Friday, 11 August 2017

DESERT NECROPOLISES AND CAVE MOSQUES - Mangistau, Kazakhstan

As our taxi left Khiva to take us to the train station, Uzbek pop played on the radio, crops were neat along side the road and the smell of dill was in the air (always seems to smell of dill or basil in Uzbekistan!). The station at Urgench was a huge and spotlessly clean affair, strict on security, well organized and sign posted in English. This was the same as all the stations we had seen in Uzbekistan.

After the first suffocating long distance train journey of this trip, we leant our lesson and booked two upper bunks in platzcart on this train to Kazakhstan. This way we were in charge of the only window that opened, and therefore the air flow. This turned out to be a clever move, as the afternoon was scorchingly hot, and we lay with our heads practically out the small window with our eyeballs being seared by the hot, dry wind. We were fascinated by the sellers who boarded at various stations out in the middle of desert, mostly selling copious amounts of both watermelons (which were stored in literally every available space onboard) and large dried, smoked fish. The scenery was miles of empty desert peppered with green oasis villages growing crops and a surprising number of lakes. Our fellow passengers were lovely, although the blond, Slavic-looking woman was a bit odd, clutching her Bible the entire journey, and being treated like royalty by the staff (including being brought tea and food). Mostly the train was similar to the other long distance train we had taken from Samarkhand to Urgench, although this one came complete with two three hour stops at both the Uzbek and Kazakh border posts. The immigration for the Kazakh side is in Beyneu, miles from the actual border, due to the huge empty expanse of desert.


Kazakhstan!!

Central Asia region

The yellow dotty line is our route through Kazakhstan

Sal's view of fish seller from top bunk, train to Beyneu


We were finally allowed off the stifling carriage and gasped at the early morning fresh air in Beyneu. We were very happy to feel there had been a cool change in the weather, clouds covered the sky and it was spitting rain.
Sal was ready to go with “Do you speak English?” in Russian, as well as the other phrases needed to get a room in Beyneu, but we were taken aback when the young guy on reception at our chosen hotel replied back “Are you trying to speak to me in Kazakh?” in English !! Must need some work on the old Russian pronunciation!!

Most people we had met with some experience of Beyneu had said it was a Godforsaken place with no redeeming features, but we were hoping we would see a glimpse of something others had missed. That didn't happen. It was a depressing, scruffy, empty place with rude, unfriendly people and nothing going for it. Some of the housing was downright weird in construction, and so decrepit there were great holes in the roofs of the buildings. No idea what they do in winter. The small market wasn't too bad, but we were shocked at the high prices of basic food items after coming from Uzbekistan. The best feature of the town was the aforementioned smart and eager guy on reception at the hotel we stayed at.....And one women who was friendly to us in the line for the kassa (train ticket office), although it turned out she wasn't from Beyneu. The worst feature was the revolting laghman (noodle soups) we forced down at the local cafe. We didn't know what was worse- the gluggy, oil filled bowls, or the sour face and miserable attitude of the woman working there. Being pushed and shoved around in the line for train tickets whilst impatient locals nastily argued with each other wasn't a highlight either. Overall, you could say Beyneu was not one of our favourite places and a return visit is unlikely.


Resident camel roaming the streets, Beyneu, Kazakhstan

Our street and hotel, Beyneu, Kazakhstan

Not quite the same thing, Beyneu, Kazakhstan


We noticed a slight change in the appearance of people, especially with dress. Ladies generally wore more long, flowery, peasant-type dresses, often with golden dangly earings, while men favoured white felt hats shaped like baseball caps.

