The Caspian Sea, Camel Milk Delicacies, and the Culinary Wonders of Fish Barmak
Aktau is a major port city on the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan. Tourism is currently booming here, with premium-class hotels being built, and it’s quite possible that in a few years, Aktau will become a full-fledged resort capital of Kazakhstan.
Spending just one or two days in the city itself should be enough to see all the main attractions — the waterfront, the Rocky Trail, the lighthouse on the roof of a Soviet panel building, and to try dishes of Kazakh cuisine. However, Aktau is convenient to use as a base for exploring the surroundings, filled with mausoleums and other sacred sites related to Islam. Gerbils and camels can be encountered on the outskirts of the city, and it’s possible to see flamingos and even seals in the Caspian. If you go a bit further, the desert terrain gives way to picturesque mountains and canyons.
Winter here is cool, but for example, you could come in October to extend your summer, or in April to start your summer earlier.
Initially, Aktau was established as a center for the extraction of uranium ore, gas, and oil. The Mangistau Peninsula, where the city is located, is especially rich in natural resources. Growing from a tented city of geologists and builders in 1961, Aktau began to develop rapidly. The city’s development project was handled by specialists from the Leningrad Design Institute. Architects aimed to create the most comfortable urban environment possible. Gallery-type houses were built according to individual designs. Local shell rock was used for wall masonry. The double-sided orientation of apartments provides cross-ventilation, which is essential in the hot climate.
The city is divided into micro-districts, which replace the traditional streets. The numbering of houses goes as follows: the number of the micro-district is written first, followed by the number of the house, e.g., 14-33 (micro-district 14, house 33).
There is no distinct center in Aktau. The geographic and administrative center could probably be considered the Yntymak Square next to the Akimat (city hall) building. A 50-meter flagpole with a huge flag of Kazakhstan is installed in the square. Major celebrations, sports events, and flash mobs take place on the waterfront near the amphitheater in micro-district 15. The promenade was landscaped in 2018 for the 5th Caspian Summit. It features many small sculptures related to local culture and nature, a bicycle path, and sports courts. The promenade smoothly transitions into the Rocky Trail.
The Rocky Trail is one of the best places for walks in the city. It consists of a wooden deck with railings laid along the coastal cliffs next to the sea. The length of the trail is one and a half kilometers. This is probably the main tourist attraction in the city, built in 2019. Along the route, there are small sculptures, a spring gushing from beneath the rocks, reed thickets, and even a huge cave where pigeons like to roost overnight. The trail is suitable for walks with children, but it would be very difficult with a stroller.
The Chalk Lighthouse is called almost the first and only lighthouse located on the roof of a residential building. Since its construction in 1974, it has worked for almost 40 years and was restored in 2021. The house on which the lighthouse is located is situated on the windswept Cape Chalk (hence the name). The construction of the city of Shevchenko began from this point. The height of the lighthouse, including the house on which it is installed, is 73 meters. Now the lighthouse shines, but in reality, it does not guide ships but continues to delight residents and visitors of the city as an original monument and one of the symbols of Aktau. And in the house with the lighthouse, you can even find an apartment for rent.
In the city center, there is only one official beach. In the bay near the beach, algae accumulate in abundance, emitting an unpleasant smell and making the water quite murky. The bottom here is rocky, and it’s a long way to walk to reach a decent depth. Nonetheless, the beach has all the necessary infrastructure: cafes and burger joints, a volleyball court, and rental points for paddleboards and kayaks. The beach also features a pier from which pleasure catamarans set sail.
In the Primorsky district, there are two beaches – Soldier’s and Dostar. Soldier’s Beach got its name because, in 1959, it was the site for unloading materials for port construction, carried out by soldiers. The shallow depth forced the barrels and other materials to be dropped from barges directly into the water, and the soldiers – some knee-deep, some waist-deep, and some even deeper – pulled it all ashore. Dostar Beach is equipped with gazebos, relaxation areas, and is significantly cleaner than Soldier’s Beach and Beach No. 1. There are also unofficial swimming spots, for example, a small wild beach right on the Rocky Trail.
