Aktau and the peninsula of Manguistaou – 7 days – 22 metres above sea level

Version française disponible ici. 

After a first stormy night on the Manguistaou peninsula, we left Shetpe to go to Aktau. Outside of the city, a bit of stress. The first service stations we saw didn’t have any petrol. Finally, the fourth station had some and we managed to reach the main city of the area.

On the way, we did a stop next to a lagoon where wild horses where drinking. A herd of goats crossed in front of us and was followed by their shepherd driving his car. Ten kilometres further, we did a second stop, in the middle of the desert. Locals told us there were sacred rocks there. We walked during 5 kilometres in this wild Kazakh steppe but we didn’t find these big rocks looking like cannonballs of over a metre of diameter. The view over the valley was impressive in spite of this fail. The wildlife was also unusual: big insects looking like crickets flying above us, big lizards enjoying the sunshine on the rocky soil and even Julien and Marie saw turtles hiding in little soles on the ground. 

After this adventure in the Kazakh steppe, we arrived in Aktau at the end of the afternoon. We enjoyed a dinner with chachliks and beers before a stroll by the seaside. We crossed an industrial area and, surprisingly, arrived on a private beach. At this late time of the day, we ran the risk to enter without permission. As soon as we approached some sun umbrellas, the guard called us. But he quickly understood we were tourists and finally accepted we stay a bit. We enjoyed the sunset from the plastic pontoon. I even took the opportunity for swimming a bit in the Caspian Sea. But to be honest, the bad smell from the weeds spoiled this swimming time.

We went back to the hotel with a beautiful purple sky, between the containers and old gas pipes hung above us. 

After a quiet morning spent to update our website and social media, it was 1pm when we left our hotel to explore the city. We did a quick stop in a shopping centre to buy a matriochka (a Russian doll) and a shirt for Julien for his futur professional interview by Skype. A shopping time which gave us again the will to take care of ourselves. But we resisted to avoid fulling up our suitcases closing already hardly. 

Aktau is a seaside city, located between sea and desert. At the Soviet period, there were important changes due to the discovery of petrol in the Caspian Sea. The little mining town became a bigger modern town. Today, in the town centre, the old buildings and Soviet monuments were between the new buildings with large windows. Walking in the street, we discovered, here as well, a massive monument of the Wold War II victory. But also its lighthouse, its public beach and its riviera newly open. At the end of the afternoon we had a great kiwi ice-cream, which gave us a foretaste of Italia. 

The next day, we took contact with Sergeï, a guide of the peninsula Manguistaou. We hoped he could help us to go to the Boszhira desert. From our researches, the tracks are in bad condition and the heavy heat won’t be compatible with our old style air cooling engine. This is is why we took the decision to call a guide with his 4WD to discover this treasure of the peninsula. 

Just before to met our man, we ate quickly some samsas (Kazakhstan Samosas) and kutab (pancakes with fresh herbs). We had a picnic in the shade of the trees. Like in the whole city, thousands of butterflies were flying around us.

Our meeting with Sergeï was at the foot of the big wheel setup in the main park of the city-centre. We exposed him our project to visit the Boszhira valley before to take the ferry to join Baku in Azerbaijan. After an hour spent with this Kazakh Indiana Jones around 40 with a grizzled beard and a shirt with pockets. For the moment, we were drawing a blank. Neither of him or his contacts were available to guide us for two days from tomorrow. A few minutes later, his perseverance won as he had a positive answer from his friend Cola who will accompanied us for this expedition. 

The next day, we met Cola on the parking of our hotel. To go to Boszhira, we passed by the town of Janaozën. We passed by the lower road of the world (the InReach tracker displayed – 119 metres under the sea level). In the car, the silence, Cola didn’t speak English and our Kazakh-Russian were still not great.  Passed the stopover town, the road became narrower but the asphalt was still good. We were asking ourselves why we didn’t took the side-cars… 30 kilometres later, we tuned on the left on the first track of the day. However, Cola didn’t reduce its speed. At the first viewpoint, we joined another vehicle, the one of his friend Vlad. Also guide, he was with a Kazakh-Danish couple.

