I was standing on a tall islet in a taupe-grey sea. A hairdryer breeze eked moisture from my forehead as I crept to the edge. Below, to my left, was a pick and mix of jagged limestone turrets. They formed a primordial skyline; nature’s precursor to Manhattan. Erosion and weathering created these oddities of the Bozzhira Tract.
The towers were one of the many preternatural sights on my road trip in the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan.
I stood among spherical formations at Torysh, then squinted to see faces pushing out of a cliffside. I crouched down to take in Sherkala, a bell-tent-shaped mass of chalk that’s 332 metres high. Looking into Kapamsay Canyon, I imagined bungee jumping over the zigzagged hollows below. All of this was within a day’s drive of Aktau, in Kazakhstan’s Mangystau Province.
The city on the Caspian Sea can be reached via a six-hour flight from London – Air Astana launched a direct route in May 2022. Aktau serves as a stopover for planes that continue to Almaty after refuelling. It’s also a curious place to stay.
Kazakhstan is still an emerging visitor destination: the total contribution of travel and tourism to its economy was 3.8 per cent in 2019, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Yet Aktau’s “seaside” location makes it popular among Kazakh citizens and foreigners, with international hospitality brands having spotted the opportunity for growth.
In 2020, Rixos opened a five-star resort with a theme park and beach a 25-minute drive from the city. From the park’s Ferris wheel, I could see other hotels under construction: Fairmont, DoubleTree by Hilton, Banyan Tree. They will build on the appeal of Aktau’s “Riviera”, which offers the boat trips, water sports and coastal walks you would find at a European seaside resort. Although this riviera is not lapped by the ocean, but a 143,200 sq mile lake that borders five countries.
The Caspian Sea helped to turn modern Aktau into a holiday destination, as well as a busy port. It has evolved from a settlement for a uranium mining base in 1958 to a town called Shevchenko to the post-Soviet city of today.
Aktau means “white mountain” – perhaps a reference to the cliffs overlooking the Caspian. The city’s streets, however, are nameless. Districts, buildings and apartments are labelled with letters and numbers.
After a look at the Eternal Flame World War II Memorial, I headed to the shore. A wooden promenade led to a pier, from which there were boat departure points.
On the boardwalk, I breathed in the brackish water air. A young couple – the groom in a black suit, the bride swathed in a full-skirted, white dress – trailed, solemnly behind a photographer. He worked the light of an overcast afternoon.
Teenage boys perched on a standing swing anchored to a rocky promontory. A hum of chatter, flecked with laughs, carried across the water as I sailed off on a catamaran.
I dangled my feet over the side; it was chilly beneath the still surface. The water’s darker shade merged with the sky. It was the same vast emptiness I experienced in the Bozzhira Tract, which is thought to have formed part of the seabed of the prehistoric Tethys Ocean.
Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country, yet its population density is around 18 people per sq mile (the UK’s is 727). This figure came to life on a driving tour across miles of steppe, watching oilfields pummelled by nodding donkey pumps, camels loping across the road and horses shepherded by motorcyclists.
Denis, my allocated driver, followed our Jeep convoy into the town of Shetpe. Its main road was lined with petrol stations yet the forecourts were empty, each pump shrouded in fabric.
Men in reflective sunglasses and thin balaclavas stood in shady corners. Finally, we found a station with fuel and drove on – after a five-minute pause while a train carriage hauling canisters trundled behind a level crossing. I recalled a crushed car that I had noticed skewered on a plinth by the road. “A reminder to drive carefully,” said Denis.
That night I slept in a dormitory-style room at Sartas Visit Centre, a recent addition to the region’s tourism push. Breakfast was served on a low table in a yurt.
Yurts were a regular reminder of Kazakhstan’s nomadic heritage. At Kogez village, you can stay the night in one of 15.
The tourist attraction also has a café at which I had my best meal in Kazakhstan – lentil soup, a national dish called kuyrdak (fried potato), bauyrsak (balls of fried bread that look a little like New Orleans beignets) and grape juice. I swerved a typical horsemeat option one evening.
Another layer of history was scratched away at Shakpak-Ata underground mosque, which dates to the 10th century. When I arrived, it was pushing 30°C outside. Inside its walls, hollowed from pumice-like cliff, it was cool and calm.
I pictured the Sufi Muslims who had rested in the mosque’s curved innards after weeks on the road. A necropolis sat in the valley below. These roadside graves were a regular sighting – another remnant of a transient era.
With only three days in a region that is plaited with stories of Sufism, the Silk Road and Soviets, my exposure was subliminal. If I could return to Sherkala, I’d go at night. The tangerine sky would transform into a ceiling of constellations, the backdrop seen by nomads in centuries past.
How to get there
Return flights from Heathrow to Aktau from £550 with Air Astana, airastana.com
What to do
Driving tours from £628pp, based on three people sharing a Jeep
Park entry to Rixos Water World Aktau from $30/£23.60 per adult; £18.90 per child, rixos.com
Where to stay
Renaissance Aktau Hotel from £62 per night, marriott.com
Rooms from £35pp, per night on a B&B basis at Sartas Visit Centre