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.
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 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 mountains are just across the border with Aktobe region. If you have the means to get there, this is a fascinating landscape built with fossils from a long-gone sea. It’s a 2-day trip if you are returning to Atyrau. Seeing the distances involved, a better way to visit is on the way to or from Aktobe.
We have listed 2 itineraries into the Aktolagai and Mangystau areas.
Aqtau and Mangystau
Get away from Aqtau and into the Mangystau region, though, and you will find a desert 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.
Uralsk (Oral in Kazakh) is the oldest city in Kazakhstan, a trade hub along the Ural river. It’s a cute town with a surprising amount of history connected to the Cossacks and the rise of the Russian empire. It’s well worth a visit should you be passing by.
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: Aral Sea, Baikonur, and lots of remote steppe oddities of niche interest