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Mangyshlak Peninsula

When Russian envoys arrived here in the first half of the 18th Century, they found a fully functioning nomadic community, whose way of living amazed members of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The daily life of the tribes living on the shores of the Caspian Sea differed from that of the indigenous communities to the north and east. Fishing and seal hunting were practised here, and some agriculture had been adopted from nearby Turkmen tribes. But something else fascinated explorers, for, apart from the roaming auls of the Kazakh Lesser (Junior) Horde, there were many traces of half-sedentary life on the vast territory of the Mangyshlak Peninsula, including an extraordinary abundance of necropolises. Mangyshlak has more than half of Kazakhstan's ancient architectural history- Most etymologists track its name back to the Turkmen words myng kyshlak, meaning "thousand winter pastures" - the nomads, having their regular winter camps here, spent summers in the grass steppes north of the Caspian Sea. The half-buried traces of settlements in the desert sand point to times when water supplies on the peninsula must have been considerably better than the present day.

Its strategic location on the shore of the Caspian turned the Mangyshlak Peninsula into a transit corridor for the caravans of the Silk Road. According to the latest evidence, between the fifth and 14th centuries the Caspian Sea's water level was as much as seven metres lower than it is today, and there was a land bridge between Mangyshlak and the Caspian north shore. Caravans could thus pass through on the shortest route to Itil on the Volga River. The locations of old caravanserai sites are idyllic in this region because they occur next to watering holes, which form surprisingly green islands in the barren landscape. For caravan travellers, of course, survival depended on these regularly spaced out oases, and the owners of the sites knew how to exploit that. People paid in cash and precious merchandise at each caravanserai, which turned them into prosperous enclaves in the midst of the peninsula's desert.

Other locations on the peninsula and its hinterland today contain important sites of pilgrimage for modern visitors. Most of them are mausoleums, as well as a number of underground meditation chambers (retreats), used by famous Sufi figures of the past, generally described as mosques because of their sacred nature and the rock-hewn rooms in which pilgrims pray, though strictly speaking this is an inaccuracy. Whatever you wish to call them, however, they are treasures of Islamic spiritual art. There are also extraordinary landscapes unlike anything you will see elsewhere in the country; add all these attractions together and you can easily fill two weeks of fascinating exploration.

Aktau is the usual starting point for tours in the region, but midsummer is not the time to go - the heat can be unbearable; spring and autumn are much better options.