Perched on the western tip of the Tub-Karagan Peninsula is the city of Fort Shevchenko and its satellite port town of Bautino. It’s the Mangystau Region’s westernmost inhabited place and is closer to the Mediterranean than it is to Nur-Sultan or Almaty.
The origins of Fort Shevchenko began with the founding of Ketikkala, which was a Medieval Era port settlement. Since the 1980s, archaeological excavations have unearthed an array of finds that highlight the Caspian Sea’s rich maritime trading history. Discoveries include Chinese ceramics, bronze, silver, and gold coins from the Volga, and corals from the Indian Ocean. According to local archaeologist Andrey Astafiev, corals were also discovered on Kulaly Island, in nearby Tyuleniy Archipelago, and that neighbouring Bautino’s church once had coral branches decorating its interior.
Astafiev believes Iranian ships brought the coral and traded it locally. His main reasoning for this was that the Persians, at the time, were the only ones on the Caspian coast able to build vessels for long sea voyages and with direct access to the Indian Ocean’s corals.
It was from the Tub-Karagan Peninsula that Russia launched its first forays into Turkestan—the historical region of lower Central Asia—with the arrival of a military fleet in September 1716, led by Circassian officer Prince Alexander Bekovich-Cherkassky. Their landing point was Sarytash Bay, 70km east of Fort Shevchenko, near the Buzachi Peninsula’s west coast. They promptly erected a fort named after Saint Peter and, three months later, established another one in Türkmenbaşy (fka Krasnovodsk), Turkmenistan.
Bekovich-Cherkassky’s garrisons had two major objectives in the area—venture east across Mangystau’s deserty interior to the lower course of the Amu Darya river, around the Aral Sea, and prospect its waters for rumoured gold; and convince its owner, the ruler of the Khanate of Khiva, Shir Ghazi Khan, to cede to the Tsardom of Russia. For the expedition’s commissioner, Peter the Great, finding gold meant he could replenish the state treasury after a prolonged war with the Swedish Empire. Additionally, the garrisons were tasked with constructing more fortresses within Khiva and to send a convoy to follow the Amu Darya upstream to establish trade with the Mughal Empire*.
After weeks of hard travel from the Caspian coast to Khiva, the straight-line distance is 800km+ across mostly waterless desert, Bekovich-Cherkassky’s troops made it to the Khan’s gates bearing gifts from Peter the Great. Although they were refused entry, the gifts were well received, and the Khan sent out an emissary to discuss a treaty about the Amu Darya’s gold.
However, during their visit, a few troops climbed over the walls to warn the Khan that Bekovich-Cherkassky planned to topple the Khanate. This led to several small, bloody skirmishes with the Khivans. In a cunning move, the Khan pretended to back down by sending out a few more of his emissaries to reach an agreement, and asked that Bekovich-Cherkassky divide his men into five factions to make receiving them in the city easier. He obliged, despite stern warnings from senior officers, resulting in the brutal murder of most troops. Bekovich-Cherkassky was beheaded, too, and his head was sent to the Khan of Bukhara as a polite warning, much to his disgust.
It’s thought that Bekovich-Cherkassky’s poor decision-making was due to his alcoholism, which emerged after witnessing his wife and two daughters drown at the start of the campaign, off the coast of Astrakhan as they headed for Kazakhstan.
*It’s mentioned in Nikolai Lambin’s (d. 1882) book, The History of Peter the Great (pp. 650–651), that Peter was toying with the idea of channelling the Amu Darya’s gold-rich waters to India. Exactly why or how it would work in practice is unclear, as he would’ve had to find a path up and over the Hindu Kush’s foothills north of Kabul. A more likely scenario is he was planning to divert it to the Indian subcontinent via the lowlands of southeastern Turkmenistan and western Afghanistan. At the time, these areas were part of the Safavid Empire and Russia was on good terms with them, resulting in a treaty in July 1717.
Although Russia’s first military jaunt into Turkestan was fraught with tragedy, the intel that Bekovich-Cherkassky and his men collected, and the forts they built, paved the way for the 19th-century Russian Empire to establish a firmer foot in the region. Their resurgence began in 1834, with New Alexander Fort in Dead Kultuk. However, its remote location proved inconvenient, so the Russian Navy built Fort Shevchenko in 1846*. Soon after, Bautino port (fka Nikolaevskaya) was founded less than 4km to the north.
Both Fort Shevchenko and Bautino served as a crucial supply line for additional campaigns against Khiva, the Emirate of Bukhara, the Khanate of Kokand, and the Kazakh Khanate. By the end of the 19th century, all acceded to the Russian Empire, and the entire Mangyshlak Peninsula and Turkmenistan became the Transcaspian Oblast.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Trans-Caspian Railway was completed. The 1,400km+ line, linking Türkmenbaşy’s port with Samarkand, eastern Uzbekistan, provided Russia and its troops quick access to the Russo-Afghan and Persian frontiers. As a result, Fort Shevchenko and Bautino served as auxiliary military hubs for Türkmenbaşy. However, they continued to handle commercial trade with Baku and Astrakhan. Exported goods from Bautino’s port included camel hair, sheepskin and sturgeon, and imported goods included grains, firewood, and livestock.
