This blog will be slightly out of order, as our visit to the Caspian Sea was part of the Aktau city tour but, as it was my favourite bit, it can have its own section!
It was fantastic to finally dip my toes in the sea. And given the amount of walking we had done during the week, the fact the sea was rather cool was the perfect way to make them feel better.
We didn’t spend long here, unfortunately, so I cannot really expand on the experience particularly, but I will say that sitting with my feet dangling in the sea was probably the most relaxing experience of the entire week up to this point. With the blue skies and clear water, it would have been the perfect opportunity to get the deck chairs out, and let the sound of the waves lull me to sleep.
The beautiful Caspian Sea
A seagull fishing in the Caspian Sea
As for the rest of Aktau, it is ok.
The sea front is very nice, and has clearly had recent investment; with the promenade a very pleasant location for a walk, and an ideal spot for al fresco dining.
The town as a whole is quite the mish-mash of conflicting styles, with the old Soviet buildings looking decidedly shabby compared to their modern siblings. Aktau’s age (60 years young) plays a part in this, as there is no ‘historic centre’ as you get with many cities, making their oldest buildings the stereotypical Soviet tower blocks that were designed with practicality in mind, not aesthetics.
There was one particularly interesting feature, though, and that was the lighthouse. Due to its location getting a photo was troublesome, but rather than allowing it its own building, it had been sat atop a block of flats; which seemed a rather unique way of going about it.
A statue to the exiled poet Taras Schevchenko
Our only other major stop, beside the Caspian Sea, on our tour of Aktau was at the Historical Museum. Guiding visitors through the geological, biological, social and cultural history of the area, the museum does a great job of packing a lot of information into a pretty small space.
In particular, the museum has managed to squeeze more dioramas into its limited space than any other museum I can think of. They may not have been of the highest quality, but they certainly brought a smile to my face. This certainly made it stand out among the many museums that I visited over those eight days.
One of the many dioramas in Aktau Historical Museum
Alongside the many dioramas were models and recreations of the wildlife that either lives, or has lived, in this area. Some of them were clearly fake, others looked like they may have seen the inside of a taxidermist. With some, it was difficult to tell one way of the other. Particularly when they were as terrifying as this …
Its eyes follow you …
If you are in Aktau, I would certainly suggest visiting the museum. And not just because there are few others places within the city to visit.
Before I move on, I thought I would throw this in there. There was a lot of fuss made about the facilities provided in Sochi at last year’s Winter Olympics. Particularly over the provision of two toilets in one cubicle. Well, Sochi is not alone.
Oh yeah, they share one toilet roll …
So, that was that for the Aktau and the wider Mangystau region. Next up was a four hour flight back to Almaty, ready for dinner and sleep before our last day in Kazakhstan. My favourite day in Kazakhstan. Our week up to now had just flown by, making it all the more frustrating that I missed the first day!
So come back soon to read about Charyn Canyon, located between Almaty and the Chinese border. It will be worth it just for the photos. The place was incredible.
Before starting, I would just like to point out that I was very tired on day six, and a little under the weather too. So my note-taking suffered, my memory vanished and, as such, this will probably be the shortest blog yet! Oh, and that sound you can hear, the smallest violin ever.
The day started in Aktau, Kazakhstan’s only seaport. It is a city that was formed in order to home those who mined uranium from the surrounding region. Don’t worry, though, you won’t come home radioactive if you visit. The city has grown significantly in the 60 years since its founding, with a population of around 180,000 now. Despite this large population, there appeared to be very little to recommend in Aktau as far as tourism is concerned; though there was a rock and roll/British themed pub, although I think its pool table must have something wrong with it because I cannot be that bad at pool can I? Its main selling point is as a base for exploring the wider Mangystau region.
We did not spend long in Aktau though during day six, and we were soon on our way to our first stop, the Karagiye Depression.
It is at this point that I will mention that finding out reliable facts about many of the destinations within Kazakhstan can be fiendishly difficult, due in part, I suppose, to the lack of global tourist interest in Kazakhstan over the years. For instance, we were ‘reliably’ informed by our tour guide that the Karagiye Depression was the fifth lowest point in the world. My internet searches have ‘reliably’ informed me that it is, variously, the sixth, seventh, or eighth. It is for this reason that I would forgo fact-finding when thinking about travelling in Kazakhstan in favour of ‘experience-finding’; you will drive yourself crazy searching otherwise. Besides, it is the experience that really matters.
