The dusty, southern industrial city of Shymkent, 385 mi/620 km southwest of Almaty, is notable chiefly as the home of Astrakhan coats—the Karakul Sheep Breeding Museum has an exhibit demonstrating how the sheepskins are processed to give pelts that tight, curly, twisted look. If you want to spend some time here, the Museum of History and Anthropology and the Museum of Archeology are important cultural landmarks to visit.

But even if you're not interested in the coats or history, you'll want to use Shymkent as the jumping-off point to visit the beautiful Khoja Akhmed Yasavi Mausoleum in the town of Turkestan, 100 mi/160 km northwest. This huge, domed structure, begun by the great Turkic conqueror Timur Leng (Timur the Lame, better known as Tamerlane) in the 1390s, is a must-see—it's one of the most stunning architectural creations in central Asia. It is an important place of pilgrimage for Central Asian Muslims.

A particular source of local pride is a two-ton sacred vessel, made of seven metals and used for storing holy water. It was returned to the mausoleum in 1989 after being on display at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, for 50 years.

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