The discovery of oil on the Mangyshlak Peninsula, in the 1950s, turned Fort Shevchenko in to what it is today—a small city linked to the bustling Bautino commercial seaport and the Caspian’s thriving offshore oil and gas industry.
*Its original name was Novopetrovskoye. From 1857 to 1939, it was called Fort Aleksandrovskii. However, after the October Revolution it was also known as Fort Uritsky, in honour of Russian Bolshevik revolutionary leader Moisei Uritsky.
While the western tip of the Tub-Karagan Peninsula isn’t on most traveller’s itineraries, it’s worth checking out if you’re interested in Central Asia’s maritime history and want to escape the bustle of Aktau city. Plus, it’s easy to tie in your visit with a stopover at Tamshaly and Meretsay canyons, and Cape Zhigylgan, which are less than 35km to the northeast.
Here’s what to see:
Taras Shevchenko, a Ukrainian creative and all-round Renaissance man, lived in the city in exile from 1850 to 1857. Tsar Nicholas I opposed his views on political liberalisation and his involvement with the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius, which advocated for the abolishment of serfdom and transforming the Russian Empire into a federation of Slavic states, with Kyiv as its headquarters.
In 1847, after a brief imprisonment in Saint Petersburg, the Tsar banished him to Orsk city, which is beside the Kazakh border and near to Aktobe. Despite an initial ban on writing and painting, the following year he was assigned to an 18-month Aral Sea expedition, tasked with sketching the landscape and team’s discoveries. While his illustrations were well received, the Tsar didn’t take kindly to the expedition’s commanders requesting to reduce Shevchenko’s sentence. As a result, he was sent to Fort Shevchenko, as it partly served as a penal colony for political prisoners.
The Taras Shevchenko Museum, on 7 Mayauly Street, opened in 1932 in the summer residence of the fort’s commander, Irakli Uskov. Inside, there are three rooms. The first hall details the fort’s military history and Shevchenko’s arrival. An adjacent room houses dozens of his sketches from the 1848 Aral Sea trip and an 1851 expedition to the Mangystau Mountains, where he accompanied a team of geologists searching for coal deposits. The final hall shows remains of the fortress and artefacts uncovered from the area. There’s also a dugout room, known as a zemlyanka, which Shevchenko lived in during the summer to beat the heat. It was given to him by Uskov’s wife, who, like her commander husband, treated him favourably—certainly he teaching their children to read and write must’ve helped. It’s thanks to the Uskov family’s support and leniency that he could continue his creative work while in detention.
Opening hours: Tuesday to Saturday 10am–6pm
Tel: (729) – 382-2333
At the north end of Taras Shevchenko Park, where the namesake museum is also located, is the Museum of Fishing History and Ethnography of Mangyshlak. There are three rooms–dedicated to the local fishing industry, ethnography, and history–containing several thousands items in total. Highlights include handmade goods, such as a traditional Kazakh fur coat (ton), a saddle bag (korzhyn), felt prayer mats, as well as chests, doors, and baby cradles made of wood. Plus, a collection of historical photographs, fishing equipment, jewellery, musical instruments, and countless other objects from the Russian Empire and Soviet times.
Opening hours: Tuesday to Saturday 10am–6pm
Tel: +7 (72938) 2-23-33
A five-minute walk north of Taras Shevchenko Park is the Isa Dosan Monument. It’s on top of Kurgan-Tas hill, which is where the founding fort was built, and offers unobstructed views of the city and sea. It was erected in honour of Isa Tlenbaev and Dosan Tazhiev, who were commanders in the 1870 Adayev Uprising against the Russian Empire’s presence in Mangystau. At the bottom of the hill is a monument to victims of Stalin’s political repression.
Walk another five minutes north of the monument to reach the Armenian chapel. A diaspora of Armenian traders from Astrakhan built it in 1893, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Khiva campaign. Although there’s an estimated 25,000+ Armenians in Kazakhstan, this place of worship, along with one in Almaty, are the only remaining Armenian chapels in the country. Half a kilometre southeast of the chapel, on the main road leading to Bautino, is a Russian Orthodox cemetery built around the same time. It primarily serves as a resting place for pre-October Revolution officers, soldiers, and their family members.
In the cemetery, look out for the obelisk for Austrian and Hungarian WWI POWs. According to local historian and author Natalia Zaderetskaya, who wrote Tupkaragan – The Cradle of Mangystau, the prisoners helped to install the country’s first radio station in the city. Rumour has it that the radio equipment, shipped from western Russia, was mistakenly sent to the city as someone confused Fort Aleksandrovskii for Aleksandrovsky military post on Sakhalin Island, in the western Pacific Ocean.
