Aktau means "white mountain" in Kazakh, but it is a very young city that has little to do with historical Kazakhstan. Despite its lack of history, Aktau is the capital of the Region of Mangestau.
Mangestau translates roughly from Kazakh as "eternal mountains", although the region is actually home to the Karagiye Depression - one of the lowest points in the world at 130 meters below sealevel. The region is also home to Sufi-pilgrimage sites such as Beket-Ata, Shakpak-Ata, Shopan-Ata and Masat-Ata, which exist due to Mangestau's location on ancient, but minor, land trading routes around the Caspian. The region is also home to some minor, albeit beautiful, natural attractions such as "Fire Mountain" (Kazakh: Отпантау), oases Tamshali and Saura, and Radon Hot Springs and Mudbaths. The Mangestau region is principally populated by Kazakhs of the Aday Tribe, which is one of the "little brother" tribes in Kazakh history.
Aktau was created as a uranium mining town in 1961 and was named Shevchenko, after the Ukrainian national poet Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko (Ukrainian: Тара́с Григо́рович Шевче́нко). The Soviets built a major nuclear power plant and desalinization plant and the desert was transformed into a livable city. After independence, the Kazakhs renamed Shevchenko, and the city has become Kazakhstan's only port. Due to the large amount of oil and gas exported from Kazakhstan, the city has boomed and is now home to many new developments, which have stretched the infrastructure to its breaking point.
If you come to this city, you will be able to experience the paradox of large supplies of hydrocarbons, uranium and seawater coupled with frequent brown-outs and water shortages.
The Aday people are the overwhelming majority of Kazakhs who live in or near Aktau. This tribe of people usually describe themselves as fierce and prone to fighting while at the same time friendly and generous to guests.
Ethnic groups from across the Caspian populate Aktau as well. Most of these people were born in violent areas of Dagestan, Ingushetia, Chechnya or Ossetia and have wild stories if you are willing to listen. Groups here include Chechnyans, Utis, Lezgins, and Ingush. Many taxi drivers are Azeri or Georgian with a handful of Russians also present. People whose parents were born in other parts of the former Soviet Union live here. These groups include Koreans from Vladivostok, Ukrainians and Belarussians. The largest expat community are Italians due to the presence of Agip and Saipem.
Most people fly to Aktau Airport, 24 km north of the city center. Taxi drivers usually wait for arriving passengers in the arrivals area of the airport. Haggle and a taxi should cost no more than 2000 tenge one way. It may be worth organising a pick-up by your hotel, ensuring the taxi driver knows where he's going and at a set cost.
Direct international flights include: or Moscow (Transaero). Twice weekly, you can fly direct with SCAT to Istanbul or to Tbilisi (neither of which can be bought online) between US$400-450 return. Air Astana has a service to Amsterdam through a partnership with KLM. In addition to these regular flights, there are sporadic flights with SCAT and other local airlines to Makhachkala, Yerevan and Astrakhan. There is a direct charter flight to Urumqi departing on the 15th of every month and returning around the 20th of the same month.
All trains arrive and depart from the Mangyshlak/Mangestau (Мангышлак) Station, about 12 km (7.5 mi) out of town. There is a regular 24-hour train service to and from Atyrau. There is also the option of a two-day-long train service from Astana, and a three-day-long train service from Almaty, passing through Shymkent two days after departing Aktau.
- See also: Ferries in the Caspian Sea
There are occasional ferries to and from Baku, Azerbaijan. Ferries leave every few days without a fixed schedule.
Aktau is the type of city U2 may have been talking about when they sang about a place where the streets have no names. The city is divided up into largely unlabeled and chaotically numbered districts (including district 9). These are called "micro-raion" in Russian, which even Kazakhs use to describe them in Kazakh.
City bus fares: 50 tenge (routes available here). Flag fare for taxis should be 200-400 tenge to anywhere within the city center, but this is often 300 tenge for foreigners. Most cars in Aktau will stop and pick you up informally and there is no need to wait for an official taxi to pass by. Official taxi drivers are usually from the Caucasus, and they rarely speak Western European languages. Locals driving newer cars are a better bet if you aren't comfortable communicating in Russian or Kazakh. When you get in the car, you can simply say 'micro-raion' and then state the district's number in Russian. Afterwards, say the building ("Zdanie" or apartment building "Dom") followed by the number. Addresses in Aktau are generally written as follows: 14-42-30, where 14 indicates the district, 42 indicates the apartment or commercial building and 30 indicates the apartment number.
