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 a rich array of cultural and historical landmarks both within and just outside city limits, makes it a place worth spending a day or two. 

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History of Aktau

Located on Caspian Sea’s east coast, Aktau is a port city in Kazakhstan. It’s the Mangystau Region’s administrative capital and home to over 180,000 people. Because of a lack of freshwater, it remained uninhabited until the late 1950s when Soviet geologists moved in. Tasked by Efim Pavlovich Slavsky, from the Ministry of Medium Machine Building, their goal was to prospect for uranium, with Slavsky deciding on whether to green-light its extraction and construct a permanent town. 

Unsurprisingly, the expedition was a success and the reconnoitrers initially dubbed their new settlement Melovoye (Меловое), 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 (Гурьев-20). When it re-opened in the early 1960s it was briefly called Aktau and re-named again in 1964 to Shevchenko (Шевченко), in honour of exiled Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. His legacy lives on to this day in Aktau’s IATA airport code–SCO–and the ‘enko’ surname suffixes of the city’s Ukrainian-heritage residents. Kazakhstan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 saw Aktau’s name restored.

According to a 2017 interview with Marat Shushakov, director of Aktau’s Museum of Labor 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, and 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, generating over US$4.5 billion in hydrocarbon products in 2019.

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.

Here’s a look at a few of Aktau’s highlights, from monuments and museums to farmers markets and diving trips.

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 promontry. Nearby is Hotel Mangistau and 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. If you walk another kilometre further north towards the Renaissance Hotel, you’ll find a MiG-21 aircraft monument atop a concrete plinth. Nearby, there’s the Kaspiskiy Bereg Hotel and a popular café-lined stretch of beach.

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

Museum of Labor Glory of the PGMK

The 1,500 square metre Museum of Labor Glory of the PGMK is on the site of the former Caspian Mining and Metallurgical Plant. It opened in 1984. 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. Although nowadays the museum is officially open to the public, a tour company must arrange visits. Visit Mangystau suggests using Aktau City Tour LLP.

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.

Nursultan Nazarbayev Avenue

Aktau’s most prominent street is the 4-plus kilometre Nursultan Nazarbayev Avenue, which starts at Akbota 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 Afghan War Memorial and MiG-21 monument.

Mangystau Region Museum of History and Local Lore

Behind Delta Bank, in Microdistrict 9, is the Mangystau Region Museum of History and Local Lore which details Mangystau’s evolution from prehistory to present. It has many dioramas covering the region’s geology, palaeontology, geography, the burial site of an anti-Tsarist Kazakh warrior who fought in the 1870 Adai rebellion, and the Ustyurt’s ancient desert hunting traps.

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

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

Photographs are on show too covering Russia’s early migrants who were encouraged to settle in the area with tax-free salt mining and fishing rights, and the region’s pioneering exploration geologists.

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 one US dollar, so there’s no excuse not to pay a visit!

Caspian Sea Sailing

For US$2.5 you can go on a 45-minute Caspian Sea boat tour with Guna Aktau. The 8-kilometre trip starts and finishes from the pier in Microdistrict 14 and reaches as far as Microdistrict 1. 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 the country’s south.

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 Center 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’s beaches are all open to the public. However, if you want showers, toilets, deck chairs and umbrellas, you’ll need to head to one of the four stretches of beach in the city offering paid services which start a US$2.5 per person. In terms of water sports, banana boat rides, jet skis, winch-powered wakeboarding and SUP boards are all available for hire.

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 Market’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, kurt and balgaimak.

For a closer look at Yellow Market 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 four modern shopping centres: Ardager–across the road to the WWII memorial, Shum in Microdistrict 4, Aktau Mall in Microdistrict 16, and Astana near the waterfront in Microdistrict 14.

How to get to Aktau

Despite its isolated location Aktau is well-connected by air, rail, ferry, bus and taxi. Although, if you’re travelling overland, don’t underestimate the scale of the country: it’s roughly the same driving distance–over 2,600 km–to Moscow as it is to Nur-Sultan or Almaty!

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 15 km 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. 

From the station there’s one train a day to Atyrau which takes 20 hours, and one to Aktobe in 26 hours. Every two days there’s a train to Nur-Sultan and Almaty.

Aktau Flights

25 kilometres north of the city is Aktau Airport. SCAT Airlines flies daily to Nur-Sultan, Almaty and Atyrau. Air Astana has one daily flight to Atyrau, several daily flights to Almaty, and Bek Air flies bi-weekly to Oral. Direct international routes include AZAL Azerbaijan Airlines’ daily flight to Baku, Aeroflot’s thrice weekly flights to Moscow, and bi-weekly flights to Kutaisi, Georgia, and Yerevan, Armenia. Airport shuttles run five times a day between the airport and Microdistrict 15

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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