And the experience in the Karagiye Depression … is ok. It didn’t particularly grab me. Others in my group felt different, so what do I know? What made it interesting, for me, were our attempts to drive down into the depression. In the run up to our visit there had apparently been quite a lot of rain, and this rain had washed away the track that we were to take once we had left the main tarmac road. Not only had it washed the topsoil away, though, but it had left large cracks in the ground where the water had obviously created temporary streams. This made the drive into the depression very challenging for the drivers. Before we knew they had only been roped into this job a few days previously we thought their driving skills were impressive. Now, with the knowledge that they were not professional drivers, their ability on the difficult terrain is incredible.
The most impressive part of the depression were a number of white rock formations. If I remember correctly, and I may not, the white of the formations came from salt deposits. As I have little else to say about this area, here are photos instead!
A rock formation in the Karagiye Depression
Wave-like rock formations in the Karagiye Depression
Stop two in the Mangystau region was Sherkala Mountain near a small town called Shetpe. What makes this mountain stand out is that it is entirely alone, rising out of a flat plateau. In this way it bears a similarity to Uluru in Australia. Oh, it also looks remarkably like a traditional Kazakh yurta.
Sherkala Mountain, looks like a yurt no?
It was here we were to have a traditional lunch; but first we had a chance to walk around a little. After a little exploration I found a little stairway that looked as though it could lead upwards to the top of the mountain. At the very least I hoped it would head inwards, to a cave of some sort. Unfortunately there had been a rock-fall and so the stairs had been crushed, and the entrance to the mountain completely blocked. So that was the end of that mini-adventure!
Once we had finished lunch we were very quickly told about ‘friendship bread’, which is traditionally made on a Friday and shared among friends and family. We were also offered the chance to try some, and it was very nice; but them freshly cooked bread is never anything less than fantastic.
One of the highlights of my day happened while we drove away from Sherkala Mountain, though, when I did my good deed for the day by rescuing a tortoise from certain doom as it very slowly crossed a road, dodging the first traffic we had seen in hours! He didn’t seem too grateful though, as he waved his legs around trying to claw me before I placed him gently to the side of the road.
Our last visit of the day was to what our guide called the ‘Valley of Castles’. So called due to some amazing rock formations in the 215 million year old mountains. As with the majority of our visits over the tour, we were the only people there, so the silence added to the wonder of the formations.
A castle like rock formation in the 'Valley of Castles'
And that was day six. To finish up, I thought I would share with you two facts we were told about the use of camels during the course of the day:
1. Bactrian camels (those with two humps) are used for food.
2. Dromedary camels (those with one hump) are used for milk.
So there you go.
See you back here soon for day seven.
Day five found us preparing for two flights, covering around 2,600km; a prospect no one looks forward to. What we were looking forward to was a few days by the sea, the Caspian Sea, in the Mangystau region that makes up the western-most portion of Kazakhstan. With temperatures creeping up, the prospect of a nice breeze off of the sea was certainly enticing, though I was excited enough as it was. Who doesn’t get excited at the prospect of visiting the seaside after all!
I will gloss over the flights. Flights are flights. I will say they were both very good, with nice food as well as clean and modern interiors. We flew first with Scat Airlines, followed by Air Astana. I will also say that with a window seat I was afforded some incredible views of Kazakhstan. The landscape of the country is remarkably varied, we flew over lush green steppe, arid desert and pure white salt flats; to say nothing for the lakes and rivers.
Upon arriving at Aktau Airport we were greeted by a small fleet of off-road vehicles ready to whisk us away. Unlike the first few days, on which everywhere could be accessed by a standard vehicle, in Magystau it would be nigh-on impossible to get to some of the best sights without an off-road vehicle. It was very nearly impossible to visit one of our day six destinations even with off-road vehicles. We found out later that our drivers were not professional drivers, but in fact had been pulled in off the street in the days leading up to our arrival purely because they happened to own off-road vehicles. One of the drivers was a jeweller who had trained in Italy! They were very, very good though.
Our first stop was at a couple of yurtas that had been set up near to the sea. We were there to eat a traditional Kazakh meal, listen to traditional Kazakh music and watch some traditional Kazakh games.
A traditional Kazakh yurta. And a horse.
We were led into the first of the two to see how a traditional yurta may have looked, including several pieces of, very colourful, Kazakh handicraft. A favourite among many of those present, including myself, was a collection of what their creator called ‘Kazakh chandelier’s’. They were indeed very chandelier-esque; colourful woollen creations that dangled from the ceiling, lit up peferctly by the little light that entered through the hole in the roof.
