Karagiye depression: below sea level, above human body (2/3)

Journey photo album

My plane landed in Aktau shortly before sunrise and I had the luck to catch a glimpse of the Karagiye salt flat (whitish patch below the horizon) while approaching the Caspian coast

The first impression of Kazakhstan was very positive and not only because of the sunny weather, but also the openness and helping attitude of the locals

Thus, with the assistance of the airport taxi driver who understood and was ready to help me with the basic preparations in a fast and straightforward manner, I managed to reach the starting point of the hike at the “Karagiye viewpoint” situated about 55 km distance from the city on the Zhanaözen road around 9 AM

Packed with 9 liters of water and sufficient food, at 9:30 AM I started the descent towards the bottom of the depression
The first part of the route is given by the steep ledge of the plateau, which drops in more steps, separated by flatter terraces, a prehistoric and dramatic landscape with the aspect of a labyrinth. The dominant rock type is clay and marl, generally quite friable

Around 10 AM it was already hot and the absence of the wind inside the gullies made the solar radiation even more pronounced. I am content, this is what I came for

Some gazelles wandering in the wilderness
Reaching the flatter bottom part (already below -100 m elevation) I continued the hike, turning to the south-east and generally following the line of the escarpment. In some parts there was some vegetation…
…while in other parts it was completely missing, the landscape resembling the surface of the Moon
small step…Big step 🙂
Even here you can see sometimes the signs of life, this bird certainly came from the neighboring greener areas, where he/she resides
Here and there the monotony of the flatland is interrupted by a few consolidated sandy piles
After 12 PM I reached a spot which I consider proper to place the tripod with the attached logger. This is a smaller sandy “island” situated at the edge of the extensive clayey bottom (the GPS shows around -130 m), which could slightly enhance the daytime heating as compared with the more compact or reflective surfaces
At 12:40 I started the logger. For a short period there was some trouble as the sensor’s contact seemed to fluctuate, but luckily, after a few attempts I managed to solve the issue
The Barani helical radiation shield warrants for the efficient protection against the sun, providing both shade and sufficient ventilation to measure the actual air temperature

Soil temperature around 1:30 PM, the highest solar angle
Unlike the dusty and squashy one, this surface is particularly hard and rough
The Zobject likes it too
As I had both enough time and energy, without the luggage, I made a small bypass to the last visible sandy pile situated more inside the depression (around 1.5 km from the camp), which has on the top a small lookout tower
I was a little surprised that I couldn’t observe from here the white expanse of the salt pan, probably still too far with such a small elevation advantage
Some greenery at the foot of the ledge
The only shade is my own
Back to the camp: the temperature is rising

As I lost my “legionary hat” before embarking in the minibus in Aktau, I’ve used a white T-shirt for protection against the insolation. I am sitting in a small camping chair without any shade, determined to wait here until the peak-heat

counting sheep…

Nice, could pass the 40 degrees barrier

Chilling with my best friend. Maybe not
No ice cream on this beach. At least I try to protect the bottles from the relentless sun. Even without a complete greenhouse effect, the water is already unpleasantly warm, certainly above the human body temperature

The weather station around 4 PM
Sometimes there is absolutely no air movement
That’s it! Just before deciding to leave I saw that the max went above 40 degrees

I secured the tripod with an attached sack filled with earth to can handle also the windier conditions and after 5 PM I left the weather station

Finding shade behind a neighboring conical structure I rested some time before setting my camp for the night

Even if the temperature was still high, the atmosphere started to be more bearable after the solar angle became lower

The billion-star hotel is waiting for me

Yeah, you have done a decent job today
Nothing on this image outside the dark sky, right? Well, almost nothing. Actually I took a picture of a bright, moving line composed of 22 light spots (still very hazy, but a zoom will help). The “UFO” was heading straight and the distance between the lights wasn’t changing, nor were they pulsing, the direction approximately NW-SE. The interesting part is that I read a short mention somewhere on the net, that in the Karagiye area the UFO encountering isn’t rare. I never saw something similar, according to a friend they must be a cluster of satellites, before diverging
Before leaving I went back to the tripod to check the minimum temperature. The night was warm, but not on the side of uncomfortable, actually almost optimal for just laying without a sleeping bag in the airy mosquito tent

