Mangistau part 1: beside the Caspian seaside

Mangistau part 1: beside the Caspian seaside

I was going to start this post on Aktau with a *clever and witty* point about soviet architecture – as you can see illustrated in this picture of some of the vast and soulless apartment blocks in the city:
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Yep – that’s a picture of the Olympic village in Stratford, east London, now partially turned into ‘affordable’ housing (hahahaha). I was then going to briefly rant on about how our contemporary urban planners reject mid-C20 social housing, modernist architecture, etc but then create monstrosities (I’ve just turned into Prince Charles) like these – which replicate the same failings as all those gorgeous brutalist blocks like the vast scale and lack of local facilities, but without any of the architectural merit. (Honestly, it was at least slightly amusing the way I originally planned this.) But I’m finishing writing this up from Nukus, Uzbekistan, where it’s deeply weird and almost impossible to get hold any of the stuff you need (but phew! beer at least. TFFT). And frankly, though my point was pretty complementary to Aktau anyway, this place is so unfun that I don’t even feel like joking about what I know now to be by comparison, the truly earthly paradise of Aktau. Yikes… so here are some pictures of the pastel painted delights of the city, helped by the perfect early autumn weather and Caspian seaside setting.

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The stairwells on these blocks are a bit Denys Lasdun, if you squint…

Even before I left the city and realised what I was missing, it really had grown on me after a few hours of strolling the promenade and getting out of the initial hot bothered and lost arrival mode. Few travellers come here – the ones that do are usually aiming for the boat to Baku and I guess are not especially interested in hanging around. But there’s an expat community here because of the oil and gas industry and having read a couple of their blogs, they paint a pretty positive picture – which I can now appreciate!


There are some fair ground rides near the seafront and I got a bit carried away with the picture taking:


And this guy (whoever he is) looks rather impressive in the dusk:
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Leaving aside the promo piece for the Aktau tourist board, the area does have some major environmental issues. When it was built in the 60s to capitalise on the natural resources of the region – uranium – (there was already a small military town nearby – Fort Shevchenko-dating from the days of imperial Russia), there was no water supply and so they built a nuclear powered desalinating plant. Run off from the plant created the warm, ‘black lake’  Karakol that stretches along side the shoreline to the south of the city and is apparently quite a haven for bird life [no pics, sadly I didn’t have time to get there – and maybe also environmentally problematic despite the birdlife]. But, nasty stuff was getting dumped elsewhere and if you look on google earth:
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You’ll see a small red lake near to the centre of the city, and a larger body of water, Koshkar Ata, to the northeast. The red one is known as the ‘dead lake’ – not inspiring – and is not a place from which you’d want to consume anything that had been near it. However houses have been built almost right to the edge and camels graze nearby  (in case you needed a good reason to avoid shubat – camel milk..). I went for a wander and found it though I got away pretty quickly when a hungry looking stray dog started making moves in my direction.

The larger one – a horribly toxic body of water full of radioactive waste from the (now ceased) uranium extraction process  can just about be glimpsed as you drive north out of the city (as I did on Friday going to Shetpe). There’s a depressing but informative roll

call of the region’s environmental issues here: Kaz ecocitizens
Having made a quick decision about how long I could stay in Mangistau when I went back to the train station to buy my ticket to Uzbekistan (with my visa expiring on Tuesday – or possibly Monday, and the journey taking over 24 hours I ended up buying a ticket out for Sunday) – I had basically 2 days to try and see some of this region that I had become quite obsessed with. After I returned from my last central Asian trip in 2011, I got hold of this book and started plotting how I might manage to see some of these otherworldly places. It meant that when riots flared up in the city of Zhanaozen in December 2011, and a truly obscure location in western Kazakhstan briefly made international news, I’d actually heard of it. The riots took place after oil workers started striking due to unpaid wages and in a resulting police crack down, many people were killed (exact number not clear; an interesting piece about it here) . Not a fantastic testimony to Kazakh democracy unfortunately – handily for President Nazarbaev, our man Tony Blair was on hand to provide some PR consultancy on how to manage public opinion after this little slip up. Go democracy!

Basically, there are two places that are quite feasible to get to independently (without paying hundreds of dollars to an Aktau tour agency which I wasn’t quite up for doing). One is the pilgrimage to Beket-ata, via Zhanaozen, and the other involves getting to a town called Shetpe from where you can visit a huge chalk outcrop: Sherkala (‘lion rock’).

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On the way to Shetpe we passed the vast Koshkar Ata cemetery, near the toxic lake of the same name.

So on Friday I took a marshrutka to Shetpe (kind description: dusty shithole I’m afraid but the drive there was great and see above piece about the riots for more context) and then paid almost double what the lonely planet suggested to hire a taxi – because presumably the LP writer spoke good Russian but I don’t. The driver was a typical (for these situations) mix of friendly and creepy but he gave me one of those *delicious* bars of Kazakhstan chocolate and Sherkala itself, and its setting, is truly impressive.
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I had thought it should be possible to get from Shetpe to Zhanaozen  directly for the next day’s trip (I couldn’t find any info but on the map it looked straightforward). However, apparently not unless I hired creepy taxi so I sped back to Aktau instead, and attempted to get a bus, failed, got a shared taxi and ended up in Zhanaozen after dark at the wildly inappropriately named hotel Lux. (If you have a pre 2011 guidebook it’ll tell you that best hotel in town is the Aruana – unfortunately that was burnt to the ground in the riots).
The Lux was pretty bad [but not as bad as where I am now!] – the night was spent improvising a mosquito net out of a bedsheet –  but the receptionist at least understood why I was in this random place (‘Beket Ata?’) and sent the night watchman out with me when I asked if there was a shop nearby (to buy the nasty crap that you end up eating in situations like this..). [cont in part 2!]

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2 thoughts on “Mangistau part 1: beside the Caspian seaside

  1. Quote: “It meant that when riots flared up in the city of Zhanaozen in December 2011, and a truly obscure location in western Kazakhstan briefly made international news, I’d actually heard of it.”

    You probably know more about this area now than anyone on The Guardian, for example.

    Great picture with the statue and the archways.

    Sad about the pollution …. and I was just coming to terms with the prospect of nuclear power again …. hmm…

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  2. Thank you!
    Not hard to know more than someone on the guardian probably 😉
    Yes the pollution is bad, though I reckon if even our man George M is pro nuclear energy, then there must be ways of doing it that aren’t so environmentally catastrophic… more likely due to mismanagement in the soviet era??

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