Anyway, after two nights we escaped to Aktau- on our first “common” train of the trip.....although we didn't realize that when we bought the ticket. You'd think the US$3 price for a nine hour journey would have been a clue! We bought a normal ticket with a seat number at the kassa, turned up with said ticket, waited for the hoards of people to board the train (thinking “What's the hurry- everyone has a seat!”), only to realize upon boarding, that no one had a seat allocated and it was a free for all. Of course, being the last passengers on, we had to perch on the end of a bench already taken by a family. None of that Uzbek chivalry here! Unfortunately, it was a nine hour overnight train, and when everyone else lay down to sleep, we sat there tired, grumpy and especially hot, as the none of the windows opened. It was quite a lovely sight out the window, as the full moon rose with camels wandering, and at one point when Sal asked Rich what he was thinking he said, “I was wondering what would happen if a meteorite crashed into the moon and pushed it closer to Earth”!!!!! What a dag!! He was lucky enough to get a bed in the guard's cabin after a short time, whilst Sal continued to enjoy the cacophony of smells (mostly fermented cheese balls and smelly feet) and the orchestra of super loud snoring, as well as an old ladie's head on her lap for most of the night- two hours before our destination some passengers got off and she could finally lay down.


Beyneu station, Kazakhstan

The horrid common train from Beyneu to Aktau, Kazakhstan


You could say Sal was in a bit of a mood upon arriving, and the fact that the train station for Aktau is some way from the city, and the taxi mafia were making fun of us and trying to charge ridiculous prices did not help. Rich suggested getting on a public bus, which we did, which miraculously took us close to our destination, which was in a newly constructed, dusty suburb on the outskirts of Aktau. Lastly we were picked up and taken to our hostel by a helpful local in his fancy car, who was worried about us standing by the road looking lost! Wish that happened more often!

Located on the Caspian Sea in the Mangistau region in far western Kazakhstan, Aktau, is a strange place. The wealth that suddenly arose, first from uranium mining, and then from the vast amounts of oil and gas around the area is obvious, with massive, well maintained streets, shiny malls and big houses and apartment blocks all standing in the desert dust. It is part of the big, bright economy of Kazakhstan, which has one third of the world's oil reserves. Down town was a bit more daggy and lifeless, with no lively markets, or sights, apart from the sea itself. We were relieved to find the local residents more welcoming than the Beyneu lot, although that wouldn't really be difficult.
The current (and only) Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been the driving force behind Kazakhstan's economic growth, encouraging Western companies to invest heavily in the countries mining sector. He's also been accused of rigging elections and eliminating opponents, but, hey, what's new in politics?


Not so fancy apartments, downtown Aktau, Mangistau, Kazakhstan


We set aside a day for visiting the best beach areas in Aktau, and came away quite disappointed to say the least! Of course, we weren't expected Thai-style beaches, but the horrible polluted sands, views of oil rigs, and mostly the toxic smell in the air were a real turn off. Local families carried on, though, enjoying themselves sitting on the beach, making sandcastles, having picnics and swimming in the oily water, apparently oblivious to the sickening smell and outlook. God know what the many fisherman were hauling up! We walked for some time along the coast hoping to find a more pleasant area, but it seemed there wasn't one.


Happy locals having fun (!), Caspian Sea beach, Aktau

Nice to see locals enjoying themselves, Caspian Sea beach, Aktau

Definitely wouldn't be eating those fish caught in the highly polluted Caspian Sea, Aktau

The coast near Aktau town

Friends having a day at the beach, Caspian Sea beach, Aktau

Locals enjoying a water outlet, Caspian Sea beach, Aktau

It's a shame we can't convey the awful smell, Caspian Sea beach, Aktau


We quickly discovered the bus system in Aktau was very limited- there was only really one regular reliable bus that went through town, and close to our hostel. There is a lot of wealth in the city, and many flash cars- perhaps this is the reason? We did our best to move around the city cheaply, and sometimes took taxis as an alternative.

