When I got off the train in Turkistan, the difference between this place and Uralsk hit me like a breaker. The train was like a section of Uralsk; we'd just carried it south with us. Turkistan was warm, green, spring, very very Central Asian. I don’t look so out of place in Uralsk or in my village (I mean my face, not my clothes), but here, I was FOREIGNER. Taxi drivers mobbed me, surrounded me, tried to take my bags off me. I looked desperately for the volunteer who was supposed to meet me, but I didn’t see her. I began to make swatting motions with my hands in front of my faces and my bags. It's so funny that probably 90% of the people in the area could have told me where the other foreigner was, but it took the two of us long enough to get me pretty flustered. Once we were away from the bloodsuckers and had each taken off a layer or two of clothing, Dawn and I more cheerfully set off in the right direction . . . and walked a couple kilometers too far. I loved Turkistan instantly, although that had a lot to do with the weather. Fresh, warm air made me feel like I had superpowers. But we were, after all, lost, and my superpowers waned as my bag stuffed with books hit me unpredictably in the back of the knee. But I didn’t buckle and fall. Instead I stopped and finished off the pistachios. It seemed that this was a place where you could put off figuring out where on Earth you were and have a snack, staring back without any feeling of rudeness at passers-by who were also staring at you.
Turkistan – and you’d better look it up if you want real history – is a very old town in the south of Kazakhstan. It’s on my National Geographic world map, pretty much straight west of Almaty and further south than the Aral Sea. I’ve read in some places that it was a Silk Road town, but I’m not sure if it was on the main route or off it. The main attraction there is the mausoleum. It’s lovely, big, worth going to. And three trips equals a Hajj. It’s also surrounded by great but almost completely archaeologically ignored ruins. And wow was the population ever different from Uralsk, where there are (basically) Kishi Zhuz Kazakhs, Russians (or Slavic people), 4 Americans and 1 British man. In Turkistan, there were all kinds of Central Asians, dressed as the people on the Turkish streets in Koktube dressed, and they were all speaking Kazakh, Uzbek, Turkish – not Russian. One of my favorite things about Turkistan was that people understood me the first time – I didn’t have to explain that I was a foreigner and was about to speak in Kazakh and then repeat my original request. People in Turkistan seemed to walk more slowly than people in Uralsk. The women weren’t all wearing stilettos. Lots of men were wearing the traditional Central Asian hats. I was struck by how the city feels almost like a village because of how low the buildings are. The streets (which, if I’m not mistaken, are all named after exactly the same khan) lined with stucco fences. Behind the fences are houses with gardens or several buildings for different things that make up a house.
The next day, we went with a bunch of volunteers to a ruined city – Sauran. Today it amounts to little more than a broken circle of mud wall with cow pies and an unspeakable number of shards of ancient pottery. And scores of turtles.