Journey to the Caspian Sea: 5 reasons to visit Mangyshlak

Walking on the shores of the Caspian Sea and finding prehistoric shells: five reasons to visit Mangyshlak

Mangyshlak is called the treasure peninsula. It is home to the largest oil reserves and cultural and historical sites. It is the region of medieval sites, rock mosques, sacred sites of Islamic and pre-Islamic culture and, of course, an unusually beautiful nature. Sacred, natural and historical – the sights of Mangyshlak are worth seeing in person. Thanks to its remoteness from busy routes, difficult terrain and extreme temperatures, the region has preserved its identity. We tell you about the most interesting sights in the new issue of Five Reasons to Stay Home.

Reason #1. Walk the shores of the Caspian Sea

There are about 70 names of the Caspian Sea. It was called Khvalynsk, Hyrkan and Khazar, but the most ancient one is the one, named after the Caspian tribes. They lived here approximately in the first millennium BC. Walking along the shores of the Caspian Sea is the first reason to visit Mangistau.

The Caspian Sea is the largest enclosed body of water on Earth, and it washes the shores of five countries. Of these, Kazakhstan has the longest coastline – about 2,300 km. Most of it falls on the Mangyshlak Peninsula or, as they say more often in Kazakhstan, Mangistau.

“A lot of bays, bays, and capes have long attracted travelers, explorers, and local historians. The most beautiful place is the Blue Bay. The water there is turquoise, clean shore, sandy beach. The beaches are the most popular tourist destinations”, says Zhadyra Aksembai, a specialist from the Mangistau State Historical and Cultural Reserve.

Reason #2. To see the Valley of Castles

Millions of years ago these places were the bottom of the ancient Tethys ocean. Over the long centuries, as the sea receded, the water washed out in the soft limestone with bizarre reliefs. Most of the local mountains are the so-called remnants. That is, the remnants of harder rocks that were not eroded by the receding ocean and then destroyed by the wind. When you first visit this place, it seems that you found yourself in some deserted fairytale city. This is the famous system of the Airakta Rim Mountains. But tourists have given it its own, popular, name – the Valley of Castles. Not lacking in imagination travelers will see in the rock piles then the image of a gray-haired old man, then the palace walls, then powerful columns.

Reason #3. Find the remains of prehistoric seashells in the mountains

Seascapes are not always the freshness of the breeze and the coolness of the water. The desert mountains of Mangistau also retain traces of the maritime past. They can be seen in the local reliefs and petrified prints of the water inhabitants. It is not without reason that Mangistau is called a paleontological museum. Finding the remains of prehistoric shells or shark teeth in the mountains is another reason to visit these interesting places.

Shark teeth are hard to find on the tops of the Ayrakta Mountains, but fossilized ammonites, seashells, or imprints of all kinds of shells are everywhere in these mountains.

“Here you can find shark teeth, clams, ammonites, belemnites – whoever is lucky. Tourists who travel often usually find them,” Jadyra Aksembay notes.

If the Tethys Ocean exposed the valleys of Mangistau about 20 million years ago, the age and preservation of these fossils is impressive. To hold such antiquity in your hands is expensive.

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Reason #4. To see with your own eyes the openwork canyon of Ybykty

The underground gorges of Mangistau are still little known. It is not an easy way to get to them: it is dozens of kilometers from the nearest settlement on the dry steppe. On reaching them, one can easily miss them because they are so skillfully hidden in the local relief. It seems the expression “terribly beautiful” has been coined about this very place. From the outside you can see only the bare steppe and a narrow crack in the ground, but it is worth descending a few meters into it and you will see amazing views.

The canyon stretches for several kilometers. The slopes of shell and limestone remind of the ancient maritime past of the region.

“It is also called the Valley of Springs. The water there is always warm, most likely these springs made this canyon,” says ethnographer Stanislav Lee.