The next stop will be at the checkpoint of the Rally of Kazakhstan which ended on the previous day. This point was over the valley of Boszhira and these famous “fangs of the plateau of Ousthyurt”. We picnicked together under a sheet stretched between both 4×4, overlooking these two summits of a 200-metre height. A few millions of years ago, this wide valley, white like snow, deserted by any trees, lakes or rivers, was submerged by the Thetys ocean. To proof this story Vlad showed his necklace: a shark teeth found in the middle of this desert. 

We went back to the path and followed the dust made by Vlad’s 4×4 to reach an impressive canyon. The vehicles crossed many obstacles to reach this new rock. Finally, we made the good choice of not using the sidecars to come here! During an hour, we climbed up this rock with a blazing sun. A the top, the view was breathtaking over the whole valley. 

Once at the bottom of this cliff, without Vlad and our Kazakh-Danish friends who were back on the road to Aktau, we set up our camp at the end of the afternoon. Cola parked the 4×4 in a rift dug by the ocean. Protected by the wind, we pitched up the tents in this beautiful scenery. Behind us, Cola was cooking dinner on his camping stove. On the menu: dried fruits, pasta, potatoes and meat. Then, we climbed up a summit to watch the sunset. While we were going down, we saw the lightening from a storm further in the valley. As there was no pollution in the sky, it was the perfect opportunity for taking photos of the stars. Before to slide in our sleeping bags, there was a last difficulty: fighting against the moths attracted by our headlights and a huge yellow spider next to our tents. 

After a good sleeping night in the desert, the alarm rung at 5am. We went out of our sleeping bags to take place in this beautiful scenery. Waiting, patiently and quietly before the local wildlife woke up, was magical. The first rays of the sunshine appeared on the two impressive “fangs” piercing the valley. The colours were beautiful with purple nuances. 

Back to the camp, we took our breakfast with Cola offering us a local porridge before to go back on the road towards Aktau. The 4×4 was going straight on the flat desert. This morning, there was surprisingly no asperities. We reached quickly the “Sherkala Mountain” also named the “mountain with the pink line”. Its shape looked like a huge yurt in the middle of this wide deserted plaine. After some photos, we jumped in the car and got around the mountain by East, before to go back on our steps. On this kind of surface without any vegetation, all the traces were similar. Cola didn’t seem to find the ones bringing us back to Aktau. Unable to help, we watched him hesitating on the traces to follow and he finally went out of this wide plain by a sandy hill to reach the plateau. On the top of this hill, two French with bicycles stopped us. They were riding in the desert for 3 days, going from Senek to the Boszhira valley. But at this point of their expedition, they didn’t have more than 1,5 litres of water per person to finish their last day on paths and to reach the next village. To compare, we drank over 8 litres of water per person on a day in this desert, in spite of exploring it by car. To help them, Cola offered them to put the bicycles on the roof and to go with us in the car, up to the next village. 

On the way, we did a short break to watch a turtle crossing the path. Cola noticed a flat rear tyre. We reached Senek by regular stop to inflate the tyre. While this day was already eventful, Cola stopped on the side of the road, just a few kilometres before Aktau. He helped a car on the emergency lane and towed it up to the entry of the city. Cola was a true superhero of the desert!

The following fay, we enjoyed our breakfast in the hotel. After a few days spent here, we knew perfectly the menu: eggs were delicious and the crepes reminded us Brittany. At this time of the day, we didn’t know yet that it will be our last breakfast here. On the same day, we learned we needed to reach quickly the port of Kuryk to cross the sea towards Azerbaijan. 

Where to eat? 

Craft Burger
Карымсакова 3а, Atyrau

A place with a young and warm athmosphere, just a few metres from the beach. We have been welcomed with a lot of kindness to enjoy delicious burgers. 

Restaurant “Makcim”

In front of our hotel, the Zeruik, we got used to eat in this family canteen. Nothing fancy, a bit outside of the town-centre, but we came many times to enjoy their great Cesar salad and their delicious chachlik on their shady terrace.