Mangistau part 2: Ata-girl

Mangistau part 2: Ata-girl

 And now: an exciting switch to the present tense for part 2 of this tale – cos I wrote it yesterday and was obviously in that kind of mood!

I have a map of Zhanaozen on my phone but with no locations on it- I know I need to get to the bazaar to find the vans to Beket Ata & I ask the receptionist, who points out the direction, but once outside of the little lane the hotel  is in I’m completely disoriented. So I get into a taxi (that would be-any passing vehicle) and he drives me around the corner, literally a minute from the front door of the *Lux*. To be honest that’s 200 tenge (50p) well spent as I could have walked around all day without stumbling across it (it’s not a large bazaar).

This shubatkhana (camel milk café) appeared to be one of the few early breakfast options in Zhanaozen. Thanks but no…

The choice for getting to Beket Ata is between a modern landcruiser type 4wd, or an old soviet Uaz van (3000T for the round trip). Of course I’m going for the latter (see above!) as I’ve been wanting to ride in one of these chunky beauties (err that doesn’t sound right…) for years.

My fellow passengers end up being 6 women and 3 kids (all boys): the smallest not yet walking, the oldest a young teen who speaks some English. I think they are all Kazakh apart from cuddly Belarusian babushka Anna and I’m curious about how she ended up here but not able to ask. Once my novelty appearance is explained- blonde, jeans, backpack – I’m anglichanka!  – one of the others suggests that maybe I’m a journalista? As thrilled as I am that someone has bought my impersonation of a traveller with a worthwhile and legitimate purpose, I say no, not journalist, not working here, just a (bewildered, idiotic) turista. This woman goes up even more in my opinion when shortly after she hops out to buy a samsa (pasty/samosa) and comes back with one for each of us. Then, inevitably, some melons are loaded into the van..6..7? Maybe we’re doing one each again??


Heading out of Zhanaozen the purpose of the place is obvious as we pass miles of oil fields. These eventually give out into stark but attractive landscapes, and a fair few camels and occasional horses grazing by the sides of the road.

After an hour we turn off onto a dirt road for the seriously bumpy approach to the first stop, Shopan Ata- a smaller shrine and cemetery  that is usually visited on the way to Beket Ata. Here I learn the drill- repeated on a grander scale later on: long walk to the cave-shrine, various rubbings of significant rocks/branches, purifying hand warming around a flame, prayers inside the cave, handing out of scarves (I don’t know the significance of this), walk back, then kneeling at long communal tables for tea, bread and sweets.

After resuming our ride in the motorised bouncy castle, we reach the main event: Beket Ata. They have quite a set up here- apparently most vising groups spend the night so aside from the shrine itself- reached via a mile long path down the hillside- they’ve got various buildings for accommodating all the tea drinking, resting, cooking and err *other* stuff that people do. (I’m not sure but am assuming my group will also stay- so haven’t booked another night in the mosquito palace – I believe that actually means leaving around 3am, which would allow just enough time to get back to Aktau for the train on Sunday.) All in all we do 3 rounds of tea drinking, which are interspersed with the long trip down to the shrine and back up again, and dinner (and some moderately traumatising, ‘purifying’ toilet visits!). We stop for absurdly long rest breaks on the way down- welcome at first as the view is utterly spectacular: canyons and dramatically eroded cliffs that descend into a vast flat plain which goes all the way east until it becomes the even more astonishing  uysturt plateau, then Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Antelope, sheep – the four tiny animas in the centre could be anything, quite frankly!


We also see a tiny tortoise the size of a baby’s palm and what I think are saiga antelope arkhar (wild sheep) which are also found in the region. I have to stick with my little party though or I’d be completely at a loss, so I tell myself that the lengthy and increasingly tedious waits make the whole thing more *pilgrimy*. At the shrine there’s more waiting and some crushing and eventually I get inside  the cave itself where we sit and, I assume through the language barrier, are led in prayers. It’s actually very peaceful sitting in there and I do feel privileged to be experiencing all of this. I’m not religious, I’m fairly ignorant of Islam (and I would say the more liberal seeming central Asian practice is probably not be that reflective of experiences elsewhere) but it’s fascinating to witness, and this outing provides some insight  into local life.

wp_20161008_18_15_40_proLooking westish at this point, despite my claim above (true, honest!) about the plain extending eastwards…

There’s another fantastic sunset (the third I’ve seen this week- thank you western Kazakhstan and your wide open spaces!) then dinner: sitting on the floor and eating with our hands from communal dishes of what I think is goat and carroty rice, washed down with some kind of meat broth. Mmm delicious. Let’s just say that I eat a lot of rice! After dinner there’s some faffing with the mats and cushions in what I assume is preparation for our few hours of sleep, but it isn’t and we get back in the van to return to Zhanaozen. This is the least desirable outcome from my point of view as it’s too late to get back to Aktau and its comfy hotels and lattés, and means a – surprise! – return visit to the Lux. Groan. I stumble through the door at midnight and they give me a different room which happily has no mosquito inhabitants and also doesn’t smell like someone just smoked 20 Marlboros in there (it’s still pretty weird though).

5 hours of sleep and a 2 hour bus ride later, I’m back in Aktau and after getting coffee and train supplies (this is my life now) I flag down a battered zhiguli whose driver, there’s no other way to say it, stinks of piss [but at least he doesn’t want to be my Kazakh boyfriend]. I’ve got no choice  as I need to get to the station for my train at 12 (actually 1pm but here in the west we are an hour behind Astana time on which the trains run) and I’m optimistic that piss taxi will know a super speedy secret route which will get me to the station (12 miles out of town) in a third of the time it takes the 105 bus (top speed: fractionally slower than my 93year old grandma can walk). Thankfully he does and we go via the well guarded oil pipelines that make up a large chunk of the eastern section of town. (‘something something Nazarbaev something something terroritziya’ I think he tells me on seeing the uniformed men). The gear box has issues (or maybe its operator does..) and I hope he doesn’t try any Kazakh overtaking. He does, I shut my eyes. But, here I am now, on the first of two trains which will take me to Nukus, Uzbekistan where I’m due to arrive tomorrow [& where this will be uploaded {or maybe it won’t – anything is possible here in Nukus, and by anything, I mean nothing}] at 4.30pm – or possibly 3.30, or possibly 5.30, as I don’t know which time zone the ticket refers to!

Nukus  update 10th Oct:
I still don’t know what time it is here, my Aral sea tour is probably cancelled, I’m in a hotel that’s comically and disgustingly dire, and they don’t have ATMS here so I have 3 quid to my name! It really is the strangest place I’ve ever been to. So, to summarise: I can highly recommend a holiday to Kazakhstan. Don’t get your stans mixed up.)

Now battered taxi driver chocolate (now abandoned in Nukus- I’ve had that stuff before and it’s not very nice!) 



9 thoughts on “Mangistau part 2: Ata-girl

    1. I wrote part two mostly before part one so you might have been onto something there! Arrived in Khiva yesterday, hard to keep the blog anywhere near up to date with abysmal Uzbek internet 😦


  1. Hi “Anglichanka” 🙂 Glad you are getting your daily melon quota.

    “ata-girl” – I see what you did there … 🙂

    Yes, I think that present-tense thing definitely qualifies you as a journalista! 🙂


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