From Kyrgyzstan, we go back to Kazakhstan in late November. A grey curtain, announcing snowfall covers the sky over Almaty. The temperature drops below zero. The homebulance strongly protests against the cold and barely starts. Instead of running to warmth, however, we head further south – towards the Kazakh part of the Silk Road.
The first town where we look for ghosts of the past is Sayram. The settlement, which is more than three thousand years old, greets us with roads full of holes and decaying buildings. There is not much left of its former splendour. In the 9th century, it was an important Silk Road trade centre. It was here that buyers from China sold paper, silk and porcelain – materials very exotic in this part of the world. In return, they received raw fabrics like felt that Sayram was famous for at the time.
We want to check whether the tradition of making yurt covering material has survived to the present day and head to the bazaar. Its large square is much more modern than we had imagined. Instead of staggered tables filled with goods, we face tidy Plexiglas rooms. The roof extends over the entire area and protects against rain. We wander from a stall to a stall, but there is nowhere a trace of felt.
When we finally decide to leave the bazaar, our eyes fall on a tiny shop pressed into its furthest corner. The shop sing is almost entirely lost under the piles of felt cut into the shape of high boots.
“Hello there! Do you sell felt?”, we ask a man bent over a large sewing machine in the corner of the stall.
“Felt? No, I don’t have. I sell boots. From the real sheepskin!”
The man points towards the leather ready to be cut into the desired shape, occupying the whole room. Here and there, ready-made boots pile up. Soft and smooth, with a fluff of sheep wool leaning out of the seams.
“I do use felt sometimes for inserts to those cheaper boots for five thousand Tenge. The more expensive ones – for ten thousand – are sheepskin only!”
“They are gorgeous! Would you have my size?” I ask awed.
“Oh, no, no! I only make customised, pre-ordered boots.” the seller laughs as if I said the best joke he ever heard.
Neither felt nor boots.
We drown our sorrows in milk tea in a nearby eatery. Stuck to the oilcloth lining the table, we wait for a jug of chai. A busy waitress/cashier in a flowery headscarf and a matching apron swirls around the customers.
“Can we get samosa as well?” we ask when she approaches our table
“There is no food here. Only tea. But you can buy something at the stand outside”, she motions toward the doors never stopping to wipe tables.
The outside stall is nothing more than a table clinging to the mud oven. An unbelievable number of goodies covers its small surface. Samosa – deep-fried bun stuffed with mutton, onion and aromatic broth. Belyash – a thin pancake folded in half, stuffed with mutton. Gumma – a cinnamon roll filled with minced liver and rice. An excellent energy boost before our next stop – Shymkent.
Shymkent is the third-largest city of Kazakhstan with a population reaching one million. Ironically the settlement used to be a vestibule of Sayram. It was its caravanserai – a large, fortified guest house, where merchants and their servants stayed for rest. Shymkent was also known all around the Silk Road for its excellent quality kumis – fermented mare’s milk.
Walking through the bazaar where we track kumis is like fighting for survival. A large square is overflowing with a rapid stream of people. All we can do is go with its flow. Going against it means losing life or limbs – at best. Human waves sway us once to the right, once to the left. They shove us past the stands with plastic buckets, brushes and baskets. Bales of rugs, arranged in artistic pyramids, flash before our eyes. At stands with spices, vegetables and fruits, we are able to stop long enough for the stall owner to shove into our hands freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. The crowd throws us between booths with haberdashery, clothes, shoes and school supplies. Finally, there it is. The dairy wing of the bazaar stretches in front of us in four long alleys. Risking our lives, we break free from the stream of people and run towards enamelled buckets full of white liquid.
“Kumis, do you have it?” we ask a plump lady seller.
“Oh, but of course! I have kumis, sheep’s and goat’s milk, cottage cheese and ayran. Everything is delicious!” the ruddy street vendor in a thick jacket under a snow-white apron prises her stock.
We ask only for the kumis. The saleswoman pours white liquid into a plastic bottle and adds some cottage cheese as a bonus, especially for foreign visitors. Meanwhile, once more, we join the crowd, which takes us – oh, sweet joy! – straight to the alley with diners.
Barely our feet touch the pavement of the lane when the loud scream sounds:
“Tourists! Tourists are here!”
Like by a spell we are immediately surrounded by nearby vendors, who point at us skewers full of meat and vegetables. They shove their best dishes into our faces, grab us by the elbows and tow each toward their restaurants. Somehow, we manage to escape and reach the end of the alley, where a delicious aroma of roasted meat fills the air. We shyly glance at the muddy hearth, where the cook regularly turns juicy shasliks. Nobody is shouting at us, and no one forces us inside the diner which we finally enter on our own. Immediately in front of us appears a basket full of bread, a pot of milk tea and a plate with a pile of fresh onions. An older lady takes our orders, never stopping to talk business over the mobile phone — a true businesswoman.
We enjoy peace of the place and hot chai. Several minutes later, a mutton shashlik and bacon stuffed with minced meat land in front of us. Every bite is ecstasy. Smoky, juicy meat melts in the mouth. Soon the grilled turkey liver follows. It tastes like silk. We want to stay in this place forever.
But the Silk Road calls and just before sunset, we stand at the gates of Sawran – the former fortified capital of the White Horde. Nowadays only ruins remain from what used to be a headquarter of mighty clan ruled by the grandson of Genghis Khan. Even though in decline, it still looks majestic and magical in the bloody rays of the sun disappearing behind the horizon. The jagged teeth of the ramparts loom against the darkening sky like a set taken straight out of the Lord of the Rings movie. Between the rusty-red walls, we can still recognise a market square and the stone frames of houses. Shells of clay vessels lay scattered around their earthy floors. The spirit of nostalgia looms over the place. The same as in Otrar, which we visit the next day.