One easy half-day excursion from Atyrau is to the memorial complex honouring the important medieval settlement of Saraichik. The town became prominent in the 13th century as an urban centre of the Golden Horde. It lay on the caravan route eastwards from Sarai, the capital of the Golden Horde on the Volga. Ibn Battuta, who visited in 1334, reported that the name 'Saraichik' meant 'small Sarai'.
Despite muttering about the low prices secured for the horses he had to sell in Saraichik, replacing them with camels for the onward journey eastwards, Battuta seems to have been reasonably impressed with the place, and compared the pontoon bridge across the Ural River here to that at Baghdad. Saraichik was sacked by Timur's troops in 1395, but was rebuilt to serve as the capital of the Nogai Horde in the 15th and 16th centuries, before being destroyed by Cossacks in 1580. Changes in the meandering course of the Ural River have been unkind to Saraichik's archaeological legacy, and cultural layers continue to be washed away by the waters.
To reach Saraichik, take Isatay Avenue out of Atyrau, which becomes the main road to Uralsk. After 47km, a large, brightly coloured concrete sign to 'Saraichik' marks the right turn to take. You reach the village of Saraichik after a further 4km. Turn right in Saraichik to reach the Saraichik memorial complex, which stands on the edge of the village.
The complex was built in 1999, and is centred on the 17m-high octagonal-based monument known as the Khan Pantheon. Built to a design of the then akim, Imangali Tasmagambetov, the monument takes as its inspiration the belief that seven khans of the Golden and Nogai hordes were buried in Saraichik. A piled mound of stones in the centre of the monument serves as cenotaph to the khans. From the bare branches of a tree, considered sacred, hang strips of cloth as votive offerings. Beneath the arches of the monument are engraved funerary stones to each of the khans honoured here.
The Khan Pantheon is flanked on one side by a mosque, on the other by a museum. A painting inside the entrance depicts Saraichik in the 14th century as a flourishing Silk Road trading centre. The main room of the museum includes a model of Saraichik at this time. There are assorted fragments of ceramics on display, including some attractively decorated items produced locally in the 14th century, terracotta money boxes and brightly coloured items of jewellery. Displays of coins minted in Saraichik in the 13th and 14th centuries are evidence of the importance of the city. On the wall, a cute painting of a girl in a golden boat feeding swans on a lake refers to a local legend. This runs roughly that Khan Zhanibek had a favourite daughter, for whom he built an artificial lake, on which she sailed in a boat of gold. The daughter died young, and the distraught Zhanibek had her buried in a golden coffin, together with her golden boat, and loads of gold jewellery for good measure. Zhanibek had all those involved in the funeral arrangements put to death, to protect the gold in the grave from looters. It is said that the golden boat still lies beneath the ground. The museum also houses seven modern kulpytas, symbolic gravestones of the seven khans. The displays are in Kazakh only, but you can purchase steeply priced pamphlets here in English, Russian and Kazakh about Saraichik.
The archaeological site of Saraichik itself is some 3km from here, on the bank of the Ural River, which is gradually undermining it. To get there, continue further on the road taken to reach the memorial complex. This quickly deteriorates in quality until it is just a dirt track. For the non-specialist there is not, however, much to see, and it is difficult to interpret the site from the degraded traces of former excavations.