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.