Wild Beaches Outside the City
Often, the temperature in the city for swimming is not very comfortable due to cold underwater currents, so one has to go out of town. This is because Aktau was built in a location with prevailing cold currents (to cool the MAEK power station). The water temperature at different points can be checked on the regional news portal Lada.
Shell Beach. Instead of sand, this place is covered with a multitude of small shells. Shell Beach was also the filming location for the opening scene of the 2012 film “Waiting for the Sea,” starring Egor Beroev.
Blue Bay is another noteworthy place with a large beach and Devil’s Finger — a cliff with caves standing on the seashore. Many people relax here on weekends.
The beach with abandoned ships near the village of Kuryk (43.189071, 51.623859) probably has the warmest water among the most accessible places near Aktau. The remains of ships are located near the beach.
It’s important to remember that people drown in the Caspian Sea every season, mainly due to swimming during storms, in areas difficult to enter and exit (rocks). Swimming is officially not allowed on the wild beaches described above.
According to the 2021 census, 75% of Aktau’s population is Kazakh, 16% Russian, 3% Azerbaijani, and 6% from other ethnic groups. In the region, there’s a chance to meet people who only speak Kazakh.
The territory of Kazakhstan is historically divided into three huge groups, uniting many tribes and clans — the zhuzes. In Mangistau, the Adai, representatives of the Junior zhuz, are the most numerous. The Adai are considered to be the most martial among all Kazakhs. This doesn’t mean that Aktau is an unsafe place. On the contrary, the region can be called more patriarchal — people here respect traditions, national symbols, and language with great reverence. Interestingly, even here, you can meet Kazakhs born here who do not speak Kazakh.
The Kazakh language here is slightly different from other regions of Kazakhstan: the Adai speak with more emphasis and use some words unique to this area, for example, instead of the common greeting “сәлеметсіз бе” (sälemetsiz be), here they greet by saying — “саламатсыз ба” (salamatsyz ba). The local equivalent of the English “what’s up” in Aktau is “не хабар” (ne khabar), literally meaning “what news?”. If you say this, you can definitely pass for a local.
It is particularly significant that Mangistau is considered sacred land. The peninsula is home to over 300 religious monuments. Between the 12th and 13th centuries, the Mangyshlak Peninsula became a refuge for wandering ascetics who preached Sufism. There are many legends about their arrival, all linked to a real person named Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, one of the first Sufi preachers. An ancient legend says that Khoja Ahmed threw his staff of wisdom towards Mangyshlak, after which he sent 360 of his disciples to search for it. When the disciples found the staff, it had already fully grown into the ground and turned into a tree. Thus, the followers of the legendary preacher remained on the peninsula to spread his philosophical teachings. The names of some are still remembered and revered to this day — Beket-Ata, Shopan-Ata, Masat-Ata, Kenty-Baba, Sultan-Epe, Shakpak-Ata, Koshkar-Ata.
Just outside the city limits, you can encounter various animals: camels, Central Asian tortoises, jerboas, scorpions, solifugae, karakurts, geckos, and various species of lizards. However, there is no need to worry too much about encountering them. Karakurts rarely bite humans, and among snakes, the harmless grass snake is predominant. Near the city, on an artificial lake that cools the plant, pink flamingos can be found in autumn and spring, using Aktau as a transit point during seasonal migrations. Huge colonies of cormorants nest on the cliffs south of Aktau. Bird watching is also possible in the city: regular birdwatching tours are conducted by a relocator — an amateur ornithologist named Vasily. And in the Caspian Sea live seals! They are recognized as an endangered species and are listed in the Red Book of Kazakhstan. Although they sometimes bite people, the chance of seeing a seal in Aktau is very small.
Tetysblu Amusement Park
20 kilometers from Aktau
The Tetysblu amusement and water park is located at the Rixos hotel. It features a huge Ferris wheel, several serious roller coasters, and entertainment for younger children — various carousels and trains.
