If there is a place in Kazakhstan that can be described as extraordinarily unique, where you forget which planet you’ve landed on, or start wondering where you can find the nearest “settlement”, look no further, as this is it – the Mangystau region of Western Kazakhstan, home to the Bactrian camels, delicious camel milk, more than 300 ancient necropolises and cave mosques, strange and jaw-dropping natural sites, the Caspian Sea, and the “kishi zhuz” (the junior horde) of Kazakhstan. It is definitely for the more adventurous travelers, who are courageous to get out of the comforts of “easy” tourism, and instead, can plunge into the unknown, but truly marvelous.
To be honest, I would recommend to spend at least a week, and even more to truly enjoy and explore this place which can only resonate with discovery, awe, and complete bafflement as you stand in front of valleys of endless rock spheres, or colorfully layered chalk mountains that rise up magnificently from the plains. Unfortunately, not many people seem to know about this pearl of a place in Kazakhstan that deserves much more attention and is thoroughly understated. But that might be the real charm of the region, and of the country as a whole. Do consider avoiding the months of July and August, when the heat can get quite unbearable, as well as the fact that the tourism infrastructure is much less developed here, and can require more money than what the budget traveler can afford.
For most people, the most common starting point when entering the region would be through Aktau, translated as “the white mountain” from Kazakh. While the city itself might not be the reason you would travel to this part of the country (due to the “microregions” that occupy most of the town), the Caspian Sea and the relaxed breezy atmosphere definitely are.
For one, every person arriving in Aktau must dip their feet in the divine and soothing Caspian Sea, which changes its colors with every glance, and is decorated by its mighty waves. This can be easily done in the city itself, where walking to the beach doesn’t require much time or searching. However, if you’d prefer more secluded scenery, you can head over to the “blue lagoon” to the north of the city. Hiring a taxi by phone might be the easiest choice (+8-7292-355355, we paid 6000 tenge or 17USD for a roundtrip for the taxi in total), but bargaining on the road could also work (if you say “blue lagoon”, everyone would know it. In Russian, the transliteration would be something like “gah-loo-baya boo-h-ta”). On the way there, make sure to pay attention to and stop by the incredible necropolis, Koshkarata (about 20 km north of Aktau), that is easily accessible and very impressive, especially at sunset, serving as a home to a few ancient graves. At first glance, it looks like an actual white city, as the mausoleums are so densely situated and are intricately designed.
To make the scene even more mesmerizing, the camels, who seem to inhabit every corner of the region, cross the streets here and there, observe the visitors, reminding us all who the real residents are.
For the most part the ride was a smooth one, but the last 10 km or so where you turn into the valley that nests the lagoon turn into stones, so be prepared. It’s all worth it though once you arrive – the shades of blue, emerald, green, and brown take over the horizon, with no one in sight. Keep in mind that there are no shops around to buy food or drinks, so bring some snacks along if you plan to stay for the day.
Since I saw no trashcans around, I noticed some of the spots had accumulated quite a bit of garbage from the previous visitors, so please be mindful of bringing the plastics with you back to the city. It’s sad to see the beautiful sea spoiled by the floating plastic bags, and cans.
I did come across quite a few snakes around the beach, rushing to get away from me, or hiding inside little pools in the rock formations. So to those of you weary of these reptiles, make sure to stomp away so they can hear you! I also spotted a good looking lizard sunbathing on the rock… Not a small one either!
I would really advise to walk all the way to the “castle tower”, as that’s what it looked like to me, but is apparently referred to as “the devil’s finger”. It is a nice walk, and you get a different angle with each step, albeit hot. I’m sure at sunset the place is even more beautiful. I heard in the spring there are more flowers and plants around, and in general, you can chance upon monitor lizards, horses, swans, and other animals, should you be so lucky.
You can also try and climb to the top of the “devil’s finger”. The view ain’t bad.
After a great walk, we got back to our taxi, realizing that the storm is about to hit. Here is a shot of the steppe sky changing its mood and color.
Our day came to a quick end, but it was nice to get a different feel of the Caspian, and spend a day by the water on a relaxing promenade. The best part is, there are so many more beautiful and paradisal spots like this around Aktau. Do give it a try! The whole trip, back and forth, took us about 3-3.5 hours, including our hike. So this trip would be easily doable in half a day, if you are taking rest, or trying to squeeze in something worthwhile in between your amazing hikes in Mangystau 🙂
Next stop: Shopan and Beket Ata!