Aktau: Rising From the Wastelands
Exploring Aktau of the Mangystau Region of Kazakhstan, the Wild West
DAYS 1 AND 2 OF OUR OVERLAND JOURNEY “AKTAU TO ANFENG,” 10,000 KILOMETERS ACROSS ASIA
Looking out the window panes of the aircraft, I see a brutal landscape. Endless, dry expanses of dirt without a trace of freshwater. It almost impresses the limitless of the barrenness. Wandering my eyes westward though, an equally endless stretch of water appears, the blue shore of the Caspian. As the largest lake in the world, it unfortunately contains too much salt for drinking and irrigation. It is even visibly shrinking by the year. Perhaps a cruel joke for the deserted land without freshwater - on the shores of the largest lake on earth, yet undrinkable. It is of no small wonder why scant remains of the past are found here, although at the crucial route of the Silk Roads from China to the west. The region marked a stretch of endurance, where the hardiest of travelers hoped to make it through unscathed.
Even more of a wonder unfolds when the aircraft lands, our bags are unloaded then loaded, and a taxi brings us to the center of town. For twenty kilometers, the dry landscape gives way to greenery, high rises and endless apartment blocks.
A miracle in the wastelands.
A BACK-DOOR AND NOTHING MORE
To be honest, I never even heard of Aktau until my restless research somehow led me to a flight from Yerevan to Aktau. A back-door route into Uzbekistan and the potential to save hundreds of dollars. The madness unfolded as I calculated the time and effort required to reach the romantic heart of the Silk Roads. One early morning train ride followed by a seven-hour ride on rail commencing at a tiny village at 11 pm, only for a final, 14-hour train ride into the Uzbek city of Nukus. A 35-hour journey across some of the most remote and barren landscapes on earth. I brought the plan to Mary and she somehow agreed. And need I remind you; with a baby and a toddler.
The flight was booked. Aktau will be the official starting point of our overland journey to eastern China.
It turns out though, that not much demand was there for a flight from Yerevan to Aktau. A few weeks after booking, the airline informed me the route was cancelled due to low demand. As a result, they graciously offered a rebooking of any route. I was sold on Aktau still, a town I pictured in my head as nothing more than a backwater on the Caspian Sea. Therefore, Kutaisi in Georgia was the new point of departure, and a fantastic reason to wander around Georgian landscapes as we waited for August 9.
And for my assumptions of Aktau? Saying in hindsight, were they ever so wrong.
WELCOME TO AKTAU
Once only home to ancient nomadic tribes, the discovery of natural resources in the 1960’s led to the foundation of Aktau. Uranium and oil brought thousands of workers for what initially was to be a camp. A unique block-address system was employed, and still in use, as the city grew larger and larger. 200,000 people now call this place home in what has to be one of the most dramatic makeovers. Wasteland to city.
As we enter Aktau, our first reactions were in amazement the number of apartment buildings, reminiscent of Shanghai. The desert landscape hasn’t disappeared in town yet, as the trees are struggling to get a good footing. Our taxi driver, in a sleek and shiny foreign car, glanced only a second at our apartment address and knew exactly where to go - a product of the unique address system. The apartment complex looked relatively dilapidated and not entirely safe at first glance, but the numerous playgrounds with children and their families mingling around qualmed the initial thoughts. A first impression of Kazakhstan, and I still don’t have quite a grasp on it.
To be honest, Aktau lacks any real tourist attractions or infrastructure. Our flight brochure for Aktau made it even sound more bleak, where they highlighted an old lighthouse monument as the sole attraction. Add the fact there is almost no history to uncover as it is basically a 60-year old mining town. However, somehow this is what makes Aktau so appealing. It is a simple slice of life into the people of Kazakhstan, devoid of tourists. Wandering the wide streets, gazing at random sculptures and Soviet artwork, exchanging smiles with the friendly locals and sampling some of the delicious food is a simple description of our first jaunt exploring the town. One surprise awaited that caught me off guard though.
The coffee street.
For those who travel and enjoy a “good” cup of coffee (I.e. not instant), Aktau at first glance appears to be the perfect recipe for lack of real coffee. One street near our hotel had six - SIX - coffee shops in a row, literally. Each unique and jostling for business by offering modern seating arrangements and a variety of libations. Sure, it may not seem interesting to some, but it really caught us off guard. (I tried three of shops during our stay, maybe one day I’ll be back for the other three).
THE CASPIAN SEA
The surprises of Aktau doesn’t end with the coffee. Walking west to the shores of the world’s largest lake was a surprise. The relatively clean waters lapped gently along the sandy shore, with hundreds of families enjoying the refreshing sea. One particularly striking area contained towering sandstone bluffs, eroded by time into dizzying formations, set against the azure backdrop of the sea. A newly constructed wooden walkway meandered along the cliff face, allowing visitors to gaze out upon the waters as the bluffs changed color with the dancing light. Grandmas shepherded their grandkids, while groups of teenagers laughed and jostled. Everyone seemed connected in the singular joy of walking with nature's artwork on one side, and the timeless sea on the other.
At sunset, strolling along felt akin to my hometown San Diego's famous seaside promenades, yet still uniquely Kazakh. The dying sunlight set the crumbling bluffs aflame in crimson and amber, as if the very cliff faces were painted.
Joining the carefree locals in their meander along the boardwalk further connected me to this land I had been still struggling to grasp.
THE FUTURE FOR AKTAU
Yet as lovely as Aktau first appeared, an uncertain future looms heavily over its shores. Decades of excessive mining have left indelible scars on the surrounding landscape. Aerial views reveal a particularly alarming landmark - a bright yellow lake nearly 5 miles across, saturated by chemical runoff from uranium processing. The water is shrinking, and if the tailings are exposed to air it could have dire health affects for the population. Millions of tons of water are constantly being pumped into the lake to ensure it doesn’t happen. But it still looms over the future for Aktau.
Even so, a new era seems to be dawning upon the region. The ancient Silk Road is being revived along these crossroads, with Aktau emerging as a cosmopolitan oasis. New restaurants and coffee houses continue opening up, catering to a diversity of palates with their global offerings. The high standard of living and pleasant climate make life rather enjoyable here. While the wounds of industry may persist, the Caspian's allure endures in Aktau's breezes and the promise of its bustling new commerce.
The future may still surprise with hope.
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