The Turkish hotel chain Rixos came to Aktau in 2021. Along with the premium-class hotel, a huge amusement park was built. The park’s name comes from the ancient Tethys Ocean, which used to cover a vast territory, including Kazakhstan. It’s a great place for family leisure. There are three types of tickets available for the park: for the whole day (12,000 tenge (24.45 euros) for adults + 2,600 tenge (5.30 euros) for a child), evening, and separately for the Ferris wheel.
On the way to the park, you will pass by the Karakol salt lake, where, in a certain season, you can see flamingos and swans.
How to get there. During the season, bus number 6 goes to the hotel and the nearby holiday bases. However, taking a taxi is more convenient. The price for such a trip is about 2,500 tenge (5.09 euros).
100 kilometers from Aktau
Ybykty Canyon is a small but stunningly picturesque lace-like gorge in the deep Karagiye depression. Water has carved a narrow corridor in the rocks, and the wind has drawn whimsical patterns on them, resembling lace or porous chocolate. It’s a beautiful place for photo shoots because pictures from the gorge turn out to be very spectacular.
90 kilometers from Aktau
Saura Ravine is a gorge that houses a small freshwater lake fed by springs. It is home to marsh turtles. Above the gorge, the remnants of an ancient fortress remain. The place’s merit is that it is located on the coast of the Caspian Sea, next to a cozy sandy bay. The cliffs offer a beautiful view of the sea.
Valley of Balls
120 kilometers from Aktau
The Valley of Balls in the Torysh area is strewn with huge stone spheres (concretions). Scientists still have not reached a consensus regarding their origin. Locals tell a legend that these mysterious spheres are warriors of an enemy army, who were miraculously turned to stone. A favorite photo subject for tourists is Sisyphus pushing a huge rock.
110 kilometers from Aktau
Akespe Ravine somewhat resembles the Turkish Cappadocia. The snow-white cliffs, made of chalkstone, have acquired whimsical shapes over time due to the wind.
120 kilometers from Aktau
At the top of Otpan-Tau Mountain is the mausoleum of the hero (bogatyr) Adai-Ata. To reach the mausoleum, one must climb a staircase consisting of 362 steps. The number 362 represents the number of sacred places in Mangistau. Next to the mausoleum building, symbolizing the hero himself and his sons, is a sculpture of the Heavenly Wolf — a local mythological creature. In spring, during the Amal festival, a fire is lit in a bowl at the mountain’s summit.
180 kilometers from Aktau
From one side, Sherkala Mountain-Yurt remarkably resembles the shape of a yurt, while from another, it looks like a sleeping lion with its huge head resting on its paws. The name “Sherkala” actually comes from the Persian word meaning “Lion’s Fortress”. If you approach the rocks very closely and shout, you can hear a powerful echo.
Beket-Ata Underground Mosque
280 kilometers from Aktau
Beket-Ata is a famous Sufi, a semi-mythical hero-preacher. The Beket-Ata Underground Mosque is one of the main religious sanctuaries of Mangistau, to which the locals have a special reverence. The mosque is carved into the rock, consisting of five round caves. Pilgrims from all over the world come here to seek inspiration and advice. Believers even talk about cases of healing from various diseases after visiting the mosque.
300 kilometers from Aktau
Bozzhyra Ravine is the main attraction of the peninsula. Its vast desert cosmic landscapes resemble another planet. It’s worth coming here to admire the fantastic landscapes and try to find teeth of ancient sharks and other fossils, as Bozzhyra is the bottom of the ancient Tethys Ocean.
Since the city is located on the Caspian Sea, fish dishes should be tried first and foremost. Sturgeon shashlik and the local gastronomic specialty fishbarmak (it’s like beshbarmak, but with sturgeon) are served at the Aidyn cafe or the Caspian Riviera hotel restaurant. The “Caspian Riviera” has a special pond where sturgeon is farmed. Fishbarmak for five persons costs 27,000 tenge (55.02 euros).
A wonderful fish menu and a great sea view can be found at the La More restaurant on the Promenade. At the fast-food FishTruck, you can try fish doner — 1,800 tenge (3.67 euros), a sea pouch with shrimp and squid — 2,700 tenge (5.50 euros), mackerel in lavash — 1,700 tenge (3.46 euros), mullet with French fries — only 1,200 tenge (2.45 euros).
