Ustyurt Caves

According to G. N. Amelichev’s A Brief History of Cave Exploration in the USSR and Russia, there are over 50 caves in the Ustyurt region. Here’s our overview of three of the best-known ones, all of which are reachable within a one- or two-day drive from Aktau.

Balayuk Cave

Forty-five kilometres south-east of the Karynzharyk Depression’s ‘Three Brothers’ peaks is Balayuk Cave. The cave’s entrance is on the east side of a 15m x 50m sinkhole. It’s over 100m in length and 120m deep, and has three caverns connected by a series of rubble-strewn slopes. The farthest point of the cave, which is less than an hour from the entrance, has a 20-metre-long lake nestled in a small amphitheatre. Along with torches – bring spares – a 60m rope is recommended for negotiating steeper sections.

Utebay Cave

Eight kilometres north-east of Balayuk is Utebay Cave. There are two separate caverns at either end of the 30m x 60m sink hole, which are accessed via large tunnels. Although the tunnel lengths are short – less than 30m – there are sections as spacey as a highway tunnel, so they’re impressive to look at. Keep an eye out for any recent-looking rock fall, as Utebay’s cliffs are fragile. Flags and ribbons tied to metal pegs mark dangerous sections. If you spot any missing or looking tatty, try to replace them so future visitors know where to avoid.

Satellite view of Utebay and Balayuk caves, and the Karynzharyk Depression to the northwest.
Map Data: Google, © 2022 Landsat / Copernicus, Maxar Technologies, and CNES / Airbus.

Karagan-Bosagas Cave

Sixteen kilometres north of Mount Karamaya and the Karynzharyk Depression is Karagan-Bosagas Cave, also known as Zheroyyk. Its entrance is 10m wide and on the slopes of Mount Baskaragan. A series of 6- to 10-metre-high corridors lead to a large grotto at a depth of 160m.

The nearest settlement to the cave is Ak-Kuduk settlement, over 65km to the south-west. In the Bosagas Tract, which links the cave with the settlement, is a monument to Baluaniyaz (d. 1856), who was a Kazakh warrior from the Adai tribe that fought in battles against the Russian Empire and Khanate of Khiva. The monument to him stands in the place of his – and his fellow warriors – final and fatal battle with Khiva.

Satellite view of Karagan-Bosagas cave, located in a remote section of Ustyurt desert.
Map Data: Google, © 2022 Maxar Technologies, CNES / Airbus
Satellite overview of the Mangystau Region, showing the location of the Ustyurt's caves.
Map Data: Google, © 2022 Landsat / Copernicus.

Logistics

If you’re heading to any of these caves independently, make sure you’re self-sufficient and carry extra fuel as they’re at least half-a-day’s walk from the nearest settlement. Ideally, travel with two or more cars, in case of breakdown. Also, monitor your route and make sure you don’t stray accidentally into Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, or plummet into one of the sinkholes! Bring a satellite phone if you have one, as there’s virtually no phone reception in the Ustyurt.

The road to Balayuk, Utebay and Karagan-Bosagas pass through the Ustyurt State Nature Reserve, so you’ll need to apply for permission prior to departure. For details on fees and how to apply, visit the Ustyurt reserve’s website.

Coordinates:

  • Balayuk Cave (Balaiuk Üñgırı/Пещера Балаюк): 42.4465, 54.7326
  • Utebay Cave (Ötebai/Утебай): 42.4847, 54.6473
  • Karagan-Bosagas Cave (Qarağan-Bosağa/Караган-Босага): 43.3190, 54.7830
  • Ak-Kuduk Settlement (Aqqūdyq/Аккудук): 42.9713, 54.0969
  • Monument to Baluaniyaz (Baluaniiaz Eskertkışı/Памятник Балуаниязу): 43.3929, 54.5611

Resources:

  • Official website of the Ustyurt State Nature Reserve.
  • A report about Karagan-Bosagas Cave formations and northern Karynzharyk Depression rock formations in the Astrakhan Local History Bulletin (pp. 45–53, Issue VI, 2017). The Russian Geographical Society’s Astrakhan branch publishes the bulletin.
  • 1:200k Soviet map of the southern Ustyurt. Utebay cave is at the lower edge of the top-right corner, 1.2km south of the “168” trig point marker, which is near Utebay Cemetery (“Кладб. Умебай”). Balayuk Cave is 8km to the south-east and near the “мог.” mark, which is south and south-east of the “172” spot height and “Кладб. Балаюк”. In Russian, ‘Кладб.‘ is a cemetery (кладбище) and ‘мог.’ is a grave (могила).
  • 1:200k Soviet map of Karagan-Bosagas Cave, which is in the top-right quarter near to the “54°45’” mark at the top. The northern adjoining map is here, showing the valley and dirt road leading to the cave.
  • 1:500k Soviet map of the southern Ustyurt, covering Utebay, Balayuk and Karagan-Bosagas Caves.
  • M. Potapova’s paper, Caves of Southern Mangyshlak and South-Western Ustyurt, published in Caves (pp. 76–88, Issue 14—15, 1974), detailing the author’s 1966–1969 survey of 20 Ustyurt caves. The journal was a publication of the USSR Institute of Karst Studies and Speleology.
  • Ivan Kulikov’s aerial video of Utebay and the History of Mangystau’s video of Utebay’s caverns.
  • Aktau-based travel operator Expedition +362’s short documentary films on Karagan-Bosagas and Balayuk Caves.
  • Aerial video and 360-degree video of Baluaniyaz Monument.
  • K. M. Akhmedenov’s and G. Z. Idrisova’s paper assessing the tourism potential of western Kazakhstan’s caves and natural springs.

Planning a visit? Check out our debut guidebook

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