Senek Sands

Golden-coloured sand dunes with Senek village in the background and chalk cliffs further beyond.

The Senek Sands, also known as Tuyesu (Туесу), is an 11 x 30 km area of dunes located halfway between Zhanaozen city and Boszhira. Barchan dunes cover the south and eastern corner, and the north and west quarters are desert shrub land. The southern section of the Senek sands, with Senek village in background.© Marina Khlybova Desertification in Mangystau In 1971, […]

Sor Tuzbair

Wide view of Sor Tuzbair from the plateau.

Eight kilometres south of Kizyl-Bas/Say-Utes is Sor Tuzbair, a salt marsh stretching for 15 km along the edge of the Western Chink Ustyurt. Along with Boszhira, it’s one of Mangystau’s most recognisable and visited natural landscapes. The far western end of Sor Tuzbair. © Matthew Traver Map Data: Google, © 2021 Landsat / Copernicus The […]

Buzachi Peninsula Deserts

The Buzachi Peninsula has five small ‘sands’ (пески), which is a Russian term for a small desert: the Kyzylkum (Кызылкум), Uvahkum (Увахкум), Shulshagylkum (Шулшагылкум), Zhilimshik (Жилимшик) and Egizlak (Эгизлак). The Kyzylkum Sands start on the outskirts of Shebir village and extend 30 km west to Kiyakty where it merges with the Uvahkum Sands. The Uvahkum […]

Zhanaozen City

Rail carriages loaded with giant industrial pipes outside of Zhanaozen railway station.

Founded in the late 1960s, Zhanaozen has a population of 100,000+ people, making it the Mangystau Region’s second largest city. Until 1992, it was called New Uzen (Новый Узень) and has remained an important centre of the oil and gas industry since it was established. It’s a two-hour drive east of Aktau and because it’s […]

Shopan Ata

Red sandstone sarcophagus, locally known as sandyktases, sit in steppe land near Shopan-Ata.

Twenty kilometres north of Senek village is Shopan-Ata, a circa 10th-century underground mosque that is one of Mangystau’s oldest religious sites. It was first surveyed in the early 1950s by a research team led by Malbagar Mendikulov, a prominent Kazakh architect who incorporated traditional designs into his architectural work as a way to preserve national […]


Rugged cliffs on top of Shalkar-Nura.

Shalkar-Nura is in the central section of the Irgiz-Turgay Nature Reserve and is a part of the Aktobe Region’s easternmost district: Irgiz. Although the district appears small on a map, it’s in fact slightly larger than Switzerland, but has a vastly smaller population by comparison: 15,000 vs. 8.5 million people. The Irgiz-Turgay Nature Reserve itself […]

Saura Canyon

Steep cliffs beside a small, green lake in Saura Canyon.

Ninety kilometres north of Aktau is Saura Canyon. It starts 2.5 km inland, runs southwest towards the Caspian Sea and ends in front of the abandoned Soviet-era fishing village of Saura. Half a kilometre to the west is Karakul, an oasis-like lake in a smaller side canyon of the same name. It’s also home to […]

Karynzharyk Depression

A mountain surrounded by pure white salt flats.

Karynzharyk is an 85 km long and 15 km wide depression in the Ustyurt Nature Reserve. The nearest village is Ak-Kuduk, which is situated 25 km to the east, on the edge of the Karynzharyk Sands. Most of the depression is 40–50 m below sea level. The east side, known as the Western Chink Ustyurt, […]


Rock spires rising above chalk slopes.

Boszhira (Босжира) is Central Asia’s rival to the USA’s Monument Valley National Park, with the added bonus of no crowds. Packed into a 7 x 7 km area are several distinct red sandstone rock formations set atop waterworn chalk slabs. The most striking are the Azu Tisteri rock spires, meaning ‘fang teeth’ in Kazakh. Without […]



Ten kilometres north-west of Shetpe town is Ayrakty-Shomanai, or as 19th-century Ukrainian artist-poet Taras Shevchenko preferred to call it: the Valley of Castles. The peaks are freestanding and sit in between the Karatau Range to the south and the North Aktau Ridge to the north. It’s only a matter of time until a sci-fi film director […]