Once we finish our visit at Shopan Ata (note that visitors are not rushed), we hop back on the van and set off for Beket Ata, which means another 2 hour drive. For me though time flies by, as this is when the scenery gets really captivating: the white horizon of chalk mountains is interrupted by red, orange, blue, green, brown and even pink meteor shades.
At first, the flat land is conquered by a mighty mountain that disappears as quickly as it appeared. Really made me think whether this was once a giant that fell asleep, and is now resting here to everyone’s awe.
Still stunned by the rapidly appearing natural wonders, the next sight is impossible to ignore, so we ask the driver to stop for us to marvel at this omnipresent beauty. The Martian vibe can’t be ignored, as it occupies the entire space, and fools us into believing the Earth is truly endless. The lighting here is incredible, where parts of the mountains are hidden in shadow, and others lit up like a stage at a dramatic show. The entire spectacle is stunning, and we take a while to get back in the tiny van.
Finally, we are at the Beket Ata complex. As you can see, the first buildings we encountered were the little mosque and the guesthouse. Do not worry, this isn’t the cave mosque you spent half the day traveling for.
As soon as we enter through the white gates, we are in another dimension. Everyone is busy doing something. Once again, most visitors run off to the “bathroom” site to wash themselves. Women and men may be asked to help slaughter a sheep, clean the guts, prepare tea, cook ‘besbarmaq’, and so on. I guess the mentality is that everyone is serving everyone else. But you can take your time marveling at the 360 degrees of nature that is truly baffling.
Be reminded that you’re in Central Asia, and people may approach you without second thought to see where you come from, why you’re here, and how you like Kazakhstan. Don’t worry, even I am frequently asked these questions, and this was no exception.
There are many little pavilions/kiosks spread around the area, where you can find people hanging out, simply looking out at the horizon or the mountains, in reflection. If you look around, there is a big guesthouse with two large rooms on each side, one for women and one for men. In the centre of the guesthouse, you’ll find a huge ‘dastarkhan’ area (to learn more about ‘dastarkhan’, please refer to this post) with mountains of ‘nan’ (bread in Kazakh), ‘piala’ (small tea bowls), and sweets. Even if you tried, you couldn’t miss it! As was agreed already at Shopan Ata among us visitors, and finally confirmed here at Beket Ata, the milk tea served at these sites is especially delicious. It might be attributed to visitors/pilgrims being tired and in the heat all day, or that the water in these areas might be especially fresh, but whatever it is, you must try the tea served here! Yum!
Once the tea session was finished, we were told that we can only go to the cave mosque once we are in a group and leave at a specific time (the path stretches for only around 1.5 km one way). So no individual wandering to the mosque (I was looking forward to a peaceful walk with no one around, but oh well). All of this became unimportant as soon as we entered the oasis that unfolded in front of us, pretty much as soon as we stepped out of the mosque complex to walk over to the cave. Here are some of the snap shots.
Out of nowhere, these beauties came out, studying the new visitors on their territory. They were so close, I was afraid to scare them with my camera. But they ended up being good sports and professional models after all!
These are the “Ustyurt mouflons”, which are a sub-specie of an Asian mouflon. In height they can range from 70 to a 100 cm, with horns of about 20-30 cm. I suspect these are two ladies, as their horns aren’t as big as the males’, and they don’t have a beard (but who knows, I may be wrong). Unfortunately, these poor creatures are endangered because of the poaching in the area, so they find safety here in the mountains. That’s why the northern parts of Aktau and surrounding areas help preserve mouflons, where they find the steppes (yay!) as their primary feeding ground, and get to socialize with all sorts of visitors at Beket Ata.
Other travelers/pilgrims, mostly Kazakhs, immediately said that this is a great sign. Some said that I will probably have twins, others saying that I will find my life partner. Whatever it is, everyone gasped and was completely mute after this amazing experience. The nature, the sky, and then these two “visitors” made this trip all the more special. For me, if this was the end of our journey, I’d already call it a great success.
Here are some more shots of these elegant and beautiful animals.
Once we finally arrive at the cave, people crowd around the tiny entrance, trying to get in first. The mullah tells us that he can only fit in a small group of people at a time. Unlike Shopan Ata, the Beket Ata mosque is much smaller, so when you’re inside, it can be quite stuffy and even a bit hard to breathe. One man arrives, who can hardly walk, with the help of 2 other younger men. It took them 3 hours to walk down to the cave, and he falls at the steps of the entrance. I believe he is not the first or the last brave soul that makes it out here in hopes for better health. I can’t imagine his trip back up to the guesthouse area.
Our turn finally comes to enter the cave, where Beket Ata taught and prayed (and I’m not allowed to take any pictures at this point). Mullah reads a prayer, people leave donations, and head off to other rooms.
Outside, at the back of the cave, there is an oasis with water, whereto many of the visitors flock to get some of the fresh water. Do bring lots and lots of water with you, as I didn’t see one single shop around to purchase water. And even though most of the sites provide delicious tea, it is after all…. hot. When hiking down and up to/from the cave, especially in mid-afternoon in July, it can get strenuous without a sip of water. Despite all of this, we see rock spheres all around the cave. They definitely add to the mystical aura of the place.
On our way back to the guesthouse area, we stop by one of the booths to sit and rest. The ladies across from us resting were actually Kazaks from Iran, who came all the way here to visit the Beket Ata mosque. They seemed really sweet, and if I could, I’d spend another few hours with them to hear about their life in Iran, the Kazakh community, what is different and what is the same.
Once we got back to the mosque (the way up seemed endless in the 3 pm heat), we headed straight for the women’s section to rest on the “korpe” (matress). Not too long after, men brought in big tubs of a rice version of ‘besbarmaq’. I honestly think it’s plov, but that’s beside the point 🙂 Having finished the plov-like-‘besbarmaq’, we joined everyone in the ‘dastarkhan’ area to drink tea and prepare for our trip back “home”.
When walking back to our van, we came across a lady selling fermented camel milk, which was yummy. Finally, we crawled back into the van with the same people we arrived with (we are exhausted after a long day). Between the mouflons, the endless colorful horizon, and camels playing , I didn’t know what was reality anymore. Quickly, we all dozed off into dreamland on a long journey back to Aktau.