The capital of Kyzylorda Region, Kyzylorda (pop. 190,000) is a low-slung, utterly charmless city spread out on the right bank of the Syr Darya, 290km northwest of Turkistan. This is the most strongly ethnically Kazakh of any regional capital in Kazakhstan.
Kyzylorda has a glorious past and, thanks to the recent discovery of the nearby Kumkol oil fields, a future as well. The present, however, is a sort of time limbo between the two, and does not necessarily invite the traveller to stay for long. Like all the newly emerging oil towns in Kazakhstan, Kyzylorda catches your attention by its extreme contradictions. On one side, there is poverty, decay, dirt and resignation; on the other, the swanky shops and homes of the oil-industry beneficiaries are impossible to Hiss.
Nevertheless, tourism does exist here-the treasures of the region's history fit well with modern Kazakhstan's conscious attempt to embrace its heritage and traditions. History tells us that this was the strategic point where the caravan routes from Tashkent, Bukhara and Khiva came together, and then split to journey to western Siberia and via Torgay to Troitsk and Orenburg. There was once a large caravanserai here, on the banks of the then still powerful Syr Darya River.
In 1817, the fortress of Akmechet (White Mosque) was founded on the left bank of the Syr Darya. A year later it was decided to move the fortress to the right bank of the river, since it was more secure against the extensive floods of early summer. Yaqub Beg, the Uzbek military leader who was to become the ruler of Kashgaria, became commander of the fortress in the late 1840s until its capture by Russian troops under General Vasily Perovsky in 1853. The defeated Yaqub Beg fled to Bukhara, and was later to rise to become commander-in-chief of the army of Kokand. He captured Kashgar from the Chinese, and made himself the ruler of Kashgaria. Ak Mechet meanwhile was renamed Fort Perovsky in honour of its conqueror, a name later shortened to Perovsk. Reminders of those days are the Russian Orthodox church not far from the bazaar, built in 1878 and now beautifully restored, surrounded by high trees and flowerbeds, and the numerous one-storey Russian houses in the settlement behind it. It became the administrative capital of a province, or uyezd, in the Tsarist period, and its fortunes were further boosted by the arrival of the Tashkent-Orenburg railway in 1905.
Following the arrival of Soviet rule, the city's name was briefly restored to Ak Mechet in 1922, before being changed again in 1925 to the more secular-sounding Kyzylorda. The next four years represented Kyzylorda's moment of glory, when it served as the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan, attracting a Kazakh intellectual elite including Saken Seifullin and Ilyas Zhansugurov. But with the arrival of the Turksib railway in Almaty in 1929, the capital was moved to that city.
Kyzylorda settled down to life as a regional administrative centre, capital of a rice-growing oblast on the Syr Darya. Rice is grown on irrigated steppe around Kyzylorda (so mosquitoes are a pest here), but oil and gas operations in the South Turgay Basin, mainly Chinese-owned, are what underpin the city’s growing prosperity today. The region accounted in 2004 for some 24% of Kazakhstan's crude oil production. Today, the city plays host to the regional offices of several oil companies and oversized roads that sever it into seemingly unconnected sectors. There has been particularly strong Chinese investment in the region, especially following the acquisition of Petrokazakhstan, with its major Kumkol field, by the Chinese company CNPC in 2005.
The town has little left of its glamour as a capital these days. Not only do social contrasts show their mark, but also from an architectural point of view it has become a mix of contradictions. Kyzylorda today is a chaotic conglomeration of buildings from all periods, most of which are in a deplorable state.
With few museums and monuments of interest in their own right, and nowhere to get a decent meal, Kyzylorda serves only as a good starting point for visits to the western part of the region, including the Baikonur Cosmodrome and sites connected with the desiccation of the Aral Sea.
The culture and leisure park is a sad collection of fairground scrap, fallen heaps of concrete and borders overgrown with weeds. A giant bazaar throbs with life a kilometre on in the direction of the river. An Asian flair emerges here, particularly in the evenings, when women and families meet to go shopping, and thousands of feet throw up clouds of blinding dust while ear- deafening music resounds from numerous stalls. Another park has been wrested front the barren earth between the bazaar and the river, but the most pleasant place in Kyzylorda is the Syr Darya's riverhank promenade. Here, a change is in the air; bulldozers have removed shabby box-garages, and a couple of poor neighbourhoods have disappeared to make room for a second bridge across the river. A stroll along the promenade, with the muddy brown river flowing silently below, is a popular activity when the weather permits. Of course the evocative monument to Korkhyt Ata, the philosopher and musician of the 9th Century, has stayed in its place.
In the city centre the worthwhile Regional Museum spreads over 14 rooms, ranging from abandoned Silk Road cities and the Aral Sea to renowned local musicians and sporting champions. About 175km out of Kyzylorda, beside the road to Aralsk, rises the atmospheric Korkyt Ata Monument, dedicated to a legendary medieval kobyz player who supposedly died from snakebite beside the nearby Syr-Darya. The ground plan of the whole thing represents a kobyz, and the wind blowing through metal pipes inside one kobyz-like structure makes a sound like kobyz music.