AKTAU, Kazakhstan – Aktau, a city on the east bank of the Caspian Sea that sprang up just over 50 years ago practically in the middle of nowhere, in a desert area about as arid as the Sahara, has become a key element of the New Silk Road, an ambitious Chinese-led initiative in which Kazakhstan has also become involved.
Founded in the 1960s during the Soviet era as an industrial complex for developing uranium deposits, the city now is an oil industry hub and until very recently was Kazakhstan’s only port.
The international trans-Caspian route allows Kazakhstan to serve as a transit country on a transport corridor that runs from Asia to Europe without entering Russian territory.
Because of their strategic location, Aktau and the new Kuryk port facilities will serve as a transit point for United States military cargo bound for Afghanistan.
Aktau, which is home to close to 190,000 residents, is a testament to human beings’ ability to withstand inclement weather, with temperatures soaring to well over 40 C (104 F) in the summer.
Thanks to the warming effect of the Caspian, the city itself does not experience extreme cold in the winter, although the humidity and wind do take their toll.
But in the middle of the Mangystau region, of which Aktau is capital, temperatures plummet to -40 C (-40 F).
“A desert without any vegetation: only sand and stones. When you look around, you feel so forsaken that it makes you want to hang yourself,” the great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevshenko, who was exiled by the Russian tsars to a military post on the eastern banks of the Caspian, wrote in 1850.
The Soviet authorities named the city after the Ukrainian bard, and it did not acquire its current name (Aktau in Kazakh means “white mountain”) until after Kazakhstan became independent in December 1991.
No fresh water sources exist either in Aktau or the hundreds of kilometers that surround it, so the city must rely on desalination plants to make drinking water from the Caspian Sea.
“At home we have two types of water, one for drinking, and the other for so called technical use, which we use to wash and for other tasks,” says Eido Oidoz, 35, a sailor on a port tugboat.
That is not the only unique feature of Aktau, a city of nameless streets that separate urban units called micro districts, which are all numbered.
“5a.13.23,” which visitors may construe as an encrypted message, is a simple address that indicates micro district 5a, building 13 and apartment 23.
For Aktau residents there is no easier way to write an address and they feel completely at home using this numeric system.
“It seems complicated, but it’s very easy. When I travel to other cities, I get lost with so many street names,” says Almaz, a young appliance store employee.
In recent years, Aktau has developed its budding tourist potential with the construction of new hotels and a seafront boulevard, which has become a favorite for locals.
“Last year we received more than 200,000 tourists, almost 30,000 of them foreigners,” Urken Bissakayev, Mangystau’s tourism chief, told EFE, adding that those numbers are quite high for an oil region.
He stressed that Aktau was an industrial city designed initially to exploit uranium deposits and had no tourist component at its inception.
“Even so, the sector is growing steadily,” said Bissakayev, who underscored the growing interest in ethno-ecological tourism.
Mangystau, he explained, is home to more than 13,000 Kazakh cultural monuments, more than half of the country’s total, including 362 Sufi shrines and the Beket-Ata necropolis, which last year was visited by more than 52,000 pilgrims.
“The regional landscapes, which they call ‘ground without flesh, exposed to the bone,’ are a tourist attraction,” the government worker said.
In fact, Kazakhstan has asked UNESCO to include the Mangystau deserts on its list of Global Geoparks.