Western Kazakhstan – so far west that the part beyond the Ural River is in Europe – is a gateway to Central Asia from Azerbaijan and the Volga and Ural regions of Russia, and there are even flights from Western Europe to Atyrau and Uralsk. Indeed, a piece of Kazakhstan about half the size of Scotland lies to the west of the Ural River, and is thereby actually accounted part of Europe.
Still, this part in the northwest of the country are well off the usual tourist trail. They are characterised by rolling steppeland, with semi-desert landscapes in the more southerly parts of Aktobe Region, the only region in the country to stretch between the borders of Russia and Uzbekistan.
The Atyrau, West Kazakhstan and Aktobe Regions (Oblasts), consisting of the Ural Basin and the Turan Lowland in the north, and the Mangystau Region that stretches from the Mangyshlak Peninsula to the Ustyurt Plateau in the south, are two areas of the country which now have great prospects thanks mainly to the discovery of vast reserves of oil and natural gas. So far, however, the majority of this enigmatic region has been preserved in its original state. It is a fascinating part of the country that few tourists know about or visit.
Kazakhstan’s biggest oil and gas fields – Tengiz (oil), Karachaganak (gas) and the offshore oil of Kashagan beneath the Caspian Sea – have brought boom times to the west’s four main cities, but elsewhere the human population is sparse and the landscape is chiefly desert and steppe.
Hydrocarbons wealth brings a steady flow of expatriates to both regional capitals, along with the hotel infrastructure to cater for them. Uralsk, the capital of West Kazakhstan Region, has some fine Tsarist architecture and an interesting history, including as one of the centres of the 18th-century Pugachev Rebellion and the only city in Kazakhstan to be visited by the Russian poet Pushkin. Aktobe has no major sights of interest, but is a pleasant enough place for a short visit. Coincidentally, both cities offer museums and monuments to local female heroes of World War II.
Kazakhstan's two Caspian regions, Atyrau and Mangistau, are at the heart of the post- independence economic development of the country as the home to huge onshore and offshore reserves of oil. Westerners wandering the streets of the two regional capitals, Atyrau and Aktau, are far more likely to be expatriate oil workers than tourists, but the area, especially Mangistau Region, contains much of considerable interest to the visitor. The desert scenery of the Mangistau hinterland is stunning, with white limestone escarpments and isolated mountains rising up from the plains. Aktau becomes a cheerful beach resort in summer, with plans under way to turn Kendirli in the south of the region into a major resort destination. Fort Shevchenko, Mangistau's oldest town, was the place of exile of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. And the necropolises and underground mosques which dot Mangistau Region are among the most arresting of all Kazakhstan's historical monuments.
For those with a taste for adventurous exploring, the deserts east of Aktau, dotted with underground mosques, ancient necropolises, wandering camels and spectacular rock formations, are just the ticket.