Stone, water, wind and time have created real miracles here. A few kilometers away is another, more famous canyon, Ybykty. Because of its unusual topography, it is called the “openwork gorge. The slopes look like a porous chocolate or a bee honeycomb. Tourists from all over the country come to admire the unique creation of nature.

“It’s very beautiful. Even when it is over 40 degrees Celsius outside and the stones are red-hot it is pleasantly cool here. It’s a natural air conditioner, you don’t want to leave it,” Mamyrzhan and Gulzhan Ernazaip shared.

Reason No.5. To go down to the underground Karaman-Ata mosque.

Mangyshlak is also a land of rock and underground mosques. Since the XII century, one of the branches of Islam, Sufism, began to spread actively here. Dervish Sufis carved out caves in the local rocks and led a life of seclusion or preaching. Over time, many turned into mosques, sometimes becoming centers of medieval education and always sacred places.

Karaman-Ata is the only mosque in Mangyshlak built entirely underground. It is said to have been dug in the soft rock more than 700 years ago – approximately in the XII-XIII centuries. The mosque bears the name of one of the most revered saints in Mangyshlak. It is believed that he lived here, taught his followers and healed people. Near the cave, which Karaman-Ata built, there subsequently appeared a whole necropolis. For centuries, local residents tried to bury their dead close to the holy place. Pilgrims still come here from all over Kazakhstan and not only. In recent years, a road and guest houses have also appeared.

“This place has a very strong aura, a powerful energy. When you go down to the underground mosque, you can feel all this power. People come here, asking for well-being for their families, happiness. Everyone has different situations: some dream of having a child, others of getting rid of illnesses,” said Saule Zhakaeva, Director of the Karaman-Ata Foundation.

Journey to Kazakhstan. Ringed Mangyshlak

The Mangyshlak Peninsula, located on the northeast coast of the Caspian Sea, is extraordinarily beautiful and distinctive. In early May, its flora and fauna revive after the cold winter, turning this deserted land into a real oasis. Much has been written about its nature, so our main story will be about the realities of auto-tourism in Kazakhstan, and photographs will tell you better than any words about its natural beauty.

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Ringed Mangyshlak


Six years after my last expedition I went to Kazakhstan again. The reason for it was a meeting with Evgeny Shatalov – the head of UAZ Patriot Club Ural… No, if I write in such language, the mental eye of the reader will see two men in gray suits, sitting behind a long table in the meeting room and discussing prospects and methods of development of their off-road clubs. So I will start again.

In March in Chelyabinsk, sitting at a table with vodka and dumplings, I asked Zhenya where he was going on May holidays, and heard that his club was going to Mangyshlak. I hadn’t been burning with a desire to go there myself after my trip to the Aral in 2005, but I thought the guys who were riding with me had never been to the Kazakh steppes. Following the sense of duty and because of the table enthusiasm I instantly offered Eugene to unite the efforts of his “Uazovs” and our “Undemanding Club” and to make a joint trip. Is it necessary to tell that the idea was accepted with pleasure by both parties?


The meeting of the groups was scheduled near Samara at an equal distance from both participating cities. Chelyabinskites were to meet the narrow road via the Ural Mountains and Bashkiria to Ufa, and then the disgusting asphalt on the stretch Ufa – Samara, while we were to face traffic jams in Moscow because of the large number of people who want to go somewhere, many kilometers of jams on the Ryazan bypass due to the absolute idiocy of the road traffic organization, as well as road repairs with signs “overtaking is prohibited” and “cancel the ban” with an interval of one hundred meters. At the same time, because of the dense stream of trucks crawling along the broken road and uphill at a turtle’s speed, it was not always possible to see the next sign. Because of this, the valiant policemen of Penza heroically detained two dangerous traffic criminals who were speeding at 20 km/h and thus violated one of the most nourishing traffic rules. The inspector was not being petty and called us one by one to his mobile cash register, but simply jammed my license number with his dirty fingers, so that only the number 19 was visible among them. The policeman offered to give him this sum immediately so that he could forget about our violation, and returned the license. Tolya, apparently out of nervous shock, remembered the word “shalom” he had learned during his trip to Israel and, without thinking, uttered it, which embarrassed the “gibbon. When we continued on our way, each of us had five thousand rubles lighter in our wallets as they went into the second chin fund of the Russian traffic police.

