Adventures in Aktau — Expat Life by the Caspian Sea
Imagine you get a chance to spend time on the shore of the Caspian Sea, how exciting is that? Aktau is a young city, its history starting in the 1960s. Most of the local population arrived here in their 20-30s from different parts of the Soviet Union to develop a new city that was built from the scratch in the Kazakh steppe. There were literally no trees, no fresh water sources and no previous settlements. At a first look from the airplane you would probably think how flat and boring the landscape is, and one can even get depressed by looking at the linear box-shaped buildings of the city, but soon you realize that it is quite special. Like any other place, you just need to fully experience it!
Finding Locations and Addresses
To get to a certain place you need to tell the taxi driver a "code" consisting of three numbers: micro-district, house and flat (no, he won’t follow you to your flat, since the door number is needed to find the correct porch). An interesting fact about Aktau is that there are no street names. Instead, the city is divided into micro-districts. Per architects’ plans (they won a prize in Brazil at the architectural contest for their city-planning project of Aktau) each micro-district is supposed to be self-sufficient and has its own school, shops, pharmacy and recreational area. The city is compact and during the warm season, it’s great to walk by foot to major shopping places, restaurants and explore the Caspian Sea shore.
Nuclear Power Station and Water Supply
The city had two major reasons for development. Not far from the city is one of the biggest uranium deposits, which is currently conserved. In 1961 the oil production began, which attracted more specialists.
One of the biggest challenges of building a city in the desert is water supply. Aktau was one of the first cities in the world to use nuclear power for the desalination of sea water. However, after the nuclear plant was closed, a thermal power station converted salty sea water into drinking water in Aktau. The water quality is not so great here, people are experiencing some problems with hot and sometimes cold water outages during the summer season due to some repair and maintenance work on the thermal power station. Local people are used to desalinated water, however for expats it is recommended to drink only bottled.
Local People and Traditions
You will be surprised at how diverse the local community is. Most of the population are Kazakh people, however there are many expats and people from different backgrounds. Nuclear power plant developers and oil and gas industry specialists were welcomed to Aktau to work on the projects, which explains the variety of nationalities here. The population is fairly young, you will soon find out that people in Aktau like to have fun, party and dance! Almost any well-known restaurant has its own live band that plays international music for any taste, from Italian San Remo festival hits to modern pop or rock music. Don't reject if locals invite you to a wedding, it’s one of the best ways to find out about Kazakh traditions and values.
The Caspian Sea and Nature
The most amazing feature of Aktau is its unique nature. For those who love adventure and road trips, there are many destinations to explore along the Caspian coastline and in the desert. All you will need is a 4x4 car, plenty of water and a good map or a tour guide. Around Aktau you can find all geological formations possible in the steppe, from breathtaking Depression Karagiye — a giant hollow 130 feet above sea level — to massive rocks that are scattered along the Mangyshlak peninsula. You should also not miss the green oases with various animals, herbs, and bushes that are found in the middle of the steppe.
Scientists still study the phenomenon of the development of such an unusual landscape. Another bonus for nature lovers are the many different animals and birds that have settled in Mangyshlak. You can find flamingos that come here each year in April, turtles that bury themselves in the sand for the winter and then show up again by the end of the spring, swans that come to Aktau in December for the winter months, water snakes that are not dangerous for humans and hunt for fish, as well as Caspian seals and camels (by the way, camel milk is a very common drink among locals).
Food and Exotics
The Caspian Sea has always been famous for black caviar and sturgeon fish. In Aktau, almost in any restaurant you can try famous sturgeon shashlik, skewers cooked on an open fire or grill. The best place to try shubat (camel milk) and kumis (horse milk) are local markets. There you can buy fresh fish, meat, and fruits, mostly imported from Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan.
Some locals also have gardens on the outskirts of the town, where they grow strawberries and veggies. You can find women selling them near Kazakhstan Shopping Mall, also called Shum among locals. In the meat section of the markets you will see various strange items, such as kazy, a traditional Kazakh sausage, made of specially prepared horse meat. This dish is a very common element of the festive table, also called dastarkhan.
For my family, the experience that we had being expats in Kazakhstan is unforgettable. I have realized that it is important to enjoy and make the most of every single day you spend in your current country. Aktau offered us some great summer months, when we would drive along the coast after work and explore different beaches or take a longer weekend trip to one of the famous natural reserves. We have met a lot of great people and had fun during our stay in Aktau. Personally, we got very attached to this wonderful city.
Evgenia Gaidanova was born in Russia, but for the last 10 years she has been living abroad. Evgenia has traveled and lived in the USA, Spain, Australia, and Indonesia, as well as Norway, where she stayed for four years, just before she moved to Kazakhstan with her husband. They have lived in Aktau for the past three years.
Image credit: Evgenia Silavea