One of the easier to visit attractions was Koshkar Ata necropolis, just outside the village of Akshukur. After waiting for a bus for half an hour with no luck, we copied the locals, waved down a “taxi” (a guy in a car going in the same direction as us), and paid him less than a dollar to drop us at the entrance.
We weren't expecting so vast an area of graves- the initial impression was that of a beautiful city full of castles. The graves stretched as far as the eye could see, and were a mixture of very old, very new, and in between. It was quite a fascinating place. As well as the beauty of the shapes and designs of the various styles of tombs, the cultural references were very telling. Many mausoleums had pictures or carvings of yurts, horses, saddles and traditional tools, that reminded one of the Kazakh heritage. The new part with it's towering Taj Mahal-like mausoleums had pictures of oil executives and oil wells- a big clue to where all that money is coming from. Other interesting features were the walls every grave had around it, and the small stone boxes with the lids sitting separately. Apparently Kazakhstan, and particularity Mangistau region, is covered in these amazing necropolis, in varying sizes, dating back to when the nomads would bury their dead in sacred spots.


Some of the many beautiful tombs at Koshkar-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Looked like castles in the distance, Koshkar-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

A rare flower in a dry climate, Koshkar-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Many of these lovely little boxes and lids on graves, Koshkar-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan


One of the ancient stones, looking out at the more recent, Koshkar-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Most graves had Muslim symbols on them, Koshkar-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Strolling around Koshkar-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Graves complete with little walls, Koshkar-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Some graves were in a bad state, and a bit creepy, Koshkar-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Liked this Moscow style tomb, Koshkar-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Another little box- what do they mean? Koshkar-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Interesting tomb, complete with oil executive!, Koshkar-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan


We began to miss the wonderful markets of Uzbekistan, but instead found some well stocked supermarkets near our hostel, and made the most of the different produce. Luckily the Kazakh bread was delicious, and we continued our bread, salad and cheese diet, with a few added extras from time to time, such as walnut cheese, pomegranate juice, lovely local raspberry jam and smetana (the last two on fresh bread was like a cream tea!). Kazakhstan is the home to the apple, but until we reached the south, we didn't have a nice one. Prices were high for almost all food items, presumably due to the remote location of the city.

Beket-Ata, the most holy place for the Sufi Kazakhs was our main destination in Kazakhstan. We had heard about the place years ago, and the exotic nature of such a pilgrimage appealed to us greatly. How to go about it was another matter.
The receptionists at our great hostel in Aktau were unbelievably patient and helpful with all our questions. They genuinely wanted to help us, and if they didn't know the answer to something, they would look it up, or call someone. Nothing was too much trouble. Unfortunately, the day we tried to plan our trip to Beket-Ata was the day the non-English speaking woman was working, but we got there in the end, mainly due to her perseverance.
So, having arranged our transport, but having no idea whatsoever what else would be happening for the day, we were picked up by the minibus early in the morning, and joined by about ten other passengers- men, women and children, for the trip out to the desert.
Beket Ata was, and still is, the most important Sufi holy man in Kazakhstan. Apparently, he had a way of spreading his message to the common people that made him very popular. He lived much of his life and died at the underground cave mosque complex he built out in the western deserts of Mangistau, Kazakhstan.
Almost all Kazakhtanis who are Muslim are of the Sufi faith, and it's in the south of Kazakhstan where it's at it's strongest. Sufism was an idea that started from people wanting their faith to be more simplified, and the personal focus seemed to sit well with Kazakh nomads. There are many branches, and it's quite a mysterious and mystical side of Islam we knew little about.
The trip started out quietly, with many people sleeping for the first part of the journey through the outskirts of Aktau, and into oil and gas producing country, filled with pipes, machinery, towers and nodding donkeys. The roads were very clean with not a piece of rubbish to be seen. There were many police around, however, and the ubiquitous camels.
We all woke up for the first stop at a small Sufi shrine to find the oil and gas fields gone, and in their place a grand sweeping view of the craggy desert mountains and the long road ahead stretching out as far as the eye could see. Our fellow passengers became more animated and friendly here, and their few bits of English, and our very few bits of Russian were bandied around.


