The Ustyurt Plateau
The Ustyurt Reserve was established in 1984 as a state nature reserve occupying more than 2,200 square kilometres and including the western edge of the Ustyurt Plateau with its monumentally eroded rock cathedrals. The plateau in its entirety-some 200,000 square kilometres of semi-desert-stretches far into territory belonging to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, from the so-called "Western Chink" between the Gulf of Mangyshlak and the Karynzharyk Desert to the "Eastern Chink" on the west bank of the Aral Sea. It is fair to call this area the best-protected nature reserve in Kazakhstan, since its topography and the absence of any infrastructure condemn visitors to travel by helicopter, or hundreds of kilometres by jeep or on foot-something, fortunately, only very few visitors can afford or endure.
The Ustyurt Plateau's chalk escarpments, known as "chinks", are hugely impressive and starkly beautiful. The giant terraces stretch hundreds of kilometres to the north and south, in the east reaching heights of up to 219 metres on the border with the Aral Sea, while those to the west rise up to 341 metres high. Here in particular, the cliffs have been shaped by fault ruptures, water, wind and sand erosion into a rich and varied landscape. Numerous rock caverns in the central, eastern and southern areas, some very large, have offered shelter to man and animal alike for thousands of years. In spring, large expanses of the plain at the foot of the cliffs lie under water, and the contrast with the bald, oddly coloured mountains is otherworldy. The most prominent features of this section of the plateau edge are Mount Bokhty, about 40 kilometres east of Senek, and the Bozzhira Massif, about 30 kilometres farther on. The most difficult to reach is a mountain formation called the Three Brothers (Tri Brata), 40 kilometres north of the Kazakh-Turkmen border.
The plateau proper consists of a flat, waterless highland plain, covered with sand in some places and with gypsum crystal in others. A type of black saksaul grows only in this region, in the form of proper trees rather than bushes. Relatively large groups of the unique Ustyurt moufflon (a rare type of wild sheep) live in the reserve, as well as a small population of the lynx-like caracal, which is threatened with extinction. Indian porcupine, saiga antelope and some 20,000 dzheyran-half Kazakhstan's total population of the pretty gazelle. Many reptiles and rodents are endemic here, and at night the long-eared desert (Brandt's) hedgehog snuffles through the dark. Apart from the Houbara bustard, the large birds that live here are mainly raptors: the rare Turkmen owl (a subspecies of the Eurasian eagle owl), the saker falcon, short-toed and golden eagles and scavengers such as the Egyptian vulture. Every seven to nine years there is a time of glut for these birds when the zbut (a severe blizzard) leaves thousands of hoofed animals dead. This phenomenon, most feared by the nomads, takes place when, after winter rains, temperatures suddenly drop sharply and the desert freezes. Unable to find food, the animals swiftly die.
The Ustyurt Plateau is most easily visited from Aktau via Zhanaozen and Senek. The tarmac road ends here, and further travel is on sand and clay tracks to the foot of the fissured limestone escarpment of the Western Chink. There are only a few places to ascend to the plateau by jeep or on foot. A guide is absolutely essential, someone who knows all the ins and outs of the area, as the network of tracks is unclear and intact, water-bearing wells are extremely rare. Any planned itinerary to this region should include not less than five litres of water per person per day.