They say that in the Ustyurt area of Kazakhstan, you will be cured of your vanity, your petty desires…
I understand why – so dramatic is the scenery, so soulful is the silence, so humbling is the history. It lingers in the ancient sea bed, it lives in the chinks of rocks.
The silence was all embracing, only the noise of travellers disturbing the chalk and limestone mountains; hewn of tawny whites, creams and gelato pinks. Muted tones in the rocky sculptures of castles, arches and chalky yurts… a tapestry of life in pastel hues. Yet a lime green succulent bloomed defiantly on the parched, desert floor. A dash of violet showed off in the distance.
I’m sure it was forever this beautiful, but it wasn’t always this silent. Once the water flowed and the tides crashed. Sharks swam and fish gurgled.
Caravans with countless camels trekked along the ‘silk route’. Laden with bounties of sables, silk and honey, falcons, birch and slaves. These caravan tracks of the Manqystau were well trodden, ‘ships of the desert’ shuffling to and fro, east to west… west to east. Merchants traded, a mingling of cultures and religions, of Indian and Babylon goods. Clay bricks that reveal secrets of roadside settlements, fortresses and homes.
Yet, uncovered layers hint at Stone Age migrations; those long ago nomads following tracks of gazelles, antelope and sheep.
They live on still, graceful mouflon sheep prancing through the steppe, antlers of forebearers crumbling into the cracked and crusty earth. One and two humped camels shuffling through the sand, steppe eagles gliding overhead. Horses foraging for survival, herders tending torpidly.
A breathless trek to a high outpost. Through remnants of a stone walled fortress, where animals once were hidden, sheltered from enemy tribes. That safe haven, now a portal to a view of peaks. Peaks reaching to the desert sky, piercing the autumn breeze, drawing the glance of a soaring eagle.
We camped in the shadow of a yurt, erected by nature itself. Its domed roof echoing our small, intimate, manmade shelters. Now the valley was alive with crackling embers and sizzling meat. With campfire chat, Russian and English washing across the chill desert air. Yet deafening stillness… in the surrounding cliffs, in the moonlit crevices, in the dark holes of sleeping lizards.
And it ended where it was meant to; in a sacred place. The Manqystau ground is so. Legends hold it was blessed by as many saints as there are days in the year. Shopan-ata, an underground mosque where we were welcomed, shoes slipped off on rich carpet, beckoned inside. A maze of recessed spaces and cool in the caverns half light. Lizards dart in and out of niches. Sufi prayers etched on worn stone, a carved open palm for happiness. Our departure, a gifted white linen cloth, blue stitched for blessings. On the trail of pilgrims, since the fourteenth century. A place where all can enter, of any religion or creed. Peaceful… as it should be.
Outside that tiny carved door, near that hallowed ground, grows a mulberry tree. Wrapping it’s wizened limbs around sinking tombstones, a scene unchanged. Did it once nourish those worms that would become silk…it is the mulberry leaves they eat.
Perhaps the pilgrims that rested here, had traveled this route. Perhaps they gazed at the same wondrous sights, in awe of the luminous moon, endless stars.
There is no perhaps… the wonders and vistas were theirs and they are ours. And that, is a joy, a joy to be had in the Manqystau.