A number of Silk Road sites in China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyztan have been named UNESCO World Heritage properties this year. There are eight in Kazakhstan, and Akyrtas near Taraz is one of them. According to archaeologists, Akyrtas was a caravan resting station on the Northern Silk Road for hundreds of years. There are several groups of ruins that date back to the time of the Arab invasion or earlier. Most impressive is an enigmatic palace from red sandstone that was apparently never used.
The shared taxi drops us at a nondescript turn-off from the highway. “Akyrtas,” the driver says and points vaguely to the mountains on the right. There's a railway line between us and the mountains, and as we can't find any underpass we walk over the rails as everybody else seems to be doing anyway. On the other side of the tracks also no road. So we start walking through the steppe towards a bright speck at the foot of the mountains which we assume is a metal roof on the excavation site. The sun is burning (must have around 30 degrees) and around us nothing but the whining of a power line.
Nearly two hours later we arrive at a parking lot where an old Mercedes just stops and a Kazakh family climbs out (other tourists!).
Archaeologists have dug out half of the Akyrtas palace and restored some of it so that it is possible to see the walls and get an idea how big it was: a huge courtyard with enormous columns. “13 rooms in that corner, 15 in that one,” the UNESCO documentation describes, and some of them are clearly recognizable. They have very thick walls for a palace, we think. But then, nobody really knows what it is. It may have been a caravanserai in the first place, or a castle, or a representative palace for one of the Arab rulers who died before he could move his court here.
Next to it there is a modern building that looks like a museum with its curved roof. From outside we can make out rows of chairs and some photos showing the building progress of this “museum”, but no artefacts whatsoever. It was probably built to impress UNESCO dignitaries and to house some kind of preliminary exhibition, but is now inhabited by an elderly couple. The brand new toilets are also closed. We follow some car tracks onto a hill. No more signposts and information boards on this side of the premises. We end up at the corrugated iron roof that we had seen all along. The excavation below it seems to be a smallish old caravanserai with small but decorated rooms from unbaked bricks. Next to it is another structure which has been interpreted as a castle, with huge walls and some pottery fragments still in situ.
Should you visit Akyrtas?: If you have a great interest in the old Silk Road routes, definitely. Otherwise it is mostly the attraction of walking from the modern highway to the remains of an ancient caravan path following almost the same route, only that the caravans were slower and needed more resting points en route. Thus, there are several such trading posts dotted on both sides of the highway in regular intervals. Akyrtas is the best preserved, has the best infrastructure (yes!) and is relatively easy to reach even by public transport. And it is a nice hike through the steppe. Take water.