The Ural (Zhayik) River
The Zhayik River, better known as the Ural River in books and on international maps, flows free and wide through the Kazakh steppe between Oral and Atyrau. The water is far from clean due to the many concentrations of industry along its course, both in Russia to the north and around Oral. The river, 2,428 kilometres long, flows across Kazakhstan's territory for more than 1,000 kilometres. It flows sluggishly through its broad basin, forming side branches, islands, swampy lagoons and lakes. These steppe lands belong to the most ancient sedentary areas of the Kazakhs-but were also popular among the Russians. This was the original meeting point of the two cultures, but the Russian decree of 1756, which banned the rights of Kazakhs to let their herds graze on the right bank of the Ural, immediately led to clashes over land control.
Two roads lead from Oral to Atyrau, both of which keep close to the river. The road on the west bank is relatively well frequented, while the one on the opposite bank is in a worse state and therefore quieter. Both are just over 500 kilometres long, which makes for a days tough travel. Bumpy side roads from both main roads lead to villages on the river's banks You should think carefully about which road to take, for ferries across the river are scarce along the whole stretch. Between December and March a change of mind can be corrected however, because the river freezes over and can be driven on. To see (and hear) the ice drift as it breaks up in late March and early April is quite spectacular.