Aktau serves as a perfect starting point for journeys into the Ustyurt and the broader Mangystau Region. Its strategic location on the Caspian Sea, coupled with an array of cultural and historical landmarks, both within and just outside the city limits, makes it a place worth spending a day or two.

History of Aktau

The port city and Mangystau Region’s administrative capital, Aktau, is home to over 180,000 people. It remained uninhabited until the late 1950s when Soviet geologists moved in. Tasked by Efim Pavlovich Slavsky, head of the Ministry of Medium Machine Building, their goal was to prospect for uranium, with Slavsky green-lighting its extraction and the construction of a permanent town. Getting the initial settlement set up required trucks collecting drinking water from Fort Shevchenko, which was a 300km round trip through roadless desert. At the time, the Mangyshlak Peninsula had a nickname, ‘The Land of a Thousand Roads’, as each driver had their own preferred route.

Born in 1898, Slavsky worked as a miner in the Donbas, a historically significant industrial region in eastern Ukraine. By the 1940s, he had a distinguished career in the Soviet Union’s atomic energy and nuclear weapons program, overseeing the construction of most of the nation’s power plants and their ‘nuclear cities’, many of which were kept a closely guarded secret and collectively known as ZATOs, meaning ‘closed administrative territorial entities’.

Unsurprisingly, the uranium-hunting expedition was a success and the reconnoitrers initially dubbed their new settlement Melovoye after the five-kilometre-wide bay it overlooks. Once production was in full swing, they shut off public access for a few years and renamed it Guryev-20. When it re-opened in the early 1960s, it was briefly called Aktau and renamed again, in 1964, to Shevchenko, in honour of exiled Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. Kazakhstan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 saw Aktau’s name restored, but the city’s international airport code – SCO – serves as a subtle reminder of its earlier name.

According to a 2017 interview with Marat Shushakov, director of Aktau’s Museum of Labour Glory of the PGMK, the quality of Mangystau’s uranium was poorer than expected, so in the 1970s they transitioned to mining scandium in larger quantities. The city was nuclear powered using the BN-350 sodium-cooled fast reactor, which was also used for desalination and plutonium production. In 1999, it shut down after over 30 years of service. It’s expected the total decommissioning phase – following the SAFSTOR method – will take until the mid-21st century and cost US$330 million.

Today, the region meets its energy and water needs with MAEK-Kazatomprom’s three crude oil and gas power plants and a desalination plant. They, along with dozens of other fossil fuel extraction companies in Kazakhstan, play a major role in Aktau’s economy.

While the city’s history may not feature the allure of ancient bazaars or tales of Silk Road caravans, Aktau has its own unique charm. Its story is one of resilience in the face of logistical challenges, along with humankind’s reliance on modern technology and industry to survive and thrive in an otherwise tough arid environment.

Rocky shoreline and a blue Caspian Sea in Aktau.
Aktau coastline. © Alexandr Malyshev.

What to Do in Aktau

If you’re searching for Central Asia’s equivalent to Antalya, look no further than Aktau. From late May to late September, the air temperature ranges from +25–30°C and the sea temperature is a cosy +23°C. It’s dry most of the year too, and in winter it drops only a few degrees below freezing.

Walk or Cycle the Coast

Beginning at the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Avenue’s southern end, next to a sculpture of the Aktau sailing ship, there’s a coastal walk leading south-west to a promontory. Nearby is a nondescript-looking apartment block with a lighthouse on top. From there, the walk heads north for a kilometre to a statue of Taras Shevchenko, and across the road there are steps leading down to the sea.

Man fishing on the coast.
Aktau has some excellent coastal fishing spots. © Alexandr Malyshev

Museum of Labor Glory of the PGMK

Opened in 1984, the 1,500m2 Museum of Labour Glory of the PGMK is on the site of the former Caspian Mining and Metallurgical Plant (PGMK). However, needing to protect details of their uranium production process, they had a decade-long policy of only allowing government delegates and handpicked groups to visit. Nowadays, the museum officially opens its doors to the public, but they require a tour company, such as Aktau City Tour, to arrange a visit.

