The Aktolagay Plateau is a cluster of freestanding chalk cliffs rising out of the eastern Precaspian Basin on the Aktobe-Atyrau regional border. It’s 50 km long and roughly 5 to 10 km wide, although some report the range to be double this length, despite maps indicating otherwise. The southernmost end is 35 km from the Zhem River and its northern end is 25 km from the Sagyz River.
The easiest way to get to it is via the Atyrau-Beyneu R-110 highway, and then once you’re on the Zhem’s north banks you can choose from a number of dirt roads leading east into the desert towards Aktolagay. Avoid following tracks on the Zhem’s south banks, unless you’re able and prepared to ford the river. Kulsary is the nearest gas station. Whatever path you take, it’s at least 3-4 hours off-road and 100 km of driving through dry salt marsh (takyr) and shrubby desert to reach the southern section’s highest point: Alashen Mountain (240m)*.
Roughly halfway is the Akkegershin Plateau, which overlooks the Sarkumak Tract to the south-west. Akkegershin is a more compact version of Aktolagay, measuring 10 km wide at most. A further 10 km north-east is Imankara Mountain (200m) and its cave, consisting of a couple 10-20m long hand-carved passages. See a drone video of Aktolagay, and Kazakh travel filmmaker Askar Zhanapov’s video of Imankara cave. From Imankara to Alashen, it’s a further 50 km drive east, and midway there’s the 19th century Dzhuban Mosque. Keep an eye out for kulpytases, which are ornately carved standing stones – aka steles – in slab or pillar form. They, along with saganatam, koitas, and sandyktasy, are common stone constructions found in western Kazakhstan’s burial sites.
The most recognisable feature in Aktolagay is a chess piece-like hunk of rock nicknamed the ‘Queen’. Names for other formations include ‘white boat’, ‘sphinx’ and ‘Titanic’. In many ways, the area looks like a smaller and chalkier version of South Dakota’s Badlands. Like with most other parts of western Kazakhstan’s desert areas, it was once part of the Tethys Sea. So, if you look closely you can find prehistoric shark’s teeth, ammonites, belemnites, and the remains of other marine organisms, in addition to gypsum crystals.
The only stream flowing off the plateau is the ephemeral Terisakkan, which rises in the northern section of the ridge and runs east where it meets the Sagyz. Note that there’s another river with the same name, originating in the Kyzylorda Region, that’s a tributary of the Ishim—Irtysh—Ob.
The best time to visit, as with most places in Kazakhstan’s arid regions is mid-late May and early autumn. Given the Aktolagay’s remoteness, be sure to allocate two days and go with more than one car, if you can. Also, don’t count on any cell phone connection.
*Some online reports state ‘Kiyakty Mountain (217 m)’ as the high point. However, this is incorrect. A quick glance at Google Earth, and the numerous Soviet maps, shows several high points reaching over 240 m. Also, ‘Kiyakty’ doesn’t appear on any Soviet maps. However, there are two peaks listed as ‘Kiyakmy’ (‘Киякмы’) at the northern end, measuring 231 and 219 m.
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