It’s me. And the Caspian Sea. Err Ocean. Err Lake. Oh fine, Caspian Sea.
It’s not without coincidence that one might have U2 in your head in Aktau – where the streets have no name. Originally a custom-built camp for oil industry workers, insted all addresses in Aktau are of the form x-y-z – three numbers, the block number, the building and the apartment number. It sounds horrendously confusing at first, but it doesn’t take long to start asking what district (microraion) something is in. During the Soviet regime it was renamed Shevchenko, to honour the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko who was exiled here for his political ideas, but after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 it reverted to its Aktau roots.
Aktau is Kazakhstan’s only seaport on the Caspian sea, on the Mangyshlak peninsula. As such it was a bit of diversion from the main track east – I should have changed at Beyneu – but I was determined to see and go for a swim in the Caspian Sea. And as such I grabbed a taxi and headed to the hotel I’d found – the cheapest I could find online and again a brutal price – more than those of Finland! This was probably my biggest money mistake so far – I’d forgotten I’d bought the Lonely Planet for Central Asia, and if I’d thought to check as I was now in Kazakhstan and in areas covered by the book, I’d have found accommodation for a third of the price.
Aktau residential area in Microraion 2
However, I didn’t, and as such my taxi pulled up at Hotel Rahat in Microraion 2, then went off to an ATM and came back so that I could actually pay the guy in Tenge, as I had none. I checked in and got the ‘cheapest’ room in what was a business hotel really, with great breakfasts (they cost though), and I had a junior suite! Such luxury for a backpacker, with a bathroom bigger than any room I’d had in a hotel, and my own balcony as well. Just luxury, and wow did it hurt my bank balance…
I was just in time for breakfast once I’d unpacked, so I ate with a view of the Caspian. Freighters in the distance, some smaller boats, it looked good, and I made plans as I chewed on pancakes and had some great coffee.
View from the Hotel Rahat balcony
Unfortunately by the time I got out and started to explore, a mist had come in over the sea. It was clear enough above land, but over the water – you could barely see more than 100m out. I walked down to the endge and had a look around, photographed some skittish stray horses I’d seen earlier from the taxi. It was quite effective with the mist, and still very warm. Insanely warm. This was hotter than anything I’d had since Berlin. I felt a little self-conscious as I had my ‘expensive’ bag (daypack with all my valuables – camera etc) on me, and frankly I’d not brought a change of clothes. Nevertheless, nobody around was that close, so I dropped down to my pants and waded out into the sea. It was a good decision not to dive in, as there were all sorts of odd obstacles under the water – concrete blocks, bottles and the like. It was refreshing and great to get out of the heat. I came back into shore and sat on the rocks for a while, enjoying the sun and drying off, before starting to walk towards town, ignoring the odd looks from the locals.
Of course being a naive walker, where I assume I’ll come across some form of public transport or that ‘future Mark’ will decide to get a taxi, I started walking to zones 4 – 6, where the main sights were. Future Mark was to get very hot and tired and blame Present Mark immensely for this, but would obstinately continue to walk in the heat regardless…
The main beach in Aktau
I should mention that Aktau is Kazak for “white mountain”, something of an irony given it’s on the coast of a sea and that it’s actually in a depression – one of the lowest points on earth at 130m BELOW sealevel. This to me also raises the question of the difference between a lake, the sea and the ocean – to me the big water around the world is the ocean (Pacific, Indian etc), and then what the difference between a lake and a sea is … is dubious. But the result is that the level of the Caspian Sea is apparently below sealevel.
Sights in Aktau
The Caspian Sea
Going for a swim in the Caspian Sea. This was a must. I’d done this, and to me, anything else was a bonus. Fortunately, there was a lot of bonus to be had.
The Shevchenko monument
Poor old Taras Shevchenko, at least has a monument. His poem “A Dream” initially amused, then angered Tsar Nicholas when it turned to mocking his wife – the Tsar commenting “”I suppose he had reasons not to be on terms with me, but what has she done to deserve this?”. Taras was imprisoned in St Petersburg, then exiled to this region as a private, and continued to live a life of turmoil, being pardoned, banned from St Petersburg, returning to his old Ukraine, being arrested for blasphemy, and released but ordered to return to St Petersburg, buried, then exhumed and his remains transferred to Moscow by train and then by horse-drawn wagon to his homeland, the Ukraine. Wow! Anyway, they made a monument to his work and life, here where he was exiled.
MiG Monument on Victory Mall and the WW2 Eternal Flame Memorial
WW2 Eternal Flame Memorial
This is actually pretty cool. Like many other Russian and European cities, there’s an Eternal flame. This is at the top of a long pedestrian mall, with a model of a MiG as well. I’ll leave it up to the plane experts to identify which model it is…if they can…
As I mentioned, there was a quiet spot near my hotel where I went swimming. However by the actual town (zones 4-6 and a bit further north) is a fantastic beach area, with beach bars, shops, and fishing. On hot days like the two I spent here, this was a fantastic area to hang out.
Taxis were interesting in Aktau. I had some difficulty communicating (again), and although I’d been told not to accept rides for more than 200, that never seemed to work out – always costing me 600 around town, even with negotiating. Still, that’s pretty good compared to walking in the heat. Oddly I always walked the long walk into town, but took the taxi home, even though it was cooler in the later afternoon…
MiG Monument on Victory Mall
Booking my departure train – Obshi class
Ah, there’s always a lesson to be learned as a traveller. For much of my travel planning, I was using Wikitravel, although Stackexchange’s new Travel Beta site was starting to pick up steam, and already a guy in St Petersburg on it had been helping me (shout out to @VMAtm). By now I’d worked out that to get into Uzbekistan, I’d have to take a train (once a day) back to Beynou, and then onwards to Kungrad, which was near Nukus, which was sort of near Khiva, where I wanted to go first in that country. Danny was already negotiating the sands of Uzbekistan, having had a good fall, and I was chasing to catch up.
There are three types of trains:
Along the main streets of Aktau
fast trains (skory poyezd) or express trains (train nos 1 to 149)
slower trains (skorostnoi poyezd) (train nos 151 to 169), and
passenger trains (passazhirski poyezd) (train nos 171 to 699).
There are four types of sleepers:
soft wagon (miagki vagon) – 2 berth compartments
kupeiny vagon – 4 berth compartments
platskartny vagon – benches in a large car
obshi vagon – don’t take that one
Numbered buildings in the x-y-z numbering manner
So along I went to the train booking office. In my best (atrocious) Russian, I drew my drawings of a cabin, and asked for ‘kupe’ class. The answer was ‘nyet’. This applied to ‘platzkartny’ as well. Then I remembered my great overnight seated carriage trains in Russia – two seats to myself, actually pretty comfy. So I pointed to my chair and implied ‘like this’. She looked very troubled, and hesitantly said ‘yes….’ but in Russian, so ‘da….’. She showed me the price. It was fantastic! So I bought my ticket for obshi class; for later tonight I’d be on the train to Uzbekistan. To me, this was the most exciting country ahead, so I was excited. Very excited. I should have been worried. So very worried…