As it is everywhere else in the world, religion is a hot topic these days in Kazakhstan. From the president to my psychic aunt-in-law, everyone is debating about what the real religion of the Kazakh nation is or should be.
Islam was imported from Arabia around 1000 years ago. The doctrine got infused with the eco-spirituality, shamanism and ancestor worshipping that Kazakhs practiced before that time. Nowadays, the 2 religions are harmoniously combined and their various intermediate forms are growing in importance and variety.
Besides Islam and pagan religions, different variations on Christianity and Buddhism also thrive in Kazakhstan.
All things considered, the religious beliefs of Kazakhstanis can best be described as a postmodern jumble, as the following 7 places attest.
A must-visit if you are into weirdness, crackpot ladies or new-age philosophy, Ungirtas is the self-proclaimed bellybutton of the world. Discovered 15 years ago by a dervish from (not surprisingly) Turkestan, the hill just beyond the village of Ungirtas is all about cosmic rays, healing energy gates and reincarnation secrets guarded by dragons.
It’s the perfect example of our melting pot. Ungirtas is a typical site of traditional Tengrist mountain worship (the country’s highest peak is called Tengri Khan) updated for the new-age crowd. To top it off, spiritual gatekeeper Bifatima is raising money to construct a mosque here.
In any case, it’s an interesting experience to try to feel the energy of the stones, talk to the other believers, and get the full spiritual treatment from Bifatima. Vice Magazine has cool pictures.
Pro tip: bring some spare clothes.
2. Tamgaly Tas
There is a wealth of petroglyphs in different regions of Kazakhstan, but the biggest concentration is in a place called Tamgaly, where you can find more than 4000 of them. The sun-head stick figures are the earliest engravings, around 1000 BC, from the Saka people who worshipped Mithras, the sun-god.
Mithras got replaced by Tengri, the sky-god, and you can find evidence here of this belief system: real and mythical animals are depicted, as well as the creation of the universe by Tengri, and sacred shamanistic ceremonies like sex with animals (usually a bull) to establish harmony between humans and animals.
Every new visitor added his own graffiti, from war-like Turks etching chariots and banners, to modern kids stating they were here, and are in love with Aizhan.
Do not confuse Tamgaly with Tamgaly Tas, where ancient petroglyphs are superceded by majestic Buddha images.
3. Turkestan and surroundings
Turkestan is the site of Kazakhstan’s most famous religious monument, the mausoleum of Sufi holy man Khoja Ahmed Yasawi. However, devout muslims on a pilgrimage to the site like to take in a few other spiritual sites that would not meet with approval from orthodox muslims in other countries.
Near the village of Kentau, hills rise unexpectedly from the steppe. Here rests Zhilagan-Ata [ru], the Crying Grandfather, a source that only flows for the pure of heart. If he judges you impure, you can try the well of Ukasha-Ata, another fickle spring. How much water it gives you will determine your fate. You can ask around for other mountains of spiritual interest: Aidarly, Ajdahar-Ata and Ajman-Shoplan.
Similarly, those people visiting the islamic “mausoleum of love” Aisha Bibi might take in Aulie Bastau, site of an ancient settlement and a sacred spring not far from Taraz.
Kazykurt mountain, south of Shymkent near the Sayram-Ugam national park, is the place where Noah’s Ark stranded. It’s multireligious, as Christians, Muslims, Tengrists and New Age believers all come here to get in touch with the spiritual.
4. Sacred tree in Zharkent
In Tengrism, besides mountains, trees are sacred, connecting the underworld with the sky gods, and protecting people from evil (our saying “to touch wood” has Tengrist origins). The country is full of sacred trees, easily recognizable by strips of fabric attached to them. Nowadays, prayers to Allah are written on the strips of cloth, asking for health, children or money.
A really old and beautiful tree, believed to have powerful medicinal properties, stands in the village of Zharkent. If you are headed that way to visit the Chinese mosque of Pik Han, definitely have a look.
5. Palace of Peace and Harmony
Designed by Norman Foster, the pyramidal shape has a long history of spiritual powers attached to it, and thus became the perfect shape for a triennial oecumenical meeting of the world’s religious leaders. Inside there really isn’t that much to see except an interesting winter garden and a swell meeting room, but the view towards the Presidential Palace is nice.
In the event hall on the opposite side of the street, the maquette of future Astana is a must though!
6. Hare Krishna temple
An hour drive from Almaty lies the headquarters of the Hare Krishna movement in Kazakhstan, which is surprisingly large. It’s a beautiful place with a peaceful lake; you are welcome to help them in the garden and join them in meditation. They have a vegetarian restaurant in the city as well called Govindas.
The community struggled for some years but has finally been recognised by the government and can continue to practice. The big temple they had built is no more though.
Besides Kazakhstanis, the center is a meeting place for the Indian Krishna community in Almaty. Come on one of their holidays for singing, dancing and some of the best Indian food in Kazakhstan.
Smack-bang in the middle of Kazakhstan, Ulytau serves as the mythical nexus of the country, where the clans of Kazakhstan buried their differences and united to kick out the Dzhungar tribes invading from the east.
While perhaps partly explaining the current sinophobia in Kazakhstan, Ulytau is significant most of all for its Stone Age remnants like the mysterious-looking balbals, and mausoleums of legendary khans.
Of course, such an important place in Kazakhstan has a special vibe, a certain je-ne-sais-quoi, and those who manage to make it all the way here report good energy, cosmic vibrations, and some of the best sheep meat they had in years.