Sherkala (307 m) is five kilometres west of Ayrakty-Shomanai on the northern side of West Karatau Ridge. In Turkmen, Sherkala means ‘Lion Fortress’ as its western aspect looks like a resting lion. Its southern aspect looks like a yurt and features on Kazakhstan’s 1,000 Tenge banknote.
Surrounding Sherkala’s outer perimeter are rocky pillars, craggy faces and dozens of former watercourses turned into chalky canyons up to 100 m 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.
If you have 3–5 hours to spare, you can complete a 3 km walk around its base 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.
From the 8th to 9th century CE there was a fort in Sherkala. In the early 12th century Arab Sheikh of Khorezm Astsyz 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 Temir Abdal underground mosque, carved into the cliffs overlooking Shikh Ata.
There’s also the 10th–13th century Kyzylkala settlement next to Akmysh spring which has over 600 remains of buildings—for a closer look at its layout, check out Mangystau’s Department of Culture 3D model and 360-degree video of Kyzylkala.
Sherkala, and its surrounding settlements, acted as an important caravanserai during the Silk Road era. Traders from as far as Iraq made their way north, sometimes travelling in 3,000 strong herds of pack camels, en route to the Kama River in Russia. If you spend all day at Sherkala, you’ll see how the peak’s white limestone cliffs change in colour throughout the day: glistening in the sun, glowing under moonlight and lighting up in a fiery explosion of red and orange hues at sunset.
Reaching Sherkala requires a nearly 3-hour drive from Aktau and you’ll 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.