A caravan-serai city since the 12th century, like most great cities of the time, Shymkent was sacked by Genghis Khan’s Mongols, and has changed hands a few times since. Not far from the Uzbekistan border, Shymkent is a pleasant place itself, with a sprawling bazaar spilling into the streets, as well as enough good food to keep you busy. There are some stunning hills nearby, which can be experienced with well run homestays, and the 3000 year old city of Sayram has some ancient mosques and tombs.
The city also has a heartbreaking museum outlining the Soviet atrocities inflicted on Kazakhstan’s people.