As this was the wrap-up of our memorable trip in Mangystau, especially after cruising around the steppes, I’ve indubitably concluded that this region is a huge and unknown kingdom, with valleys of castles, underground cave mosques, necropoles, and guardian camels that watch over this exceptional place. An archeological sanctuary under the open sky. Traveling here genuinely makes one wonder if there really is a portal through which you’ve entered the land of “Game of Thrones”. Suddenly the camels start resembling dragons… Could I be Khaleesi (please)?
If you knew how much time and effort I put into planning this part of our adventure in Mangystau, you would definitely sympathize and understand the amount of excitement I felt when we finally set on this 12-ish hour journey to the northern and north-eastern part of the region. Months prior to landing in Kazakhstan, I had contacted many tour agencies, private guides, friends, family, anyone – to see how to go about traveling in this vast land that definitely needs a 4×4. What I learned: extremely expensive tour agencies seem to dominate this landscape. So if you decide to visit the natural landmarks, try to come in a larger group. Also, calling might be more effective than writing emails. And if you need an English/French/etc. guide, the cost will be even higher (for example one of the tour agencies charged 67,000 tenge, about $200 additional dollars for an interpreter). Moreover, for most of the tours, you have to bring your own food and drinks, so always ask what exactly is included in the price, and don’t be afraid to bargain, especially if it’s a customized tour made specifically for your group.
Here is (only the gist) of the information I gathered that I hope will be useful to readers so you don’t have to spend as much time searching (if you have other advice, please share!):
- Most of the people in western Kazakhstan advised “TOO Turist”, which is a well-known tour agency in Aktau. However, they seemed to have mostly pre-planned (1-3 day) tours set by dates/months. It does have more affordable prices than what I came across in general, but it didn’t fit our tight schedule. If you wish to contact them (it’s not easy to find their information online), here is their email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, Facebook page, and website (which has the English option, too). I think the next time I’m in Mangystau (and have more than a few days), I’ll book a tour with them, as they seem more affordable, and their tours look decent (although their 3 day trips are on the limited side).
- As we wanted a more of a customized 1 day tour, I thought a private tour agent might be an easier and cheaper option. Oh, how I was mistaken. Just to give you an idea, some of the agents proposed 2.5 day tours for about $750 without food or tents included in the price. And that’s for a “local”… I guess there are people out there who are able to pay prices like this! Otherwise, I’m not sure how these guides can sustain their business.
- Finally, I was advised to contact “Madagascar.kz tourism and travel” (their website is not super user-friendly and doesn’t have an English option), but I got in touch with them through email (Elena at firstname.lastname@example.org). I shared the landmarks I absolutely had to visit (I was set on the valley of rock spheres, Shakpak Ata cave mosque, etc.), and she came up with a possible itinerary. Their tours range around 40,000-70,000 tenge/day (for a car, not per person), so about $120-200/day. If you can have 3-4 people traveling, the price isn’t so bad in the end. So I went ahead with this tour agency, as they had tours that covered many places (especially since we only had one day), and the price didn’t seem so bad for 3 people (even though we ended up being only two) – 70,000 tenge in total for the day (not including food). So off we went!
Eager us set off for the day at 7 am with our driver. This was our itinerary:
While chit chatting with the driver, we found out that in his years of working for the tour agency, we were the first local Kazakhs to book this kind of a “safari” tour. Usually, he gets foreigners from Europe, US, and Japan. Apparently, there is a famous movie about Mangystau that is played on TV in Japan, so there has been a wave of Japanese tourists coming to this corner of the world.
As we were driving, and I squeaking at the site of camels, we saw this scene unfold: a young lady chatting on her cell phone while milking the lady camel and feeding the baby camel at the same time. Who said women, homo sapiens or camelus, can’t do it all!?
On the way to our first stop, this absolutely beautiful necropolis appeared on the horizon. Literally. It was located right at the edge of the cliff, with a wall of mighty mountains behind it, and the dramatic sky adding to the mood of the scenery. To top the experience, a team of horses joined in.
Our first (and most impressive) stop was Shakpakatasay Canyon (or as they call it, a “little dragon”. Aha!). The shapes of its elongated, veiny corps, the wild cliffs, and the soaring peaks make you understand the nickname, thanks to the Sarmatian Sea (part of the Tethys Ocean), which was in existence about 500-300 thousand years ago. It is the most extensive canyon in Mangystau consisting of series of canyons. Apparently, settlements and tombs of nomads were found here as well.
And of course, this caravan was enjoying the sun, per usual. I think in my next life, I’d like to be a camel in Mangystau. All the scenery I’d get to enjoy, all the tourists I’d get to eyeball!
Finally we arrive at our second stop: Shakpak Ata cave mosque (‘shakpak’ translating as ‘flint’). It’s not a huge place, but it is definitely architecturally impressive, and has a solace to it as soon as you see it and enter inside. The cave mosque was built to honor a local figure, Shakpak Ata, due to his spirituality somewhere in X-XIII centuries (reputation similar to that of Beket Ata). No visitors or mullah inside. Open for our perusal and appreciation, in peace and quiet. Apparently, the cave was used by Zoroastrian followers for an extensive amount of time a long time ago, which has left its trace on the rites that are followed by the pilgrims to this day (such as the belief in fire), prior to it being used by dervishes and Sufis (which explains the simplicity of the cave).