Aktau has a good network of Kazakh canteens Tagam: one is located in the President Residential Complex (14th micro-district, 84), and another at the address micro-district 28a, 23. In addition to the usual first and second courses, they serve national dishes made of horse meat, desserts from camel milk, and other unusual fermented milk products.
The cheapest place to eat is at the Russian canteen “Izbushka”. This unassuming canteen at first glance is located in the “Orda” business center (2nd micro-district, 47a). A lunch (first course, second course, salad, drink) will cost 1,200 tenge (2.45 euros).
At the Yellow Market (31st micro-district, 1), you should try drinks made from camel and mare’s milk: shubat, kumys. While kumys is quite well known even to residents of Russia, not everyone knows what shubat is. Shubat is a rather fatty drink made from camel milk, tasting like fermented kefir. There are three types of this drink’s strength: one-day, two-day, and three-day. The amount of alcohol in three-day shubat can reach 8–9%.
Districts with good infrastructure include the 5th, 7th, and 9th micro-districts. The 14th and 15th districts are located by the sea. There, many relocators live, but in terms of the number of shops and cafes, these districts are not the most saturated. These micro-districts mainly have Soviet buildings and lack modern houses.
Lovers of high-rise residential complexes with developed infrastructure settle in the 17th micro-district. There, Green Park and Green Plaza are located. They are equipped with their own water reservoirs, which significantly simplifies life during water supply disruptions in the city. Aktau faces problems with electricity and water supply. The city’s area has significantly increased recently, and the utilities cannot cope with the increased load — leading to accidents and then prolonged repairs. Aktau has no natural sources of fresh water. The water that flows from the tap is desalinated sea water. It is desalinated at the Mangistau Power Complex, which was the world’s first nuclear desalination plant. Currently, the nuclear reactor is shut down, and the MPC operates on natural gas.
One of the relocators created a special map where people collectively mark the districts most suited for comfortable living.
In the off-season, it’s great to live in the Primorsky micro-district. It is located away from the center, but it has its own large beach. There is a bus service, you can get there by taxi, or if desired, even walk to the city — about 20 minutes to the first micro-districts.
Housing can be rented through the website or app krisha.kz. When renting an apartment, there are no special rules. It is advisable to sign a contract with the landlord. Keep in mind that water pressure in the summer, especially on the upper floors, can be very low. A boiler will be useful for times when hot water is turned off, and an air conditioner is very much needed in the summer. If there is a garbage chute in a panel building, there are likely to be cockroaches in the apartment.
A bed in a hostel will cost 4,500 tenge (9.17 euros), and a one-bedroom apartment will cost from 10,000 tenge (20.38 euros).
Shopping and Souvenirs
Classic souvenirs can be purchased at the “Aktau” shopping center and at a souvenir shop in the “Volna” market. In addition to standard plates, mugs, and keychains, at “Volna” you can buy something exclusive, for example, prehistoric shark teeth often found in the vicinity of Aktau. We have mentioned the ancient Tethys Ocean above. However, be particularly cautious: some of the ancient finds may have an elevated radiation background. This can only be checked with a dosimeter.
As an edible gift, you can bring back hard balkaimak — a very tasty dessert similar to condensed milk, but made from camel milk. For lovers of salty flavors, kurt is suitable — a fermented milk product made from dried suzma. It’s like hard cheese, formed into small balls, diamonds, and other geometric shapes.
- “Aktau Life” includes event posters, cafe reviews, live streams from city events, and other useful things.
- “Aktau: Hangouts, Places, Food” — here, you can find company to visit some places, read reviews, and make new acquaintances.
- A few more useful chats include: Nike Run Club Aktau, “Tennis Aktau.”
Several environmental organizations in Aktau accept materials for recycling in exchange for cash. They also organize outdoor eco-Saturday events at local attractions.