The road to Beket-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan


The next stop was Shopan-Ata, an important Sufi pilgrimage point where an important teacher from the 10th century was buried. Upon arrival, Sal followed the ladies to the “bathrooms”, where we she was shown how to cleanse for the mosque. This included going to the toilet, washing her face three times, water over the head, a bit swallowed and washing her feet and arms three times. It was all slightly awkward with no doors on the toilets, and nowhere to sit whilst washing, but we got the job done and met back with Rich who had done similar (“First time I've had to have a dump and wash my arse to get into a shrine!”). We then all walked around a circuit, past a small necropolis to a hill where a man said a prayer while women tied scarves to a large bent branch, and we then walked around a pile of rocks three times. Next was a small cave where women and men sat in separate rooms for a short prayer, all the ladies were given a scarf, and outside “washed” our faces over the flames of a sacred fire. After the serious stuff, Rich and I were ushered into a room filled with long tables absolutely heaving with food- bread, sweets, tea, biscuits, cheese and other goodies, for lunch and a break.


Cleansing over the flames, Shopan-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Tying scarves to a branch, Shopan-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Some kind of Sufi holyman (?) who said the prayers, Shopan-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Outside the cave mosque, Shopan-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Holy man attending to the scarves, Shopan-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Necropolis, Shopan-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Table full of goodies, Shopan-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan


Back in the bus and about seven hours after leaving Aktau, we finally reached our destination of Beket-Ata. The trip actually went very fast, as we were both so enjoying the stunning vast desert scenery. We were driving high up on a ridge on a dusty, gravel road, and the massive valleys and steep cliffs in chalky whites and browns below created an otherworldly feel. Hilariously, on arrival we were told that we would all be staying at the site until two am (it was two pm when that news came)! Although we were not expecting that, we were very pleased to hear it, as it meant we could absorb ourselves in the place and take our time looking around.


Scenery on the drive to Beket-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan


The cleansing procedure was repeated here on arrival, then we all walked down the steep steps into the valley to visit the cave mosque, in the side of a mountain. People were extremely friendly here and many wanted to stop and chat with us, so we were happy to move slowly. Sometimes it became awkward, with people wanting us to join them, when we were already walking with another group, so we tried to swap around a bit. Pilgrims had come from literally all over Kazakhstan, and we were surprised to find many well educated people here. It was great for us, as we were for once able to ask many questions about what was going on, as well as them being able to translate questions from people with no English (“Why do you wear winter boots when the weather is hot?”). People were very curious and perplexed about what we were doing there, where we had heard about it, and how we'd gotten ourselves to the site. But always welcoming and kind. Photos were not allowed around the complex, but not being exactly sure of the rules, we managed to get a couple of sneaky pics in, and then left the cameras in their bags most of the rest of the time out of respect.
Only groups of twelve were allowed into the cave mosque at one time, and as there were hundreds of pilgrims there, it was a long wait. Some of the old women were getting a bit grumpy waiting in the heat, and we were happy to let people go ahead of us- after all we had twelve hours to kill!! Sitting outside the small entrance doorway, we loved the view of the huge desert plain and small area with huge stone boulders, as well as the constant chatter of our new friends. We were extremely lucky with the weather, with the cool-ish change still hanging around and plenty of clouds to keep us from over heating. Eventually we made it into the mosque, and firstly sat for a blessing in the small and basic main cave, then toured the other rooms with various shrines and another branch with scarves tied to it. Again we were shown the way by the pilgrims, circling everything three times, then backing out of the doorway left leg first. We didn't understand the details of much of what was going on, but the spiritual feeling was overwhelming. Many of the rituals seemed blurred by the influences of Islam, Sufism and particularly shamanism. The bits of material under special rocks and tied to sacred trees, the climbing under and circling holy rocks, the “washing” of the face in flames, and the woman at Shopan-Ata who sat and rubbed herself on a giant phallic shaped stone were fascinating procedures for us to watch. Most people seemed to be there to ask for something specific, such as health or financial problems or starting a new business venture.
The walk back up the many steps was tiring, but again we stopped often and talked and felt revived. It was the first time on this trip we felt such a connection with people. Obviously it helped that many could speak English, but there really was an uplifting and positive vibe to the place.



