Mangyshlak Peninsula
(Mangustay)

Mangyshlak Peninsula

Mangyshlak peninsula (or Mangystau) is a land of fantastic landscapes where you can feel like you are on Mars. The place would be perfect to shoot fantasy genre movies as the landscape is truly extraordinary with underground mosques and poems painted in the rocks. Mangyshlak Peninsula is located in the Southwest part of Kazakhstan, at the shore of the Caspian sea and just next to borders of Uzbekistan in east and Turkmenistan in south. According to the latest evidence the Caspian Sea’s water level was as much as seven meters lower between the fifth and 14th centuries, than it is today and there was a land bridge between Mangyshlak and the Caspian north shore. Caravans were thus able to pass through on the shortest route to Itil on the Volga River. The areas of old caravanserai can still be seen in the area next to the watering holes, which form green islands in the otherwise barren landscape.

Mangystau area is very dry, not having enough fresh water for most of plants and therefore has only low vegetation. This means that the peninsula is a mostly uninhabited, deserted area. The area of the Mangistau region is about 165 thousand square kilometers, the population is 650 thousand people which means that there are only 3.5 inhabitants per square kilometer. However, the area is very rich with minerals and it is called the “treasure peninsula” due to the variety of mineral raw materials. The region also owns a quarter of all oil in Kazakhstan together with the richest deposits of uranium that were discovered in the 1950s. In addition, it is one of the main regions in the world where strontium is found widespread. 

Mangyshlak holds a lot of important sites of pilgrimage like mausoleums and a number of underground meditation chambers (retreats) used by famous Sufi figures of the past. They are commonly defined as mosques because of their sacred nature and the rock-hewn rooms in which pilgrims pray in. 

Mangustau is really a place for people who enjoy geological formations but also offers things to see for the nature lovers with the abundant bird life at the shores of the Caspian Sea and also the ancient life that has lived in the area when it was the bottom of the sea, can be seen in the fossils laying around in the area. Bear in mind that the destinations in the area are huge and you will spend most of your time driving around from one sight to another but they are worth it and the views during the car drives are an experience by itself.

 

Sherkala Mountain

Sherkala “Mountain” rises to the height of 307,7 m and is called by the locals “God’s yurt”, perhaps, because it has a distinct form of a space object. It can take about half a day to get around the mountain completely but it is worth it as Sherkala has different shapes on each side. From one side you can clearly see the shape of the yurt and on the other side the shape reminds a powerful resting lion. There are plenty of legends that are associated with the mountain. According to one of them, a group of warriors defended themselves at the top from a myriad of enemies. The adventurers fought like lions, but because of the numerical superiority, they began to suffer defeat. Trying to flee from their enemy they hid in the underground passages of the mountain and remained forever in its womb. In Sherkala there are many other mysterious dungeons as well. On the northern part of the mountain, there are the remains of ancient settlements – small grottoes of artificial origin, below the approaches to the settlement were guarded by a wall of cobblestones.

Not far from Sherkala mountain, you can see the remains of an ancient city. Once it stood on one of the branches of the Silk Road that passed through the peninsula. Caravan routes went from Bukhara and Khiva to the Caspian Sea and merchants reached Europe by sea or further land routes. The history of the appearance and disappearance of this settlement has not yet been revealed, but scientists believe that it was a rather rich city and do not exclude that many valuable finds are still hidden in these places.

Boszhira Tract

Boszhira tract is the flatland covered with sharp rocky peaks shining in the sunlight. Hundreds of millions of years ago this place formed the bottom of Tethys, the ancient impetuous ocean of the Mesozoic era. The unique landscape has formed as a result of continuous change of the ocean’s water level. White stones, perfectly carved by time, and sea remains are scattered throughout the valley. On the top of the plateau, one can easily observe stony installations made of limestone plates. All around is white here canyons, peaks, mountains-towers, mountains-castles and mountains-yurts. Boszhira tract lies in the western part of the Ustyurt Plateau, on Mangyshlak Peninsula. The distance from Aktau to Boszhira is about 300 km. 

