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 to two day drive from Aktau.
Forty-five kilometres southeast of the Three Brothers, in the Karynzharyk Depression, is Balayuk cave. The cave’s entrance is located on the east side of a 50 x 15 m sinkhole. It’s over 100 m in length and 120 m 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 m long lake nestled in a small amphitheatre. Along with torches –bring spares– a 60 m rope is recommended for negotiating steeper sections.
Eight kilometres northeast of Balayuk is Utebay cave. There are two separate caverns, at either end of the 30 x 60 m sink hole, which are accessed via large tunnels. Although the tunnel lengths are short –less than 30 m– 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 known to be somewhat fragile. Dangerous sections are marked out with flags and ribbons tied to metal pegs. If you spot any missing or looking tatty, try and replace them so future visitors know where to avoid.
Sixteen kilometres north of Mount Karayama, north of Karynzharyk, is Karagan-Bosagas cave. Its entrance is 10 m wide and located on the slopes of Mount Baskaragan, and is also known as Zheroyyk. A series of 6 to 10 metre-high corridors lead to a large grotto located at a depth of 160 m.
The nearest settlement to the cave is Ak-Kuduk settlement, over 65 km to the southwest. 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 clan 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.
If you’re heading to any of these caves independently, make sure you’re self-sufficient and carry extra fuel as they’re located at least half-a-day’s walk from the nearest settlement. Ideally, travel with two or more cars, in case of breakdown. Also, keep an eye on 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 website.
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