Though I wasn’t taken away by E.T. , was bitten by a few mosquitos through the mesh. Fortunately not by him. You can easily spot this spider in the dark, as his eyes are reflecting the light of the headlamp

In the dawn I continued the hike back, towards the asphalt road
Not legit UFO’s, but they too can trick your imagination

Higher, but still below the sea level

For the sake of the adventure, I took another way to reach the road. Yesterday I hydrated myself properly and left sufficient water for today’s part. The milder morning temperatures are helping to accumulate some km’s before the sun hits you

Sunrise over Karagiye

Certainly another hot day awaits me

I saw that there is some lush vegetation inside a canyon-like valley and was curious about the details

Water! There is kind of a “canopy” mainly composed of reeds, which hides the stream underneath, thus at first you can only hear it. The bush is so thick and tough, it can support your weight above without risking to fall through. Certainly not for human consumption, but great for a bath

This band of reed is one of the most difficult to cross terrain I’ve ever encountered. Not even tried to follow it upwards, outside the small excursion to check the water

First mammals today
Aha! So this is the mysterious source. Surrounded by camel dung, it’s smell was caused also by its own composition. It’s a thermal spring with evident sulfur content

A last abrupt portion and I’m up

Looking back towards the depression (the “reed-canyon” is visible)

The road is farther on the plateau, I guide myself following the tall electric poles in the distance

Yep, there is continuous traffic

Successfully hitchhiking from the asphalt, around 11 AM I was already back in Aktau

Can we call this “soviet charm” ?

After reaching the beach I followed the coast towards the rocky escarpment , named in russian “Skal’naya tropa”

This scenic stretch of land, what could be named “kazakh riviera” is very popular among the locals, many people are coming here from the far eastern side of the country (Astana, Almaty) – mostly by train – to spend the holidays in the mediterraneanish climate of the Caspian Sea

Arriving at my hotel, just to change my clothes and eat…

…then heading back to the city to don’t miss the splendid weather. It’s particularly hot today, but with the beach not far away I consider it just right, especially as the water temperature is quite cool (21-22 degrees Celsius)

“A soviet man standing next to some soviet camels under the soviet sun”, that’s what youtuber Bald and Bankrupt would probably say 😉

The next day I travelled to Shetpe settlement by train (about 2 hours) to visit the nearby spectacular inselbergs. The train station is pretty far from Aktau’s center, actually in another town named Mangystau. Better book it online in advance (it’s cheap) as in the summer it can be full (it was). When I got off the train I was a little surprised to not see anybody asking me to take a taxi. Okay, I’m first time here
However it was a guy, who I think was waiting for the exact same thing to happen (unsuspecting tourist alone) and pretended he is just there by chance while I packed my luggage inside the small shop, then asking for a way too high price to take me to my target (only asphalt). It still wasn’t expensive in the absolute sense and I want to reach the target as soon as possible, so I let it go without too much hassle. Ayrakty is the name of the rocky mountain I’m heading now

Except a small portion on the south, the horseshoe shaped structure is surrounded on all sides by vertical cliffs, making impossible to reach the flat plateau on the top from other directions
Stone umbrella, good shelter against the punishing sun. It’s around 4 PM, I’ve measured 38-39 degrees Celsius by hand (circling the cable with the sensor around at head level)

Inside the giant “U”, facing the concave dead-end. I’ve scanned with my eyes the cliffs, but couldn’t found a promising line where I could attempt to reach the top, even without the big luggage. Beside the steepness, the rock type is also bad (marl), which would make this plan very dangerous
The whitish towers protected me in the afternoon heat, I rested some time in the shade before continuing the hike

