Situated on the banks of the river Ilek, Aktobe is a young, fast-growing city fueled by oil and gas exploration. There is little to see or do in the city for tourists, but it’s an interesting case study in how Kazakhstan is trying to create new cities, much like Astana and Khorgos. Aktobe is expected to reach 1 million citizens in 2030 (less than 400 000 at the time of writing).
The administrative region of Aktobe is vast, reaching from the foothills of the Ural mountains on the Russian border all the way to the Kyzylkum desert of Karakalpakstan. In between lies a sea of grass.
The sea metaphor is deliberate. Millions of years ago the Tethys sea covered this land; its remnants today (oil, gas, mineral riches, out-of-place mountains, fossil remains) lure both investors and tourists.
Strewn across the hungry plains are mausoleums that remind of a time before Russian power, when Kazakh khans and batyrs held sway. Agrotourism is not developed yet, but that should not stop you from wandering into a village to encounter the real steppe life of Kazakhstan’s livestock farmers – you are bound to find a warm, if very surprised welcome.
Before the arrival of Russian power in the region, the Kazakh Little Horde ruled the territory of modern-day Aktobe region. Famous rulers of medieval times are Eset Batyr and Abulkhair Khan.
As most other cities on the Russo-Kazakh border, Aktobe started its life as a Russian military fortress, on the strategic confluence of the Kargala and Ilek rivers, along the Kazaly-Orenburg caravan route. With the arrival of a railway connection on the Orenburg-Tashkent line, Aktobe grew in importance.
Heavy industry developed thanks to the region’s geological riches. Since independence, the energy sector, dominated by Chinese CNPC, has been a large factor in Aktobe’s continued growth.
Aktobe consists of an old town centered on the railway station, and a new town with shops and administrative buildings spread out along Abulkhair Khan Avenue.
Like a low-rent Astana, new Aktobe’s stretched boulevards and sprawling new developments do not invite for an exploration on foot. Drive or take a bus along Abulkhair avenue to see the golden domes of both the Nur Gasyr Mosque and the Orthodox Saint Nicholas church, set into a “park” landscape that also includes a small arts museum.
Move further along Abulkhair, past the FC Aktobe football stadium, to find the city’s modern heart. In front of the city hall a small park pays tribute to Aktobe’s WW2 fighters. A major role is played by Aliya Moldagulova, a girl-hero similar to Uralsk’s Manshuk Mametova. Aliya was celebrated in Soviet propaganda for her 91 Nazi sniper-kills. She retains her popularity post-independence, with a statue, a museum and a bazaar (all on Aliya Moldagulova street).
Old Aktobe consists of a grid of quiet, tree-lined streets. From the railway station, move along pleasant Kereev street to find the Regional Geological Exhibition on your left. Just a bunch of rocks for the uninitiated, but the geologists curating the exhibition are inspired advocates for their region’s underground riches. Possibly a nice stop before heading into the steppe.
If you get bored (it could happen), you may visit the city’s planetarium; it’s unique in Kazakhstan. The Regional Museum has been closed for years. We have been assured we did not miss much.
Most of Aktobe’s accommodation sits in apartment rentals these days. Like elsewhere, have a read through reviews to make sure hosts are reliable and keep in mind that despite translation apps, communication might still be a bit difficult.
Our recommendation for a great mid-range hotel in Aktobe is the central Amsterdam, which has spacious rooms, well-trained staff and (a rare find in Aktobe) good breakfast options.
Budget travelers will be pleased to read that even Aktobe now has several decent hostels.
Aktobe is connected by train, westwards to Uralsk (10 hr) and Saratov (20 hr), Atyrau (15 hr) and Aktau (24-27 hr), Orenburg (9 hr) and Moscow (34 hr). Eastwards trains go to Astana (19-28 hr, via Kostanay), Kyzylorda (18 hr), Shymkent (28 hr), Bishkek (38 hr) and Almaty (42 hr). Less comfortable, more expensive long-distance buses to most of these destinations are available as well.
Be aware that the train to Uralsk crosses Russian territory. If you need a Russian visa, take a bus (10 hr, 3300 tenge) or shared taxi (5 hr, 4000 tenge).
The nearby Russian towns of Orsk and Gay are not connected by train. Orenburg will also be much quicker by shared taxi.
Long-distance taxis gather in front of the railway station. There are 2 bus stations in Aktobe. The long-distance Ekspress station focuses mostly on destinations in Russia with daily departures to Orsk, Orenburg and Samara and less frequent buses to Kazan, Ekaterinburg, Moscow, Krasnodar and St-Petersburg.
The Sapar bus station is not too far off from Ekspress: it collects buses to nearby destinations and a bus every second day to Astana.
Aktobe airport connects directly to Almaty, Astana, Moscow and Aktau.
For approximate locations, see our map of steppe attractions. If you are going independently, make sure you have a sturdy 4WD. We currently cannot recommend a local tour operator.
Zhamanshin meteor crater
14 km in diameter and 300 meters deep at its lowest point, the Zhamanshin crater is young: less than 1 million years ago a meteor struck here. For the uninitiated, it’s an unremarkable hole. Craterists however, will enjoy searching for geological phenomena typical of meteor impacts: the geological exhibition in Aktobe has some examples.
The meteor is not too far off the main Aktobe-Kyzylorda road.
Cretaceous mountains and fossils
Aktolagay, Akbota, Sankibai and Peak Kulshara are the names of a series of mountains that formed from calcified mineral deposits around 75 million years ago. Fossils of long extinct species are easy to find, even shark teeth come up frequently. This is an eerie, awe-inspiring landscape, far from civilization.
The mountains are on the way to Atyrau and combine well with a more extended off-road itinerary in West-Kazakhstan. Be prepared for a long bumpy off-road ride.
Additionally you can find fossils near the town of Akzhar in Khromtau district, in the valley of the Aidarlyasha river, where the global stratotype (GSSP) for the Asselian period (298.9 – 295 million years ago) can be found.
Nature lovers may delight in the Irgiz-Turgai reserve, a collection of steppe lakes that attract a rich bird life of 170 species, including flamingoes. Located east of the town of Irgiz, there are no visitor facilities.
Different mausoleums spread across the territory of Aktobe region pay homage to the great men from the Kazakh past. Find the mausoleums of Kobylandy Batyr, Abat-Baitak, Khan Molasy, Eset Batyr, Isatai Taimanov, Kotybar Batyr, Eset-Daribai and Abilkhair Khan.