4-Day Trip to Ustyurt Plateau
I've been dreaming to do this journey to the Kazakh wild west for three years, it was one of those dreams for which you have big doubts that it will ever come true: firstly, just to reach start point of the trip - Aktau city, you need to take three-days train or spend 150 USD for flight ticket (its one-way ticket); secondly, the only way to see area is to hire a driver with 4WD car, which is again doesn't look as a budget option; and thirdly, because of these two factors (distance and high prices) it was really hard to find fellow travelers to share the trip and costs.
However the desire to see the mysterious highly undiscovered & absolutely empty bottom of the ancient ocean was so strong that all the obstacles were resolved: money were earned and saved, driver (expensive, experienced & trustworthy) was found through my relatives who live there all their life, companions (females) suddenly also appeared - Lena from Moscow, Russia and Meirav, Telaviv, Israel. Girls trip into the wild - what can be better?
As you can imagine, I (Kazakh from Kazakhstan) became the main organizer for the whole trip, so after the driver was found, I started to work on the itinerary and route. Well, 'to work' is very hard words - I just told to the driver, whose name is Sergey, that we want to see all the big points, and we have 4 days in October. Sergey offered 4 day itinerary which looked this way:
Aktau city - Valley of Balls - Sherkala - Airakty-Shomanay - Tuzbair Valley
Tuzbair Valley - Boszhira Valley
Boszhira valley - Panoramic point Boszhira - Bokty mountain - Clay hills
Clay Hills - Bokty Mountain - Seneka Sands - Zhana Ozen - Karagyie depression - Aktau city
I knew nothing about this region and was too lazy to read blogs of people who already did the trips, so I just decided to rely on the experience of the driver and agreed on the offer. My companions did the same: relied on me and accepted the itinerary.
I decided to experience the trip on its full weight and bought train tickets to reach Aktau and flight tickets to go back to Almaty. What can I say about train trip? Its specific. If you like to sleep, to eat, to talk and not afraid of sealed environment - then may be it is a good option to save some funds, but take into consideration that the train Almaty-Aktau is old, the toilet room is not the cleanest place you've ever seen, and your train companions (with whom you will spend three days) can be little bit too much talkative. But if your friends are also open to the idea to do long train trip it’s great to buy tickets for the whole train compartment (which is for four people) and relax for three days. Just be aware that you need to buy train tickets minimum three weeks before the trip because this is the only one train connecting Almaty and Aktau and locals mostly use trains: flights are freaking expensive.
4th of October.
I arrived to Aktau before rest of the girls, spend all day long at the beach of Caspian Sea, it was nice sunny day, I bought some food, took a blanket and just stared at the sea waves. The beach is easily accessible by feet (if your hotel is located close to the sea) or by any taxi, new pedestrian area was built in 2018, when presidents of CIS visited Aktau for big event. If you afraid of snakes be careful: I saw few of them between stones at the beach, they swim at the sea and enjoy sun on the shore. Snakes are tiny so I was not afraid of them at all. During my 'waves watching' I saw people swimming in the sea - the day was warm, even hot for few hours, but I would say you need a gut to go into the water of Caspian Sea in October.
5th of October.
In order to see a lot, you need to start as early as possible. We decided to start at 7:30 am (by the way there is a time difference between Almaty and Aktau – it’s one hour earlier there compared to Almaty); firstly, Sergey picked up Meirav from her hotel, then was my turn and last was Lena - we picked her up right from the airport, she flew in at 5 am and spent some time at the airport hotel.
The weather was not very promising - heavy clouds for the whole sky, greyish day with no hope for any sun. It’s important to say that weather play crucial role during the trip to Ustyurt - you are going into the clay desserts so it’s easy to imagine what happens to the roads in the clay dessert - they simply disappear. No roads - no trip. Clear like blue sky - for which we begged with all our hearts. Sky didn't hear our prayers and sent a little rain instead. Sergey said that if rain don't stop, we will change the route and some places we won't be able to see at all or see them from another angles. Just be ready to this kind of scenario during your trip.
First place we visited was Torysh Valley - or more popular as Valley of Balls. Around 40 mins of driving from Aktau, it is the first place you start asking yourself questions like "What is it & how is it possible?". Just imagine: a stone with absolutely ideally round shape and diameter around 1.5-2 metres lying at the middle of the steppes. Some of the stones are cut right at the middle, and insight there're core and layers - just like if you split our planet in two halves! As I read later it was ferromanganese nodules that were formed on the bottom of the sea, and then, as more resistant to weathering, they left on the surface while other limestone and dolomites were eroded by water. We made tons of photos of these natural miracles and moved to the second place.
Second place we drove to was oddly looking Sherkala mountain (translated as Lion Mountain from Kazakh), lonely standing at the middle of nothing. Legends say: "once Turkmens (eternal enemies of local Kazakh) hid on Sherkala and turned it into an impregnable castle from which it was very convenient to raid the surrounding villages. All attempts to take them down by a storm or a starvation were futile until the Kazakhs learned a top military secret that there was a well deep in Sherkala, with a 200-meter secret crawl way from its top. So the Kazakhs dug from the other side and when they reached the well, they filled it with stones. After that, the enemies realized their hopeless position and surrendered to the winners."
