A landlocked country isn’t the obvious choice for a beach holiday, and, to be sure, landlocked Kazakhstan’s Caspian coast isn’t bursting with foreign tourists. This, however, is part of the region’s charm: clean water, relatively undeveloped beaches and intact traditions, plus mellow cities and unique, sun-blasted rock canyons.
The Mangistau region that encompasses much of Kazakhstan’s Caspian shoreline is one of the focuses of the country’s new cluster tourism concept, but as yet it’s pretty quiet. The capital, Aktau, sits on the shore overlooking multiple public beaches. It’s also the launching point for tours to the region’s cultural destinations, including the underground mosques and necropolises Beket-Ata, Shopan-Ata and more.
Salt, Water, Oil
It’s only natural that a country of unusual superlatives (home to the aquarium farthest from the sea, world’s biggest producer of uranium) would have a share of the world’s largest enclosed body of water. There’s some debate as to whether the Caspian should be called a sea or simply the world’s biggest lake. Its water is slightly salty; about a third of the salinity of most seawater. More than 100 rivers pour into the Caspian, including Kazakhstan’s Ural river and the Volga, Europe’s largest river. In the shallow north Caspian, oil and gas deposits are being slowly, painstakingly accessed; as the sea warms and deepens toward the south, it becomes an important home for birds and other animals – including humans.
Humans have been living around the Caspian for more than 10,000 years, drawn by the water and the abundant oil that even in the 10th century was being dug for and used for heating. Now, its water and energy support Kazakhstan’s oil capital, Atyrau, plus Aktau and other population centers. But Kazakhstan’s Caspian region is still largely a calm place, with friendly people, traditions still in practice and a slowly increasing stream of intrepid visitors.
The Landlocked Shore
A number of beaches are accessible from Maтgistau’s mellow capital, Aktau. “Beach tourism in Mangistau is developing,” Gulmira Suieuova, head of Mangistau’s tourism department, told EdgeKZ. “The swimming season is 5-6 months of the year. In recent years, there has been an influx of tourists who want to relax on the sea. Beaches near the town of Aktau are Manila beach, Nour Plaza and Dostar.”
Shinar Bek of Astana visited Aktau with a friend in 2012, with only a Lonely Planet to guide them. “We were there in the middle of July, but there weren’t a lot of tourists there. We saw many foreigners but not too many locals at the beach.” The water was very cold, she said, but very blue and very clean, and the weather was perfect for swimming. “We didn’t visit many places – every day we went to the sea. We liked the beaches!”
Aktau’s beaches are not pristine stretches of white sand, mind you. This is Central Asia, not Southeast Asia. But the water is cold and clean and inviting, visitors say, and the atmosphere is welcoming.
Theo Navarro, 22, assistant director at Study Inn in Astana, traveled to Aktau over the winter. “This was a trip in February, so it wasn’t cold, but it wasn’t swim season. The beach was mostly empty but very clean,” he said. “There’s also amazing shashlyk [kebabs] in Aktau and people are friendly.” Service is better there than anywhere else he’s been in Kazakhstan, he said.
Legends in stone
The Mangistau region is home to some of Kazakhstan’s holiest and most mysterious cultural sites. The strange underground mosques and tombs of Beket-Ata and Shopan-Ata are there, a few hours from Aktau, where tours can often be arranged.
Beket-Ata was born near Atyrau in the second half of the 18th century. A respected warrior in the first part of his life, at age 40 he became a Sufi, a follower of a mystical facet of Islam, and began to develop a reputation as a teacher and a healer. He built four mosques and many schoolrooms before his death in 1813. His ashes are interred next to one of these rooms in which he used to teach, deep inside a mountain in the middle of a rocky Ustyurt desert.
The underground mosque, called simply Beket-Ata most of the time, is a site of pilgrimage for many Kazakhs, and certainly the 1.5 kilometer walk over winding, exposed stone stairs down into a rocky mountain hollow to his small tomb can feel like a major effort in the heat. Along the way, there are resting places with pumps that deliver clean, salty mineral water.
Bek visited Beket-Ata on her trip, tipped off to it by some strangers she met on the train to Aktau. Traveling from Aktau to the necropolis via Zhanaozen takes about five hours, she said, and takes you from the seaside into a stark, bleached desert and through the lowest point in the former Soviet Union, the Karagiye depression, 132 meters below sea level. As you pass through the bleached desert, color starts to creep back into the scenery.
