Shymkent in the Rain

Written by Ciaràn Lavalle

Today was the day that we all get to go visit Shymkent and the regional museum we have all been looking forward to visiting. We had a long night the night before so we were all tired and maybe not feeling as well as we could have but we were ready and willing to go early on Saturday morning. We needed the people carrier and a car to take us all to the museum. Dima, Archaeological Expertise director, had organised it with the lead archaeology curator at the museum to give us a tour of the collection. So we were on a schedule to be there to meet him. It was nearly a two-hour journey to get to the museum.

I was in the car on the journey and we thought we could beat the people carrier to the museum, not that we were racing. How wrong could we have been. We ended up being late as it turned out that our driver didn’t know exactly where the museum was. We were following the people carrier the whole way up the road but as we got closer to the city the heavier the traffic got. And at one of the many traffic lights we lost sight of our lead. Luckily, our local friend Max was joining us on this journey and I had his phone number. As we were parked up with the driver looking more and more forlorn and lost we were able to get him to ring Max and get directions. Thankfully, the driver did no listen to our earlier advice to follow our Google maps directions to the museum as, it turned out, was the wrong place, as the only museum for Shymkent on Google maps was for the old museum, long closed.

We eventually arrived and were greeted with signs of laugher on everyone’s face. The museum itself is a beautiful modern building with modern displays, which provide a wonderful account of Kazakh archaeology and social history.

The museum is also in a beautiful setting, at the edge of the city, beside a zoo and a park, with an artificial lake. Across from the Museums there is a large memorial with scenes of Kazakh history.

We were a little bit late but thankfully the tour had not yet started. The curator spoke with a low calm and quiet voce. He did not speak in English so the translation was provided by one of our Kazakh students, Din. He was as calm and graceful in his translation as our guide was in his explanation of the museums displays. It was made even more impressive as many of the terms used by our guide would have been new to Din as he has little or no experience in archaeology since he is an architectural student. 

After our tour we were given a more behind the scenes tour and chat in the offices, where we talked about the excavations and conservation of the museums artefacts. During this time Miriam was able to build a foundation for possible future collaboration between UCL, HWB and the museum in Shymkent. Throughout our stay at the museum a member of staff at the museum photographed us to document our visit. He looked very much like the stereotypical professional photographer from the 1980’s, mullet, photographers vest, and all.

After the museum we were all starving and we were taken to a beautiful restaurant with ornate carved wooden features. The restaurant served food typical of the region and we all got our fill, some were hungrier than others. Since there were quite a number of us, it took some time to get lunch behind us. While we were there the heavens opened up and the great sky god of the steppe proved to us whole who was boss. Once we were fed and watered, we had a mini confab to decide what to do for the rest of the day. It was decided that we would visit the Shymkent market. After a short journey we were soon at the market.

The market was separated into different sections, each representing different commercial zones. We arrived in the area that sold hardware, and its narrow streets were only partially covered. This proved to be our undoing as the clouds decided at that time to let loose with another barrage that had us running from the rain. So our little company could be seen comically racing from one canopy to another until we eventually reached the entirely covered clothes market. Although none of us were particularly searching for anything we were all browsing. It was decided that we would all put money together and by our loving host, Yamila a gift while we were there. After much deliberation we chose a very nice tea set as that gift as a practical thing that she may actually use.

We walked up and down the narrow isles of textile, shoes, tools and allsorts stopping along the way to bargain with the stall managers for this and that. Some of the team were able to find some Kazakhstan t-shirts for a bargain price and this made the trip worth it. Eventually we decided that the hustle and bustle of the market was having its toll on our already tired patience so we made our way back to the drivers. Although before we headed back on the road to Shaulder we made one last stop, a modern shopping centre where some of the team could go use a bank machine. The main thing I would say about the shopping centre was the fact that there was an ice rink on the ground floor. There is something surreal about seeing an ice rink in a landscape that is surrounded by desert.

Soon we were back on the road and on the way home, as it was. When we arrived it was well after 6pm and Yamila was cooking up a storm in the kitchen as usual. We were all very tired and happy to be back on familiar ground. It was the end of another week in Kazakhstan and the end of yet another adventure in the country. I was ready and looking forward to the next one.