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Into Western Kazakhstan: Underground Mosque, Living the Furnace, ...

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) Below is the second of three parts (was planned as two!) to be written about the last three weeks of travel along the Emba river through the deserts of Western Kazakhstan as far as Kulsari near the Caspian Sea. For this section Tim travelled with friends, Cordell Scaife and Cara Poulton. It was 10am, but the heat was beyond anything I had felt in my life. It seemed to beat you, hit you, cook like the driest oven. My saddle and black saddlebags almost flaming. There was a desperate feeling that I can only compare to the –40’s. That suffocation, looking for a retreat when there isn’t one realising that if you stay put you will shrivel up and die. So fast and harsh is the sun that Kazaks traditionally wear thick sheepskin jackets and fur hats in mid-summer. It shields you, insulates you from being burnt- being overheated is inevitable anyway. Taking the shortest route possible we left behind a group of camels that we had been filming and legged it for the river. It took an hour to get there at which stage we leapt off, stripped our clothes and dived in. Tigon had beaten us though and he could be seen lying with just his nose and ears breaking the water line. Until then he had been hysterical, crying, whining, panting, scratching hopelessly at the earth. Once the horses had been looked after we built our tents on the edge of the water and layered them with all of our blankets. This provided some shade and isolation but even still all one can do is lie down, cooking in a pool of sweat, and then roll around in the water whenever you start to feel yourself seriously overheating. After a night of no sleep it seems to hit you more, and the three of us fell into a rather delirious slumber. It wasn’t long of course before we were woken by a familiar rustling sound. “Hey, blackie get out of it!” I rushed out but it was too late. My big dark horse had the bag of grain in his mouth and was starting to thrash it about. A tug of war ensued but it only resulted in the grain being spread across the sand. I scooped as much as I could up but I was too hot, too tired and told him to go to hell with it. The next interruption was a herder who arrived by motorbike with a fishing net. Not only did he ask us to help set the nets, but he later crawled into one of our tents to escape the heat as well. True, he did bring with him cold shubat in a bottle wrapped in wet felt. But getting sleep was hopeless. The temperature gauge outside in the shade was showing about 52 degrees, and in the sun over 55 and beyond the limits of the temperature gauge. It’s not just the heat though, but the dryness. The air under the sun seems to suck up and evaporate everything before you even feel that you are wet and sweaty. If it were not for the river it was hard to imagine how travel for long would be possible. And what was it really like for those herders who still lived out there relying on wells? And for our poor horses? We felt defeated by the time the sun departed and it was time to saddle up and leave. Using stars to keep track of our bearing we headed off with little chatter. Somehow we wound up on a rocky outcrop about two hours later though and could not work out the best route in the darkness. As some coolish air descended we clutched the lead ropes of our horses and fell into blissful sleep for a couple of hours. The half-hues of predawn brought back some semblance consciousness as we plodded on. We passed the silhouette of a yurt, and continued into an empty purple plain. Eventually the stars that I was following petered out and I slumped on the saddle. It was hard to think that within a couple of hours it would again be roasting and we had not yet covered half of our planned daily distance. Sunrise woke us up though. This great ball of fire rose silently over the plain casting pleasant soft rays of light that even gave the tiniest fleck of grass a nice long shadow. The white saltpans turned yellow and the blood seemed to return to our extremities. In a halo of dust we recorded Cordell cantering away from the sun. It was a reminder of the rarity of this experience, and that beyond the difficulties the sense of freedom, nourishment, and getting in time with the heart beat of the steppe and its people was all worth it. As it would happen a great bank of cloud soon rushed in from the south-west and smothered the flames of sunrise. This I knew would give us an extra hour or two of riding time. We rode far away from the river into a land of rolling hills, or rather flat plains that at some point started tilting up towards the sky like waves on the sea. On the tops of these crests could be seen the outline of yurts and herder stations. They had no doubt moved there to find the coolest and breeziest spots in the region. Out to the North West beyond the river the steppe also spread out steppe to distant swells and knobby peaks. A flock of birds rushed overhead, and Tigon gave a well intentioned but hopeless chase. At a glance you could imagine the traditional life of a nomad here- summer close to the river, winter south into the desert, Spring on the rolling steppe where the grass turns momentarily green before the sudden scorch of another summer. As we breached a crest ourselves we paused in surprise at what lay ahead. Built into an outcrop of white clay and salt was a tiny city of ancient graves. From the middle of these rose a high pointy structure, rather like a tower. Like in our own societies, Kazaks have their communal graveyards. Presumably each collective camp – summer, spring, winter, autumn – has their cemeteries, and where you were laid to rest depended in what season you passed away. Nowadays these little ‘town-like’ graveyards seem lonely and lost, for the society, those hundreds of yurts and families that toiled together in annual migrations are no more. Despite retaining a very nomadic culture and mentalilty most Kazaks it must be said are sedentary. Nearby this particular graveyard were a couple of what appeared to be herder’s houses, and being out of water, and almost down to zero food supplies we approached somewhat hopefully. From one of the houses emerged a woman, holding back her children and looking terrified. “Do you know where you are?” she asked, spelling it out in big clear letters. “Well, um, in general yes but I am not sure what this place here is called,” I replied, realising that my hunger and tiredness made me stumble with my words. She looked at me with a pale, pained face. “You are in KAZAKSTAN” ‘KAZAKSTAN’ she repeated. Had my words just become lost in my beard, did I really look that unkempt. I tried again. “Yes, well I have just come from the Eastern Kazakhstan province. I have been in Kazakstan for…..” “No, not eastern Kazakhstan, this is ‘ATIRAUSKAYA OBLAST.’ With that she pointed me to the next house 300m away for getting water and we trotted off. Apart from two huge dogs that came up to rip tigon apart (he scuttled well practised away beneath the legs of our horses) there was no one to willing to warmly greet us at the next house either. Eventually a woman looking rather frightened popped her head out. “Do you have drinking water?” was all I bothered saying this time. As she ventured into a second house of sorts I happened to read an inscription on a stone set outside the building. It spoke of a certain ‘Beket Ata.’ Then it struck me that this was the name of the legendary Kazak saint. I had been told in many villages that if ever I was in great trouble on the steppe, then I could utter his name for help, and help would be there. By mentioning his name it would also help gain respect among the local Kazak clan of Adaits. At this point a young man with a beard and muslim dress appeared. This place as it happened was the birthplace of Beket Ata! The tower we had seen among the graves was actually the exterior of an underground mosque that Beket Ata had built. Two of the older graves were those of his parents. It is said that by tradition if you visit his birthplace, you must spend the night. Beket Ata will help you overcome any problems and heal your bad health. The second house was in fact a general dorm for visitors. This man was the Mullah’s son and now invited us to stay. After lunch we were to be shown around the mosque itself. The mosque is a blinding white, just like the saltpan beyond it where a herd of camels crawl along. The graves perched around it are egg shaped clay domes. The fierce weather and time however has left them looking more like the broken remains of upstanding eggshells. Most are 200-300 years old and even the Mullah does not know who was buried there. Beyond them are signs of even older graves- Kurgans. These are circles and mounds of rocks and dirt and long predate the coming of Islam to Kazakhstan. With pride we are ushered into the mosque itself, down some stairs into the bowels of the earth. The mullah’s son points out that Beket Ata built this mosque in the shape and design of a Yurt. It really is like being in a huge white yurt, with the light seeping in from the circular opening at the top of the tower. Beket Ata, after studying Islam in Khiva (current day Uzbekistan) built this as the first of four underground mosques. Each of these mosques correspond with the seasonal pastures of his nomad clan. Later I was shown a map indicating the annual migratory route. This was the summer camp, Autumn was a further 300 km to the south, Winter another 400km (near the Caspian Sea city of Aktau), and Spring way over east near the western shore of the Aral Sea. For me this was mind-boggling. The conditions they must have toiled through on horse back with huge herds, almost beyond imagination. Unfortunately the mosque itself was largely destroyed by the Bolsheviks early on in the century when religion was banned and much of the nomad way of life was destroyed. After perestroika it was reconstructed in its original form and great care was taken to replicate the original. Since then bits and pieces of original history have been handed in from places as far as Uzbekistan. Many of the artefacts relating to the mosque and Beket Ata were smuggled out and hidden by families for almost 70 years. The little ‘museum’ up near the dorm pays homage to these little bits and pieces. It even includes the remain’s of Beket Ata’s brother’s traditional fox fur herding hat and a horse whip. Beket Ata himself died at the age of 63, the same age that most Muslim prophets (most important mohammed) died. They say that after his death his body remained alive for almost a hundred years. His hair continued to grow and he required regular shaves and haircuts. However just a few years before the Bolsheviks trunced Kazakhstan it is said that Beket Ata told some men in a dream that his body must now be buried because the scourge of foreign infidels would soon begin. His grave lies near his winter underground mosque near the Caspian Sea city of Aktau. Beket Ata is one of many Western Kazakhstan legends. He was an ‘Adaits,’ the most war-like and proud tribe perhaps among all Kazakhs. A direct ancestor of his was the national hero, Makhambet. Makhambet led some of the toughest resistance against the Russians after Kazakhstan had forfeited independence by asking for help from Russia against the warring Zhungarians from the east. Makhambet was foremost a poet and used his skills to create an uprising among the Kazakh people. He formed an alliance with a military Kazakh named Isatai and together they staged a rebellion against a much larger and stronger opponent. The battle lasted two years, but eventually a bounty offered for the heads of Makhambet and Isatai paid off and they were killed by some of their own. Today the village of Makhambet just north of Atrau marks this legend’s grave. The Adaits are still some of them most fiercely proud Kazakhs living in one of the most strongly Kazakh dominated parts of the country. Unlike other clans who