Southern Kazakhstan’s most vibrant city, with bustling bazaars and a lively downtown, Shymkent (Russian: Chimkent) has more of a Central Asian buzz on its leafy streets than anywhere else in the country. The capital of South Kazakhstan Region and the largest city in the south, with a population well above half a million, Shymkent is considered by urban Kazakhstanis in Astana or Almaty as a wild and lawless place. The pavements are uneven, and the driving is manic. The city is situated close to the border with Uzbekistan. The hurly-burly in the streets and bazaars has much of the Uzbek character, and many restaurants are decorated in Uzbek style, with green courtyards that make it difficult to decide which hospitable-looking establishment to choose; this is true particularly on the road that leads to Tashkent.
Shymkent is also a vibrant and lively city, with the most colourful bazaar in Kazakhstan, and it offers a good range of accommodation and eating options. The city's parks throng with people until late into the evening in summer. Stop here to soak up the atmosphere, eat well and head out to nearby places of interest, including Turkistan and the Aksu-Zhabagyly Nature Reserve.
It was established around the 12th century, as a caravanserai on the Silk Route, and developed as a trading centre. The name Shymkent was first mentioned in 1365, but excavations suggest that there was a major settlement on its site around 2,000 years ago. Russian sources from the 16th to 18th centuries identify Shymkent as Chimin or Chimin'gen. In the 18th and 19th centuries it became the object of fighting between the khanates of Bukhara and Kokand. The latter won out, but the city was then taken for Tsar Alexander II in 1864 by the Russian general Mikhail Chernyaev. During the Tsarist period, one industry established here was a plant for the manufacture of santonin, a drug used for the expulsion of parasitic worms from the body. The santonin is derived from the flower heads of a variety of sea wormwood, or Levant wormwood, found in the surrounding area. Shymkent's links with this vermifuge are expressed on the city's emblem, which contains a picture of the plant. The city was renamed Chernyaev in 1914, to commemorate 50 years of its incorporation into the Russian Empire, but it reverted to Chimkent in the early 1920s.
A lead-processing plant was established in the town in the 1930s, at one stage producing around 70% of the lead manufactured in the USSR, at considerable cost to the urban environment. More factories were evacuated here during World War II. During the later Soviet period the city developed as a petrochemicals centre, with the construction of an oil pipeline to bring Siberian crude south from Omsk, and the establishment of an oil refinery, now run by Petrokazakhstan. You may be able to smell the chemicals in the air, but the haze of pollution makes for some glorious orange sunsets. Phosphorous and cement factories were added, as well as an industry based around the production of pelts from karakol lambs. The industrial city of Shymkent also has a major oil refinery, and processing of local agricultural commodities such as sunflowers and cotton takes place here as well.
Shymkent smelts lead, makes cigarettes and refines oil, but it’s perhaps best known for Kazakhstan’s best local beer, Shymkentskoe Pivo. The population today is just over half Kazakh and about 15% Russian and 15% Uzbek. Mosquitoes can be an irritant from June to August.
Orientation Two shopping centres, the modern Mega Shymkent and the older TsUM, are located opposite one another on the main downtown street, Tauke-Khan. These are prime landmarks and meeting places. The several bus stations are scattered around the city fringes, the most important being Samal, 4km north of the centre, and Ayna, 3km northeast. The train station is at the end of Kabanbay Batyr, 1.5km southeast of Ordabasy ploshchad, a busy intersection.
Sights - Although there is unfortunately nothing of its old history left to see, Shymkent does have some places of interest. Worth visiting are the Regional Museum of History and Anthropology, which includes an art gallery (23 Kazybek Bi Street). The Museum has excellent exhibits on Shymkent’s history as a caravan town, plus material on old Otrar and Aksu-Zhabagyly Nature Reserve, as well as displays upstairs on the Russian, Soviet and post-independence eras. Spot the photos of Shymkent’s best-known daughter – the 1970s gymnast Nellie Kim, who grew up and trained here.
Another places of interest could be the Museum of Archaeology on Baytursinuly St, and-not recommended for animal lovers - the Karakul Museum on Lenin Square, which displays the history and processing of the legendary Karakul fur.
Central Shymkent’s several parks, including the amusement park Fantasy World are popular hangouts, especially on summer evenings. Southeast of Fantasy World is the ceremonial square Al-Farabi alangy, and southeast of here, across the small Koshkar-Ata canal, you’ll find the few remaining streets of pre-Russian Shymkent – a quiet, villagelike area of one- and two-storey wooden houses.
The small Museum of Victims of Political Repression was Kazakhstan’s first museum of its kind when it opened in 2001. Photos and documents on Soviet oppression in Kazakhstan and its most celebrated victims surround a central sculpture showing freedom-striving figures restrained by a Soviet banner.
Markets - The Central or Upper Bazaar is now rather diminished after the conversion of its outlying sprawl into parks. But it still makes for an interesting wander and is a reminder of Shymkent’s long trading history. Of several new markets around the city fringes, the biggest and most interesting is Bazar Samal , next to Samal bus station, which has a particularly colourful array of rugs and textiles.
Festivals & Events - Shymkent’s Nauryz celebrations, on 22 March, are among the biggest in the country. Kokpar, horse races, audaryspak (horseback wrestling) and kyz kuu all happen at the Ippodrom (Hippodrome) on the northern edge of the city.