The aerial view of Beket Ata underground mosque and madrassa on Ustyurt plateau, Aktau region, Western Kazakhstan.

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Some 285km east of Aktau, Beket-Ata is an important and extremely popular place of pilgrimage for those wishing to visit the underground mosque and final resting place of Sufi mystic and teacher, Beket-Ata (1750–1813). The mosque is near the bottom of a picturesque desert canyon and the journey to Beket-Ata involves traversing some spectacular steppe and desert scenery.

You can get here via an expensive guided tour from Aktau, by hiring a 4WD and driver, or taking crowded pilgrim transport.

Along the walkway down into the canyon, there are numerous shady spots to rest and a sacred spring from which you may drink.

Mangistau-born Beket-Ata studied in Khiva (Uzbekistan) and later founded four mosques and a Sufi school in the Mangistau region. Note that a day trip to Beket-Ata is very doable with your own 4WD and driver, but it's a long day. Descent into the canyon to visit the mosque happens either in the morning (for pilgrims who've stayed overnight) or in the afternoon, after around 2pm. From Beket-Ata, it's around five hours' drive to Aktau.

Whether you're coming with your own wheels or sharing a cramped minibus with pilgrims, most stop at the Shopan-Ata underground mosque and 10th century necropolis en route. Even if you're not a pilgrim, you're expected to dress respectfully (headscarf for women) and sit quietly if the others engage in prayer. It's also customary to bring food to share with other pilgrims. In Beket-Ata, a lamb is often sacrificed in the evenings to feed the pilgrim crowd.

Tour companies from Aktau charge around 100,000T for up to four people. Private drivers advertise on the internet and will usually take up to four people for 40,000T; Ramil is a good contact if you're looking for a driver. A cheap alternative is taking public transport to the oil town of Zhanaozen, 150km east of Aktau by paved road, overnighting there, and then getting a seat in a Soviet-style minibus for 5000T, which would require you to overnight in free (and extremely basic) pilgrim accommodation in Beket-Ata.