The elevation of this spot is pretty low, below 100 meters (but above the sea level), while the plateau abruptly rises 250-300 meters above the plain

Using the shade of the western “leg” I started to get around the structure, in the first part mostly on the same track from where I came
First glimpse of Sherkala, another inselberg, the most famous in Mangystau

That’s right, it seems that the only way up is a narrow strip on the southern sector where a little scrambling can take you to the top of the plateau

The rectangular slabs could be massagetae (ancient nomad horse people related to the scythians) pillars (?), similar rudimentary or a little more decorated structures can be found scattered around also on the neighboring Ustyurt plateau

But now I am the only nomad here

Sunset from the top of Ayrakty
The Zobject on the concave, but this time upper part of the huge horseshoe

The somewhat higher elevation makes the weather quite pleasant after sunset, also there are no mosquitos. Did I slept well? Nope, actually close to nothing. The wind intensified in the night, just when I was finishing to admire the Milky Way and trying to get some rest. The violent shake of the tent went till the dawn when I packed my things and continued the journey

The view to the east is spectacular, but I need to be careful not to go too close to the edge as with the big luggage on my back the wind is affecting my balance

Another mighty inselberg, has no name on the topo map

Continuing to follow the edges, this time on top of the eastern leg
I’ve already spotted them in the previous evening not too far from my camp. They must use the same steep slope to reach the plateau for grazing and descend to another location for water as here up is certainly nothing to drink

Sherkala (Lion’s castle) dominates the western horizon, I am heading right there

It is said that there is tunnel excavated during an old war, which leads to the top, otherwise it’s the same kind of inaccessible natural fortress like Ayrakty, if not even more
Remote farm not far from the asphalt road
There are some spherical concretions present in the area, a peculiar geomorphological phenomenon found also in my homeland, Romania (named “trovanți” there)
Far less in number than in the famous “valley of the balls” at Torysh (situated farther to the west near Tauchik), but without enough time to go there, I’m glad to see a few here

Around 9 AM I am at the iconic viewpoint towards the “yurt shaped” Sherkala. Meanwhile the wind didn’t gave up, but the sky remained clear
Changing hairstyles at every turn
Hitchhiking from the nearby asphalt road a loud and at first quite rude “melon guy” picked me up, but the realization that we are exactly the same age was enough for him to became friendly and asking for selfies, then taking me to his spot in the bazaar of Shetpe. After drinking kumys (fermented mare milk) and eating I continued the hitchhike towards Aktau from the crossroads in the other side of the settlement. My new target is the beach named “km 43” (likely the distance from the city). I started by foot in the heat of the early afternoon (see picture above), but didn’t reached too far when some helpful youngsters picked me up

Pretty cool, definitely needed

This area is relatively “crowded”, okay, I mean by kazakh standards. The locals (mostly from Aktau) come here to chill and take a bath. The coast is rocky, but not the “greek-type”, where you can jump directly from the shore. With variable depth, the water is tricky, with new obstacles still appearing after thinking you passed over them. Skal’naya tropa looks more rough because of its big boulders, but actually is easier to swim there

I rested more than the previous night on the windy plateau, probably helped also by the relaxing murmur of the waves. Most people don’t stay here overnight, they return home in the evening. The beach is reachable by car, but there are no facilities at all. As usual, the start is before sunrise, the temperature still warmish
Yeah, I’m pretty alone here
The Tüpkaragan peninsula’s coast continues to the north-west towards Fort-Shevchenko, a small town with military-base
The landscape is fragmented only near the coast, the plateau is very flat with little to no landmarks
Looking towards Aktau from the southern ledge

Nobody around, almost

This lizard is even more common than the camels, you can often spot them while sneaking away in the sparse, hardy grass
Reaching the main road at “km 43” I was questioned by a police patrol about my journey, but they not even checked my passport. I didn’t encounter any troubles relating the authorities during my travel and had the general feeling that the country is both safe and peaceful

