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Aktau: Rising From the Wastelands

Exploring Aktau of the Mangystau Region of Kazakhstan, the Wild West


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.

Pamir Mountains.jpg


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.


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.

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