Your Eyes are as Deep as the Caspian Sea
As part of my aforementioned vacation, I went to Aktau in Western Kazakhstan. The main reason for this was to finally get a chance to swim in the Caspian Sea at long last. Interestingly while the Caspian has some romantic and poetic value in the West (I think of Jill Sobule’s Good Person Inside as quoted in the title, as well as images of Xerxes whipping the Sea because it failed to allow his troops to cross), in Kazakhstan it is associated exclusively with oil. I don’t know if this is because of Soviet-era propaganda that economic and technological power trump all, an attitude that is still continued to some extent by the current government. Or perhaps other places like Burabay are simply lovelier and thus more appealing. But in any case many friends and associates were confused as to why we wanted to go swim the Caspian.
Personally I recommend a few days in Aktau as a relatively cheap and pleasant beach side holiday. Aktau city itself is not sparkling and beautiful but the beaches are wonderful. There is a nice area in the center with a long sandy beach. Around it are plenty of cafes and restaurants so you can sip beer overlooking the sea. The water is warm and we didn’t feel it was particularly dirty as we warned it might be (but then I grew up swimming in Long Island Sound, the inlet for all the New York City harbor traffic). To the north of the center there are rocky beaches and beautiful cliffs. I even saw some successful fishermen. You could do worse than spend a day at the beach there.
Other attractions of the city include the MIG memorial and the World War II memorial. The MIG is well-worth seeing if you are any kind of aviation nut or Soviet history buff. They have painted it silver all over so you can’t see any numbers or identification, which is too bad because it would be fun to know about this particular plane: where it flew, what missions it was part of. It also wasn’t clear to me why there was a MIG in Aktau specifically. I never heard anything about a MIG factory there. On the other hand Mangistau oblast is all desert and mostly flat so it’s probably a get place to do test flights.
The World War II memorial is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen, with five white columns bending in to form a roofless yurt-like structure. On each one is a year (1941-1945) and a statue. Interestingly most of the statues appear to be women, representing perhaps the spirit of the year or the suffering families who stayed at home waiting to hear news that their father or brother or son was dead. In the center was an eternal flame and I hope I caught some of the pathos in my picture, with the Russian word for “memory” behind the fire.
In terms of entertainment, that’s about it. There’s a nice little restaurant whose name escapes me not far from the MIG on the coast, built out of a ship. Literally there’s a ship sitting on the shore surrounded by cafe tables and inside a decent little restaurant. There are also a few cafes further out from the center. We never got too far away from the shore and honestly the city itself looked like a normal, not particularly touristy place so I’m not sure we missed much.
In terms of practicalities, I recommend staying at the Renaissance Aktau Hotel. It’s centrally located and looks pretty clean although I’m told it’s at least 23,000 tenge a night. The Hotel Victory also looked halfway decent and it’s a short walk to the town. We unfortunately were done a “favor” by a friend and stayed at a resort owned by a corporation here. The resort itself was very nice, clean, not overly expensive and had a great little restaurant. Unfortunately it was also a hike from the center and in 37C (97F) degree weather you want to walk as little as possible. If we hadn’t taken the hike, we would have been stuck eating at the hotel restaurant every day, buying cigarettes, beer and water at the overpriced store there and not doing much swimming since the resort had two swimming pools and not much beach. So be warned if you look for hotels that they may be built more for business meetings than tourism. It’s worth being in the center to enjoy your vacation.
One other word of wisdom if you are flying from Astana. There’s one flight a day on Air Astana that goes to Aktau via Atyrau. It takes 4 hours to get to Atyrau, you have a one-hour stopover while they clean the plane, then you get back on the same plane and fly 40 minutes to Aktau. The other flights seem to go through Almaty but if you go that way, you will end up with a long layover and the whole trip will take 10-18 hours. Which is great if you have a couple things to do or a friend to see. But if you want to fly quickly from Astana to Aktau, get on the Atyrau plane!
I would love to hear in the comments about your Aktau stories, and recommendations for visitors. And next time, I’ll post on our trip out into the desert to see the underground mosque of Beket-Ata.
EDIT: the road to Beket Ata is up.