A Weekend of Sauran & Sleep

Written by Ciaran Lavalle

We all woke up on the Saturday morning tired with heavy limbs after all the dancing and wedding crashing that took place the night before. Those of us who drank were wondering why we didn’t feel bad after the waitress kept appearing with more beer and vodka for our continued entertainment. We were not going to complain and we eagerly waited the bus for our first weekend trip into the heritage heartland of Southern Kazakhstan. Our dutiful dedicated drivers duly arrived to take us to our first destination, the world heritage site, the Mausoleum Khwaja Ahmad Yasavi, in the city of Turkistan. Known to all from this region simply as Turkistan. 

With the journey to Otrar from Almaty and the entertaining days leading up to the first week we were already showing signs of becoming a nice tight knit group with banter flowing from all avenues. So the trip to Turkistan continued this unifying of the group in a friendly band. The journey took approximately one and a half hours, with the flat steppe/desert landscape filling the view from the car windows. There were many things to catch the eye such as the roving groups of animals, such as sheep, goats, horses and camels dotted across the landscape. One scene that took my full attention was the short stretch of waterlogged grassland that enveloped both sides of the road for about 2 miles half way down the road. It was a beautiful sight to see in contrast to the sandy grasslands of the regions surrounding this watery oasis.

As we neared the town of Turkistan we saw a multitude of white roofs, which from a distance appeared to be a town of yurts, the traditional circular wood and animal hide dwellings of the nomadic folk in this part of the world. Sadly this was not to be the case as it was in fact a large cluster of small single storied tin roofed buildings whose roofs caused the sun to reflect off them to create that wonderfully confusing optical illusion of yurts. Although yurts are a proudly common feature of the region with many visible beside country dwellings as well as being used for commercial purposes outside commercial buildings with advertisements covering their exterior. Traditional yurts with their traditional interiors also appear to display in most of the museums we have visited during our stay here.

On arrival in Turkistan we entered a sprawling flat soviet style town with wide planned roads and aging utilitarian looking buildings in between modern building sites. The enormous mausoleum of Turkistan soon came into view, towering over the flattened town surrounding it. It was quite a sight and drew us in like moths. We were soon out of our vehicles and making our way through the pedestrian avenues that surround the mausoleum, filled with national and international tourists enjoying their national holiday at the local world heritage site. There were stalls set up every few feet selling everything from food to trinkets. There were also two groups selling the chance to get a photograph with peacocks and an ageing camel, sitting on a large ornate carpet, who seemed very much at ease with the bustling crowds surrounding him and attempting to pet his mottled hair. Although our group’s very presence seemed to bring another camera worthy sighting event, as we had a number of groups of local people run up to ask if they could get a photograph taken with our group. Or more specifically with Giles, as I don’t think 6ft3 men with long red hair are a common sight in this part of the world. An attempt to get a passer by to take a group photograph of all of us in front of the mausoleum, resulted in a photograph with approximately 15 local adults and teenagers and the rest of us hidden behind the excited group of Kazakhs. And that was just the beginning of the photograph requests for Giles while there.

The mausoleum was a large mud brick and tiled building with a large wooden struts extending out from the front for the upkeep of the building. The sides of the building are tiled in the beautiful colours and designs typical of Islamic architecture. The interior is a more reserved affair with an over all white appearance throughout. There is a large room at the entrance with small corridors off to the sides with kitchen, library, and with labels on the doorways telling visitors what each room contained.

There is a large ornate cauldron in the centre of the main room with a number of artefacts in the portico opposite the door. On either side of the entrance, the original ornate doors are displayed horizontally, no longer fit for use. There is a large wall surrounding one side of the large mausoleum and its smaller satellite mosques and mausoleums. We were eventually able to get a group photograph without being photo-bombed by some bewildered group who rarely see pasty white westerners.

There are also the ruins of the old city visible beside the mausoleum that did not appear to interest the masses that were visiting the site, but as we are on an archaeological expedition we could not pass up the chance to see it.

