Fifty-five kilometres southeast of Aktau is the Karagiye Depression. At -132 m below sea level, it’s the lowest point in Central Asia and the former Soviet Union.
Its southernmost point is several kilometres east of Eralievo town, which has a train station, and is near the E-121 and R-114 roads leading to Kuryk port. The northernmost point peters out near the A-33 road, which connects Aktau and Zhanaozen city.
Size estimates vary, but it’s over 20 km wide and at least 40 km in length. Its deepest point is the Batyr salt flat, in the southern half. Batyr means “hero” in Kazakh, and Karagiye is derived from the Turkic words kara (black) and kiya (steep slope).
Despite the rugged and hostile-looking landscape, it’s home to a wide variety of animals, such as caracal, Pallas’ cat (aka manul), corsac and steppe fox, and mouflon. There’s also plenty of monitor lizards, tortoise, snakes, centipedes, and scorpions living around the depression’s cliffs and ravines. Its rich biodiversity also makes it a popular spot for hawks and vultures.
Together with Lake Karakol, 30+ km to the west, the depression is part of the 130,000+ hectare Karagiye-Karakol Nature Reserve. The reserve area also has some human activity, with oil derricks, camel farms, and watermelon and tomato plantations dotted around parts of the desert.
Less than 15 km west of Karagiye is the 15-kilometre wide, bowl-shaped Ashisor Depression, which is inland of Cape Sandy and Cape Sarzha. In 2018, there were discussions of developing a hotel and recreational area in Ashisor and turning part of it into a reservoir for leisure use. The plan involved cutting a channel, at a cost of US$130+ million, from the Caspian Sea to the depression to flood the area. For now, the project appears to be on hold as the local government and environmental groups assess how to minimise the development’s environmental impact.
How to get to the Karagiye Depression
To visit the Karagiye Depression, take the A-33 road out of Aktau, toward Zhanaozen and Zhetybay. Drive 30 km along the road, for approximately 40 minutes, to reach a turnoff with a southerly dirt road leading to the bottom of Karagiye. Another 12 km further east of the turnoff is a popular viewpoint overlooking the depression’s north side. A 4×4 is strongly recommended if you’re headed to the bottom of Karagiye or driving on any dirt roads surrounding its perimeter.
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