Akyrtas – A palace on the ancient Silk Road

20140908 Akyrtas Palast Eckturm P1110517

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, among them the magnificent Mausoleum of Ahmed Yassawi. The ruins of Akyrtas near Taraz make also up one of them. According to archaeologists, Akyrtas was a caravan resting station on the Northern Silk Road since the 8th or 9th century. There are several groups of ruins that date back to the time of the Arab invasion or earlier.

A long walk to Akyrtas

Travel Blogger Isa walking towards Akyrtas on the ancient Silk Road

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!).

A never-used palace on the ancient Silk Road, in Akyrtas

The red palace

Most impressive is an enigmatic palace from red sandstone that was apparently never used. 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 researchers have interpreted as a castle, with huge walls and some pottery fragments still in situ.

Akyrtas Caravanserai

Is it worth visiting the ruins of Akyrtas?

If you have a great interest in the old Silk Road routes, definitely. We have, for instance, travelled vaguely along the ancient Silk Road for months. We have seen its start in Xinjiang (China) and then visited the major silk road towns in China. Of course, most of the big cities in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan also date back to the Silk Road caravans. But we have also taken some effort to find the archaeological remains of less-know Silk Road stations such as Paikent and Varakhsha and other sites beloning to the UNESCO cluster of the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor.

And even if you are a less avid Silk Road traveller or pursuer of UNESCO World Heritage sites, the trip holds a certain attraction. Travelling in Kazakhstan can be an adventure without being overly demanding. You will be 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 of them. It has also 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.

We were not sponsored in any way for our trip to Akyrtas and paid all expenses ourselves.

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  1. Kazakhstan seems to be an extremely distant country to me. I don’t know much about it. That’s why I read your post with interest. I especially love those places that are inscribed on the UNESCO heritage list. Akyrtas on the ancient Silk Road seems very exciting.

    1. Dear Agnes, it is an adventure just to reach this places out in the desert by public transport. It always pays if you have read about it before, as quite often the sites are in a poor state. And there is usually not much information available at the site.

  2. Wow, your description of the heat sounds intense. It does seem to be pretty well preserved given how long ago the Arab invasion was. Definitely a must see for history buffs!

    1. Dear Alice, Akyrtas is indeed an interesting place to visit. However, given the sparse information on site. you should come prepared.

  3. I most definitely am interested in tracing the Silk route, especially since I have been to some of the stops in India. It is quite interesting to see how each place is different and yet similar. This one though in ruins, does reflect some of that. The riches that came with the silk route and later abandonment once the route was dropped.

    1. Dear Ami, if you are interested in the Silk Road, the ruins in Central Asia are fanatastic. As they are touristically not very developed, a visit really gives you some explorer feeling.

  4. I envy you for always visiting these off-the-beaten path destinations. Following the Silk Road throughout China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyztan seems like a great idea. My husband and I were planning to visit Kazakhstan before this sad situation in Ukraine. Now that I”ve read about Akyrtas, I’ll make sure to include it in our plans too.

  5. This must of been an amazing trip! I don’t remember ever reading about this place so it was especially interesting. I am very intrigued by the Silk Road and have watched several tv shows about it. I’m glad Akyrtas is protected by Unesco.

  6. After reading a few of your trips to old silk road routes, I wonder if they are far from developing because of their remote locations and the countries where they are located doesn’t really put attention to it. Well, I guess they did put attention because they were named UNESCO World Heritage properties. Also, I wonder if there were other lives/things beside the Akyrtas ruin during 8th or 9th century.

    1. Dear Umiko, around Akyrtas was desert during the times of the silk road. The idea was that you have small towns in between to spend the night and change the animals.

  7. I love speculating about attractions like the red sandstone structures at Akyrtas because I love a good mystery! Piecing clues together just adds to the adventure. And it’s interesting that you point out the walls are really quite thick for a palace. That’s a great observation and I wonder what the archeologists would say about that. Then, it’s made all the more mysterious with the abandoned modern building alongside. You’ve really got my curiosity up! (Looks like too hot a hike for me, though.)

  8. Happy to know that they have declared this as one of the UNESCO heritage sites. Though I am not really into this kind of stuff, we’d love to visit should we have a chance.

  9. I know very little of this part of the world and am always keen to learn more, even through reading. I would be interested in the architecture, and especially the UNESCO World Heritage sites. Plus the ancient silk road is fascinating to me as well.

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