Feature: Worth a Trip: The Pilgrimage to Beket-Ata
Beket-Ata, 285km east of Aktau, is an underground mosque to which the clairvoyant and teacher Beket-Ata (1750–1813) retreated in the later part of his life, ultimately dying and being buried here. A Mangistau native, Beket-Ata studied in Khiva (Uzbekistan) and on his return he is believed to have set up four mosques, including this one where he founded a Sufi school. Every day dozens of pilgrims – and hundreds on holidays – make the bumpy journey across the deserts to pray and receive Beket-Ata’s inspiration. The underground mosque (three caves) is set in a rocky outcrop near the bottom of a desert canyon, with shaded resting places along the picturesque walkway to facilitate the descent and ascent.
Aktau tour companies run two-day 4WD trips to Beket-Ata costing around 80,000T to 100,000T for up to four people. Private drivers will do it for much less; ask at your hotel and check the Beket-Ata ads in Tumba newspaper or online, where you'll find Toyota LandCruisers that may cost 30,000T to 40,000T round trip and rickety Soviet minibuses charging as little as 5500T per person. One reliable option is Ramil, who can organise a (non-English-speaking) driver to take you on a long day trip in a comfortable jeep for around 40,000T. Alternatively, take an early public minibus or shared taxi from Aktau bus station to the dusty oil town of Zhanaozen, 150km east by paved road. From Zhanaozen bazaar, 4WDs (4500/30,000T per person/vehicle round trip) and more uncomfortable minibuses (5000T per person) leave in the morning for Beket-Ata. You’ll spend most of the five- or six-hour, 135km trip lurching and bumping along steppe and desert tracks. En route, vehicles stop at Shopan-Ata, an underground mosque and large necropolis dating back to at least the 10th century, where Shopan-Ata, a disciple of Kozha Akhmed Yasaui, dwelt. Most groups sleep (free) in the pilgrim hostel-cum-mosque-cum-dining hall at Beket-Ata, before leaving early next morning. Expect to share the room with 200 pilgrims or so; the Ritz this ain't. Zhanaozen has passable hotels, including centrally located cheapie Hotel Sherkala and more upmarket Hotel Aksaray, with rather intense wallpaper but also cable TV and bathrobes. Best in town is Hotel Temirkazyk, with good, big, comfy rooms and a decent cafe/restaurant. Dining-wise, Zhanaozen has some excellent shashlyk joints and several low-key restaurants serving Kazakh specials.
On arrival at Shopan-Ata and Beket-Ata all visitors are expected to purify themselves by using the squat toilets. If you’re travelling with pilgrims, be ready to join in prayers, ritual walks around sacred trees and communal meals of the Kazakh national dish beshbarmak and slaughtered lamb in the evenings.
Tashkent-based Advantour and Almaty-based Stantours and Silk Road Adventures are experienced operators offering trips. Day trips from Aktau in a 4WD for up to four passengers generally cost 60,000T to 80,000T; itineraries of several days, camping most nights, are also available. If you have the relevant language skills, going with a local driver from Aktau, organised by Ramil, can be a really interesting experience.
There are very basic digs for pilgrims at Beket-Ata, a couple of basic rooms let by the caretaker's wife at Sultan Epe and several will-do-for-a-night hotels in Zhanaozen, ranging from grotty cheapies to decent midrange.
Take food with you to all Mangistau attractions; most are in the middle of nowhere. It's polite to bring food to share with the rest of the pilgrims to Beket-Ata and Shopan-Ata. Zhanaozen has several low-key restaurants serving Kazakh specials, and one outstanding shashlyk joint.