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Earth : Asia : Central Asia : Kazakhstan : Caspian Basin : Aktau
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Aktau (Kazakh: Ақтау, Russian: Akтау) is a city of approximately 200,000 citizens located on the banks of the Caspian Sea (Kazakh: Каспий теңізі, Russian: Каспийское море) in Kazakhstan.


Aktau means "white mountain" in Kazakh, but it is a very young city that has little to do with historical Kazakhstan. Despite its lack of history, Aktau is the capital of the Region of Mangestau.

Mangestau translates roughly from Kazakh as "eternal mountains", although the region is actually home to the Batyr Depression - one of the lowest points in the world at 130 meters below sealevel. The region is also home to Sufi-pilgrimage sites such as Beket-Ata, Shakpak-Ata, Shopan-Ata and Masat-Ata, which exist due to Mangestau's location on ancient, but minor, land trading routes around the Caspian. The Mangestau region is principally populated by Kazakhs of the Aday Tribe, which is one of the "little brother" tribes in Kazakh history.

Aktau was created as a uranium mining town in 1961 and was named Shevchenko, after the Ukrainian national poet Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko (Ukrainian: Тара́с Григо́рович Шевче́нко). 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.

If you come to this city, you will be able to experience the paradox of large supplies of hydrocarbons, uranium and seawater coupled with frequent brown-outs and water shortages.

Get in

All trains arrive and depart from the Mangestau Station, about 12 km out of town. There is a regular 24 hour train service 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 at a little bit less than 100 Dollars one way. 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 or SCAT (both not possible to buy online).

There are occasional ferries to and from Baku, Azerbaijan. Ferries leave every 7-10 days, but nothing about the port is set up for passengers.

Get around

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.

There is no mashrutka (bus map) in existence, but taxis 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 and there is no need to wait for an official taxi to pass by. Official taxi drivers are usually from the Caucasus, and they rarely speak Western European languages. Locals driving newer cars are a better bet if you aren't comfortable communicating in Russian or Kazakh. When you get in the car, you can simply say 'micro-raion' and then state the district's number in Russian. Afterwards, say the building ("Zdanie" or apartment building "Dom") followed by the number. Addresses in Aktau are generally written as follows: 14-42-30, where 14 indicates the district, 42 indicates the apartment or commercial building and 30 indicates the apartment number.

If you should choose to experience a decrepit form of transportation, you can 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. At this memorial, an eternal flame burns under a circle of partial-white arches, which are reminiscent of a yurt. 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 Ardager shopping complex (district 9). Beyond that, in the furthest shopping center to the south is "Shoom" (ШУМ)(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 at Asorti on its top floor.

District 10 has little of note, but it serves as a great viewing point of the huge frescoes, which cover one side of decrepit Soviet apartment buildings across the main street in district 11. The frescoes depict various "national fathers" of Kazakhstan, and rumor has it that current president Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev is keen to have his picture painted in a similar fashion. At the moment, he is making do with an enormous banner draped over an apartment building on that row.


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 there, 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.