This was the end of the first day’s adventures and we arrived safely at the rendezvous point.

Interesting and little-known sights


In the six years that I had not been to border crossings between Russia and Kazakhstan, I had no time to miss them. And is it possible to miss the queues at the barriers on the dusty roads, the close inspection of vehicles and the running with papers and passports to various windows?

Finally it was all over. We were in the Republic of Kazakhstan, but the formalities did not stop there. For starters, right at the border, we were offered mandatory car insurance, and in the small sheets of paper that stamped our border crossing, we were required to get another one at the place of registration. This had to be done within four days (we had half a day allotted for this in Aktau, but we did not meet this deadline). And now we drove to the city of Uralsk, where we planned to exchange rubles for tenge. On both sides of the narrow asphalt road the bare steppe stretched to the horizon. The transition from forested areas, settlements, and industrial buildings to the desolate steppe was sudden.


Uralsk was a fairly large city with dense traffic and developed infrastructure. If I did not look at the signboards, where the slightly modified Cyrillic alphabet was used to form words that were completely unfamiliar, and if I did not pay attention to the license plates with Latin letters, I could easily imagine that I was in a Russian district center.

We exchanged rubles for tenge at the rate of 1/5.2 and poured technical water into all the empty containers at the car wash. After that our group left civilization for some time. As it made no sense to choose a certain place for spending the night in the monotonous landscape, we, without overthinking, simply turned off into the steppe, drove off the road for a couple of kilometers and set up camp.



Employees of both Russian and Kazakh customs made a favorable impression on me, which cannot be said about the organization of their work. This is primarily due to the lack of normal access routes. We visited two crossings on the Samara-Uralsk and Atyrau-Astrakhan routes. In both cases a narrow road leads to the border crossing zone, crowded with trucks waiting to be cleared. Passenger cars have to use the oncoming side of the road to avoid them. Cab drivers fussing with pedestrians, crowds of bus passengers standing in line for inspection, and locals from the border area rushing in and out in their non-inspected cars. In general, there is an atmosphere of general chaos at the border.

Literally a month before our arrival, Russia and Kazakhstan united into a common economic space, the customs between them was abolished. We were very happy about this fact, naively believing that now the time to travel through the border crossing would be reduced. I don’t know what changed on paper, but in practice the procedure remained the same. Just now instead of customs officers, the cars were inspected by border guards, who in the same way forced to take out all the equipment and open bags and crates. As a result, at the first, quieter crossing near Uralsk, a convoy of 12 vehicles spent three hours in the middle of the day, and at the second, near Astrakhan, six vehicles spent four hours deep into the night.

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Road infrastructure

The main highways in East Kazakhstan are asphalt roads with one lane in each direction. The intensity of traffic on them is not very high, so there are no problems with overtaking. More precisely, there would be no problems if it were not for the road signs. “Overtaking is forbidden” is the most popular of them. It is everywhere and for every reason, so on the deserted road with 1 km visibility you have to pull a truck for several kilometers, driving sheep at 30 km/h. Another unpleasant thing was the speed limit in towns and villages to 40 km / h (with a sign of the beginning of a settlement, usually a couple of miles before the first houses). Steppe, camels, and you “speed” 40, because officially it’s a city.


Secondary steppe roads are present in incredible numbers. They usually lead to active, or more often abandoned, sheepfolds or small auls. If in the dry weather, these roads are quite passable by any car (and there is no need to be – you can drive on them at 50-60 km / h), but after the rain they become a mess, it is difficult to overcome even on the four-wheel drive. But rains are not frequent even in spring in the area of Mangyshlak Peninsula, so the main enemy of the motorist is usually road dust, which follows the car in a dense trail.