For me as someone who grew up at the foothills of Tian Shan peaks it will be always funny to see how people call 200 metres hill as a mountain but what I saw was spectacular in its own way: heavy clouds on the sky, boundless flattest dessert around and suddenly giant yurt-shaped hill with sheer inaccessible walls; as a bonus for history lovers old Kazakh cemetery is located next to the mountain - with stunning ornaments on gravestones. Unfortunately, because of intensive itinerary we could not spend a lot of time at this place and after taking few pics we headed to the last place for today - Tuzbair lake. Just in case if you want to spend a night around Sherkala there is a descent yurt village with shower and city toilet.
On the way to Tuzbair we made short stop at the Airakty-Shomanay canyons; in 1851, the great Ukrainian poet and artist T.G. Shevchenko was in exile here. People say that these mountains so impressed him that he made here series of drawings under the poetic name "Valley of Castles". The Airakty mountains really look like fairy-tale castles with spiers, towers, colonnades and fortress walls. Again because of lack of time we just made pictures and continued our trip.
The rest of the day we spent driving through the wilderness of vast steppes. Sometimes when road goes up, you are awarded by astonishing views of immense space presented in front of you - it’s impossible to capture that scale on camera, you just need to see it by your own eyes.
At the end of the day we finally reached Tuzbair - giant bottom of salty lake, water evaporated long ago, but salt is left - lying there just like a snow! Our driver Sergei did his best to arrive right at the sunset - oh my god that sunset will be in my personal jar of the best sunsets I've ever saw! Remember those heavy clouds that made all our day anxious - exactly these clouds made the sunset so fascinating. The salt march that we call 'sor' surrounded from one side by cascades of white lime-stone 'stages'.
After sunset madness we drove to the depth of the 'stages' to hide from strong cold winds. October is great time to do such kind of trips – it’s ideal day temperature, so you can do as much hiking as you wish but nights are definitely cold, so take everything warm you have: jacket, hat, scarf and even gloves. After choosing right place for camping, we cooked fast dinner, opened bottle of good Kazakh wine (I’m not joking, try Arba Wine, you can buy it in Almaty) and spent rest of the evening enjoying clear starry skies above our heads.
6th of October.
We did plan to wake up early and see the sunrise over the Tuzbair march but we had such a good sleep and morning was so cold that nobody from our company did not do any attempts to actually get up. At around 8 am we reluctantly abandoned our warm sleeping bags and were awarded by dramatic weather change: bright sun, little white clouds & crispy blue sky! We couldn't dream of more! Breakfast was filled by optimistic vibes of the day ahead, we had some time to walk around, so I went to the 'stages' that were beckoning me from last day. It’s actually quite easy to climb up till certain point, even with camera in one hand, and at that certain point, you can do pretty awesome photos of the march and 'stages'.
At around 9 am we left Tuzbair but did numerous stops on the way to capture divine trio: white clouds, white salts & white limestones. That day our main aim was to catch sunset at Boszhira cliffs. The distance between Tuzbair & Boszhira is giant, around 200 km, that is why it’s not possible to combine these two landmarks of Mangystau into short 2-day trip. Be prepared for long driving on this trip - good music is your best friend. We decided to put each one's music for certain period of time and that's how we discovered gems of Israel hip-hop, Italian pop-music and Kazakh indie. On the way Sergey suddenly met his friends-shepherds next to the well - dozen of horses and one camel were drinking water, and shepherds had some free time to chat. Funny fact: the camel had name tag Moscow. After communication with people and animals we continued driving and stopped two-three hours later in another valley of stones for lunch. These stones were not so ideally round as other we saw on first day but still it was spectacular landscape! Especially if you are having lunch there! Sergey as a true magician served us real home-made food in just 10-15 minutes: roast potatoes with beef and a salad with fresh vegetables. His wife made some prep work so he could just re-heat it fast and feed hungry people! During our serene lunch suddenly army car that was passing by (the only car we saw that day) stopped and three men started to ask questions like "who are you, where are you going & what are you doing here", then they checked our IDs and lastly, they checked the back of our car. After they didn't find anything suspicious, they told us that it’s not allowed to stop at these places, and we better not be there for long; after that army car disappeared into the wilderness. There were inspectors who was checking territory for poachers hunting for mouflons. Sergey was used to that types of 'check-ups', his conversation with these people was confident and may be that is why we had very fast and no-trouble encounter with these people.
The rest of the day we spent driving and stopping at the most beautiful places with amazing panoramic views. One of the places we stopped was Beket-Ata underground mosque, that is built into the slopes of a limestone and chalk and became extremely popular place of pilgrimage for Muslims. Beket-Ata was an important Sufi scholar who founded several underground mosques and a madrasa in the Mangistau region of Western Kazakhstan. Again, we did not have enough time to do a proper visit of that place (be aware: on weekends lines is very common thing there), so we just took a look from the top and continued our trip. At last in the evening time we reached Boszhira tract, and even had some free time before the sunset. Boszhira amazed me with the triumph of one color - pure white! Everywhere you look you see either white limestone or white clay - so when sunset time came everything around became pink and lilac - it was like we landed on another beautiful planet.
