so away, is the huge Mausoleum of Abai and Shakarim. The complex was inaugurated in 1995, in the presence of President Nazarbaev, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Abai's birth. Two tall white towers, with ribbed sides, stand on top of a building in the form of a broad three-platformed ziggurat, the three levels representing the ascension from the subterranean to the heavenly. Its base is a rectangle, some 200m long and 65m wide. Just outside the main entrance to the building is a white-walled mosque, oval in plan with tour conical domes. The mosque is a simple but stylish building. Its interior, illuminated I rom the tops of the four domes, is dominated by a large central column, producing the overall effect of a building divided into a series of cells.
At the entrance of the mausoleum complex is a font-like structure filled with earth from the land of Abai and Shakarim. Pass through a corridor to a small amphitheatre, where recitals of Abai's work are sometimes given. Climb up the steps here to reach the pebble-covered roof of the building, from which are entered the two tall mausolea. These, standing close to each end of the platform, are tall white towers, tapering from wide bases. The slightly taller of the two towers, rising to almost 38m, is the mausoleum of Abai. Its interior features a domed ceiling covered with ornate geometric designs. Next to the tomb of Abai is a smaller one, that of his beloved younger brother Ospan. The interior of the mausoleum of Shakarim, Abai's nephew and a victim of Stalinist repression, is also domed, this time decorated with blue designs resembling droplets of water, or tears. The tomb of Shakarims younger brother is also here.
Between the Abai and Shakarim Mausoleum and the Abai House Museum stands the much smaller Mausoleum of Zere and Ulzhan. Zere was Abais paternal grandmother; Ulzhan was his mother. Their mausoleum is an interesting design, with stone walls radiating out from a central space. Back on the main road, the largest village in the area, Karaul, is another 14km in the south beyond the turning off to Zhidebay. Predictably enough, there is a statue of Abai in its central square. There are a couple of uninspiring cafes here, but if the weather is fine you would be much better off bringing a picnic with you from Semey and eating it in the scenic Chingistau Hills.
THE CENTRE OF EURASIA
Also in Zhidebay, close to the home of the Kunanbayevs, there is a simple stone monument consisting of a circular block with a small pyramid on top. According to geographers, this is the centre of Eurasia. The location is supposed to have an extraordinary level of positive radiation. Some historians claim that this concentration of energy explains why the region has produced so many geniuses. Whether you believe this or not, it can do no harm to stand here for a while and let a bit of energy flow through you.