A 'Kazakh Chandelier'
Next was a display of Kazakh horse wrestling. That’s right, horse wrestling. As in wrestling on the back of horses. The horses themselves don’t wrestle; though they looked like they would probably win in a fight with Hulk Hogan if forced. As I understood it, two competitors were meant to attempt to force the other to lift their backside off of the saddle on which they were seated. In actuality it looked like they both had their backsides in the air many times before the referee blew his whistle.
Take a look for yourself below:
If you can pick a victor out of that you understand the game better than I!
The second game we were shown was, for lack of a better name, ‘kiss chase’. But on horseback. The game is played between one boy, and one girl, with the boy aiming to catch the girl to give her a kiss, and the girl trying to catch the boy in order to hit him. The winner is whoever catches the other first. I don’t know about you, but when I was at school both parties normally ‘won’. The boy always kissed the girl, who inevitably hit him afterwards.
This was all followed by a lunch that was accompanied by traditional Kazakh music and singing. Once again we had beshbarmak, though this time we had the addition of shubat. Shubat, for those who don’t know, is fermented camels milk, and it is not nearly as revolting as that probably sounds. It has a sour yoghurt-like taste to it, with a bit of a tang. I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not, though I think I would fall on the side of like, if pushed.
Two young ladies in traditional Kazakh dress. And me!
Oh, and did I say this was all by the sea?
The Caspian Sea
Once we had finished lunch we took a quick walk along the coast before hopping into our waiting cars and travelling for a few hours to reach Shakpak Ata. For me, the area around Aktau was a little dry and barren. Quite close to what I had expected Kazakhstan to be like before I arrived. Give me green and full of life over barren any day. As you travel across this section of Mangystau it becomes increasingly apparent that the primary source of income for the area is oil. At times the oil derricks seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. In fact, it looked a little like a huge farm for giant robotic prey-mantises (prey-manti?). This is not to say that it doesn’t have its own, industrial, charm.
The further away from civilisation we drove, though, the more the scenery came into its own. It was still very dry and arid, but this is actually what made it beautiful. By the time we reached Shakpak Ata some of the rock formations were remarkable; particularly those that make up the exterior of the ‘underground’ mosque.
The walls of the outcropping of rock that the mosque is built into is honeycombed in an incredible fashion. I kept expecting giant bee’s to fly out of the holes at any moment.
The Shakpak Ata 'underground' mosque
Sitting in front of the mosque is an ancient necropolis, a cemetery, in which lie graves and mausoleums dating back hundreds of years. We had to be very careful where we stepped as many of the headstones had crumbled away into nothingness with the passing of time and so were difficult to spot.
The mosque itself is relatively small, a single room with four main areas and many carvings in the walls. In the rear of the mosque are some very large, deep stairs that lead to the top of the rock outcropping. At the top the view is huge. Vast. With the Caspian Sea as the perfect backdrop. Particularly under perfect, cloudless, blue skies. Like many of the best parts of Kazakhstan, due to the lack of infrastructure it is a nuisance to get to, but it is well worth the effort.
The view from the top of the Shakpak Ata mosque
Our time there had to end, as we had one more stop to make before heading back for dinner and much needed sleep. Next up were the, strangely named, ‘globular concretions’ at Torysh. Try saying that five times quickly.
They may well be one of the most unusual natural sights you are ever likely to see. Practically perfectly spherical ball of rock after practically perfectly spherical ball of rock. Now try saying that quickly five times! It is an incredible phenomenon. Scientists still cannot agree on quite how they formed or where they came from. Some think they may have formed around dead ammonites, others say that they have volcanic origins, while there are those that claim they were formed in glaciers over millions of years; and those are just three of the wildly different theories. The fact that they retain a certain mystery even now, though, only adds to the awe that you feel while standing among them. And besides, some mysteries are better left unsolved. Though one member of our group hit upon a popular theory, maybe they are dragon’s eggs like those in Game of Thrones!
Were the 'globular concretions' built around these ammonites?
The 'globular concretions' under the evening sun
And that was day five. We were lucky to be greeted by another incredible sunset on our way back to Aktau, though. And it is with an image of this sunset I leave you. Quite fitting I think.
Our beautiful sunset
Join me next time for Sherkala Mountain and challenging terrain!