Drinking water can be purchased at numerous water vending machines scattered throughout the city. Water can be filtered using a jug filter or boiled. Practically no one drinks raw tap water.
Be careful on the road: at night, accidents involving camels and horses, which cross the highways, occur very frequently. Camels can be seen in large numbers just outside the city, leaving in any direction.
How to get there
Airplane. Traveling to Aktau, Kazakhstan, from major European cities in 2024 involves several airline options, each providing different routes and services to accommodate the needs of international travelers. Here’s a concise guide on how to reach Aktau by air from some of the major European hubs:
From London, United Kingdom: Travelers can fly with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul, offering a convenient layover before proceeding to Aktau. This route capitalizes on Istanbul’s status as a major connecting hub between Europe and Asia.
From Paris, France: Air France in collaboration with a partner airline, such as Air Astana, provides flights from Paris to Aktau with a transfer in either Istanbul or Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), offering travelers an opportunity to experience Kazakhstani hospitality en route.
From Frankfurt, Germany: Lufthansa operates flights to Aktau with a connection in Istanbul or Baku. The airline is known for its efficiency and service, ensuring a comfortable journey to Kazakhstan’s unique city by the Caspian Sea.
From Amsterdam, Netherlands: KLM, in partnership with Air Astana, offers flights from Amsterdam to Aktau, typically connecting in Istanbul or Nur-Sultan. This route is advantageous for travelers seeking a seamless experience with reputable airlines.
From Rome, Italy: Alitalia, connecting through Istanbul or Moscow with partner airlines, provides access to Aktau. This option is suitable for travelers coming from Southern Europe, looking to explore the rich cultural tapestry of Kazakhstan.
From the airport to the city, you can only get by taxi — using the “Taxi Star”, “Yandex.Taxi”, or InDriver apps. The journey takes about 45 minutes and costs approximately 2,500 tenge (5.09 euros). At the airport, you can also exchange money for local tenge.
Train. There is no railway station in Aktau itself. The nearest railway station is in the village of Mangistau. Bus number 105 runs from Mangistau to Aktau, the journey takes about 50 minutes and costs 140 tenge (0.29 euros). The bus is widely used by locals, so it will be inconvenient to travel with large luggage.
You can also get to Aktau by taxi. There are always many local taxi drivers near the station, who take several passengers and charge at least 1,500 tenge (3.06 euros) each. Yandex.Taxi will cost about 2,000 tenge (4.08 euros).
Ferry. There is a ferry from Kuryk (a village south of Aktau) to Azerbaijan.
Transport in the city. The city itself is quite small in area. Public transport fare is 70 tenge (0.14 euros), the average taxi fare — 500 tenge (1.02 euros).
Documents Required for Entry
For European citizens planning to visit Kazakhstan in 2024, it’s essential to check the latest visa regulations as they can vary depending on bilateral agreements between Kazakhstan and individual European countries.
Historically, Kazakhstan has implemented visa-free regimes for citizens of many European countries for short stays (up to 30 days for some nations). This policy aims to facilitate easier travel for tourists and business visitors. However, for longer stays or specific purposes such as work or study, a visa may be required.
To apply for a Kazakhstani visa, European citizens typically need to submit their passport, application form, photo, and sometimes an invitation letter or hotel booking confirmation, depending on the visa type.
To stay for a longer period, it will be necessary to obtain a Temporary Residence Permit (TRP).
Foreigners who violate the duration of stay face penalties. For not more than three days — a warning, from three to five days — a fine of 29,170 tenge (59.44 euros), five to ten days — 43,755 tenge (89.16 euros), more than ten days — 72,925 tenge (148.60 euros), or administrative expulsion from the country.
When to Go
Aktau is essentially located in the desert. Summers here are very hot, but the sea (by local standards) does not warm up sufficiently. This is due to the cold currents along the shores of the Caspian Sea in this area. In winter, the temperature hovers around zero and strong winds blow.
The most comfortable month is August. The heat subsides, and an invigorating breeze starts blowing from the sea. The water temperature stays around plus 23 degrees Celsius, and the air around plus 30 degrees.