A few hundred metres south of Taras Shevchenko Park is a large traditional Kazakh cemetery.
Bautino is a five-minute drive north of the city, and next to it is Atash village. Around the port area are Tsarist-era buildings, some of which have their original wooden cladding, as well as ornately carved fascias and window frames. Zakhar Dubsky, a wealthy Russian fishing merchant, owned several of these buildings.
Zaderetskaya’s book research, in the local museum, led her to a 1907 essay titled The Village of Nikolaev. It paints the fullest picture of Bautino’s history. According to its author, local priest Nikolai Zverev, Bautino began in the late 1840s with an invitation sent out to Cossack hunters in Orenburg Oblast, Russia, to develop fishing in the local waters. Five families responded, moving to the sandy spit on the west side of the bay and naming it Nikolaevskaya village. Armenian traders setup a nearby settlement, too. Early settlers built dugout shelters, using stone sourced from the nearby hills and smearing clay on the walls and roofs for insulation.
To kick-start the local economy, log huts and home supplies were issued to all newcomers, along with subsidised boats, fishing tackle, and other sailing paraphernalia. The government also offered duty-free fishing rights in the waters until 1869, mining up to 68kg of free salt from local lakes per family per year, and exemption from state taxes and military service until 1904. Unsurprisingly, this drew more newcomers to the area.
Those that couldn’t make a go of their newfound seafaring life were resettled in the Kuban region, beside the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. However, some returned to Bautino a few years later—fending off bandits from the Caucasus and battling multiple cholera and flu pandemics proved even tougher than their Spartan life on the remote Caspian coast. Though, the peace was short-lived as the 1870 Adayev Uprising* saw the Russian settlers’ homes burnt and plundered by Kazakh anti-Tsarist resistance groups. Some survivors were sold to the Khanate of Khiva as slaves and remained there until the Russians conquered it in 1873.
After the uprising, the government provided further support to local families and extended settler benefits and tax exemption for everyone in the town. This enabled Dubsky to grow his commercial fishing empire by building a cold-storage house, which meant he could command a higher price for his catch, as well as setting up a loan system for other fishermen.
In 1921, Nikolaevskaya was renamed to Bautino, in honour of Aleksey Bautin, a local Bolshevik. In 1905, after the First Russian Revolution, he moved to the area from Tambov, Russia, with his parents and worked as a labourer. He fought in WWI, served on the local council, was a Bolshevik commander, and with Dubsky’s support worked to ease poverty and hunger in the village. In 1919, he was captured and shot by the White Guard.
To fully experience the town’s history, a walk across Bautino and Atash village is ideal as it’s just 3km one way. On the west side of town, the small beach in front of the Chagala Bautino Hotel offers an unobstructed view across the bay. For a closer look at the port and big ships head to the east side, next to Atash village.
*Also known as the Mangystau or Mangyshlak Uprising.
On the east side of Atash village there’s a network of dirt roads running for 10km along the western edge of the Tub-Karagan Peninsula. The end point is Tub-Karagan Cape, which has a half-finished early Soviet-era country house overlooking the sea that was owned by a general.
On the way to the cape, approximately halfway along the route from Atash, is a mid-19th century lighthouse. It’s one of the oldest in the country, however it’s been rebuilt a few times. The first one collapsed into the sea, the second one burnt down in the 1870 Adayev Uprising, and the third one–which stands today–was shot at by Basmachi in the 1920s.
Closest to Atash, and a couple kilometres southwest of the lighthouse, is the spring-fed Dubsky’s Garden. Despite its name, Bautino’s early Cossack settlers founded it, planting three mulberry trees to begin with. As new owners came along, flower patches, vegetable plots, grapes, and berry bushes were added. In 1884, Dubsky took ownership of it, building a swimming pool and summer house, and importing earth from Astrakhan to keep it in tip-top condition. It quickly became a hangout for Bautino and Fort Shevchenko’s elite merchants and local officials. In Soviet times, the summerhouse was converted into an orphanage and later on a pioneer camp. Today, it serves as a place for local residents and visitors to go for a quiet stroll and bathe in the nearby hot spring.
While there’s no guarantee it’s doable, the Tyuleniy Archipelago is just 35km north of Bautino port. Ask around in town about arranging a boat, but you may have to wait a few days for a safe weather window or to find someone with a boat. Alternatively, contact an Aktau travel agency, such as Expedition +362, or Almaty-based Silk Road Adventures run by Alexander Petrov. Both have extensive experience in western Kazakhstan.
Fort Shevchenko and Bautino are less than a two-hour drive north of Aktau. If you’re visiting Sor Tuzbair, Sherkala, or Torysh Valley beforehand, there’s a dirt road from Tauchik village cutting across the centre of the peninsula.
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