Whether you’re just passing through, to get to Turkestan or Tashkent, the city of Shymkent (Шымкент or Čimkent) can be a laid-back experience. It is not as big as Almaty, it’s not as Westernized, but you can experience the city’s growth first-hand here. The population and city borders are growing rapidly and it is expected its economy will continue growing with 5.5 percent on a yearly base. The central government is investing huge budgets in Shymkent to further develop the city.
What are the main attractions in Shymkent? Well, the city is the gate to the Sairam-Ugam national park and the Aksu-Zhabagly national park in the South-East. However, both parks are relatively expensive to visit. In the North-West you can find Turkestan, which you can visit by train, minivan or tour. In this blog post, however, I would like to highlight the known and unknown attractions within the city borders.
The memorial triangle
The city of Shymkent has quite a few parks that are worth visiting. When you connect three of these parks, you get an equilateral triangle.
I like to have a base for city exploration. I can really recommend Chaplin’s Coffee House in the center of the triangle. It has great coffee, a big-ass AC, friendly (somewhat English-speaking) service and is close to the Shymkent Plaza shopping mall, if you’re in need of a new shirt. It is also close to a laundry service, Khimchistka Ak-ku, where a friendly lady is very eager to help tourists. You can’t miss the white/blue Swan at the entrance.
In the north you find Abay Park, which houses a huge war memorial monument that lists names of thousands of heroes that died during the second World War. It also houses the museum of political oppression. As a foreigner you will not understand much of the exhibition, but for a small fee you will receive a booklet that contains a lot of information on Soviet rule over Kazakhstan.
The next park is Independence Park, which hosts is an impressive tribute to the independence of Kazakhstan. It’s next to the central mosque, and if you’re lucky, there will be a couple of limousines in between the mosque and the memorial. In the park you’ll find huge obelisks, statues and a 50 meter flag pole.
Finally, Metallurgists’ Park. This small park is the home of the Mirasa University building. The park is quiet during summer and could be a good pick nick spot — although you are not allowed to go on the grass. More importantly, you can find an impressive Lenin statue here.
For lunch, I will not recommend something particularly. While walking from park to park, you will run into hundreds of small food places. For those who really can’t choose: there is a nice spot on the corner of Respublika Avenue and Asqarov Street. The staff is friendly, they have free beer and they offer great Shaslik. It’s not marked on Google Maps and besides the yellow (beer branded) sun tent, there’s no way to find it.
For dinner, there’s a lot to choose from. If you want to experience some real Central Asian kitsch, you can go to one of the popular restaurants inside of the Etnic Park Ken Baba. Otherwise, there is Kok Saray (renovation in August ’19), Nulifar (Shaslik), Han Cook (Korean) or one of the many local restaurants that are barely listed on TripAdvisor. My recommendation is to avoid all Western inspired restaurants. All of them have been really bad experiences for us. Avoid Shades and Steakfields at all cost.
Another great experience is strolling around Samal market and Ayna market. In Samal market, you can find anything from clothing to chandeliers. Ayna market is mostly known for its food, from meat to vegetables and spices.
I do not recommend walking this. Both of the markets are in the outskirts of the inner city. You will need a taxi, and a Yandex taxi is the safest and cheapest way to get there. For this you need an internet connection, which is most convenient by owning a Kazakh SIM card.
Kazakh SIM cards
Although SIM cards should be registered to a name and passport as of 2019, it seems this new law is largely ignored. In the airport of Almaty, on the bottom floor you can find a small stand which will sell you a SIM and help you install and activate it. If you haven’t bought one at the airport, you can find a SIM in one of many stores throughout Kazakhstan. Just look out for the pile of Beeline boxes. Should you get a Kazakh SIM? In my opinion: definitely yes. It will make your life a lot easier and save you a lot of money on taxis.
In Ayna market, you will find all local Kazakh and Uzbek specialties. The first thing you will see when going through the entrance are the butcheries. When you pass this, on the left side you will find a market stall, owned by an incredibly friendly lady that sells spices and seeds. Upstairs you can find 5 small restaurants to get a light lunch. There’s no English here, so pointing at the pictures or simply saying shaslik, lachman, manty or beshbarmak will definitely get you somewhere.
To get to Samal market you should direct a taxi to avtovokzal samal, which is the huge bus station, next to the market. If you need a souvenir, you’ll find high end shot glasses here (over 10.000 tenge for one glass). It is also the perfect place to find a new baseball cap, a t-shirt, a pair of shoes or a battery pack. If you’re in for a snack, there’s carts selling all kinds of local dishes.
To conclude, Shymkent is a city that hosts a mix of traditional and modern activities. Relax, do one of the two tours I listed above and remember to stay hydrated. It can get extremely warm in Shymkent. If you have a couple more hours to kills: try the Shymkent plaza shopping mall, go to an attraction in the Ken Baba park, go to a football match at FC Ordabasy (they play in the UEFA league) or get (responsibly) drunk at one of the many bars in the city.