  • In Aktau Mall (district 16), Restaurant Asorti on the top floor offers one of the best deals in town. There are two Asorti Restaurants in the mall, but the one on the ground floor doesn't offer the buffet. The top floor restaurant offers an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch between 12pm and 3pm every weekday for 1200 Tenge per person. There is a live piano player every weekday for lunch, and the decor is sleek.
  • The second best deal in town are the Shwarma places near the Ramstor (Pamctop) behind Adagar(Ардагәр) Mall, near the eternal flame memorial. Ask for a 350 Tenge shwarma without sauce ("bez sosa") if you don't want it swimming in mayonnaise.
  • The most expensive places are Taksim in district 12 (near the big roundabout separating districts 10, 14, 12 and 11), Noodles in district 2, or one of the restaurants at the Renaissance. Both of these offer what could be called a Soviet interpretation of Western-style service for around 30 USD per person. The food is mediocre for the price charged.
  • Alma-Ata Restaurant (behind Pinta and Taksim) has sturgeon caviar (Beluga) kebabs available for around 1500 Tenge per person. This is widely considered to be the best fish place in Aktau, but this doesn't say much about the quality of fish places in Aktau.
  • Fuenta Club next to Ardagar(Ардагәр) Mall in district 9, near the eternal flame memorial, opens up for lunch on weekdays between 11:30 and 2:30, offering a mediocre buffet for around 1000 Tenge per person. It seems that this buffet is reluctantly all-you-can-eat. It is not worth the 200 Tenge savings to eat here instead of Asorti or the premium over Shvedski Stol.
  • Shvedski Stol (шведский столь) has two locations, one in district 2 across from Shoom (ШУМ) and one in district 6 on the main east-west road. These restaurants also have an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet on weekdays, which costs around 900 Tenge per person. Be careful of overcharging, as the wait-staff will sometimes ring up your bill according to their perception of your ability to pay. Since both are located near Aktau's largest employers of office workers, good luck finding a table at lunchtime.
  • Chinese is available at China Town Restaurant in district 9 for around 1500 Tenge per person. It is also available at Urumqi Restaurant in district 2 for around 3000 Tenge per person.
  • Pizza is available in district 4 at Napoli Restaurant for around 1500 Tenge. Napoli also has a location in Astana Mall in district 14, which has hookah (Russian: кальян) available.
  • Restaurant Pinta at the major roundabout between districts 12, 14 and 11 serves a variety of coffees, teas and Soviet-foods. The food is reasonable but costs 2000 Tenge per person for an average meal.
  • Coffee and People. There are two locations, one in district 2 near Aktau Hotel and one in district 7, off the main road behind a small city park and fountain. Both locations are swank, serve reasonably good food, and charge about 2000 Tenge per person for a meal at any time of day.
  • Caucasian barbeque (shashlik) is available at the beach-side grills below the Renaissance hotel. These are usually 800-1000 Tenge per person.


  • The English Pub at the 5 Star Hotel "Grand Victory" in district 13 has a laid-back atmosphere and comfortable seats, but charges 5-8 dollars per pint.
  • Shamrock Irish Pub in district 7 is a reasonably attractive watering hole with expat prices similar to those at the English Pub.
  • Guns and Roses in the Aktau Hotel in district 2 has a live music scene on weekends and expat prices to make it painful to enjoy.
  • Fuenta Club in district 9 is probably the most consistently crowded nightspot. The music is mostly Soviet techno and old hip-hop.
  • The beach-side bars near Renaissance offer nightlife similar to that at Fuenta, but they mostly shut during the winter.
  • Restaurant Pinta has occasional ballroom dancing parties on Sunday evenings.


  • Renaissance Hotel - 200 USD per night, but usually great views with an outdoor and indoor pool [1] in district 9. There is also a gym inside but no shopping center. To take advantage of the superior location of the hotel, you should request a sea-view.
  • Grand Victory Hotel - 150-200 USD per night, classy place with pool, gym and shopping center [2] in district 13. Views can be as good as the Renaissance or could be of a Soviet building.


Get out

Other than buses to even more remote outposts in the desert, Aktau is an extremely out-of-the-way place, so getting out of town usually means backtracking in the direction you have just come.

Tourist agencies in town can make arrangements for visits to Suni shrines and very distant caravansarais.

The most famous of these shrines is Beket Ata - which is not very old - but already has many superstitions about magical properties of the site. Built into a cave, this shrine to a 18th century Kazakh wise man is usually visited in groups. First, you will drive 3-5 hours from Aktau on poorly paved or unpaved roads. You will need to take a live goat with your tour group that will be sacrificed later that evening. After sacrificing the goat, you will feast on the meat and relax and pray in the dormitories next to the site until very early the next morning. At that point, you will get back on your tour bus with the leftovers and drive back to Aktau.

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