By Angela Davis, KAZ 14 Volunteer
Aktau is a relatively new, relatively prosperous city in Kazakhstan . It was built just over 40 years ago, as a model Soviet city, called Shevchenko. Completely master-planned its original economy was based on uranium mining, and thus it was a closed city. Today the place revolves around the booming oil industry. Names such as Chevron Texaco, BP, and Halliburton are commonplace in Aktau. Because of all of the international investment in the area, there are many, many expats living here coming from the US , Britain , The Netherlands, and the Caucasus region. Nowadays in Aktau, all the signs are printed in Kazakh, Russian, and then English.
This is also one of the most remote cities in the nation. It's situated on the Mangishlak peninsula, surrounded by the Caspian Sea on one side, and the Ustyurt Desert on the other. It's about a 20-hour train ride to the next major city (or an overnight boat ride to Baku, Azerbaijan.) Because of its location right on the Sea, Aktau is lucky enough to have one of the mildest climates in the country. In the winter it rarely snows, and in the summer it's hot, but not nearly as extreme as some of the other more southerly, landlocked cities. Being right on the sea has other advantages as well. There's great caviar for very cheap prices, amazing fish shashlik (Kazakhstan's kebabs,) seaside cafes, swimming all summer, and, although they're covered with broken glass and garbage, there are even beaches to lay out on.
The city itself is very compact, with a population of about 150,000, you can walk completely across it in under forty minutes. Three quarters of the buildings are old Soviet-built drab apartment blocks, and the other quarter consists of the new, flashy, oil-money sponsored office and hotel buildings. It's a strange mix to see. Recently, in an international investors forum that was held in Kazakhstan, the President of the Republic announced the allocation of huge amounts of government funds, into the region's infrastructure building projects. This means that there will soon actually be a drivable road from Aktau to Atyrau (the nation's other big oil city,) and possibly a more direct train route to the city from other parts of the country.
Summer is definitely the time to be in Aktau. Come this time of year, it's a very lazy place to be, and not much gets done except swimming and beer drinking. Every evening (weekdays included) the beachfront cafes fill up and the city's residents stroll the seaside, have dinner, and then spend the evening drinking and socializing on the outdoor patios. The Caspian is warm enough to swim in from June until early September, and during this time there are also catamarans and paddleboats for rent on the beach. Besides the beach and the cafes, there are bowling alleys, movie theatres, and a couple good shopping centers.
Peace Corps is not very active in the Mangistau Oblast (The region containing Aktau) and there are, at any time, no more than three volunteers in the entire area. The expat population, and huge amount of English speakers in Aktau make up for the lack of fellow volunteers though. There are plenty of project opportunities, NGOs to work with, and oil money to fund projects in this city. As far as Kazakhstan goes, it seems like Aktau is the place to be right now. It has huge potential, and the standard of living is on the rise for its residents. I'm very, very glad that I was assigned to this city.
Photos of Aktau
By Angela Davis -- KAZ 14