The Kazakh foreign ministry has got it all wrong. instead of threatening to sue comedian Sacha Baron Cohen for his fictitious portrayals of Kazakh culture, officials should be presenting him with some minor decoration for services to tourism. In the aftermath of Cohen's big-screen spoof, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, interest in the Central Asian country has blossomed. At the end of last year, Hotels.com, for one, reported a 300% increase in enquiries.
What will visitors find when they get to Borat's supposed homeland? Hardly anything from the movie, but lots of steppe, mountains and desert, as well as a multiethnic population with a rich nomadic culture and historical treasures that date back millenniums. Foremost among these is Kazakhstan's most revered monument, the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi. It should certainly top your must-see list.
Located in the southern town of Turkestan, the mausoleum was listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 2003, and is an important pilgrimage destination in the Islamic world. The building was constructed on the orders of Mongol Emperor Tamerlane between 1389 and 1405, in honor of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, the 12th century Muslim prophet, poet and mystic, and the founder of the Tariqah order of Sufism. Tamerlane apparently had a personal hand in the designs for this masterpiece of Islamic architecture, which was used as a template by the Persian builders of similar structures in Samarkand and Bukhara.
It's clear why they chose to emulate it. The mausoleum is a thing of beauty, and presents hugely differing aspects when observed from different angles: the enormous brickwork portal (or peshtak) that looks to the southeast is impressive and particularly enjoyable in the golden light of sunrise; the shining majolica domes and the lavish, intricate form of the mosaic borders on the side walls are exquisite, with the northwest faade radiating gorgeous colors as the sun dips toward the horizon. Like other great Islamic constructions, such as the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum intrigues from a distance, bewitches and beckons from the outer walls, and from up close dazzles the eye with the beauty and scale of its detail.
Getting there isn't easy, however. The usual way is to fly into Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, from Beijing or Bangkok on Air Astana, www.airastana.com, and then take the train or a domestic flight to Shymkent, a few hours' drive southeast of Turkestan. Or, you can visit Turkestan on a day or weekend excursion from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. Turan-Asia Ltd. (www.turanasia.kz), Central Asia Tourism (www.centralasiatourism.com) and Komek (www.komek.nets.kz) can make all arrangements for you, including visas. Don't be afraid to mention Borat, by the way. These days, every customer does.
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