We take the stairs to the top from where we see the cemetery, and horses strolling around.
For the next stop, we drive over to Kapamsay Canyon to have lunch while enjoying the scenery. We are surrounded by hanging chalk mountains, protecting us from the Sun, and listen to the whispers of the lively bushes and grass all around. Perfect weather made for an appetizing lunch, with hot tea (our driver brought the table, tea pot, and even chairs), veggies, sandwiches, marinated fish, and even my favorite Russian dessert, which comprises caramel/condensed milk inside a dough “nut” (I found a recipe here in Russian).
After stuffing our bellies, and giggling from the fresh air, we set off once more. We suddenly come across this brave Central Asian/steppe tortoise crossing the road. These wise souls can live up to 40-50 years in the wild. Although quite common, they are now included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Fun fact: when the Soviet space programme “Zond” went into space in the 60’s, two of the Central Asian tortoises were apparently on board the ship. The first Earth creatures to travel to the Moon, and return safely. So their kind has not only conquered the kingdom of Mangystau, but also made it around the Moon. Show some respect!
And we get to marvel at this view…
Completely intimidated by the severe face of the old tortoise, we arrive at our next destination: Torysh, aka the valley of rock spheres that spreads over hundreds of kilometers. These rocks are not only spherical in shape, but can also remind one of mushrooms, eggs, space ships, animals, etc.
A young little bunny was hiding behind the spheres, watching us get to know his playground. Still inexperienced, he came really close to us, and disappeared before we could even realize he was there.
The journey isn’t over yet! 🙂 Next stop: Kokala, or a layered canyon with all sorts of shapes and colors, dating to about 200 million years. A burst of color amidst the grey surroundings, against the bright blue sky.
After studying the hills for a while, we reach the Kokala ravine that spreads for about 2.5 km, known to quite a few locals around here (as is evidenced by the trash). The little mountain stream is surrounded by bushes of mint, and forms little lakes here and there. Many people believe that the water here has healing powers, but as far as I’m concerned, it is definitely tasty. You may even come across some hawthorn and willow trees.
For me though, the most impressive sight here were the vertical rock formations that seemed to want to burst off into the sky, some of which can reach beyond 10 meters in height.
The plant that we came across quite a bit was the thistle/echinops (“mordovnik”), if I’m not mistaken. Spikey, this one!
Hyper-impressed and exhausted from all of the sites we’ve already marveled at (and marveling is a tiresome job), we arrived at our final stop before heading back to the city, which included Sherkala and the valley of castles Airaqty Shomanay.
Let’s start with Sherkala (translating as “lion fortress” from Turkic), which is considered to be a holy mountain (I know, by now you probably think everything in Kazakhstan is holy, but I assure you that’s not the case!). Many would say it reminds the visitors of a “piala” (a ceramic bowl for drinking tea in Central Asia) that has been turned over. Some adventurers even try to climb it, but apparently it’s even harder to get down. People say that if you climb all the way to the top, you have reached eternal happiness. One day then! Also, if you look closely, it is home to a few of the holy caves. Some historians say that the top of this mountain used to serve as a fortress, and as the residence to Genghis Khan’s eldest son, Jochi.
Right “around the corner”, we plunge into the valley of castles, Airaqty Shomanay. Its nickname is well deserved, as the mountain shapes really do make you believe that this is a sort of a pantheon or Mount Olympus with enormous statues, towers, and gates, all made of rock. A perfect residence for the Gods.
Even though this valley is hard to grasp (due to its absolute grandeur), it rarely gets any water and has barely any trees. The nature found a way to not distract the beholder from the bare bone-like beauty of these “castles”.
Like a steppe sphinx, this proud camel set our long and exciting day to an end, as we drifted back to Aktau. Goodbye, endless and magical Mangystau! A bientot, or ‘koriskenshe’ in Kazakh!
For days since leaving Mangystau, I was lost for words to describe this marvelous experience, and whatever I could express seemed inadequate. Yet, I hope, more people can appreciate the diversity of regions in Kazakhstan, especially this hidden treasure that is eclipsed by the mightiness of the Caspian Sea and the endless steppe.
If I had to give some advice, I’d say:
- do some research before getting to Mangystau. The region is huge, and can be easily overwhelming. It’s good to know what you must see, and what you can live without (although everything is pretty much amazing). Unfortunately, since I didn’t have much time, I missed one of the most impressive natural landmarks, Boszhira (everyone must go there) and Tuzbair Sor. But it’s saved for my next trip!
- spend at least a week in the region, and preferably not in the summer months.
- try and take overnight trips, and stay in a tent under the endless sky somewhere amidst rock castles, caves, camels, and the stars that seem to be holding on by a thin string, ready to flood down.
(I heard there is a new book by Natalia Zadoretskaya, called “Tupkaragan – the cradle of Mangystau”. If anyone has read/heard of it, please share your impressions. I will try to get a hold of it).