Further progress towards Mangyshlak Peninsula merged into a series of oncoming and passing cars, camels grazing in the steppe and “overtaking is forbidden” signs, placed densely and with one logic clear to traffic cops. By the way, in populated areas of Kazakhstan there is a speed limit up to 40 km/h.

Beyond Beineu the asphalt ended. We had to drive on a very dusty and bumpy gravel road, riddled with holes and bumps. To make the bumps less bumpy, we followed the example of the local truckers, driving their trucks parallel to the main road on the ruts rolled in the steppe. But even here our off-road vehicles, prepared for severe conditions, could not reach speeds of over 50 km/h. We spent the whole day on the 300 kilometer section and spent the night in Shetpe, where we unexpectedly met two other expeditions: the crew from Yekaterinburg, driving two Toyota 4Runners to Georgia, and a couple of Range Rover National Geographers, returning to Moscow. Sixteen SUVs crowded the central square of the village, making quite an impression on the locals.


We stopped for the night near Beineu among the sandstone hills. A small canyon is a vivid setting for a Native American movie. As we talked about it during evening gatherings, we came to the conclusion that, despite the diversity of nature on earth, the same landscapes can be found in many different places. The North American prairies, in our purely amateur view, do not differ from the steppes of Kazakhstan.

Not far from Aktau we returned to civilization. First, we took an asphalt road with a fairly good surface, and second, we stopped for the night at a hotel. It was nice to take a shower and sleep in bed again, but the main reason for visiting the hotel was still not a craving for a comfortable life. According to the rules of the republic, we had to register at the local migration service no later than the next day, and to do this, among other things, we had to provide a document about our place of residence.

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Early in the morning, Zhenya Shatalov went to make arrangements with the migration service, and we stopped at a gas station to replenish our fuel supply. In recent years, the situation with gas stations in Kazakhstan has changed for the better – a lot of modern gas stations have opened. We opted for the KazMunayGas network, and we tried to use their services all the way through. The unfamiliar name was somehow transformed by itself into GazMias. The price of fuel in Kazakhstan is much lower than in Russia. What explains it in terms of economic policy, I do not know, I think just steal less. One way or another, but diesel fuel in conversions here is about 15 rubles per liter.


Having filled up, we came to the Migration Office. Zhenya had already saved the forms for all of us, which we submitted together with our passports for processing. We were treated with compassion and allowed to avoid one of the procedures for registration – a trip to the police to take fingerprints. However, this did not practically speed up the process – it took six hours to put stamps on 12 pieces of paper. We managed to buy groceries, fix a number of minor malfunctions and visit a shashlik house in the city center.

During the trip we slept twice on the shore of the Caspian Sea. The water was playing in the sun, playing with absolutely fantastic colors. Crews were swimming selflessly, though the water had not yet warmed up after winter. But we were not the only ones on the beach: the sand was crawling with snakes! Each of us saw dozens of them. They were sea urchins. We didn’t touch them, and they, in turn, paid no attention to us.


As experienced travelers, going to the land of fat flocks, we brought with us a cauldron and a special burner. All that remained was to buy a ram from the locals. At the plateau, in the aul, they asked five and a half thousand rubles for the ram, and two more for cutting it up. We smiled at these nice, naive people and went down to the sea, where we bought a large lamb in a stable for three thousand. The shepherds did not even mention taking money for deboning it. They expertly skinned the carcass for free and in a matter of minutes.


We were sitting on the shore of the Caspian Sea, eating hot pilaf and raising our iron shot glasses to a wonderful trip in beautiful company. A few more days of travel through the amazing and unique wild steppe awaited us, a farewell to our Chelyabinsk friends, and a safe return home. But we will not be able to return to the usual rhythm of life right away, and we will dream for a long time about Mangyshlak, the land of steppes, deserts, mountains, and canyons that fascinated us. We made a circle around the peninsula, but found ourselves ringed.

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