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 here, but you 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 takes a while to get here from Aktau, 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.
Our Mangistau tour adds a few more sights into the itinerary, like the Devil’s Balls and Bozzhira.
If you don’t have the time or budget for that, here is how to do it yourself.
If you are 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 Aktau though, and go through the town of Zhanaozen.
If you are starting in Aktau, take an early bus to Zhanaozen (2 hours). The bus station in Aktau is east from the centre, in microdistrict 28. About 30 km out of Aktau, 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 in summer, and the lack of anything (even color!) is impressive. After another 30 km, 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. It saw a population boom in the early 2000’s from ethnic Kazakhs who used to live across the border in Turkmenistan.
Stop-over at Shopan-Ata
Get a jeep or minibus from the Zhanaozen bazaar. Cost is around 3000 tenge one-way. Shopan-Ata was a Sufi follower of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, whose mosque you can admire in Turkestan. Shopan-Ata was the first desert mystic in the region, who served as an inspiration to Beket-Ata.
The complex is surprisingly large, 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 that is typical for 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 learn more 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. The guesthouse is comfortable and features separate sleeping quarters for men and women. You sleep on the floor, but basic bedding is provided. The guesthouse is airconditioned during the hot summers, but during the rest of the year, it could get pretty cold, so bring a sleeping bag if you have one. There is no charge, but you are expected to leave a donation.
You will probably be invited to share a meal with your fellow travelers, but bring along something to share, as well as at least most of the food you will need, just in case. You can buy some tea and shubat (fermented camel milk) on the spot.