The door, a simple wooden structure, leads to a set of steep, stone stairs that descend into the ground, quickly curling out of sight. Yuri leads the way into Shakpak Ata, tackling the awkwardly narrow steps with confidence. I follow him, taking a little more care, down into the small, unadorned cavern below. It’s dark here, though not as dark as it ought to be. A second wooden door at the far end of the cavern has light spilling around its edges. Yuri levers the door open. It flies back, air pressure forcing it open, ripping it from his hands. It bangs into the cave wall. Another cavern lies beyond, sunlight seeping in through a slot in the ceiling. We remove our shoes and tread lightly forward.
What is this space?
A cave, cruciform in shape, carved out by the wind, then modified over the centuries by hand. A central, sunken floor, with prayer rooms – complete with prayer mats – in all four arms of the cross. One of the prayer rooms is embellished with four small, window-like niches, each of natural origins, but modified to create a roughly regular visage. In the centre of the window-like niches is a slightly larger niche, door-like in appearance, with a semi-circular top. It appears to be a mihrab, although I am unsure if it truly faces Mecca. There is evidence of a fire having been lit inside the mihrab; burnt sheep fat having blackened the floor and walls.
Other niches in the room contain the bodies of important holy figures. The walls are covered with charcoal markings and crude engravings, including Arabic script, the outlines of hands, and stylised horses. The domed ceiling has a circular opening in the centre – artificial, I think, but it is hard to separate the natural from the human-made in here. The circular opening can be opened and closed as desired, just like in a yurt. A Quran, wrapped in cloth, hangs from the ceiling.
What is this place?
This is Shakpak Ata.
An underground mosque.
Originally used as a fire-worshipping temple by the Zoroastrians, Shakpak Ata was reappropriated in the 10th Century CE and converted into a Sufi holy site. Pilgrims light strips of sheep fat in the various hearths and fireplaces that lay inside the mosque, and waft the acrid smoke into their face to purify and heal themselves. (Although there is no one here to guide us on the matter, and no signs informing us that photography is prohibited, we make a consensual decision not to take photos inside this holy place – hence their absence from this post). There are several other underground mosques in Mangistau, in the remote western regions of Kazakhstan, including Beket Ata, and Sultan Epe. All are in equally hard-to-get-to locations, deep in the Ryn Desert.
The next door we take leads us back outside; we find ourselves standing at the base of a short cliff. Carved into the cliff walls on either side of the door are more stylised horses, more Arabic script, more splayed palms. Beyond these carvings the cliff resumes its natural state; wind and water erosion having shaped the soft rock here into dimpled, membrane-like formations. Windows in nearby alcoves reveal additional caves, most of which, we are told, contain the bodies of important religious figures.
A small cemetery backs onto the cliff base, a few tombstones all that distinguish it from the surrounding countryside. A narrow tract of sand, criss-crossed with vehicle tracks, separates the cemetery from a much larger necropolis. Beyond the necropolis the Kazakh Steppe takes hold; an arid wasteland, devoid of trees, hot, dusty, bleak. On the horizon, a dark haze: the distant Caspian Sea.
‘So, where would you like to have lunch?’ Yuri whispers. ‘We can eat the food we brought with us in the car if you like. Or we can eat in the pilgrim’s hut. These are the choices.’
‘Where’s the pilgrim’s hut?’ I ask.
‘It’s that little house you can see over there.’
‘That little blue and yellow house? That looks nice. Let’s eat there.’
‘No, not there. That’s a small mosque. You can’t go in there. Pilgrims eat in the little white hut beside the mosque. You see it? All pilgrims eat there. For free.’
‘But we aren’t pilgrims.’
‘No. But you can still eat there. Just don’t mention that you live in Qaraqalpaqstan. Kazakh people around here hate Qaraqalpaqs.’
‘Aren’t their cultures almost identical though? Their language is the same.’
‘Do not say that around here. Kazakh people really, really hate Qaraqalpaqs. They consider them slaves.’
‘So, do you want to eat in the car, or in the pilgrim’s hut?’
‘The pilgrim’s hut. Are you sure it’s okay for us to eat there though?’
‘Yes, it’s perfectly okay. There’s just one rule. Everything at the table is free, but you have to share your own food.’
‘We can do that.’
