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Aktau mapPerched between the desert and the Caspian, hundreds of kilometres from anywhere else of any size, with all its water derived from desalination, Aktau (pop 180-190,000) is perhaps the most oddly situated of all the weirdly located places scattered across the former USSR. The administrative capital of Mangistau Region, Aktau was a Soviet-era new town, erected on the arid banks of the Caspian, its construction linked to the processing of nearby deposits of uranium (which gave it the status of a closed city in the Soviet period) and then to the needs of the developing oil industry in the region.

Aktau situated on the shining chalk cliffs, and also the name of Kazakhstan's only deep-sea port directly to its south. Formerly called Shevchenko, Aktau has a spacious feel about it; like all Kazakh cities, it is surrounded by multi-storey residential blocks scattered around the surrounding area, but its location on the shore gives Aktau a skyline, while the numerous sunny days give the city a holiday-like image. The city "fits in" to its environs-most of the buildings have been constructed with mussel chalk from the coastal region or with large yellowish clay bricks.

Local uranium and oil finds were the reason Soviet architects began to lay out a model town of wide, straight streets here in 1958. It was decided to build a large residential complex here to house staff, and a port to ship the area's future source of wealth. In 1965, the Mangyshlak Peninsula produced its first oil; however, with the construction of the new town came major difficulties in providing water. The uranium, from an open-cast mine 30km to the northeast, fed the Aktau’s nuclear fast breeder reactor, which generated Soviet Aktau’s electricity, powered its desalination plant and produced uranium concentrate for military purposes. Thanks to the sandy beaches on the blue Caspian and temperate climate (several degrees above zero in January), the place was also developed as an elite Soviet holiday resort.

Its urban status dating from 1963, the centre of town is characterised by Soviet apartment blocks, hastily constructed of prefabricated panels. Newcomers to Aktau are often left confused when looking at the city map. There are no street names-only numbers that indicate blocks called Mikrorayons (Microdistricts) which are situated next to one another without any recognisable order, stretching both along the coast and inland. The explanation for this administrative muddle is simply a matter of chronological construction. Within each microdistrict, every apartment block also has a number, usually to be found written high up on a corner of the block, in an exercise in impersonality. Aktau address 4-17-29 means Microdistrict 4, Building 17, Apartment 29.

The central President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Avenue is the only street bearing a name in this town. The designers of the place even secured in 1976 an award named after town planner Patrick Abercrombie.

Mikrorayon 1, directly on Aktau Bay, was the first residential complex to be completed. It is distinguished by two- to four-storey houses in a 1950s style, with much greenery in its midst. Mikrorayons 2 and 3 were built in the 1960s and stretch to the north and the northwest. They are also characterized by their modest height and shady courtyards. The 1970s witnessed the construction of mikrorayons 4 to 9 on the steep shore to the north of the earlier residential areas. They consist of large nine- or 10-storey blocks with plenty of space for playgrounds, schools, stores and administrative services between them. These neighbourhoods form Aktau's present-day centre and dominate the city's overall character.

Intensive construction is going on here, directly on the coast and the strips inland-Aktau is developing fast into an oil metropolis with a fastidious polish. Mikrorayons 11 to 15 are situated to the north, all of them relatively close to the sea. To the west of the main road to Zhanaozen there are additional, recently constructed neighbourhoods numbered from 20 onwards; this is little here to interest tourists except the bus station in Mikrorayon 28, the bazaar in Mikrorayon 23, and the large new Beket Ata mosque in Mikrorayon 26.

Modern-day Aktau is a fast-developing place, its growth fuelled by the oil industry, as Mangistau is one of the most important oil-producing regions of Kazakhstan. Aktau port is the largest in the country. Together with the ports of Kuryk, 64km to the south, which is planned to be developed as a terminal for the export of oil by tanker to Baku, and Bautino, 145km to the north, which has emerged as a significant supply base for the offshore oil industry, Aktau is at the heart of Kazakhstan's plans both to develop its offshore hydrocarbons reserves and to develop a maritime export corridor to the west. Glitzy new office and apartment blocks have emerged, though the Soviet buildings have to date been left largely untouched. The new town is being built around, and particularly to the north of, the old. The authorities have ambitious plans for an Aktau City development north of the current city centre, involving plush new constructions, entertainment complexes, and a marina, with more than a nod to the Dubai experience. Also part of what is envisaged to be a multi-billion-dollar investment programme is the development of Kendirli, located in a secluded bay some 210km south of Aktau towards the Turkmen border, into a sophisticated modern beach resort.

Uranium mining, nuclear power and associated chemical and metallurgical operations were wound down in the 1990s, leaving an apocalyptic industrial wasteland around Aktau’s fringes. But oil and gas have given Aktau a new lease of life as a centre for both onshore and offshore operations, and with its seaside location, low-key summer tourism and reasonable standard of living, it’s a pleasant town in which to spend a day or two. More of a reason to come here, though, are the natural and man-made wonders of the surrounding region, Mangistau.

Orientation - The only significant street with a name is Kazakhstan Respublikasy Prezidentininy dangyly (President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Avenue). Not surprisingly, many people still call it Lenina. 

Sights - To best savour Aktau’s atmosphere, stroll along the pedestrian walk from the large WWII Memorial beside Kazakhstan Respublikasy Prezidentininy dangyly to the MiG fighter plane memorial at the seaward end of the street. From the MiG you can descend steps to the breezy seafront, a mixture of low cliffs, rocks and thin sandy strips, with assorted cafes and bars that are lively in summer (when some of them double as open-air discos), but fairly desolate during the rest of the year. A narrow street followed by a pedestrian promenade parallel the coast for 1km south from here, at the end of which you can climb steps to a landmark statue of Taras Shevchenko. The wider, more popular Dostar Beach is about 4km southeast of here. The Regional Museum is closed for rebuilding currently.

Around Aktau - The stony deserts of Mangistau, the region of which Aktau is capital, stretch 400km east to the border with Uzbekistan. This labyrinth of dramatic canyons, weirdly eroded, multicoloured rock outcrops, surprising lakes, mysterious underground mosques and ancient necropolises is only beginning to be explored, even by archaeologists. A minor branch of the Silk Road once ran across these wastes, and sacred sites, some with strong Sufic associations, are located where people buried their dead or where holy men dwelt. The underground mosques may have originated as cave hermitages for ascetics who retreated to the deserts. A few sites, including Beket-Ata and Fort Shevchenko, can be reached by public transport of various sorts, but for most places you need a knowledgeable driver with a 4WD vehicle (non-4WDs won’t make it along some of the rough tracks). Getting to these places across the surreal desert, with only the occasional herd of camels or sheep for company, is part of the fun.