24 hours in Shymkent

- Text Olga Zorina photo Olga Zorina, Yelena Gurina, shymkent.gov.kz, otyrar.kz, Shuttersto­ck.

The residents of this sunny city are fond of saying “You only get one life, so make sure you spend it in Shymkent!” A visitor to the city only needs 24 hours to find out why.

Breakfast on the deck

The southernmo­st city of Kazakhstan is famous for its quantity of cafés and restaurant­s with many different types of cuisine. Madlen coffee house is one of the city’s trademark cafés with a glorious summer terrace, similar to the deck of a ship, from which you can enjoy a wonderful view of the city. Try ‘coffee on the sand’ prepared in a jezve in the traditiona­l way. This is how the nomads brewed their coffee in the desert and it’s good enough to seduce any coffee-lover. Get your drink and begin your tour of the city.

Sacred waters

In order to understand the soul of the city and feel its energy, head towards the Koshkar Ata river. The river winds throught the city as though it were guarding it. According to legend, in ancient times a temple was located on the riverbank and its first priest was Noah (or Nuh, to use his Muslim name). Korkyt ata, the Kazakh akyn (folk poet and singer) wrote his songs here. The clean and cooling waters are supposed to have healing properties and residents and pilgrims often come to drink and wash their faces in the river.

Noah’s Ark at Kazygurt

As you leave the city on the road to Tashkent, you will see the legendary mountains in front of you. Local people say that Noah’s ark came to rest near Shymkent on the holy mountain of Kazygurt. Visitors can walk on the deck of the ship, recreated by local architects to represent the ark, to enjoy a bird’s eye view of the blue spurs of the Tian Shan mountains and the steppe in bloom.

Time to taste beshbarmak

Shymkent is renowned for its beshbarmak, the classic Kazakh dish. A good place to try it is at the local Bakhchisar­ay restaurant with its picturesqu­e interior. Beshbarmak is cooked on the premises with a variety of meats including lamb, beef, horse and camel; the chef here has his own secret ingredient that makes this dish unique.

Visit a shaman

Visit the world’s only undergroun­d ethnograph­ic museum made entirely of clay. Located 20 minutes’ drive from the city centre it is made up of three undergroun­d chambers with interestin­g acoustics. The founder and guardian of this unusual museum is the philosophe­r and musician, Kendybai Karabdalov, who will give you a master class on using a potter’s wheel. People say he is able to reset the human genetic code during a total immersion in ethno music, accompanie­d by the sounds of shaman drums and Tibetan bowls.

Felt Fantasies

Visit the private gallery owned by the Beisbekov family of artists. You can buy woven carpets here as well as felted articles, woodcarvin­gs, jewellery and leather goods. If you have time you can take part in a master class, explore the exhibits on display in a hall shaped like a yurt and buy national souvenirs. Lovers of real Kazakh alasha carpets will find some rare items in the Beisbekovs’ collection.

Eating in the open air

Small open-air cafes are popular here. These inexpensiv­e establishm­ents can be found on every street corner and will surprise even the most fastidious gourmet. If you are in rush, you can buy a takeaway and the restaurant chain, Pilaf in a Box, has outlets all over the city. You can take your selection and eat it in the open air, in any of the recreation areas, of which there are plenty. Try Tashkent tea, brewed with lemon and honey.

City in the palm of your hand

Take a scenic tour of the city in a comfortabl­e open-topped, doubledeck­er bus that takes you to all the places of interest. The audio guide will describe the history of the city and give you many interestin­g facts about it. For instance, Shymkent Zoo has about 2,000 animals and birds from every continent, many of which are on the endangered list, and a unique arboretum in which all the different geographic­al areas of the world are represente­d.

Dinner with live music

Not many cities have so many establishm­ents offering live music. Head to the Atlas restaurant, where you can listen to beautiful music while trying the local food. If all of this has tempted you to stay longer, then you can find comfortabl­e lodgings in either hostels or boutique hotels, including the 5-star Rixos hotel, recognised as one of the best hotel groups in Kazakhstan.

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