Kyzylorda Regional Museum of History
Head west from the central square along tree-lined Aiteke Bi Street, passing across a narrow canal which scythes through the city centre, offering shaded benches beside its concrete banks. Golden lions guard this waterway wherever it is crossed by roads. After a couple of blocks turn right onto Auezov Street, bringing you to a junction with Tokmagambetov Street. Here, on your right, is a two-storey 1950s building, its main entrance behind a curving row of Corinthian columns. This houses the Kyzylorda Regional Museum of History and Local Lore. The museum was founded in 1939, and housed initially in a Russian Orthodox church. It was moved to its present site, which initially housed a hotel, in 1985.
The displays start with exhibits about the geography of the region, including a striking comparison of the Aral Sea as it used to be, with photographs of the fishing fleet, with the Aral Sea today, illustrated by a diorama depicting a beached boat, and a lonely hedgehog wandering across the sand. The next room features natural history, with the usual array of stuffed animal-filled dioramas and pickled snakes. A room devoted to archaeology includes ceramics from some of the important Silk Road settlements of the region, including the site of Syganak, 20km from the present-day village of Zhanakorgan in the eastern part of the region. Syganak was a major trading centre of the Silk Road until it was sacked by the Mongols. But it rose again to become the capital of the White Horde. It gradually declined, and was finally abandoned in the 19th century. There are photographs of the remnants of city walls to be seen at Syganak and at Sauran.
The next room covers the development of the region from the 15th century. Items on display include a Dzhungar helmet, splendidly decorated with golden dragons. The displays also cover the development of the town from its origins as Ak Mechet. There are samovars, ceramics and other traded items on display, and exhibits related to the construction of the Orenburg-Tashkent railway at the beginning of the 20th century In the next room are books and manuscripts, including the works of prominent Kazakh writers, printed here in the 1920s during Kyzylorda's brief spell as capital of Soviet Kazakhstan. The desk of writer Askar Tokmagambetov is also on display.
On the second floor the displays start with a room focused on the early Soviet period. There is a bust of Mustafa Chokai, leader of the 'Provisional Government of Autonomous Turkestan', with its capital at Kokand, crushed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Chokai fled to Europe, where he continued his campaigning on behalf of the Turkestan nationalist movement, based around the goal of self-government for central Asia. He was associated with the establishment of the Turkestan Legion, comprising Muslim exiles and captured Soviet prisoners of war who fought on the German side during World War II, and died in Berlin, in circumstances which are still unclear, in 1941. Cast in wholly negative terms during the Soviet period, Chokai has undergone something of a rehabilitation in Kazakhstan, and a two-part film entitled Mustafa Shokai was released in 2008, directed by Satybaldy Narymbetov, and with Karina Abdullina, vocalist with the Kazakhstani pop duo Musicola, playing Chokai's opera singer wife Maria. The next room focuses on the talented Hodjikov brothers, each a prominent artist in a different field. A room focusing on World War II is followed by one covering the post-independence period, with photographs of visits to the region by President Nazarbaev, coverage of the main industrial enterprises of the region and a model of the Korkut Ata Monument.
There are canvases by Abylkhan Kasteyev in the corridor, and a room focused on Kazakh ethnography, with a display of items to be found in a yurt. The next room highlights the best-known musicians and writers from the region, including the singer Roza Baglanova, the 'nightingale of Kazakhstan, who donated a sparkly dress to the museum. Next comes education and sport, with photographs of Ilia Ilin, the local weightlifter who, at 17, won the 2005 World Championships in the 85kg weight category. He took gold again the next year, this time in the 94kg category, and won gold in the same category at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. A room about the regions agriculture features a bust of rice farmer and two-time Hero of Socialist Labour Ibray Zhakaev, a diorama of the cultivation of watermelons and a display case with an arrangement featuring rice, cotton, fruits and vegetables. There is a room about the Soviet-era industrial development of the region, displaying the products of several local factories which did not survive long into the post-independence period. The quality of the goods on display offers a clue as to why they folded.