Mangystau (or Mangyshlak peninsula) is a land of fantastic landscapes where you can feel like you are on Mars or at the bottom of the sea (where you actually are). This place would be perfect to shoot fantasy genre movies as the landscape is truly extraordinary with underground mosques and poems painted in the rocks. Mangystau 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 area and the Caspian Sea’s north shore. Caravans were thus able to pass through this shortest route to Itil on the Volga River. The areas of old caravanserais can still be seen in the area next to the watering holes, that form green islands in the otherwise barren landscape.

Mangustay geological formations
mangistau, Kazakhstan

Mangystau area is very dry, not having enough fresh water for most 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 165 000 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 and abundance of 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. 

Mangystau 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 (islamification) 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 often far away from each other 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 as themselves.

Mangystau near the Caspian sea with rock formations

Mangystau sights

Sherkala Mountain

Sherkala “Mountain” rises to the height of 307,7 m and is called “God’s yurt” by the locals, perhaps because it has a distinct form of a space object. Sherkala is the most recognizeable sight of Mangystau and 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.

Shakpak Ata underground mosque in Mangustay

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 (Bozjyra) 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. 

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. 

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.

Necropolis in Mangustay, Kazakhstan

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.

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

The Valley of Balls or in Kazakhs known as Torysh, 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. Torysh is a part of the Torysh tract. 

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

Kokkala Jurassic formations

The Kokala tract is located between two ridges in the northwestern part of the Western Karatau ridge and in the central eastern part of the Northern Aktau ridge, not far from the village of Shayyr and the Mount Zhalgan and just south of Mount Sherkala. The Kokala tract is famous for its bizarre washouts of variegated and colored clays and a mountain gorge with spring water, which is located in the immediate vicinity of the tract. The Karatau mountain fold, rising from the bowels of the Earth, lifted layers along the edge of the fault, which were forever buried under the thickness of oceanic sediments. This is how colored clays of the Jurassic period were born. Kokala is a natural multicolour among the monolithic rocky highlands of Mangystau, a small temporary tunnel in the age of dinosaurs. 

In Kokkala you will not find fossilized remains or traces of long-gone reptiles, but you can touch real wood deposits and the coals of a burnt forest on which dinosaurs roamed. We will not see fossilized bones or traces of long-vanished reptiles here, but we can touch real charcoal 170-200 million years old from the burnt forest where dinosaurs roamed. Nature has surprisingly eroded the layers of clay, creating a layered mountain of hummocks, columns, mushrooms, pyramids and miniature canyons with bizarrely incised sides. Kokala is a natural variegated color among the monotonous rocky mountains of Mangystau. 


Airakty-Shomanai or simply Airakty is a system of remnant mountains on Mangystau. They became known under the name “Valley of castles of
Airakty” thanks to the drawings of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. The surroundings of Airakty resemble a mysterious desert city with ruined remnants that look like towers and castles with spires. It is recommended to climb the mountain and get a better view of the terrain from a flat platform. You can also see the Aktau Mountains from it. Walking along the path to the site, you can meet steppe horses and mouflons, and at the foot of the mountain – scorpions and tortoises. 

Like the Bozzhira tract, the Airakta Mountains were covered by the Tethys Ocean in ancient times. This is why the Mangyshlak peninsula is interesting, which was formed 25 million years ago as a result of a layer of the earth’s crust that rose due to an earthquake. After that, the
formation began to deviate to the west. Over time, the erosion of the Cretaceous rocks led to the formation of canyons, outliers, caves, and winds and precipitation completed this process. To this day, the landscape is changing. Presumably, after 5-7 thousand years, weathering will lead to the disappearance of the remnant mountains altogether, since their height decreases every year. Since the end of the VI century, caravans of the Great Silk Road have been passing through the land of Mangistau, and legends say that treasures can be found in the valley. Tourists often come with metal detectors in order to find gold. According to local shepherds, sometimes they actually find silver and gold coins.

