From Kazakhstan’s southern city of Shymkent, Bifatima Dauletova walked hundreds of miles across the steppe about a decade ago, finally stopping at a “holy hill” in the village of Ungurtas. Or so goes the legend.
She built a house there in the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains, about 80 miles west of Almaty. The hill is the kind of place revered in local folklore. Dauletova believes the area is the center of the earth’s energy.
Sometimes called the Last Dervish of Kazakhstan, Bifatima-apa, as we call her, welcomes people from around the former Soviet Union to her small homestead in Ungurtas, seeking to glean some of her wisdom. I was one of them. Tired of trying to stop smoking, and wanting a break from city life, I visited Ungurtas three times this past spring when about 10 people from Kazakhstan, Russia, and even Germany were also living there, working on her farm, trying something different.
Some come when they aren’t sure what to do with their lives. Others seek treatment for personal, physical or spiritual issues. Bifatima-apa – apa being a respectful Kazakh title for an older woman, elder sister or aunt – is often viewed as a healer, mentor, trainer or even lifesaver. Some call her a shaman, others say she is a mystic, but she says she is just a “shayki,” a wandering dervish.
Apa speaks Kazakh and some Russian. She and her family are Muslims, but Apa practices her own cleansing rituals. Sometimes she rubs sheep's blood on someone’s face to transfer sins to the dead animal. She walks around day and night and observes us, her charges. She sometimes shouts, suddenly, out loud, as if in tongues. She doesn’t explain her philosophy or teachings, but tells us what to do in broken Russian. One of her favorite expressions is “Golova ne mozgi,” meaning “having a head doesn’t mean having brains.” It’s up to us to interpret her, she says.
Her Ungurtas homestead is semi-self-sufficient and pretty isolated. Apa gives visitors projects—taking care of the sheep, the gardens, the house and so on. I worked in the gardens and fixed the fences. She told me that I should do each task “with intention,” and try to find my own meaning in the work.
She sometimes told us to swim in the frigid creek behind the house. I heard some visitors, on her orders, swam there in winter.
I still smoke, but less. A woman I met in Ungurtas sent me an email saying she quit smoking immediately after her stay. A man from Almaty told me he has changed, but can’t say how. Can’t say, exactly: That probably best describes the Bifatima-apa experience.
Ikuru Kuwajima is a freelance photojournalist based in Almaty.