Mangyshlak Peninsula near the Caspian sea with rock formations
Shrekala mountain from above in Mangyshlak, Kazakhstan
Camels walking in the desert of West Kazakhstan

Mangyshlak's Sacred Caves

There are many cemeteries, mosques and places of pilgrimage here and it is the reason why Mangyshlak is considered a holy and sacred land within Kazakhstan. In Mangystau you will find hundreds of necropolises in addition to “underground mosques”, which are always coupled with a tomb of a saint and huge cemeteries. 

There are around 15-20 underground mosques on the peninsula all connected with the graves of local Sufi saints (362 saints are buried in the region, almost one for every day of the year), with cemeteries generally dating from the 9th to 19th centuries AD. They serve as an important destination of pilgrimage across the peninsula, the most visited ones being from West to East: Shakpak-Ata, Sultan-Epe, Karaman-Ata, Shopan-Ata and Beket-Ata being the most known. Some of these mosques have been dated to the period of the earliest tombs 9th- 10th centuries AD and are attributed to different peoples, listed in chronological succession: Khazar, Oguz, Kypchak, the Golden Horde, the Nogai Horde and Kazakh. 

Rock Mosque Shakpak-Ata in Mangystau in Kazakhstan
Beket Ata mosque in Mangustay, West Kazakhstan

Shakpak Ata Mosque

The Shakpak-Ata Mosque is an underground mosque located on the Tyub-Karagan peninsula 90 km North of Aktau on the cliffs of the Northwestern top. It dates back to the 9th-10th century AD and is considered the oldest one in Mangyshlak. The idea of Shakpak-Ata is unique in Mangyshlak and presents similarities with some early Persian mosques and with the mausoleum-mosque of Shir-Kabir in Dehistan, Turkmenistan which is also dated to the same era. Another unique feature of this underground mosque is that large portions of its walls are covered with petroglyphs and graffiti.

Legend says that Shakpak-Ata was the grandson of Shopan-Ata. He was an ascetic dervish who took refuge in the cave with his disciples at a time when enemies were assaulting the region. He spent the last years of his life as a hermit never leaving the cave. It is also said that the ancient Sufi masters gave asylum to sick people in their underground shelters to heal them and that even today a night spent in these caves in the company of benevolent spirits will cure most diseases.

Necropolis in Mangustay, Kazakhstan
Shakpak Ata underground mosque in Mangustay

Totysh Balls Valley
Peculiar round stones (Devil's balls)

The Valley of Balls or in Kazakhs known as Torysh. It is home to peculiar round shaped rocks that seem like they would have been rolled to their form by giants while playing with clay or dough. Some even call them the devil’s balls. It consists of numerous ball-like rock formations strewn across a wide range of steppe land. The balls range in size from tiny marble-like rocks to huge boulders the size of a car. 

Legend has it that when the Mangystau region of Kazakhstan faced countless attacks by enemies, the locals appealed to the heavens for help. Their prayers were answered, and the invaders were turned into giant stones. 

The phenomenon is poorly researched, however, the scientist believes that the“balls” most likely date from the mid-Jurassic to the early Cretaceous period (180-120 Ma). They are perhaps made of either silicate or carbonate cement. Most geologists who have examined them have said that they are giant concretions, though fringe thinkers say that these balls were made by extraterrestrials or ancient, technologically advanced humans. Furthermore, some researchers believe that these globular rocks are remnants of meteorites that crashed and landed on earth. Others theorise that they are giant concretions, a word derived from the Latin word “concretio”, which means thickening. 

 

Mangustay Valley of balls or the devil's balls
Mangystau round stones in the desert

How to get to Mangyshlak Peninsula

Aktau is the usual starting point for tours in the region that can be reached by train or airplane. From Aktau you can take a car or join a tour. The best times to visit are autumn and spring since in the summertime the temperature can rise up to +40 C making the travel in the area fairly uncomfortable. 

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Destinations near Mangystau

Page last updated 14.1.2021

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