The Badlands of Mangystau & Across the Kazakh Steppes
Take in the culture, history, and landscapes of one the world’s least touristed areas, the Mangystau Region in the far west of Kazakhstan. The 13-day adventure starts Aktau, Mangystau’s modern and petrodollar-fueled capital. A pleasant walkway winds along the Caspian seafront here, lending the city a maritime feel despite its location far from the nearest ocean. The highlights in the surrounding deserts include stark badlands, richly hued by minerals laid down over millennia, fossils from the Cretaceous period, and the culture and traditions of the once nomadic Kazakhs.
Leaving Mangystau, head over the steppes by flight to Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan’s futuristic capital. Continue your exploration of Kazakhstan with a visit to the historic southern city of Turkistan, home to the country’s only Timurid architecture. The tour ends in Kazakhstan’s largest city and commercial hub, Almaty – where the steppes finally end abruptly at the Tien Shan mountains that divide Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Continue into Kyrgyzstan on an optional post-tour.
Days 1-2: Aktau (Kazakhstan)
Fly across the northern reaches of the Caspian Sea to the capital of Kazakhstan’s Mangystau Region, Aktau. You’ll visit the gold-domed Aktau Central Mosque and stroll the Caspian waterfront where a memorial to the poet Taras Shevchenko stands. Shevchenko, for which the town was named from 1964 to 1991, was exiled near here for nearly seven years in the 1850s.
- Explore the religious traditions of Western Kazakhstan at a local orthodox church and the town’s central mosque
- Learn the story of Taras Shevchenko’s exile and life in Aktau and the surrounding wilderness
- Feel the cool Caspian breeze as you walk the promenade in Aktau, stopping to people-watch and appreciate the monuments set up along the way
Days 3-5: Mangystau District
Spend the final days of this journey exploring Kazakhstan’s remote Mangystau Region. You’ll start with three nights at a yurt camp in the badlands to the northeast of Aktau, exploring canyons, mesas, villages, and archaeological sites. In the Cretaceous Period these were the shores of the Tethys Sea. Fossilized ammonites, shark teeth, and other sea life are scattered throughout.
- Explore the badlands of Kazakhstan’s Mangystau Region, searching for Cretaceous fossils deposited in what was then the Tethys Sea
- Hike up Mount Airakty, looking out for camels, wild sheep, and petroglyphs as you go, and from the top gaze across the spectacular Airakty-Shumanai Valley and the geoglyphs that decorate the desert floor
- Overnight in a traditional Kazakh yurt and learn more about the nomadic heritage of the area
Days 6-7: Ustyurt Plateau, Karakiya District
You’ll then travel south to a tent camp on the edge of the Ustyurt Plateau. The landscapes here are spectacular – reminiscent of the Painted Desert in Arizona or the Badlands of South Dakota, but far more remote and almost devoid of roads and other travelers. Finally return overland to Aktau for a final night in Mangystau before flying east across the steppes to Nur-Sultan.
- View the immense and expanding dune fields at the Tuyesu Sand Dunes
- Hike up to panoramic viewpoint above the Boszhira Valley, one of Kazakhstan’s most spectacular scenes
- Look up at some of the world’s brightest stars from outside your tent on the edge of the remote and wild Ustyurt Plateau
Days 8-9: Nur-Sultan
A windy, futuristic city situated on the steppes of remote north-central Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan is Kazakhstan capital. Spend two nights here exploring the city’s interesting architecture and museums. Enjoy a special Kazakh cooking class and folk performance at a private house museum.
- Learn about the tragic but important history of the Stalinist purges and gulags in Kazakhstan at the ALZhIR Memorial Museum
- Gaze up at futuristic architecture in the city, including the Baiterek Tower and the Pyramid of Peace
- Spend an evening getting some in-depth insight into Kazakh culture with a cooking class, jewelry demonstration, and folk performance at a private house museum
Days 10-11: Shymkent, Turkistan
From Nur-Sultan head south across the steppes to one of the most historically important areas of Kazakhstan: the town of Turkistan and the surrounding archaeological sites. Explore both ancient ruins and newly built attractions.
- Wander the windswept ruins of Otrar, an important Silk Road outpost destroyed by Genghis Khan’s armies in the 13th century
- Embark on a 30-minute exploration of Kazakh history and culture, told from the perspective of Samuryk – a legendary bird important in Kazakh mythology – at the newly opened Karavansaray entertainment complex
- View the blue dome of the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasavi, Kazakhstan’s only example of Timurid architecture
Days 12-13: Almaty
Your final stop will be Kazakhstan’s largest city and economic hub, Almaty. The itinerary here, where the steppes meet the mountains, focuses on a few less commonly visited sights in the city.
- Sample, and be surprised by the quality of, a range of Kazakh wines at an Almaty boutique before heading to one of the city’s best restaurants for a farewell dinner and fine-dining take on Kazakh cuisine
- Marvel at some of Kazakhstan’s most valuable treasures, both archaeological and numismatic, at the National Bank of Kazakhstan Museum
- Continue on into Kyrgyzstan on an optional post-tour – download the detailed itinerary for full details
Dates & Prices
Small group tour – max 12 travelers
Main tour pricing is below. Optional Kyrgyzstan post-tour pricing: 4 traveler minimum, $2,395 per person, twin share; single supplement $295 (see below for main tour pricing).
Land tour price, per person. Based on double occupancy and minimum group size of 6 travelers.
