Sometimes I just get extremely lucky! In the Lonely Planet it was mentioned that one could go on a pilgrimage to Beket-Ata. I had visited a tour company and was quoted U$85 for the day! This is too much, by my standards! One doesn’t get to travel for six months or more, spending this kind of money. The lovely girl, Lyazzat, from the Holiday Inn, who speaks excellent English, was incredibly helpful. I spoke to her, telling her I couldn’t afford that kind of day trip. She made a few phone calls, and the next minute, she asked if I was ready to go the next day? It was with thirteen other Muslim pilgrims and there was one place for me! Fabulous! Yes! Total cost for the day U$18!!! (This included three meals as well as the bus ride!)
Lyazzat was full of concern about the non- English speaking driver and guide. How was I going to cope for the day without English? Beket-Ata is 285 km east from Aktau. So a long, long day, it would be! Talking is like breathing for me, so yes, it would be tough, but I would be able to manage! I was sure! After nearly four hours on the road, I tried to ask the guide, if it was appropriate to take photos, as these places were Holy sites. The young woman behind me answered my question, in beautiful English! Her name was Dana, an English speaking flight attendant of Astana airlines, from Almaty. You have no idea how this pleased me! Meeting Dana was a gift from God!
The first place we visited, Shapak Ata, was an underground mosque plus a huge necropolis, graveyard, from the tenth century. I wasn’t allowed to photograph inside or outside the mosque. This was a shame as it was incredibly interesting. There were three rooms hacked out of the rocks, the floors covered with beautiful patterned carpets. We were all given a scarf, which I put back, as I did not know what to do with it! I was supposed to tie it to a tree! Duh! The cleansing before we entered the mosque was interesting. First you need to go to the toilet, a row of squat toilets with very low doors between them, then you needed to wash your hands, feet and face. Using the lovely tin watering cans, which I would love to have some for my bathroom!
There was a fertility rock, shaped like a giant penis. It looked like a pottery piece, which was glazed in amazing colours. Reminded me of the Namibian artist, Jacqui Janssen van Vuuren. Women, who wanted to get pregnant, sit on top of the ” penis head” and pray. This is why the natural stone looks like it is varnished and glazed, constantly being polished! I declined! People tied scarves to the tree, so that people in need could take them with them. Some people tied money into the corners of the scarves, again for people in need, I think.There was a sacred tree, which needed to be circled three times. Then back to the bus to the next magical place.
The road by now was non existent, and rather rocky and rough. My poor back was screaming complains! This body of mine must be getting old, all this bloody complaining it does, when things are slightly tough! Unbelievable! The mind, heart and soul are still eighteen, so get used to it body! Nobody is listening! I had a horizontally challenged woman sitting next to me, who fed her two year old every five minutes. I have no problems with that, but he kicked me while feeding! The seats were designed for rather small people, so the drive down was tough going!
We arrived at Beket-Ata. Nobody had mentioned that the rock hewn mosque was three kilometres away, down the mountain, stairs all the way! The paths and limestone area were very reminiscent of Coober Pedy and the Breakaways. The going down, although hard on my knees was incredibly easy compared to the going back up! The mosque was incredible, again, no photographs allowed. Just take my word for it that it was amazing. A philosopher and Iman, I believe, was buried here. (I am sorry but I have forgotten his name!) I kept thinking, as I was going down, oh, holy cow, I have to get back up these steps on the way back! Trust me, it was exhausting! It took like forever! By now it was extremely hot, dusty, and I was so thirsty, that I finished all my water on the way down! On the way back I had to drink from the underground well, just hoping and wishing, that my stomach would cope with this! Step by step, slowly, ever so slowly I reached the top again. Totally exhausted. It was a hot, windy and extremely dusty day. We had hoped to see some wild desert goats, and at one stage everybody got very exited, however all Dana and I saw were black, unmoving dots!
Then the men all had an afternoon nap, while the women started to cook the meal! It was eaten out of a big dish. A broth, which was made from meat, and smelled very strongly. The a sort of flat pasta, all eaten with five fingers. That is the name of the dish is Beshbarmak, which means five fingers. It is a Kazakh delicacy! I have difficulties eating meat, my body reacting violently if I do so, although I did try one of the pasta pieces. On the way home the rains came, and there was a stunning rainbow, to which everybody agreed was a very positive sign!
Dana and I chatted on the way back, while she translated everything I said for the other pilgrims. Everybody thought that Dana was my private guide! People were amazed that I, a tourist, would under take this pilgrimage, and WHY? ( wanting to get out of Aktau didn’t sound legit enough, so I just thought that!) There were NO other tourists at all! I was a HUGE novelty!
Exhausted, sore and absolutely filthy, I arrived back at my hotel at one in the morning! Showered, slept, woke up, showered and slept. I just wanted to keep on sleeping!! Although the day was extremely long, I am so glad for this opportunity to experience this day, with all the Kazakh people. An experience never to be forgotten! A wonderful way to leave Kazakhstan, leaving me wanting to see more, but time has come to go to Tbilisi, Georgia