Beket-Ata was an important Sufi scholar who founded several underground mosques and a madrasa in the Mangistau region of Western Kazakhstan. His burial place, the underground Oglandy mosque, has become an important pilgrimage site for Kazakh muslims.
Road to Beket-Ata
There are many interesting places in the desert of Mangistau, all of them difficult to reach. If you want to get out there, but don’t have a 4WD or a camel caravan at your disposal, go to Beket-Ata. Even if the underground mosque is of little interest to you, hanging out with local believers between oil rigs and camel herds should give you a taste of life in Kazakhstan outside of the city.
It’s a long haul from Beket-Ata, and it’s usually done in 2 days, with an overnight stay in Beket-Ata. The tracks are rough, which is a good thing according to the pilgrims, who believe a more comfortable journey would be less gratifying. There are a number of tour companies who can make the journey more comfortable for a higher price. If you want to do it yourself, try the following:
If coming from Atyrau, you can start your journey in Shetpe, where there are many taxi drivers waiting at the bazaar. A seat in a taxi from Shetpe to Beket-Ata is 3000 tenge one way, with a stop in Shopan Ata. Shetpe – Shopan Ata takes 3 hours. After a 1 hour break, it’s 1 more hour to Beket Ata. Most people start from Aqtau though, and go through the town of Zhanaozen.
Take a bus from Aqtau to Zhanaozen (2 hours). The bus station in Aqtau is east from the centre, in microdistrict 28. About 30km out of Aqtau, the road descends into the Karagiye depression, at 132m below sea level the lowest point in the former USSR. Needless to say, it’s scorching hot, and the lack of anything (even color!) is impressive. After another 30km, the road is high enough again to have a good overview of the Karagiye depression.
Zhanaozen looks like any other desolate desert town on first sight, but there is more to this place than meets the eye. Zhanaozen is known today for the police killings of striking oil workers on Kazakhstan’s Independence Day in 2011.
Get a jeep or minibus from the Zhanaozen bazaar (not the bus station!). Cost is around 3000 tenge one way. Shopan-Ata was a Sufi follower of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, whose mosque you can admire in Turkestan. He went into the desert first and apparently served as an inspiration to Beket-Ata. The complex is quite big, with a lot of caves for Shopan-Ata and his students to pray in. Most interesting is the mixing of animist pre-Islamic beliefs (animal carvings, penis-shaped stones) and Islam (bearded guy reading from the Koran) that is typical for Islam in Kazakhstan.
After another 1,5 hour through the desert you arrive at Beket-Ata. Like Shopan-Ata, it’s well organised; there’s even mobile reception. You can walk around and be informed about the life of Beket-Ata, and maybe even spot an arkhar if you’re lucky. People will be busy praying, or even slaughtering a sheep. There is also a holy spring so bring an empty bottle.
You can sleep at Beket Ata, but bring a blanket or sleeping bag with you as it will get cold. You will probably be invited to share a meal with your fellow travelers, but for safety, bring all the food you need with you. You can buy some tea and shubat (fermented camel milk).