Aktau is a city of approximately 200,000 citizens located on the banks of the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan. Aktau means "white mountain" in Kazakh, but it is a very young city that has little to do with historical Kazakhstan. It was created as a uranium mining town in 1961 and named Shevchenko. The Soviets built a major nuclear power plant cum desalinization plant and the desert was transformed into a livable city. After independence, the Kazakhs renamed Shevchenko, and the city has become Kazakhstan's only port. Due to the large amount of oil and gas exported from Kazakhstan, the city has boomed and is now home to many new developments, which have stretched the infrastructure to its breaking point. Welcome to the paradox of large supplies of hydrocarbons, uranium and seawater coupled with frequent brown-outs and water shortages.
All trains arrive and depart from the Mangestau Station, about 12 km out of town. There is a regular train 24 hour train to and from Atyrau. There is also the option of a two day long train service from Astana, and a three day long train service from Almaty, passing through Shymkent two days after departing Aktau.
Most people fly to Aktau Airport, 23 km north of the center of the city. Given the taxi situation there, it is best to prearrange ground transport to the city. The cheapest way to fly to Aktau is with the decrepit airline SCAT from Baku. It is also possible to fly direct from Atyrau (SCAT and Astana Air several times per day), Almaty (Astana Air), Moscow (Transaero), Baku (Azerbaijan Air or SCAT), or occasionally Istanbul with Turkish Air (not possible to buy online).
Aktau is the type of city U2 may have been talking about when they sang about a place where the streets have no name(s). The city is divided up into largely unlabeled and chaotically numbered districts (including district 9). These are called "micro-raion" in Russian, which even Kazakhs use to describe them in Kazakh. To get around, you can simply say micro-raion, state the number in Russian and then say the building ("Zdanie") followed by the number. Taxi drivers regularly come from the Caucasus, and they rarely speak Western European languages.
There is no Mashrutka or bus map in existence, but cabs are plentiful. Flag fare should be 200 Tenge to anywhere within the city center, but this is often 300 Tenge for foreigners. Most cars in Aktau will stop and pick you up informally. If you should choose to pay 25 Tenge for Buses and 35 Tenge for Mashrutkas, you will see them plowing their routes on the three main roads in Aktau (north and south coastal, middle north and south road, and the eastern north and south road).
There is an old MIG plane on a pedestal just down the hill from the Asian-themed World War II memorial where an eternal flame burns under incomplete white arches. Across from the memorial, there is a drama theater with regular productions in Russian. Just South of these structures, on Aktau's middle north-south thoroughfare, you will find a collection of restaurants, night clubs and shopping centers. A well-appointed grocery store, movie theater and night club are in the Agerdau shopping complex (district 7). Beyond that, in the furthest shopping center to the South is "Shoom" (district 2), which has a large variety of low-quality stores.
To the North, in district 16, you can find Aktau's new mall. The mall includes a very small ice-skating rink, movie theater and a number of low and high quality shops (low quality children's clothes on the top floor, Hugo Boss on the main floor). The mall includes arguably the best deal in town for food.
The beaches of Aktau have nice water, and you are allowed to swim anywhere. However, the amount of glass on the beaches can make your beach experience dicey in many locations. Usually, the locals stick to the beaches below the Renaissance. Behind the beach-side grills and clubs, the beaches are fairly clean and sandy.
Unfortunately you cannot kick back just anywhere on the edge of the Caspian, or around the town for that matter, and down a sunset drink. You are not allowed to drink alcohol outside of these beach-side bar and grills, although there are absolutely no signs to warn you otherwise. The local police take advantage of this situation and the general fear that many tourists have for police. If you are caught drinking, they only want 1000 Tenge as a bribe, even if you don't speak Russian or Kazakh. Most of the locals drinking on the street are ignored by police or pay the small bribe.
Aktau is home to prices that are high, even by Western European standards. Quality Electronics, clothes, western-style foods, hotels, entertainment and gyms are readily available. However, all of these are marked up anywhere from 100 to 300% above American or German prices. It is best to go local in Aktau and/or buy anything of any consequence before you come.
There are occuasional ferries to and from Baku, Azerbaijan. Ferries leave once every 7-10 days.