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Atyrau mapAtyrau (population 160,000) is the urban hub of Kazakhstan's important oil industry. Flanking the meandering Ural River, it has a strong boom-town feel, with ever more opulent apartment blocks rising above the muddy downtown streets, and expatriate-filled bars offering steak and kidney pies and Guinness on tap. It does however have deeper historical roots than most cities in Kazakhstan. Indeed, locals are fond of telling visitors that the foundation of their town pre-dates that of St Petersburg.

Kazakhstan's westernmost large city has two remarkable features. First, it straddles two continents: given the historic decision to count the Ural as the line that separates Europe from Asia in this region, the city districts located on the western bank of the Ural River are geographically in Europe, while crossing the bridge brings you into Asia. Secondly, and far more significantly, Atyrau-formerly Guriyev-has become one of Kazakhstan's two oil capitals, a boomtown where construction is under way everywhere you turn.

Atyrau, 30km up the Ural River from its mouth on the Caspian Sea, began as a fishing settlement, but soon became a part of the efforts of Tsarist Russia to strengthen its control over the area. In fact, Guriyev was the first Russian town built on Kazakh territory. After having conquered the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan under Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible) in the middle of the 16th Century, the Russians found themselves in the immediate neighbourhood of the Kazakh tribes.

In order to consolidate their position on the western bank of the Ural a fortified post, constructed of tree trunks, was built and named Ust Yaitsk. A family of Russian traders, the Guryevs, established a wooden stockade here to help to protect the fishing catch. The settlement of Nizhny (Lower) Yaitsk was born. The Russians developed the fishing industry further, and farmers, brought in from the Don Basin, settled down on the riverbank. Regiments of soldiers were also stationed there to provide security; this was much to the dislike of the indigenous Kazakh inhabitants, who tried to destroy the fortification more than once-only to attract a stronger Russian presence each time.

The wooden fortress was vulnerable to attack from the local Kazakhs, who were understandably at best ambivalent about their new neighbours, and from other potential foes such as the Don Cossacks and the Khanate of Bukhara.

In 1645, the Tsar granted Mikhail Guryev permission to strengthen the town, based on the model of the stone defences of Astrakhan. Between 1647 and 1662, a better-equipped fortress was built, this time with stone walls and eight watchtowers equipped with 17 guns. Relations with the neighbours out in the steppe improved, after the latter appeared to have decided to live with the situation. In 1734, the town was awarded city rights and was named after its founder Guriyev. The name stuck at Guryev during the Soviet period, but took the Kazakh name Atyrau in 1992, soon after independence. Mikhail Guryev's merchant family does however still live on in the three-letter airport code for the place: GUW.

Once more, the spark of revolt flared in the lower reaches of the Ural River after the Russian crown imposed tougher regulations on settlement, thereby depriving the Kazakh nomads of their grazing rights. For 14 years, a peasant army led by Srym Datov held out against the Russian troops until he surrendered in 1797, after discovering treachery being plotted within his own Kazakh ranks.

Popular anger once more exploded in 1836 in an uprising led by the poet Makhambet Utemisuly and his comrade-in-arms Issatay Taymanov. As before, grazing rights were at stake in the area between the Volga and the Ural. For two years, the area controlled by the Junior Horde was ravaged by insurgency, only to end with the defeat and the death of Taymanov. Utemisuly was murdered in 1846.

But before the end of the century people discovered that in this particular area neither sturgeon nor grazing lands were the real wealth. The first oil deposits were discovered as early as 1890, and in the beginning of the 20th Century their exploitation took off.

The development of Guryev was given its major stimulus by the replacement of fish by oil as the major source of prosperity of the region. Crude oil, collected from shallow depressions, had long been used by the local Kazakhs for the treatment of skin diseases. Prospecting for commercially exploitable oil began in earnest towards the end of the 19th century. Crude oil found in the 1890s in the Karachungul basin was of higher quality and lighter than that around Baku in Azerbaijan, and oil extracted from this field by the Emba-Caspiisk Company marked the start of the oil industry in the area. The Nobel company opened another field, at Makat, to the northeast of Guryev, in 1913. The industry developed rapidly during the Soviet period. There are a large number of fields in production, and under exploration, many bringing together Kazakhstan's state hydrocarbons company KazMunaiGas with a range of international partners. But Atyrau's current prosperity and future development is above all pegged to the exploitation of two giant fields, the onshore Tengiz and offshore Kashagan developments.

The Tengiz oil field is located some 150km to the southeast of Atyrau. This huge oil deposit, around 21km long and 19km wide, was discovered in 1979. It is a challenging field, as the oil is deep, under high pressure, and contains a high concentration of noxious hydrogen sulphide. Recoverable reserves are believed to be around one billion tonnes, placing Tengiz among the ranks of the world's largest oilfields. Estimates of Kazakhstan's oil reserves promptly doubled, and commercial oil production started in 1991.

Today, petroleum and fish are the main sources of income for the city. It has become a crossroads for transportation routes such as pipelines and railways between East and West, and shipping lines from Atyrau's seaport to Baku, Iran, Turkmenistan and along the Volga, the Volga-Don Canal and down the Don to the Black Sea, and on into Europe.

The Ural River meanders through the town, marking the border between Asia and Europe. But beyond a couple of museums and some pleasant strolling to be had along the Ural River, there is not a huge amount of touristic interest in Atyrau. Atyrau is a possible entry point into Kazakhstan, but unless you are here to work there’s not very much reason to linger. However, the expat scene does make for a good selection of places to eat, drink and dance. 

The oil boom has also resulted in some decidedly steep hotel prices, with notably slim pickings at the lower end of the scale. The city is notorious for its mud, especially in spring. Since the muddy season is followed by the arrival of numerous mosquitoes, it can feel as though Atyrau is not the most welcoming place for tourists.

Sights - The modernised Atyrau History Museum has some interesting displays including a replica of the local ‘Golden Man’ – a 2nd century-BC Sarmatian chief with a gold-plated tunic, found in 1999 at Araltobe, 200km east of Atyrau – and a room on Sarayshyk, an old trading centre and capital of the Nogai Horde (one of the successors to the Golden Horde), 50km north of Atyrau.  Opposite the History Museum is the Art Museum, worth a look for its collection of paintings on Atyrau life. On Satpaev 900m west of the bridge, beside the large square Makhambet-Isatay alangy, is the handsome, blue-and-white Imangali Mosque, opened in 2000. The 19th-century Russian Orthodox Uspensky Sobor, restored in 2000, emerges like a jewelled finger from the shabby ‘old town’ north of here.