Inside the Pilgrim’s Hut
Five minutes later we are there, ducking below a low door, squeezing into a small room, taking our seats around a squat table already laden with food. Sharing the meal with us are half a dozen old men and women, each with a mouthful of gold teeth. Ami, Yuri, the two NGO expats accompanying us on this trip, and myself, take possession of the far corner of the room. From our packs we pull rockmelons and honeydew melons (these have been in our possession less than an hour – they were handed over to us at another pilgrim’s resthouse we visited earlier in the day), along with tomatoes, cucumbers, packs of rice crackers and sweet biscuits, and a bottle of juice.
The stooped, timeworn female chefs, hair tied back and hidden beneath bandanas, mouths replete with golden molars and glinting canines, receive our goods with warm smiles, their looks of astonishment growing with each additional melon we present (we hand over five in total). Already on the table is a bounty of sweets, sugary biscuits, fruit, and piles of non, the local flat bread.
Our melons are promptly cut up and dispensed, the tomatoes and cucumbers meet a similar fate; the rice crackers and biscuits are left for us to redistribute. The pièce de résistance is brought into the room a few minutes later: a huge pot containing potato and lamb liver stew.
The Lamb Liver Stew
‘Please eat.’ Yuri spoons a few pieces of lamb liver into his bowl.
I pick out a single piece of lamb liver, along with several pieces of potato. The soup is thick, hearty, delicious.
‘Take more lamb,’ Yuri is translating for the old man who is sitting beside him.
‘No, thank you, this is plenty,’ I say, pointing to the piece of liver in my bowl.
‘You have to take more,’ Yuri whispers. ‘They will be offended if you don’t.’
‘Okay.’ I take an additional piece of liver. A small piece. I look over at the old man. He is gesturing for me to take more food. The old lady at his side is nodding her agreement. I take another piece of potato.
‘Are you vegetarian?’ Yuri asks. ‘These people will not understand it if you are vegetarian. They will be offended. You should eat meat.’
‘I’m not vegetarian. I have meat.’ I point to the two pieces of liver in my bowl.
‘That’s not enough. You need to eat more meat. They are getting angry.’ The old man at Yuri’s side, though clearly not overcome by rage, is gesturing at me animatedly. He is insistent that I take more from the large pot. I decline. The man frowns.
The mood of the room changes. Where before there was limitless geniality and warmth, now there is an edge of disharmony, of restraint, of cautiousness. And all due to my disinclination to take more liver. Such an odd thing to upset proceedings. Such an odd thing to base friendship on. But this is the culture of the region. Food, and the sharing of meals, is an integral part of Central Asian society. I should just eat more of the liver; it’ll make life easier for all of us. The thing is, I really don’t want to.
Am I being a bad tourist?
I hope not. I’ve tried to be a good tourist. I want to be a good tourist. But does being a good tourist, in this particular situation, require me to eat everything I am told to?
‘Now they are offering you camel milk. This, I don’t recommend you drink,’ Yuri murmurs. ‘It is very hard for non-Kazakhs to drink. Say you are allergic.’
‘Nyet malako.’ I say. ‘Allergiya.’ Yuri nods encouragingly.
All the NGO expats find they have milk allergies. Yuri too. He hates camel’s milk, he tells us. It makes him feel nauseous. The milk returns to the far end of the table; the old man mumbles something which Yuri neglects to translate. The room goes quiet. Those at the table continue to pick at their food, but the joy and warmth that marked the commencement of the meal is gone.
‘We better leave,’ Yuri says, as soon as we have finished our bowls.
The NGO expats concur. Before leaving the last of our melons is brought forth, and handed over to the women in the kitchen. They smile and laugh. They still like us. They don’t care what we did and didn’t eat. They wave to us from the doorway as we depart.
Practical information and how to reach Shakpak Ata:
The Mangistau region of Kazakhstan is a remote and rarely visited part of the world. There is little public transport to speak of, although you may be lucky and find a marshrutka filled with pilgrims heading to Shakpak Ata.
The best way to get to Shakpak Ata is to hire a vehicle for the day in regional hub, Aktau. A 4WD is not essential, but it will make things easier. Finding a driver in Aktau who is willing to take you to Shakpak Ata should be easy enough, finding a driver who knows how to get there will be a little more challenging. There are no signposts to direct you, so local knowledge is crucial.
A trip to Shakpak Ata can be combined with a visit to Beket Ata, the Valley of Balls, Lion’s Mountain, and the Karagiye Depression, making a long but worthwhile full day excursion.