One of the excellent English speakers we chatted with, Beket-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

We loved the colours in the desert, Beket-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Small cairn in foreground, Beket-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Beautiful desert scenery, Beket-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Looking back up to the top, Beket-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Slowly slowly, so many steps, so much sun, Beket-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

View walking down to the cave mosque, Beket-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

The cave underground cave mosque, Beket-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan


Next on the agenda was our interesting dinner arrangements. Woman and men were separated, and the ladies sat in groups of about six, on the floor with the “table” set with a cloth and some towels. The young women served the men first, then we were given a lecture about women's morals- such as the wearing of trousers and the correct coloured scarf, serving the men and helping out with the cleaning up. The engineer that had taken me under her wing sighed, and subtly rolled her eyes! Then a huge pot of the national dish of Kazakhstan, beshbarmak, was served at each table. It's mutton or horse meat boiled for a long time, and is apparently usually served with noodles, but they made it with rice here as it's easier to feed the masses. Looking into the bowl, I breathed a sigh of relief that it didn't look too revolting. The oldest lady of our group cut up the chunk of meat on top of the rice, and I was given the huge greasy bone to chew around as special guest, along with a small bowl of oily broth as an accompaniment. I managed everything alright, and hoped I hadn't made any faux pas! (Meanwhile, Rich had done well in the men's room to avoid receiving the hoof that was in their beshbarmak!) My new friend was very informative and helped me with some questions I had about procedure. There was a very complex system of rules with ages, married status, and who serves who. At one point the youngest woman in our group had to change her head scarf to white in order to serve the men, as it showed she was married. I had no idea that different coloured scarves had different meanings, but luckily green (which I was wearing) wasn't associated with anything in particular.
After everyone had finished eating and the dishes had been collected and cleaned (those young women were certainly kept busy!), we adjourned to the main sitting room to take tea and sweets with everyone together again. We learnt that all the food here, and at Shopan-Ata, was donated by the pilgrims, and the people cooking were all volunteers. Our group of engineers friends left to drive back to Aktau, after many photos and insisting we take their Kazakh Muslim caps and the woman's white scarf (now I could be labelled as a married woman!). They offered us a lift, but we preferred to stay and watch the sun set over the desert, after which the wind got up and the weather actually turned freezing. We returned to the complex for a snooze- the eating rooms had been transformed into separate sleeping areas, with dozens of mattresses and pillows for the pilgrims. After another lecture by the moralizing woman, I squeezed in next to a grandmotherly type who had fiercely and literally taken me under her wing, and slept for a few hours feeling like a sardine, Rich in the next room with the men.


Sal and the engineer and newly gifted scarf, Beket-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan

Rich with his new little mate, Beket-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan


Some members of a friendly family we met at Beket-Ata, Mangistau, Kazakhstan


Somehow at two am, we all managed to be on the minibus and on our sleepy way back home to Aktau. It was our best day in Kazakhstan.

Mangistau was a challenge for us. This was the time we were very envious of all those travelers on their motorbikes and cars! There area is littered with ancient necropolis', underground Sufi mosques and astounding rock formations in the desert, but is also massive, there is very little public transport, and little information. There were many other sites around the region that we would have liked to have visited, but finding about anything was extremely difficult, and the tour agencies that knew how to get to these places and could provide the vehicles charged hundreds of dollars a day for the privilege. It was frustrating, as we knew that petrol was cheap (50 cents per litre), but there was literally no other way to go. So, we decided to be happy with what we done, and set off for our next destination, Aralsk.


Rich mentally preparing himself for the next train journey, Mangyshlak train station, Mangistau, Kazakhstan


A full list of costs for accommodation, food and transport will be on the next Kazakh blog post.........coming soon!