allow marriages with relations as long as there are no blood links earlier than seven generations back, the Adaits never allow mixing of Adaits blood. The mullah of this mosque as we discover is in fact a distant descendent of Beket Ata, who was himself directly related to Makhambet. After a snooze in the dorm we eventually headed down to the river with the horses for a drink and a swim. The huge polar-bear like mutts from the mosque were still harassing Tigon and at one stage Tigon came running, then swimming to me in the middle of the river. I held him up like a baby in the water but the big polar bear came running and swimming too. Soon Tigon was thrashing his legs and squealing, trying to jump up onto my head to escape this meat eater. Five minutes later of course they had made friends and Tigon was playing around, taking nips at the giant’s throat and running for it. Usually in a place that we come to like, Tigon finds a good friend too. Having been convinced to stay the night we went to bed in a huge empty room while another guest went through what seemed to be his umpteenth call to prayer. He was a man from Uzbekistan come to work as a landscaper- the idea was to plant some hardy trees around the premises of the dorm and the mosque. There were a couple of other families in the dorm too, visiting from Atrau and Aktau, and a live-in elderly man who had been a homeless street dweller in the town of Kulsari. He tended to the Mullah’s herd of sheep during the day. In the morning we were shocked to discover that Cara’s digital camera had disappeared. After searching high and low we were convinced that indeed the camera had been stolen in the night. Rather delicately I told the Mullah’s son about the camera and he went pale. We discussed the issue further inside the museum and soon a cousin of his came in looking furious. He grabbed an old horsewhip and with that rushed off. It was clear that they knew who it was. It took an hour or two of threats with the horsewhip before one of the boys who was staying in the dorm took off onto the steppe. Eventually he returned with the camera having taken it from a special hiding place. Despite high emotion the theft was still treated as something quite natural and no doubt it was not the first time on Beket Ata ground. The cousin explained to us that these boys knew nothing better, and it was really the cheek of stealing on holy ground and from foreigners that was the crime. In an interesting twist he begged our forgiveness and explained that he himself was a reformed heroin addict from near Aktau on the Caspian and had a long history of theft and crime. He swore that Beket Ata had saved him from heroin. It may seem surprising that these tiny settlements in the desert are affected by heroin, but then again it makes sense when you consider how much of the stuff is transported through Central Asia, particularly along the main train lines joining Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The mosque shrank onto the horizon and with it went all the characters and events of the last day. Again we were back out on the steppe. Tigon was running, the horses were in rhythm, and we followed the setting orb in the sky. Down by the river in the distance some other little grave cities could be seen in clusters. It speaks much of the transience of nomad life when not a skerrick of the former society can be found apart from graves. Just on dusk we approached a Yurt camp. The camels were settling in for the night, and the hot coals of an animal dung fire replaced the glow of the sun. An elderly man with but a few whiskers of grey left on his shiny scalp greeted us and soon we were sharing tea with him, his wife and granddaughter. We sat out on a wooden platform slightly raised above the dirt and laid with beautiful felt rugs. Around us the sky still glowed a little orange and the land petered out around us much like the ocean at night. Cara lay back on a cushion and sighed, “God, it feels like the whole world is our own!” It seemed clear and irrefutable- the quality of life out here was not even comparable to that of a village. There was none of that searching for good grass and travelling miles each day- here you could plonk your home in the middle of the good grass and have everything to yourself without the competition of neighbours! The river was close by with fish, they had a mud hut for the heat, and a yurt for cooking. It just made sense. I had the feeling that I could have been in Mongolia at that moment. Even the horses in recent days had been strikingly Mongolian. Of particular interest, I had come across a few animals with the tell tale zebra lines on the lower leg. This indicates bloodlines of the wild Mongolian Prezwalski horse. Were these the result of Ghengis Khaan’s campaigns, or earlier nomads, or just trading during the soviet era? Very hard to say. We hobbled the horses and lay down next to the family on a felt rug while the stars blinked on. I had travelled so far in 15 months, yet I could have been mistaken for thinking I had gone nowhere. Within another two days we found ourselves pacing towards the jagged horizon of Kulsari. The river that had for so long been a glorious paradise in the desert now ran sluggish and with little greenery or vitality. Not far beyond Kulsari it dries up all together into salty plains. It seems unfair that despite such a courageous and distant journey from northern Kazakstan it very rarely makes it all the way to the Caspian Sea. As we neared the multitude of buildings and roads Cordell and I donned traditional hats while Cara wore a silk red vest. We knew that we were about to severe links with the Emba, its people and way of life. Kulsari, a large town of 70,000 or so was built on a premise that was alien to us: oil and gas. “Well Tim, I guess this is the end of our caravan. But who knows what lies ahead in the Kulsari chapter?” coined Cordell… (Look out for part three of this story about ‘Disaster in Kulsari.’) (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries)