The origins of Atyrau began in the 1550s after Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s soldiers overthrew the Astrakhan and Kazan Khanates. Soon after, they erected a wooden fortress called Ust Yaitsk to protect themselves against the Kazakh clans who sought retaliation.
The fort was located on the Ural River’s western bank, which at the time was called the Yaik River, and by the early 17th century it had become a prominent base for the burgeoning fishing industry. In 1645, Moscow granted fishing and land rights to Mikhail Guriyev* along a 150 km stretch of the north-east Caspian coastline, between the Ural and Emba river mouths. Guriyev was also given permission to further strengthen Ust Yaitsk with stone walls because it was coming under increasing attacks from Yaik Cossacks, Kalmyks and Kazakhs.
Aside from a brief takeover by Stepan Razin in 1667–68, the Tsars held on to their fort with the help of a troop of Streltsy. The Streltsy were Russian firearm infantry, and often conscripted for life and recruited hereditarily.
In the 1730s, with Empress Anna of Russia now in power, Ust Yaitsk was granted city status and renamed to Guriyev. In 1810 the founding fort was demolished, after its strategic importance diminished. Since then, western Kazakhstan has remained stable, aside from a handful of Kazakh-led, anti-Russian colonialization rebellions in the 19th century. These include Sultan Kenesary Kasymuly‘s (1837-47) fight to reinstate independence to the country’s provinces; the Mangystau-based Adai tribe (1870) challenging the Russian Empire’s claim of Kazakh land as state property; and Makhambet Utemisuly and Isatay Taymanuly’s attempt (1836-37) to oust Zhangir Khan and his corrupt subordinates from the Bukey Horde, which was an autonomous khanate (1801-45) located between the Volga and Ural Rivers.
Commercial oil prospecting began in the Atyrau region in the 1890s, more than half a century before Mangystau’s. Although, it was discovered by local Kazakhs long before and used to treat skin conditions. In 1899, in the Makat district’s Karachungul basin, 120 km north-east of Atyrau, the Emba-Caspiisk Company produced the country’s first barrel of oil. Peace Prize founder Alfred Nobel discovered the basin’s second drilling site. Camels, carrying the oil inside of animal skins, were used to transfer the oil to the Caspian coast, and from there it was refined and shipped elsewhere.
By 1930 there were over 300 oil fields in the Caspian lowlands, most of which were sited on naturally-occurring shallow oil pools easily identified by surface mapping. Production ramped up during World War II as oil was required for bomb making, machine and weaponry lubricant, transportation fuel, synthetic rubber and more. Changes to seismic and geological mapping in the 1920s, the introduction of rotary drilling, more qualified technicians, building two pipelines, and constructing a steam electricity station in Kamyskul all helped the Soviets to meet the demand.
In 1992, President Nursultan Nazarbayev decreed to rename Guriyev to Atyrau. As a word, ‘atyrau’ is a regional term to describe the landscape of the north-east Caspian’s coastal river mouths, in particular its reed beds, islands, and tree-like deltas.
Today, Atyrau is home to over 230,000 people and the nearby Kashagan and Tengiz oilfields play an important part in the city’s economy—along with its petrochemical plant, ship repair yards, fish cannery and construction industries.
*Some sources cite Gury Nazarov, a Yaroslavl trader, as a founder of the fort and the fort’s name as Nizhny Yaitzky Gorodok, meaning Lower Yaik Fort, instead of Ust Yaitsk. Given Guriyev was from a wealthy trading family and had authority over the region, we assume Nazarov was Guriyev’s employee and likely played an important role in developing the fort.
Atyrau is Kazakhstan’s westernmost city and was Tsarist Russia’s first major settlement in the country. The Ural River cuts through the city and marks the divide between the European and Asian continents. Below is our run-through of locations to visit in the city. For a closer look at its scenery and daily life, we recommend checking out this Atyrau tourism video.
Atyrau’s local history museum is located on 3 Momyshuly Street. When it opened in 1940 it had 300 items on display. Today there are over 60,000 pieces in their collection, if we include the nine departments it oversees, some of which are in districts outside of the city. Their Momyshuly Street museum has display rooms covering the Atyrau Region’s ethnographic history, archaeology, the Great Patriotic War, Soviet-era, and much more. There are also jewellery, textile, musical instrument, and clothing collections. Across the road, on 11 Azattyk Avenue, is the Atyrau Regional Art Museum and its 1,200+ exhibits spread across eight halls. The museum has a collection of renowned Kazakh artist Shaimardan Sariev. On Mukhtar Auezov Avenue, overlooking Retro Park, there’s a Museum of Palaeontology too.
Built after World War II as a residential area for industrial workers and their families, Zhilgorodok is a historic neighbourhood in Atyrau. Situated on the east bank of the river, its highlights include the palatial Kurmangazy Theatre on Mukhtar Auezov Avenue, and a collection of Lenin, Kirov, and Chapaev statues running alongside Nurtas Ondasynov Street. The suburb also has the impressive half-kilometre-long Retro Park, previously called the Palace of Culture until 2017. The river bank adjacent the park is sandy and nicknamed Malibu Beach. For a bird’s-eye view, check out Teobaldo Marzulli’s aerial video of Zhilgorodok, which includes the park, theatre and more.
From Zhilgorodok, which is on the ‘Asian’ side, you can cross over the footbridge into Europe. Once there, walk upstream for 200 m to Zeynolla Ghumarov Street. Follow this road to reach Satpaev Street. Starting from Satpaev’s western end, there are numerous sights along this 2.7 km street, which takes you back towards the main bridge near the art and history museums. Highlights include the Folk Music Academy’s statue of Dina Nurpeisova and the Imangali Mosque, on the corner with Isatay Avenue. Walk north along Isatay, past the statue of Makhambet and Isatay, to reach the late 19th century Uspensky Cathedral. At the east end of Satpaev Street, near the main bridge, is a statue of Baibars who was a Kipchak – a Turkic nomadic culture from the Eurasian Steppe – that went on to become the Sultan of Egypt and Syria in the 13th century.
The Akzhaik Biosphere Reserve covers 3,400 km2 of the Ural River Delta, with roughly one-third of the area protected from development and human interference. Its wetlands were designated as a Ramsar site in 2009 and is visited by 240+ migratory bird species, including the Dalmatian pelican, spoonbill, bustard, white-fronted goose and Siberian crane. The semi-desert surrounding the reserve hosts rare species too, such as the steppe eagle, gray lark, and demoiselle crane. In terms of mammals, there are marbled polecats, European mink, Russian desman, among others.
So far, there’s no established tourism infrastructure in the delta, although it may be possible to arrange a boat trip if you head to Damba village, 20 km south of Atyrau. Failing that, head a further 10 km south-east to the last settlement, Peshnoy, which is located on the edge of the Caspian—bear in mind, you’ll need a 4×4 to go beyond Damba as the track is prone to flooding. Check out this short report by Khabar TV showing footage of an Ural River Delta boat ride, countless birds on picturesque sandy shores, and dense reed thickets.
An hours’ drive north of Atyrau is Sarayshyk, a settlement built on the Ural River’s west bank in the 10th-11th century. During the Silk Road era, it was an important trading hub and city for the 13th-14th century Golden Horde and was the capital of its successor, the Nogai Horde, until the early 17th century. It was designated as a protected area in 1999 and in April 2018 its status was upgraded to a ‘State Historical and Cultural Museum-Reserve’. You can find out more about the riverside archaeological site and the nearby museum via Sarayshyk’s website.
Drive an hour and a half further north from Sarayshyk to reach Makhambet district and its eponymous capital. Named after Kazakh poet Makhambet Utemisuly, who, along with Isatay Taymanuly, attempted to overthrow the Bukey Horde’s power-hungry leader Zhangir Khan in 1836. To learn more about the uprising, visit the Makhambet District Historical and Local Lore Museum in the main square. It’s open 09:30 to 18:30, Monday to Friday, and closed from 13:00-14:00. There’s various displays about the district’s local figureheads, artefacts from Sarayshyk, and old weapons.
A two-hour drive north of Atyrau is Inder Lake. Also known locally as Tuzdykol, meaning ‘salty lake’, Inder is 10 km south-east of Inderbor Village and the Ural River. Don’t come here expecting to swim—even though it’s up to 10 km wide, the water barely reaches above ankle height. Still, it’s a popular spot for people looking to beat the summer heat. Many come to rejuvenate their skin and joints too, by bathing in the lake’s mud which is rich in bromine, potassium and boron salts. No water sources flow into the lake, so it’s fed by rain, meltwater and salt springs. Atyrau filmmaker Tilek Askarov has an informative video about Inder’s lake and the district’s highlights, with aerial footage. If you want to stay the night, check out Inderbor’s Aksai Hotel on 10 Makhambet Street (+77123421260).
The Kazakh portion of the Precaspian Lowland, between the Ural River and Russian border, is an intriguing part of the Atyrau Region. It’s slightly smaller than Latvia and rarely visited. At its southern end are the Menteke Sands, which extend for 50 km+ either side of Isatay village, along the Astrakhan-Atyrau road. Further north, the Menteke’s sands merge into the Ryn Desert’s. The Ryn starts in Orda village and extends southeast for 180 km. However, the definition of Ryn’s borders is open to debate, with some saying it encompasses the entirety of the country’s Precaspian Lowland. Naryn Sands is also another name used to describe the Ryn or Lowland region. Either way, it’s big and remote. Atyrau Planeta offer jeep trips, camel rides and quad biking trips into the desert, starting in Atyrau and entering the Naryn/Menteke Sands at Isatay. Oleg Yanushko also offers Ryn desert quad biking expeditions.
If you’re looking for somewhat different shopping experience, head to the Tuma Livestock Market on Bigeldinov Street. On holidays and special occasions, such as Qurban Ait, it’s a tradition for people around Atyrau to bring their sheep to the market for slaughter. Afterward, the meat is divided into three parts and shared first to those in need, then neighbours and relatives, and the remainder is used to cook a celebratory meal. For regular shopping, head to Ramstor, in Atyrau Shopping Mall, 17 Satpaev Street.
Considering Glasgow, Montana is a five-hour drive from the nearest city and the USA’s most isolated town, we think Atyrau could be Central Asia’s remotest city. In fact, it could even beat Kirkenes’ claim to the European title, which is a sub-four-hour drive to Murmansk, Russia—as the crow flies, Atyrau is 1,400 km from either Moscow or Nur-Sultan, and its closest cities, Uralsk and Astrakhan, are 6 to 9 hours drive away. Despite Atyrau’s out-of-the-way location, it’s still surprisingly accessible.
There are regular buses to Kulsary and Oral from the bus depot directly in front of the railway station, located on Musa Baymukhanov Street. If you need a lift to or from the station, Atyrau newspaper Ak Zhaiyk has a directory of Atyrau taxi services, and rides cost a couple of dollars to the city centre. Alternatively, bus number 14 runs between the city centre and railway/bus station.
It’s a 10 minute drive from the train station to the city centre. See here for a list of Kazakhstan Temir Zholy’s train departures, which is the country’s national railway. As a guideline, there’s a daily departure to Aktobe (15:55, 15 hours, US$12) and Mangistau (11:15, 21 hours, US$12). Trains depart daily to Nur-Sultan, but times vary depending on the day (17:50 or 21:01, 24 or 38 hours, US$20-45). On Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday trains depart to Almaty (08:30 and 22:06, 38-53 hours, US$25-80). There are also trains to Astrakhan, Dushanbe, Khujand, and Moscow—view the schedules on Tutu.
Six kilometres west of Atyrau is the airport. SCAT Airlines operates a daily flight to Oral and Aktau, and a thrice weekly flight to Baku. Aeroflot also flies three times a week to Moscow. There’s one daily flight to Aktau and Astana, and up to two daily to Almaty, operated by Air Astana. Buses and taxis are available to and from the airport.
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