It was a pivotal moment for Turkestan when on December 1, the first direct flight from Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan’s capital flew into its newly opened airport.

Turkestan, once part of the Silk Road, is Eurasia’s most historical places with an archaeological record dating back to the 4th century. According to some historical records, Turkic peoples, an ethnic group with a global population of approximately 160 million, originated from Turkestan.

Turkestan (c) Harlandski

The city serves as a spiritual hub, attracting pilgrims from across the region heading to the mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yassawi, the Sufi Sheikh of Turkestan, who lived here during the 11th century. He is credited with transforming the city into a centre of spirituality and Islamic philosophy. The 15th-century UNESCO listed mausoleum is considered a masterpiece of medieval architecture.  

Yet despite these attributes, the only visitors have been pilgrims and visitors from neighbouring Uzbekistan. Indeed, this city of 176,000 residents has welcomed few foreign visitors over the years.

But in 2018 this began to change. Turkestan became the regional centre of the newly renamed Turkestan Region in Kazakhstan. More than $1 billion has been invested to develop the city’s infrastructure and transform it into the spiritual and cultural centre of Kazakhstan, and subsequently into a thriving tourist destination.  

The landscape is replete with construction sites and the jungle of cranes in all directions. New shiny buildings have been erected like the Rixos hotel, the International University of Tourism, a Visitor Centre and numerous museums.  

The historical mausoleum stood in high contrast to the new developments. The English-speaking guide explains that the construction of the mausoleum was ordered by Timur (Tamerlane), the ruler of Central Asia.

However, following his death, the construction halted in 1405, and the mausoleum was never completed. Nevertheless, the building offers a significant insight into the history of Central Asia. According to UNESCO, it contributed to the development of Islamic religious architecture and is closely associated with the introduction and spread of Sufi Islam in the region, which is why it is greatly revered by the thousands of pilgrims who visit it every year.  

The province in Turkestan has ancient settlements such as Otyrar and Sauran, national parks, as well as other mausoleums and historical sites.

The local authorities plan to balance the new infrastructural development, while at the same time ensuring that the city retains its historical roots and essence.

A spokesman said:

Indeed this is an important challenge for us. Despite the large-scale development of Turkestan, we are preserving the 1,500 years of rich history and all the cultural and sacred sites that date back to the 4th century.

We want to encourage tourists to visit local cafes and shops. That way, visitors will immerse themselves in the culture and traditions of Kazakhstan, while simultaneously contributing to the economic development of the region and the well-being of local residents.

So what are the chances of Turkestan becoming the next top tourist destination in the region?

There is certainly some work left to do. English is not yet widely spoken though this is likely to change.

There are few hotel and restaurant options on Booking.com and TripAdvisor, and not many international tour companies operating yet.

But perhaps the biggest challenge is the lack of information about Turkestan and what it can offer. It is difficult to find details online, especially in English. 

Nevertheless, the foundation and the potential for success is there. Turkestan is a genuinely fascinating destination for those interested in the history and culture of the Central Asian world and the Silk Road. In addition, the opportunity to experience authentic Kazakh culture and traditions – both past and present – is not offered anywhere else. There is an opportunity for Turkestan to own this niche by offering homestays with local families, classes in cooking local cuisine, horse riding in the countryside and staying in yurts. At the same time, Rixos and Hilton hotels offer comfort and luxury for those who enjoy full amenities.  

Turkestan can position itself as a worthy destination, alongside nearby Silk Road tourist locations in Uzbekistan, such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan is only 300km away (a 4-hour drive), while Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek is 600 km away.

As both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan offer visa-free travel to most countries in Europe (once the pandemic is over), travelling between the key tourist destinations in the two neighbouring countries is relatively straightforward.

The Turkestan airport also plans to serve international flights from Istanbul, Moscow, Baku, Mecca, Samarkand, and other global destinations. While European countries are not on the list yet, getting to Kazakhstan’s capital is easy thanks to direct flights from London, Frankfurt, Warsaw and Budapest.  

Turkestan’s other advantage is its relatively cheap cost. The average rate of a hotel room is £25 ($33) per night, while dinner comes to less than £10 ($13).  

The key moment for this historical place will be in the summer of 2021 when international borders are likely to reopen. By that point, the construction will be finished, and the city will once again welcome visitors, just like it did during the Silk Road era.