Sherkala (332m) is 5km west of Ayrakty-Shomanai on the northern side of the West Karatau Range. Its name is derived from the Persian words for lion (shir) and fortress (qalat), as its western aspect resembles a resting lion. Its southern aspect looks like a yurt and features on Kazakhstan’s 1,000 tenge banknote.

sherkala-east-side-with-grassy-steppe
Sherkala's west face. Photo by Valeria Bolotova is licensed with CC BY 2.0.

Surrounding Sherkala’s outer perimeter are rocky pillars, craggy faces and dozens of former watercourses turned into chalky canyons up to 100m deep. If you want to reach the top, it’s possible to climb or scramble your way to the summit or, if you can find it, there’s a supposed secret passage with rope ladders leading to the top.

Spend a full day at Sherkala and you’ll witness the stunning transformation of its white limestone cliffs as they shift in colour with the changing light – from glistening in the sun and glowing in the moonlight, to a fiery display of red and orange hues at sunset.With a couple of hours to spare, it’s possible to walk around its 3-kilometre-long perimeter and delve into its many caves. Legend has it that completing a full loop makes your wishes come true. Keep a lookout for horse and camel herds.

Sherkala Archaeological Sites

In the early 12th century, Arab Shah Atsiz of Khwarezm invaded the Mangystau Region and created the nearby ‘Mankashlak’ settlement. Remnants of the region’s past can be seen at Shikh Ata Necropolis and the small 18th–20th century Temir Abdal Mosque, carved into the cliffs overlooking Shikh Ata.

There’s also the 10th–13th century Kyzylkala settlement next to Akmysh spring, featuring the remains of several hundred building foundations. For a closer look at its layout, check out Mangystau’s Department of Culture 3D model and 360-degree video of Kyzylkala.

Sherkala, along with its neighbouring settlements, played a vital role as a caravanserai during the Silk Road era. It served as a key stopover for traders journeying from regions as distant as Iraq, often with large caravans, heading towards the northern territories, including parts of what is now Russia.

Sherkala seen from Shikh Ata necropolis. Photo by Elekes Andor is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0.
bactrian-baby-camel-beside-sherkala-cliff
Baby Bactrian camel hanging out at the foot of Sherkala. Photo by Valeria Bolotova is licensed with CC BY 2.0.
Sherkala seen in the distance with desert in the foreground.
© Aleksei Lasinskii
Close-up view of Sherkala's white, pink and brown cliffs.
© Aleksei Lasinskii

How to Get to Sherkala

Reaching Sherkala requires a nearly 3-hour drive from Aktau. You need a decent off-road vehicle once you turn off the main Atyrau–Aktau road. Four kilometres south of Sherkala is Samal Gorge, which, unusually, has a freshwater spring flowing year-round.

Coordinates:

  • Sherkala (Şerqala/Шеркала): 44.2561, 52.0056

  • Samal Gorge (Samal Şatqaly/Ущелье Самал): 44.2155, 51.9921

  • Shikh Ata Necropolis (Şih Ata/Ших Aта) and Temir Abdal Mosque (Temır Abdal Meşıtı/Мечеть Темир Абдал): 44.2563, 51.9932

  • Kyzylkala (Qyzylqala/Кызылкала): 44.2467, 51.9871

Resources:

 

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