The museum has a range of exhibits detailing Aktau’s ancient history, its Soviet-era urban construction, historical photo displays, and models detailing mining and metallurgical production processes. For a closer look at the museum’s layout, check out Museum Portal’s virtual tour. If you can get your hands on a copy, Tamara Pavlenko‘s book, Golden Sands of Memory, covers the history of the city, the PGMK and its workers, and includes 500 photographs.

Nursultan Nazarbayev Avenue

Aktau’s most prominent street is the five-kilometre-long Nursultan Nazarbayev Avenue, which starts at Ak Bota amusement park and ends near the Holiday Inn. Its main highlight is the Eternal Flame WWII monument at the junction of Victory Boulevard. Head down the boulevard towards the coast for a few hundred metres to reach the Peacekeeping Soldiers Memorial and MiG-21 monument.

Across from the WWII monument is the Nurmukhan Zhanturin Mangystau Regional Musical Drama Theatre. It’s the only professional theatre in the Mangystau Region, so it covers kids’, Russian, music, and drama productions.

Walk less than 2km north-east of the theatre, through the botanical gardens, to reach the city’s Beket Ata Central Mosque. It has a 50-metre-tall minaret and accommodates over 2,000 worshippers. A kilometre east of the mosque is the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, located beside a large cemetery.

Mangystau Regional Museum of History and Local Lore

On the northern limits of the city, in a large square shared with the regional library, is the Mangystau Regional Museum of History and Local Lore, also known as the Ethnographic Museum. It details the region’s evolution from prehistory to present and features numerous dioramas covering the region’s geology, palaeontology, geography, the burial site of an anti-Tsarist Kazakh warrior who fought in the 1870 Adayev Uprising, and the Ustyurt’s ancient desert hunting traps.

There are also displays of Stone Age to Iron Age artefacts discovered by archaeologist Alan Medoev, pottery from the medieval Kyzylkala settlement, and infographics of the Kazakh Khanate era. You can learn more about Medoev (1934–1980), and his pioneering Palaeolithic discoveries, via his illustrated Kazakhstan petroglyphs research paper.

Elsewhere, there are rooms covering the Civil War, WWII, and post-war era, the Mangyshlak Peninsula’s many sacred underground mosques and necropolises, and Mangystau’s prominent political and cultural figures, including poet Kashagan Kurzhimanuly and politician-writer Abish Kekilbayev.

Photographs are on show too, covering the region’s pioneering exploration geologists, as well as Russia’s early migrants, whom the Tsarist government encouraged to settle in the area by offering tax-free salt mining and fishing rights.

With 115 exhibits and over 58,000 items on display, you’re guaranteed to find something that piques your interest. Adult tickets cost less than US$1, so there’s no excuse not to pay a visit!

Caspian Sea Sailing

For a few dollars, you can go on a 30-minute Caspian Sea boat tour with Guna Aktau. The eight-kilometre trip starts and finishes from the pier in Microdistrict 14, reaching as far south as Microdistrict 1. In summer, operating hours are from 10am to 10pm. They also rent out their motor-only catamarans privately for US$50 per hour.

In 2019, the Zhetysu Sailing Club organised a multi-day, 150-kilometre-plus multi-hull boat regatta between Aktau and Cape Sagyndyk. They also organise excursions and regattas on Kapchagay Reservoir and Lake Balkhash, in south-east Kazakhstan.

Arenda Yacht Aktau has a fleet of swanky sailing catamarans to charter and experienced skippers. The company also operates coastal tours on their motor-only Ustyurt catamaran, along with a floating playground fitted with a water slide, climbing wall, diving board, trampoline, and air pillow.

Caspian Sea Diving and Spearfishing

SSI Diving Centre Aktau offers a full range of services, including dive training, equipment rental, boat charters, guided tours, cylinder refills, and more. First-time divers can pay US$95 for a one-hour try dive with an instructor, either in the sea or in their pool.

Valeriy Pakhomov has a range of videos showcasing some of Aktau’s spearfishing locations, including impressive aerial shots of the coastline. He also co-runs the local Underwater Hunters Club on Telegram.

Aktau Beaches

Aktau boasts a range of beaches that are freely accessible to the public, but for those seeking enhanced amenities like showers, toilets, deck chairs, and umbrellas, certain stretches of the city’s coastline provide these facilities for a fee. Key spots like Dostar, Marrakesh, and Manila Beach are well-equipped with these comforts. These locations typically feature a variety of water sports activities, including banana boat rides, jet ski rentals, winch-powered wakeboarding, and stand-up paddle boarding.