The hitchhike to the city went smooth. People generally will expect to be paid for the ride, sometimes they will even tell you the price in the beginning. As the train is the backbone of the kazakh public transport (the bus services are scanty), the more remote settlements are harder to reach for tourists. The best option is probable to hire a car

WW2 memorial in Aktau. Life is not easy here, the economy struggles. The prices are low for western standards, a clear advantage for travelers

Here and there some more modern buildings break the general “soviet architecture” style of the city
MiG fighter plane monument with a characteristic “aktauish” block in the background
The statue of ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, who was exiled to the Mangyshlak in the 19. century. He is likely the most famous historical figure of the area as beside Fort-Shevchenko even Aktau’s previous name was also Shevchenko
Satisfied with the previous experience I returned to the same hotel. The staff was very operative and punctual, calling for taxi when I needed, explaining to the driver in advance my plan. Tomorrow I will go to collect the measuring equipment in the Karagiye Depression and I decided to reach the target from the other side of the basin, starting the hike in the south-west from the Kuryk road. It’s significantly farther from this direction and I will need to cross the salt pan situated at the very bottom
My favorite drink in Mangystau: kumys, fermented mare milk. You can buy it as you buy the beer in other countries. There are more variants, this particular one was the best: refreshingly sour, very fizzy (small bubbles), sufficiently sweet, with just a hint of alcohol (1-2 %). Also, very nutritive. However, you need to be very careful when opening to avoid the lurking disaster (personal experience…)
As the hotel sits close to the southern outlet of the city, the Kuryk road was simple to reach. The pranky azerbaijani driver (many taxi guys are from the Caucasus) took me to the chosen spot very fast, speeding close to 150 km/h on the good turkish asphalt. It barely passed 10 AM when I started the hike. After crossing (or trespassing?) the nearby railway’s (maybe only freight transport related to the ferry) barbed-wire, I maintained the north-east direction towards the depression
The weather in sunny, the heat somewhat less intense than during the first excursion. I have seven liters of water with me, as this time rested and hydrated myself well before in the hotel, compared to the rush with minimal preparation on 11th August. The progress on the flat plateau is easy, in about an hour I reach the ledge and have the first view of the salt pan

From the top I’ve observed a rather straight line which seems to go exactly in the same direction I’m heading to. A pretty long sector was composed of poles, maybe some fence in construction (or the opposite)
Already below -100 meters elevation. I’ve spotted some horses in the distance, which at first looked curious, then became kind of agitated. As I was heading towards them, they just waited watching me, then all at once run away sideways. But when I turned my head to the left to check them, I saw that all three were racing directly towards me!

However, when I raised the trekking pole and shouted once they instantly changed directions and run away to where they came

The camels have a more “phlegmatic” temperament, probably ideal in the heat where you need to be thrifty with your energy
It seems that this dirt road goes straight to the salt pan
Almost there
-132 meters below sea level, the lowest spot of Kazakhstan and fifth in the world
The Zobject feels at home again
The edge of the salt pan was slightly squashy, but afterwards the walk became comfortable on the hard surface
I like the silence
Somewhere in the middle of the white emptiness
There must be my target, I can discern the contours of the isolated sand pile in the distance

Not far from the other end of the salt flat the terrain became less solid again, moreover I started to sink ankle-height in the hot black mud. Yes, it was hot! I could feel through the shoes that it’s much warmer then my feet. There must be some thermal springs below, I don’t think the sun could heat it so much through the white crust.
Probably I got over it. The salt pan’s width was around 7-8 km
Still a little soft, but the danger is over
Around 3:30 PM, peak-heat

Similar but different

Reaching the already familiar sand island, after 4 PM I rested some time in the shade offered by its steep slope before continuing to the weather station