The rest of the evening was the same as the first day - tastiest dinner ever, wine, camping, starry sky and one additional element: bonfire! In the place with zero trees we found woods left by previous campers - and it was so cool just to sit together, watch the fire, drink tea and tell stories!
7th of October.
Every day of our short trip was memorable but third day became the day when you say: that’s what all of it was for! We woke up, cooked breakfast and had no clue of what kind of amazing discovery is awaiting us. After breakfast we as usual did our independent walks around the camping place and I climbed up to one of the closest "stages" to see the tract from the top. When I reached middle of the 'stage' - I saw Sergei was calling me: apparently all members of the team finished their walks and were ready to leave the place. I started to descend and suddenly Sergey offered interesting option: actually, it is possible to walk to the next place of the trip, and I was on the right way, so if I continue walking direct with no turns I will meet the car in 30 minutes. Adventures and some time alone with the nature? Why not! I easily agreed to this offer and kept going up. After I went to the top of the cliff, I was foolishly expecting direct path to some point where Sergey and girls would wait for me. May be there was some path but I did not see it and just decided to go straight. Its indescribable breathtaking feeling when you walking alone in the wild steppes with nobody around. At this moment this place is only yours. It made me freaking happy and scared at one time! What if some predator will attack me? Some lonely wolf, so hungry that he is searching for food even in daytime. Or even the worst: poacher with illegal bloody prize - he will shoot me right there, dig me into the dust and no one will ever find me. It’s funny to think about it now - at cozy room of my home, but there I was quite vulnerable to any ideas. To avoid these destructive thoughts, I just kept going straight - actually it’s not so easy when suddenly you see deep ravine, and then - hill, but nevertheless from one of the hills I noticed tiny line of the road and dusty dot moving somewhere on that road. In 15 minutes, my companions reached me, it was the end of the road, so we left the car and walked up by little path. I was too excited and warmed up so I almost run without waiting for others. Just 10 minutes of going up and you are suddenly presented to something you truly do not expect to see - vast gap right under your legs! Boundless white clay dessert starts after steep escarpment. Amazing feeling of being little tiny element of mother nature!
We spent around 1-1,5 hour at the panoramic point and after making hundreds of pictures we continued our trip to clay hills which Sergey called Tiramisu hills. Why not? While traveling with him I had feeling that he is so comfortable in these desserts, mountains and hills - you know like if you go to your office you know where & what is located, right? For him it’s the same, it’s like his personal planet and he has the right to give his own names to his secret places - if it looks exactly like Italian cake why not to call it that way? On the way to Tiramisu we stopped in front of Bokty Mountain. Actually, we, locals, were not so kind to this beautiful mountain - Bokty from Kazakh language translates as dung heap. But don't be tricked by local sense of humor - the view is really spectacular. After silent admiration in front of Bokty mountain we drove for our last camping destinations. After some time of driving there was no road, and Sergey was relying just on his experience and good memory. We ended our journey in the middle of some unusual clay formations, colored in red and white hues. Some of the hills were totally white but sprinkled by black soil on the top - true Tiramisu! I went up on the hills and discovered colonies of sharp shiny crystals that were growing right from the soil! Late sunlight was illuminating crystals and they were shining like real diamonds! I never saw anything so unusually beautiful before.
Day was finished with amazing dinner & anecdotes - what else can you ask from camping night?
8th of October.
All we wanted on the fourth day of our road trip was the hotel room with working shower - it’s amazing how we underestimate the true meaning of regular shower in everyday city life! Also, we were exhausted after such exciting but really active tour, so almost all day long we did not speak to each other, did not do long stops and were dreaming about entering city. In such moments when you do not expect anything at all – miracles happen: suddenly in the steppes three antelopes run from the right side of the road to its left, and then disappeared in the bushes of saxaul. It happened in few minutes and of course we didn't get a chance to turn on our cameras and make at least one descent photo. That moment just stayed with us as unexpected precious gift from his majesty Ustyurt. Soon we saw sand dunes called Seneka dunes but we were so tired that just decided to keep moving toward the city. On the way to Aktau we crossed little town Zhana-Ozen with oil pumps literally everywhere, fast lunch in road cafe and road again. Karagie depression - the deepest spot in Kazakhstan left totally unnoticed despite of Sergey asking us should we stop or no. As you can guess we declined that offer. At last we entered Aktau, firstly dropped off Meirav, then me and Lena just moved in at the first hotel we saw on the way. We thanked Sergey, paid the rest of the money we owed him (first half was paid at the first day) and run into the civilization. Its logical to finish here my long story about fascinating unforgettable trip we took. And even if I write more it still be impossible to describe everything we faced, been amazed and were gifted during these four days.