The Syr Darya River, the Jaxartes of the Ancient Greeks, rises in the Tian Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan and eastern Uzbekistan and flows for more than 2,000km to the Aral Sea. The two regions of southern Kazakhstan it passes through on its journey, South Kazakhstan and Kyzylorda, are among the most touristically interesting in the country.
Two cultures coexisted for many centuries in today's oblasts of Zhambyl and Kyzylorda: the nomadic communities of the vast steppe, and the sedentary civilisation of the oases. Through this area ran an important branch of the Silk Road, measuring 1,700 kilometres across territory now part of present-day Kazakhstan.
Trade centres and caravan stations flourished along this route, spawning the word caravanserai, meaning caravan palace, or caravan court. In fact, many of them did bear some resemblance to a palace, since the remains of surrounding walls have been found-and can still be seen-in the steppe and desert oases. They were usually very large, always surrounded by walls, and equipped with inns, kitchens, stables, a mosque and a storehouse for merchandise. Trade in all kinds of goods took place, from expensive cloth-such as the silk to which the route owed its name-to damask and cotton, furs and wool, precious stones, carvings, porcelain, spices, tea and fruits, arms and gunpowder, rare wild animals, noble steeds, hunting birds and hounds. Envoys with dispatches passed through on their way to far kingdoms, matchmakers sought suitable brides for their masters, and missionaries of every conceivable faith proselytised. The most important land trade route of all time influenced the pulse of this region for more than 1,000 years.
Southern Kazakhstan not only boasts many beautiful landscapes, but also has numerous cultural, historical and architectural treasures to offer. The sheltered, forested and well- watered Karatau Mountains were a dwelling place for humans as early as the Stone Age. Numerous khaganates and khanates came and went in the fertile fluvial plains of the rivers Chu, Talas, Aksu, Arys and Syr Darya - it goes without saying that such a naturally blessed land in the middle of desert and steppe attracted the envy of many rulers. Unfortunately, this also led to the destruction of many cities which could otherwise have sted today of a great Silk Road heritage. Fortunately, some of the ancient monuments have been preserved and increasing numbers are being rediscovered and restored.
Today this is the most Kazakh part of Kazakhstan: Kazakhs are generally the great majority in the population, having been settled here in large numbers during Soviet collectivisation. It is also the only region of Kazakhstan that was within the sphere of the Silk Road and the settled civilisations of Transoxiana in medieval times. It’s a fascinatingly varied region, whose chief attractions begin in the Aksu-Zhabagyly Nature Reserve with its pristine mountain country, great hiking and homestays. The Aksu Zhabagly Nature Reserve, the oldest in central Asia, whose meadows are carpeted in spring by a covering of tulips.
Highlights also include Turkestan, the home of Kazakhstan's most beautiful building, most sacred Muslim shrine and a fine piece of Timurid architecture: the mausoleum of Sufi mystic, Khodja Ahmed Yassaui. The remains of the Silk Road city of Otrar, the city whose attempts to defy Genghis Khan brought the wrath of the Mongols onto the whole of central Asia.
The bustling city of Shymkent is the atmospheric main city with Kazakhstan's most interesting bazaar; the Baikonur Cosmodrome, a living museum of the history of space exploration; and the Aral Sea, a manmade environmental catastrophe which is starting to fight back.
The south, the most strongly ethnic Kazakh part of the country, should be an important component of any in-depth visit to Kazakhstan. An extended trip from Almaty via Taraz to Otrar and Turkistan and perhaps even further on to Kyzylorda and the Baikonur Cosmodrome, should however also include the natural beauty of the western Tien Shan, the mountains of Karatau and classic steppe land.