If you should choose to experience a decrepit form of transportation, you can pay 50 tenge for buses. You will see them plowing their routes on the three main roads in Aktau (north and south coastal, middle north and south road, and the eastern north and south road).
Useful map of Aktau available here: http://www.aktau-business.com/gmap/ Map includes a lot of helpful marks like hotels, cultural centres, markets, cafe, restaurants, tourist's companies, plain & train tickets etc.
There is a Soviet-era plane on a pedestal just down the hill from the Asian-themed World War II memorial. At this memorial, an eternal flame (Russian: Вечный Огонь) burns under a circle of partial-white arches, which are reminiscent of a yurt. Across from the memorial, there is a drama theater with regular productions in Russian.
Just south of these structures, on Aktau's middle north-south thoroughfare, you will find a collection of restaurants, night clubs and shopping centers. A well-appointed grocery store (Ramstor), movie theater and night club are in the Ardager shopping complex (district 9). Beyond that, in the furthest shopping center to the south is "Shoom" (ШУМ) (district 4), which has a large variety of low-quality stores.
To the north, in district 16, you can find Aktau's new mall. The mall includes a very small ice-skating rink, movie theater and a number of low and high quality shops (low quality children's clothes on the top floor, Hugo Boss on the main floor). The mall includes arguably the best deal in town for food at Asorti on its top floor.
District 10 has little of note, but it serves as a great viewing point of the huge frescoes, which cover one side of decrepit Soviet apartment buildings across the main street in district 9. The frescoes depict various "national fathers" of Kazakhstan, and rumor has it that current president Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev is keen to have his picture painted in a similar fashion. For now, there is an enormous banner draped over an apartment building on that row.
The beaches of Aktau have nice water, and you are allowed to swim anywhere. However, the amount of glass on the beaches can make your beach experience dicey in many locations. Watch out for water snakes in the more rocky parts. Usually, the locals stick to the beaches below the Renaissance. Behind the beach-side grills and clubs there, the beaches are fairly clean and sandy.
Unfortunately you cannot kick back just anywhere on the edge of the Caspian, or around the town for that matter, and down a sunset drink. You are not allowed to drink alcohol outside of these beach-side bar and grills, although there are absolutely no signs to warn you otherwise. The local police take advantage of this situation and the general fear that many tourists have for police. If you are caught drinking, they only want 1000 tenge as a bribe, even if you don't speak Russian or Kazakh. Most of the locals drinking on the street are ignored by police or pay the small bribe.
Bowling and pool are very popular in the city. There are at least 2 bowling alleys of good quality: just down the steps from the Soviet plane is Alia Bowling Hall (in between districts 7 and 9) and in Aktau Mall (district 16). Pool is available at those places and in Elite Alliance (building 38 in district 8) in two places: near the corner of the main road in the small Baiterek Center and one directly behind the building in between Elite Alliance and apartment building 7. Nautilus Restaurant also offers pool.
Beach volleyball is available in the summers at Aktau Mall sports center in district 16 and on the beach near the Renaissance Hotel.
Grand Hotel Victory will let you use its saunas, gym, Turkish baths, etc. for one day for 4000 tenge.
The prices in Aktau are high even by Western European standards. Quality electronics, clothes, western-style foods, hotels, entertainment and gyms are readily available. However, all of these are marked up anywhere from 100 to 300% above American or German prices. It is best to go local in Aktau and/or buy anything of any consequence before you come.
There are a few bazaars in Aktau. All of them have bad reputations for fleecing foreigners: Yellow Bazaar (Жёлтый Рынок) in district 31, Wave Bazaar (рынок Волна) in district 5, Old Bazaar (Старый Базар) in district 22, and White Bazaar in district 8 (Ак Базар).
- In Aktau Mall (district 16), Restaurant Assorti on the top floor offers one of the best deals in town. There are two Assorti Restaurants in the mall, but the one on the ground floor doesn't offer the buffet. The top floor restaurant offers an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch between 12:00 and 15:00 every weekday for 1200 tenge per person. There is a live piano player every weekday for lunch, and the decor is sleek.
- The second best deal in town are the Shwarma places near the Ramstor (Pamctop) behind Ardager (Ардагәр) Mall, near the eternal flame memorial. Ask for a 350 tenge shwarma without sauce ("bez sousa" or "bez mayonez") if you don't want it swimming in mayonnaise.