Of course, it’s here! I made around 29 km from the Kuryk road

I checked the results which were very close to my expectations. The maximum temperature exceeded by half a degree (40.6 C) the record of the first day (when I was present), both on 12th and 13th August. Today was “only” 36.4 degrees, while yesterday 36.0 degrees, the weakest maximum. The lowest temp by far (19.3 C) was registered this morning. I stopped the logger at 6:40 PM when the screen showed 33.9 degrees Celsius

Some parts of the basin’s bottom is represented by takyr (turkic for “playa”), the characteristic cracked, dry clay surface. Satisfied both with the trip and the research I will spend the night in the same spot, a little farther, next to the other sand pile

In the latter part of the afternoon I observed some convective rain clouds in the south, south-east, probably between the sea and the depression. The night was starry again, but without ET. Even the mosquitos were more lethargic now

Early morning start the next day, the weather is clear, the temperature pleasant. Following a dirt road at the foot of the hills – which seems to be the main access inside the basin – , this time I was passing through the greener area of the flatland, where a strong “chemical smell” (likely a mix of camel and bird excrement) hit me

Aha, I saw some small ponds on Google Earth. Looks romantic, smells like shit. Literally

Better here. Despite the many signs of recent activity, I haven’t spotted any camels, only birds

Just after sunrise, a little farther there was a scenic place with heavily eroded white rocks

Good timing, no smell here

Yeah, this made my day

The slender tower must be the biblical Lot’s wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt

I apologize, that story happened near the Dead Sea in Israel. Still below the sea level, though

A giant frog head?

Different frequency for sure

This bug has some capacity which is bordering the skills of David Copperfield: every time I tried to take a photo of him from the front, he automatically adjusted his position to counteract it, like it was a magnetic repulsion

It looks that this is the easiest way to get out of the depression, pretty straightforward, without getting lost in the labyrinth of the badlands. Planned and managed well, I still have sufficient water to finish the trip without risking dehydration

A last steeper part and I’m up on the plateau, very close to the asphalt road. A local resident picked me up soon and before 10:30 AM I was already back in Aktau

Last day in the sunny city

Reaching the coast, I had the opportunity to wash my dirty shoes and trousers in the Caspian and the strong sun guaranteed the quick drying. The desert footwear was so badly hardened by the salt after the water evaporated, that it became completely useless, as – partly due to its shape – I couldn’t put them on again with all my strength and ambition. Thus, I had to use the city sneakers instead for the return part of the hike

Typical residential area in Aktau
The boat, center of the center

More modern part of the city

The road towards Microdistrict 3, where my hotel was. In Aktau the addresses are described exclusively by numbers, as a trio composed of microdistrict, building and apartment. Though, I saw also street names on the sign-posts, those probably are newer establishments

Sandy beach not far from the eastern end of the rocky promenade

Back to Skal’naya tropa

This warship announced his arrival with a huge explosion sound, which I concluded must have been a legit artillery shoot (see the cannon in the front), fortunately not towards the coast…

I was chilling about two hours on the beach at Skal’naya tropa, sitting on a sun-warmed boulder, cooling down in the water (this time a little warmer, 24 degrees) a few times. Very pleasant experience as everything ended well and I’m not even particularly tired
Local youngsters having fun
Above the cliffs are a few hotels

With enough freetime at disposal I was wandering in the city, eating at a nice restaurant before getting a taxi to the airport, where I’ve booked the last night of the voyage. There are many people working as “taxi drivers” as part-time job and they usually will ask for a smaller amount (about half-price), which was also my case

After resting a few hours in the comfortable, air-conditioned room, it came the time to leave. On the whole the journey in Mangystau was a great experience, the weather superb, everything went smooth. Likely not my last time here

As I had around 10 hours to wait for the plane change in Istanbul, I used the day to visit the famous old center of the metropolis. Well, a little in a rush as the new airport is ridiculously far away, having to take three (if you know what you’re doing) different metros to reach close enough. The most touristic part is insanely crowded (peak-season, also Friday), a huge contrast compared with the spacious streets of Aktau. Two completely different turkic worlds…

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