Apr 30 - May 12Tour, double occupancy$6,995Plus internal airfare$450Single supplement$695
- Accommodations as noted in itinerary. In the larger cities in Kazakhstan four- and five-star hotels are used. The single night in the Boszhira Valley is spent in tents with very rustic, camping conditions. The three nights at the Kogez Ethnic Village are spent in traditional Kazakh yurts with shared facilities.
- Most meals, as noted in the itinerary: 12 breakfasts, 9 lunches and 10 dinners.
- A daily supply of bottled water.
- Arrival/departure airport transfers on the tour start/end date. MIR will arrange for all travelers to be met upon arrival and seen off upon departure whether or not we make your flight arrangements.
- Ground transportation throughout tour by private mini-coach, jeep, or van. (Type of vehicle depends on group size and terrain, and will vary from country to country.)
- Services of experienced, English-speaking local guides, drivers, and other staff, including a MIR Tour Manager.
- Guided sightseeing tours and entrance fees as outlined in the itinerary.
- Special events, excursions, and cultural performances, as outlined in the itinerary.
- Gratuities to local guides, drivers, and other service personnel, including servers at group meals.
- Complete pre-departure electronic document that includes detailed packing suggestions, reading list links, country-specific information, maps, travel tips and more.
- Electronic final update bulletin, with any late news, updates and important information.
- Customized visa information and instructions. (Please note, visa fees are not included in the tour price. However, visas are not required for U.S. and many other passport holders visiting Kazakhstan.)
- Assistance booking your custom flight arrangements, on request. (Please note, international airfare is not included in the land tour cost.)
- International airfare and taxes/fuel surcharges.
- Meals and drinks not specified as included in the itinerary.
- Single supplement (or partial single supplement where applicable), if requested or required.
- Gratuities to Tour Manager.
- Expenses incurred as a result of delay, modification, or extension of a tour due to causes beyond MIR’s control.
- Travel insurance, including cancellation, medical, and evacuation insurance.
- Visa and/or passport fees, excess-baggage charges, airport departure taxes, vaccination and other medical costs.
- Baggage handling.
- Items of a personal nature, such as phone calls, email, laundry, and alcohol.
- Optional pre- or post-tour extensions.
Level 4: Rigorous
This Explorer Series program, by nature, is designed to be comfortable for western travelers, but is a very adventurous program to a rustic part of the world. Accommodations will vary widely with a four-star hotel in Aktau – collectively 3 nights – and much more rustic lodging elsewhere. The single night in the Boszhira Valley is spent in tents with very rustic, camping conditions. The three nights at the Kogez Ethnic Village are spent in traditional Kazakh yurts with shared facilities. Yurts, and especially tents, can be cold at night, and hot water and/or showers are often unavailable.
Services are improving in the region; however, you may encounter problems with plumbing, bureaucratic service, road conditions, unpaved sidewalks, uneven surfaces and steps, and availability and quality of public restrooms. In some places, established public restrooms will be Eastern-style. In other places where there are no restrooms, the group will make “bush stops.” Hot running water is not a constant in this part of the world, as municipal water systems are sometimes under repair in the warmer months and some guesthouses or yurt camps do not offer running hot water. We are traveling in some areas which, relatively speaking, have seen few travelers, and the infrastructure is not yet fully developed. Air conditioning is a luxury and not available in facilities outside capital cities.
This program is rated as rigorous touring due to the daily walking involved (with some hiking), extended travel in very remote areas, several very long driving days, and the overall shortcomings of the tourism infrastructure – particularly in the Mangystau Region. This itinerary features a significant amount of touring on foot, and long days of driving – required to experience some of the spectacular scenery.
This program makes use of yurts and tents in the Mangystau Region. These accommodations are extremely basic – toilets are often shared among all group members as are showers, and they may not have electricity. If you rely on electricity for a CPAP machine, or for any other reason, you must have your own battery or other back-up, or please reconsider participation.
Those with a history of medical problems, particularly cardiac or respiratory, must consult a doctor before considering this trip. Some drives will be more than four hours and have significant segments along dirt roads, unpaved roads, or poorly maintained and therefore very bumpy asphalt. Expect rough, dusty roads, for long periods of time. To reap the full rewards of this adventure, travelers must be able to walk at least four miles a day, keeping up with fellow travelers, and must enjoy the sense of adventure that comes with overland travel over dusty, rough roads. Flexibility, a sense of humor and a willingness to accept local standards of amenities and services are essential components to the enjoyment of this trip.
Every effort has been made to make the information in this schedule accurate. However, trip itineraries are always subject to change. We will do our best to inform you in advance of any changes, but due to the nature of travel in Central Asia, this may not always be possible. This tour maintains a focus on cultural interaction and we will be visiting private homes and sharing meals with local residents. It is therefore important that tour members have a desire to involve themselves in the local culture in order to fully enjoy this trip. If you are looking for a less adventurous experience, MIR offers other scheduled small group tour options featuring more comfortable accommodation and which do not venture into the remote and undeveloped Mangystau Region. Please ask for details on these tours (including Journey Through Central Asia) as well as a custom private journey which may be a better match for your interests and physical capabilities.
1/19 Andrei Astafyev
2/19 Andrei Astafyev
3/19 Andrei Astafyev
4/19 Andrei Astafyev
5/19 Andrei Astafyev
6/19 Andrei Astafyev
7/19 Andrei Astafyev
8/19 Andrei Astafyev
9/19 Andrei Astafyev
10/19 Andrei Astafyev
11/19 Andrei Astafyev
13/19 Igor Strebkov
14/19 Igor Strebkov
15/19 Igor Strebkov
16/19 Museum Berik Alibai
17/19 Amy Stidger
18/19 Ana Filonov
19/19 Vlad Ushakov