Visit the Local Market

If you’re looking for a traditional Central Asian market selling fresh and dried fruits, vegetables, and meat, head down to the Yellow Bazaar’s farmers’ market in Microdistrict 31 or Volna Market in Microdistrict 5. Furniture, clothing and household goods are for sale too. Whichever one you head to, keep a lookout for shubat (fermented camel milk), honey and an array of Kazakh dairy products such as irimshik (cottage cheese), qurt (hard, salty cheese balls) and kaymak (clotted cream).

For a closer look at Yellow Bazaar, check out Kazakh vlogger Tomas Akynov’s video. Writer Terry Anne Wilson has an illustrated and evocative piece about Aktau’s markets and the diverse origins of its vendors and produce, ranging from Sakhalin Island to the Caucasus.

Alternatively, Aktau has at least four shopping centres of various sizes: Alatau and Shum on Nursultan Nazarbayev Avenue; TRK Aktau in Microdistrict 16; Ak Kala Mall in Microdistrict 29A; and Astana near the waterfront in Microdistrict 14.

Koshkar Ata Necropolis

Thirteen kilometres north-west of Aktau, beside the road leading to Fort Shevchenko, is Koshkar Ata Necropolis. A legendary, reclusive holy man who came to the Mangyshlak Peninsula from the historical region of Greater Khorasan lends his name to the vast funerary complex, which spans the 9th–20th centuries.

The site is nearly a kilometre wide and features hundreds, maybe even thousands, of tombstones, shrines, and mausoleums. Many feature inscriptions in Arabic or tamga markings, which are a symbolic seal or emblem used by ancient Central Asian tribes and Turkic peoples to mark ownership, express identity, or show affiliation with a specific clan or tribe.

How to Get to Aktau

Despite its isolated location, Aktau has excellent air, rail, ferry, bus, and taxi transport. Although, if you’re travelling overland, don’t underestimate the scale of the country: it’s roughly the same driving distance – over 2,600km – to Moscow as it is to Astana or Almaty! Here’s a bite-size look at the transport options. 

Aktau to Baku Ferry

Roll-on-roll-off ferries run between Kazakhstan’s Kuryk port and Azerbaijan’s Alat port, both of which are 70km south of their respective cities. They don’t run on a set schedule because their chief priority is transporting commercial cargo, so passengers need to be prepared for delays or weather-related cancellations. 

For a heads-up on approximate upcoming departures contact Aktau’s Ferry Management on info@ferry.kz. Contact details for additional marine transportation and logistics companies are available on Aktau Port’s website.

Expect to pay US$80 for a foot passenger ticket. If you bring your own transport, it’s an extra US$100 per car and US$140 per motorcycle, plus another US$200 for a vehicle departure ticket arranged via Ferry Management. Included in the price is tea, drinking water, lunch, dinner, and a shared two-bed cabin. Shower and toilet facilities are available too.

Aerial view of Aktau coast, city, and the Caspian Sea.
Aktau's coastline has long stretches of paved promenades, making it great for walking and cycling. © Raiymbek Durbenov.

Aktau Railway

Aktau’s railway station is 15km inland from the city, on the road to Zhanaozen and Zhetybay. Officially, it’s called Mangystau or Mangyshlak station. Getting to or from the station requires a shared or private taxi as there’s no public transport. There are trains connecting the city to other regions in western Kazakhstan, such as Atyrau and Aktobe, and further east to Almaty and Astana.

Aktau Flights

Twenty-five kilometres north of the city is Aktau Airport. Airport shuttles run five times a day between the airport and Microdistrict 15. Direct routes include SCAT Airlines’ daily Astana and Almaty flights; Air Astana’s one daily Atyrau flight and several Almaty and Astana flights; AZAL Azerbaijan Airlines’ daily Baku flight; and Aeroflot’s weekly Moscow and Yerevan flights.

Aktau waterfront with residential buildings, one of which has a lighthouse on top.
Aktau's waterfront. Notice the red tower on top of the apartment block? It's a lighthouse! © Alexandr Malyshev
Overcast skies over a Caspian Sea beach.
© Alexandr Malyshev

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