“I was surprised by the nature – the nature is different,” Bek said. “You see multicolored mountains in different shapes. The road goes way down into the mountains, then way up high.” There are also often camels by the side of the road, and yurts and people wearing traditional clothes, she said.
“They say it is a holy place, and the nature is untouched. It’s beautiful – it doesn’t look like anywhere else in Kazakhstan,” she said. “They believe if you go there, if you touch his tomb, your wish will come true.”
Most visitors there are Kazakhs, often believers on pilgrimage. Before and after visiting the mosque, there are often prayers and time to share tea and bread and fruit.
Bek and a friend hired a van from the town of Zhanaozen. Tours can also be arranged from Aktau. Advantour (http://www.advantour.com/kazakhstan/) organizes a 16-hour, 600 kilometer tour from Aktau to Beket-Ata and back along an ancient caravan route.
Beket-Ata iS often combined with a trip to Shopan-Ata, 100 kilometers away, the dwelling, tomb and mosque complex of the older Sufi mystic who was Beket-Ata’s
inspiration. Shopan-Ata was a follower of one of Kazakhstan’s most important religious figures, Khodja Akhmed Yassaui, whose mosque in Turkestan is perhaps the country’s most important religious and historic site.
Shopan-Ata’s necropolis is a large complex: over 3,000 tombstones, plus structures and caves with Islamic imagery as well as animal carvings and animist motifs.
Shakpak-Ata was one of the sons or grandsons of Shopan-Ata, and followed in his father’s footsteps as a mystic. His cave mosque (thought to be built in the 10-11th centuries) was cut into the edge of a stone cliff on the edge of the Ungazy mountain, and features stone carvings and columns with the remains of ancient paintings visible. The arches between the columns have remnants of multi-colored murals. The complex includes cells for private contemplation as well as larger prayer rooms, and columns with the remains of old painted murals visible.
Blasted Land, Blessed Land
“For casual visitors, at first glance Mangistau may seem colorless, withered, tired and burnt by the sun and wind. For people in this land of deep grown roots, it is a blessed land. Each stone carries a history of the peoples who once inhabited the Mangistau,” reads a tourism brochure distributed by Mangistau’s tourism department.
“Withered, tired and burnt” don’t usually make up a compelling description – and yet the land they describe is full of intrigue, color and mystery of its own.
The Black Mouth
The giant Karagiye (“Black Mouth”) depression, 132 meters below sea level, once held an ancient salt lake, and ringing its long ago shores are the artifacts of the peoples it supported. The drying of the ancient sea and the rise of underground water through limestone and other types of rock has created mile upon mile of bare mountains, craters and caves.
Valley of the Balls
One of the oddest sights in this harsh environment is pink-and-white Sherkala mountain, which either looks like a yurt or a lion, depending on your angle, and the strange “Valley of Balls” that it watches over. About 150 kilometers from Aktau is the small town of Shetpe, the closest town to the mountain and the balls. Stone spheres of different sizes, some of them huge, are scattered across the valley, sometimes grouped in lines, as though part of some giant’s game of marbles. As you pass through the valley and approach the chalk mountain, there are more underground mosques and cities of the dead, plus evidence of ancient caravan stops. Nearby are the remains of the medieval settlement of Kyzykala, a 10th century Silk Road trading post.
Because of its energy resources, Mangistau isn’t completely off the beaten path. But the region is hoping to host visitors other than oil men. As Kazakhstan embarks on a new tourism development program, Mangistau is preparing for some major investment. Aktau city will be the center of a cluster of tourism development in Aktau, Suieuova told EdgeKZ. “The cluster of Western Kazakhstan [which includes Mangistau] will be positioned as the ‘Caspian Riviera.’ The main tourist products that will be developed in this cluster include beach tourism, cultural tourism and tours.”
“The region is getting popular after TV commercials and some international programs about Mangistau, but it is not very developed yet,” Zamira Imanalieva of Advantours.com told EdgeKZ. “The region is mostly visited by people who want to visit holy places, the underground mosques Beket-Ata and Shopan-Ata for pilgrimage, locals and neighboring countries’ citizens.”
The relative lack of international tourists means English-speaking waiters, desk staff and taxi drivers are not always going to be at hand. That’s not a problem, Bek said. “Sometimes we met people who spoke English. Sometimes. We stayed in a hotel and our neighbors were one Japanese traveler, one Korean and one Ukrainian.” The Korean traveler didn’t speak any English, but got around fine using sign language and smiles. “He said, ‘I behave like Charlie Chaplin,’ and it works,” she said.