Ybykty Sai

The Ybykty Sai Canyon is a limestone cliff with unique bizarre shapes. Their height is from 3 to 6 meters. Porous chocolate, sea corals, openwork lace and even honeycombs. This is how tourists describe the pattern on the walls of the rocks. Everyone who has been here sees something of their own. This place will not leave anyone indifferent. Grottos, plumb lines, cave floors, labyrinths of passages and arches can be viewed for hours. The width from one edge to the other in the deepest part of the canyon can reach one meter. Of course, it is possible to step over. But if you look down into the crevice, fear will envelop you. Fear of the unknown, fear of the abyss will mix with admiration. At such moments, you will immediately understand what “terribly beautiful” means. This feeling will be remembered for a long time. It took a very long time to form this small but beautiful canyon.
Millions of years ago, turbulent river flows made their way through all obstacles. Thus gorges and mountain valleys were formed. When the rivers became shallow, the most beautiful natural objects appeared in their place – canyons. So time, water and wind created a miracle of nature.

Ybykty Sai can be attributed to one of the oldest natural monuments. 
The canyon was formed about 66-41 million years ago, the time the dinosaurs became extinct. The canyon’s appearance changes according to the time of the day. This is due to the light that penetrates from above through a narrow long slit. The rays of the sun reflect off the rocks, creating incredible shimmers and shadows. Therefore, it is not surprising that tourists spend almost the whole day here to enjoy the beauty of the canyon taking unforgettable photos.

Tuzbair salt flat

The main attraction of Tuzbair is the salt marsh of the same name. In Kazakh, it is called “sor”, which means a kind of salt marsh that has no runoff and is shallow. Sores are formed in depressions no more than one and a half meters deep. During the spring melting, the salt marsh is covered with a water surface, in which the sky is picturesquely reflected. In the summer, the crust freezes and you can walk freely but occasionally your feet might still fall into salt water deposits to a depth of 10-15 centimeters. Therefore, to walk on the surface of the salt marsh, you need to wear rubber boots or other waterproof shoes with a high boot or to walk barefoot. Some tourists believe that a warm salt crust has a beneficial effect on the body. You can’t drive through the salt marsh by car as the crust can’t stand the weight of even a passenger car. Every year, cars get stuck in the marshy area of the salt marsh. 

You can drive here by car only with local guides who know proven trails. According to scientists, today’s Mangystau region was once the bottom of the Tethys Ocean, located between the supercontinents of Laurasia and Gondwana, about 250 million years ago. This is evidenced by the skeletons of sharks and their teeth, which are sometimes found in this valley. Over time, as the water receded, the combination of wind and rain shaped the landscape, creating beautiful sculptural chalk cliffs, cliffs and depressions. It is believed that Sora Tuzbair, along with plateaus, gorges and ravines, was formed as a result of erosion of softer rocks.


The Kyzylkup tract is smooth low hills composed of rocks of various colors that alternate with each other, creating a fascinating spectacle. The color of the layers is given by impurities of various minerals. The white layers consist of chalk, and the red ones contain iron. Because of its unusual layered structure, the tract is often called “Tiramisu” by the people. The official name of the tract was received from a reservoir, which was once located nearby. The Ustyurt plateau used to be the bottom of the ancient Tethys Ocean. And there was a constant accumulation of precipitation on it: clay, sand, various organisms. Therefore, it is not surprising that landscapes change their colors at different times of the day. During the day, in sunny weather, the landscape is snow-white, in the evening it acquires cream shades, at sunset it turns purple.

More recently, Kazakh photographer Nurken Tazhibai photographed Kyzylkup from a bird’s-eye view. From this angle, its similarity to the Italian dessert is especially visible. Kyzylkup site also includes a local “sphinx” which is a huge stone protruding from the top of the mountain, similar to a human head creating a nice location for photographs.

Travel to Mangyshlak Peninsula

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

Tours to Mangystau

Destinations near Mangystau

Page updated 24.6.2024

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