- The most expensive places are Taksim in district 12 (near the big roundabout separating districts 10, 14, 12 and 11), Noodles in district 2, or one of the restaurants at the Renaissance. Both of these offer what could be called a Soviet interpretation of Western-style service for around US$25 per person. The food is mediocre for the price charged.
- Japanese, CIS style, is available at the downstairs location of Assorti at Aktau Mall, at Osaka in district 11, at Arabic down the steps from the Soviet plane in between district 9 and 7, Restaurant Fusion at district 2, and at the Jazz Club in district 5. You should expect to pay at least US$10 to have a couple of small roleLls at any of those places.
- Fuenta Club next to Ardager (Ардагәр) Mall in district 9, near the eternal flame memorial, opens up for lunch on weekdays between 11:30 and 14:30, offering a mediocre buffet for around 1000 tenge per person. It seems that this buffet is reluctantly all-you-can-eat. It is not worth the 200 tenge savings to eat here instead of Asorti or the premium over Shvedski Stol.
- Shvedski Stol (шведский стол) has two locations, one in district 2 across from Shoom (ШУМ) and one in district 6 on the main east-west road. These restaurants also have an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet on weekdays, which costs around 900 tenge per person. Be careful of overcharging, as the wait-staff will sometimes ring up your bill according to their perception of your ability to pay. Since both are located near Aktau's largest employers of office workers, good luck finding a table at lunchtime.
- Chinese is available at China Town Restaurant in district 9 for around 1500 tenge per person. It is also available at Urumqi Restaurant in district 2 for around 3000 tenge per person.
- Korean is available at Korea in district 11, next to Taksim. The food is not very Korean or very good.
- Pizza is available in district 4 at Napoli Restaurant for around 1500 tenge and higher, and in other restaurants. Napoli also has a location in Astana Mall in district 14, which has hookah (Russian: кальян) available.
- Restaurant Pinta at the major roundabout between districts 12, 14 and 11 serves a variety of coffees, teas and Soviet-foods. The food is reasonable but costs 2000 tenge per person for an average meal.
- Coffee and People: in district 7, off the main road behind a small city park and fountain. It is swank, serves reasonably good food, and charges about 2000 tenge per person for a meal at any time of day.
- Hollywood Cafe - Two locations, one near Baiterek Center in district 27 and one in Aktau Mall in district 16. Both are next to cinemas and are expensively priced.
- Caucasian grilled meat (shashlik) is available at the beach-side grills below the Renaissance hotel. These are usually 800-1500 tenge per person.
- The English Pub at the 5 Star Hotel "Grand Victory" in district 13 has a laid-back atmosphere and comfortable seats, but charges US$5-8 per pint.
- 3 Дельфина near the Renaissance offers a well-priced menu and drinks
- Shamrock Irish Pub in district 7 is a reasonably attractive watering hole with expat prices similar to those at the English Pub.
- Guns and Roses in the Aktau Hotel in district 2 has a live music scene on weekends and expat prices to make it painful to enjoy.
- Mojito probably has the youngest crowd of expats (average age: 40) in district 4, and it is not as expensive as Shamrock even though it is almost directly behind it.
- Fuenta Club in district 9 is probably the most consistently crowded nightspot. The music is mostly Soviet techno and old hip-hop.
- The beach-side bars near Renaissance offer nightlife similar to that at Fuenta, but they mostly shut during the winter.
- Restaurant Pinta has occasional ballroom dancing parties on Sunday evenings.
- Arabica is a new club that has just opened up on the down the stairs from the Soviet plane. The club is a little bit cleaner than Fuenta and the location near the beach is nice. However, the music could be much better.
- Esperanza next to Ramstor in Ardager Mall shows live Premier League matches and offers a decent menu in a rather small, cramped area.
- Renaissance Hotel - US$200 per night, but usually great views with an outdoor and indoor pool  in district 9. There is also a gym inside but no shopping center. To take advantage of the superior location of the hotel, you should request a sea-view.
- Grand Victory Hotel - US$150-200 per night, classy place with pool, gym and shopping center  in district 13. Views can be as good as the Renaissance or could be of a Soviet building.
- Chagala Hotel - US$100-200 per night, offers a wide selection of long-term suites with kitchens and short-term rooms. It is the only beach hotel in the city of Aktau.
- Grand Nur Plaza - US$150 per night, is supposed to be a 4-star hotel, but it is priced the same as the much better appointed and located 5-star hotels in town.
