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The Turan Lowland

An immensely vast, uniform desert landscape stretches from the Russian border down to Atyrau, featuring sand dunes and scant vegetation, if any at all. The unpaved roads are flanked by humble settlements about every 50 kilometres, and in between them the occasional shelters of a winter camp. This area, part of the Turan Lowland (also called the Turan Depression) includes the Menteke, Buzanay, Kosdaulet and Batpayskagyr deserts - all in all not a very inviting tourist destination. Almost the entire region lies below sea level, and the soil is saline. The highest "mountain", Mount Kaday, rises 14 metres above sea level, and to the north the region borders the Ryn Desert. Only camels seem to prosper in this desolate area with its ungenerous soil, although sheep somehow also survive. In Soviet times, this was a closed area for testing mid-range missiles.

However, the assumption that there is only flat and forlorn steppe in the Atyrau, West Kazakhstan and Aktobe Regions (Oblasts) is somewhat misleading. The easternmost branch of the Volga Delta, the Kigach, flows through Kazakhstan territory, emptying into the Caspian Sea to the south of Ganyushkino. The small strip of land alongside it is more densely populated than all the rest of rural Atyrau Region, since its marshland is fertile. The landscape forms an interesting mix between flat steppe, desert, river and reed lake.

To the east, the Turan Lowland is bordered by the Aktolagay Plateau. This remote place is accessed down 80 kilometres of rough road south from the village of Says, which lies 250 kilometres along the road from Atyrau to Aktobe. Eventually a bizarrely shaped rock wall, reminiscent of a jagged sandcastle, looms ahead. The heavily cleft plateau, with its fossil- rich chalk mountains, is crowned by a chess queen-a white mountain, the original peak of which has eroded into a round skull.