At first glance, Western Kazakhstan seems a lot like Arabia. Oil, camels, desert. But this paltry Sahara lexicon is enriched with a very specific, local vocabulary: underground mosque, Devil’s Balls, bitumen lake, moufflon.
If that sounds interesting, read on. The lack of infrastructure in the deserts of West Kazakhstan, however, means this is a place for explorers with their own expedition-grade transport. Barring that, you will likely need a decent budget to organise a tour, or a rental car, if you want to go beyond the cities.
Atyrau and Aktolagai
Atyrau is Kazakhstan’s oil capital. The scandalous wealth gap on display here makes it a rather dodgy place for foreigners lurking around back streets. We recommend to turn away from the gleaming architecture, heading into the desert instead.
The Aktolagai pyramid is the obvious landmark in a region with enough historic and panoramic interest to warrant at least an overnight trip.
As a placeholder until we fund our own deeper explorations, we put up 2 itineraries into the Aktolagai and Mangystau areas.
Aqtau and Mangystau
Aqtau is another unexciting place fuelled by oil money. I do not recommend visiting unless you are interested in exploring Mangystau, or taking the ferry across the Caspian Sea.
The Mangystau region, on the other hand, is full of surprises. You can join a pilgrimage to an underground mosque, ponder the mystery of the Devil’s Balls, or find perspective from the heights of the Ustyurt plateau or the depths of the Karagiye depression.
Mangystau has a Turkmen influence, and not only in the landscape. Many Kazakhs in, for instance, Zhanaozen and Beyneu, are recent immigrants from Turkmenistan.
Oral and around
Oral is an old city, to Kazakh standards, a trade hub along the Ural river. Seeing its location, it’s no surprise that Oral is mostly of interest for its role in Russian history. Nearby Aksai is the main hub for oil exploitation.
Around Oral, there are caves and lakes, and remnants of the era of the Bukei horde. That, however, is the complete extent of my knowledge of the region.
Despite 1000s of professional travel bloggers posting millions of articles a year, here lies an area the size of Uruguay I have never read anything about. I’d love to (read about someone) kayak from Oral to the Caspian Sea, or land sail the steppe in search of saiga. Just 1 person.
Instead we are stuck with ’10 best tapas bars in Pyongyang.’
Next stop in Kazakhstan
- Almaty Region: Kazakhstan’s most pleasant city, sat on the doorstep of a mountain range. Beyond, a landscape safari beckons.
- The South: Medieval mausoleums, and national parks sheltering tulips, birds, mountains and bears
- The North: Kazakhstan’s brash new capital stands in stark contrast to modest Altai
- The Center: Remote steppe oddities of niche interest