After a visit to the associated gift shop, where local trinkets and tat were purchased by the team, and where I was very tempted to buy a completely pointless leather bow and arrow set before logic reeled in my boyish imagination, we returned to find our transport so we could go to lunch. We had a few minutes to kill before the transport was to return, so we visited a local museum where we learned more about the region's history, and to avoid the accumulating effects of catching too much of the midday sun. The museums in Kazakhstan all appear to be set up in a similar fashion, depending on their size, with three main sections, archaeology, social history and ethnography and politics and industry. The cases are also refreshingly sparsely populated with artefacts and with a liberal use of dioramas used to tell a story without the need for words. Although the museum panels fall into the trap of being filled with veritable novels of information with would take a full day to read them all.

We were soon on our way to find food, which took the form of a quaint greasy spoon out in what appeared to be an industrial area. The food on offer was basic but good, and Emilio even found a chilli sauce to satiate his spicy palette. We all had the local delicacy, plov, a rice, carrot and meat dish. On the many occasions I have eaten this dish over the last few years I have yet to get an answer that the meat is, nor do I want to know as long as it tastes good.

We were soon back on the road and on to our next destination, the medieval city of Sauran. And yes, there were many Lord of the Ring jokes being thrown about. We all had a bit of a post-lunch nap on the journey, trying to catch up on the sleep loss from the night before. So when we awoke we were on a long highway travelling trough another stretch of desert. This time we could see hills far in the distance on one side. The landscape was full of archaeological features, in the form of Kurgans (burial mounds) and evidence of buildings, old and new. I had woke just after we had actually passed Sauran but the driver had to drive a further 15 mintues before he could turn round and take the right turn off. Sauran is a large walled city, partially excavated. The surrounding walls, which housed many empires, from the Mongol White Hoard to Tamerlane, are largely intact and visible.

The badly eroded mud brick walls of the city are surrounded by a large ditch. There is also evidence of an ancient extinct waterway made visible by a river of greenery snaking its way toward the city from the skyline. The majority of the city is unexcavated, or reburied but there is a section near the reconstructed entrance where standing walls of buildings could be seen. In the centre of these excavated areas is a large gaping hole into the subterranean sections of the city (which are closed to the public).

In true cinematic fashion as I stood staring down this cavity trying to focus on what may be lurking in the darkness, a pigeon came flying out to scare me. Thankfully nobody saw me jump out of my skin, but I did spend the next few minutes laughing at what I call my John Woo-esque movie scene.

Ruins in Sauran, by Ciarán Lavelle

Ruins in Sauran, by Ciarán Lavelle

The ground in and around the city is littered with fragments of ceramics and other archaeological materials. I discovered a copper alloy coin sitting on the surface, which I give to our numismatist in training, Jonathan to conserve and identify for training purposes, before being accessioned in the local museum’s collection.

We spent about an hour slowly walking around the city and around the crumbling walls back toward the entrance in increasingly spread out groups. Although as it is typical when sight seeing in such a vast shade-free place, the storm clouds gathered and started to unleash their load.

At first we welcomed the rain in the hot weather and walked happily in the coolness it brought. Although a trickle eventually led to a downpour and we were soon running the rest of the way back to the waiting cars. Somewhat wet and without a change of clothes we waited for the eternally laidback stragglers to return, soaked, before heading back on the road home.

We stopped on the way back through Turkistan to do some last minute shopping before heading home to Shaulder. On the way we decided to stop at the 17th century AD mausoleum of Abdl Aziz Bab, which is just 10 minutes from the camp for a quick visit to end our day of sightseeing.

As it was a national holiday it was heaving with people and we found a number of shops selling the same trinkets and tat that we had seen earlier in Turkistan. There was an attractive wedding party having their photographs taken on the grounds as the sun was setting. The mausoleum and adjoining mosque was full of visitors and worshippers alike. Mikel decided to try the holy water being collected from the well, as it seemed like the thing to do. We were soon back in the vehicles and in the waiting arms of Yamila who had dinner on the stove for the hungry travellers. The rest of the evening was spent relaxing and enjoying a quiet beer and banter with the group. The Sunday took on a similar shape with people relaxing and resting after a very busy and travel filled week and in preparation for the real work that was to begin at 5am on the Monday morning.

Mausoleum of Abdl Aziz Bab, by Ciarán Lavelle