- Golden Palace Hotel - US$100 per night, has the best location, along with Aktau Hotel, for central offices in Aktau and Aktau night life. However, it is not very well appointed.
- Aktau Hotel - US$100 per night, is close to the Golden Palace Hotel. It is better appointed than the Golden Palace and has Guns and Roses downstairs for bored visitors.
- Stiegel Beach Resort - US$100-150 per night, is the most relaxing location near Aktau. The air is fresh and the artificial beach is kept very clean. However, it is about 30–45 minutes on unlit 2-lane roads from Aktau.
- A cheaper and more personal alternative to hotel accommodation might be renting a room or flat from locals. There should be listings online (in Russian). A tested option is offered by Viktor and Svetlana, a friendly middle-aged couple who rent out their spare flat in an aging but charming communist-era block in the 'historic' (1960s) part of the city centre. Basic facilities include a small kitchen (gas stove, pots, plates etc., but no fridge), warm shower, and a bed big enough for two plus couch. The price is only a few dollars per night. Located within walking distance from the city centre, at microrayon 2 (near Hotel Aktau). Phones: (+7) 7292 509276 (home) and (+7) 701 39665 54 (mobile). They speak Russian, very basic English and very, very basic French and Italian.
The local area code is (+7) 7292.
Other than buses to even more remote outposts in the desert, Aktau is an extremely out-of-the-way place, so getting out of town usually means backtracking in the direction you have just come. Also, the situation with Turkmeni visas has not been investigated well or at all by any of the travel agencies in Aktau. Therefore, you should not plan to come here first before getting a visa to continue to Turkmenistan. If you do have a Turkmeni visa that authorizes a crossing from Mangestau to Turkmenbasi, then you can make your way easily to the border. There are frequent morning buses to Zhanaosen (about 140 km east of Aktau) and then at least one daily bus from there to Turkmenbasi (about 300 km south).
Tourist agencies in town can make arrangements for visits to Suni shrines and very distant caravansarais.
The most famous of these shrines is Beket Ata - which is not very old - but already has many superstitions about magical properties of the site. Built into a cave, this shrine to an 18th-century Kazakh wise man is usually visited in groups. First, you will drive 3–5 hours from Aktau on poorly paved or unpaved roads to reach the shrine of Shapak Ata (mentor of Beket). After visiting Shapak Ata you will travel another 30 minutes to Beket Ata. You will need to take a live goat with your tour group that will be sacrificed later that evening. After consecrating the goat, you will feast on the meat and relax and pray in the dormitories next to the site until very early the next morning. At that point, you will get back on your tour bus with the leftovers and drive back to Aktau.
Radon Hot Springs offers a slightly radioactive relaxation experience. It is a very primitive location that is about 54 km south of Aktau, with 13 km of that journey offroad. The hot springs are free, but room or yurt rental will cost 500 tenge per hour. The facilities are very primitive (no electricity, no restaurant, no potable water nor western toilets or toilet paper) so you have to take everything with you. There are mudbaths about 3 km beyond Radon on a nearby dirt road. In both cases, you must have a local guide as the roads are completely unmarked and hazardous to drive on at night and there is no public transportation.
Samal/Sherkala, 150 km from Aktau, is an area formed by extreme geological instability. Although Aktau does not experience earthquakes now, it used to have extreme earthquakes millions of years ago. These resulted in the created of the big depression north of the city as well as the valley of Samal. This valley is under "Black Mountain" (Каратау) and "Fire Mountain" (Отпантау). The fire mountain has a natural eternal flame on top as well as a monument to wolves. Nearby, the holy mountain of Sherkala attracts the superstitious who believe circumambulating the mountain between 1 and 7 times will result in good luck. You will need locals to show you how to get there as nothing is signposted and there is no public transportation.
Fort Shevchenko has nothing of historical or cultural note save that Mr. Shevchenko stayed there during his exile from Ukraine. It is about 150 km north of Aktau and some buses leave district 8 infrequently to get there. This is one of the few signposted locations in Mangestau.
Two desert oases are within reach of Aktau by day trip. Saura is about 50 km north and Tamshali is about 130 km northeast. You will need locals to show you how to get there as nothing is signposted and there is no public transportation.
To travel further east to the Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan trains travel from the Mangestau Station through Beyneu and on to Nukus in Uzbekistan, taking around 29 hours. From there it is possible to travel on to Samarkand and Tashkent.