Feature: Mangistau Necropolises

All of Kazakhstan is dotted with picturesque cemeteries or necropolises set outside villages and towns, and Mangistau has a notable concentration of them: locals boast the figure 362. Many of these date back to nomadic times, when tribes would bury their dead at special sites. Fascinating carvings adorn many of the older stone monuments – the most common forms are the kulpytas, a carved stone column, often with pictures carved into it that depict the life of the deceased; the koitas, a stylised ram; the koshkar-tas, a more realistic ram; and the sarcophaguslike sandyk-tas. One of the most interesting necropolises is Koshkar Ata.

Northern Mangistau

The arid land north and northeast of Aktau is rich in both natural sights and ancient necropolises, without the crowds that flock to Beket-Ata. In a 4WD it’s possible to combine the sights around the town of Shetpe with the pilgrimage places of Shakpak-Ata and Sultan Epe in one long day trip, but it's best to make it two, and linger.

Some 133km north of Aktau and another 37km northwest of Taushlik, the nearest settlement, 10th century Shakpak-Ata is a beautiful underground mosque, cut into a honeycombed cliff and preceded by an arched portal, carved with inscriptions in Arabic and etchings of horses. Unusually, the interior is cross-shaped, and there are numerous burial niches carved into the cliff face.

Around 7km past the Shakpak-Ata turnoff along the Taushlik–Shevchenko road is the turnoff for the necropolis of Sultan Epe, a holy man and protector of sailors. His tomb is rich in carvings and there's a small underground mosque nearby, consisting of several low rooms and dating back to sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries. About 1km before you reach Sultan Epe, you pass the Kenty Baba necropolis, consisting of three towerlike buildings with tombs inside, and some wonderful, centuries-old etchings on hunters and their prey on the wall of one of the towers.

The small town of Shetpe is 150km northeast of Aktau by paved road (2½ hours by minibus from Aktau bus station). About 35km towards Shetpe from the crossroads where the Shetpe and Taushik roads divide, a signposted 4km side-road leads up to Otpan Tau, Mangistau's highest hill (532m), where a modern 'historical-cultural complex', affording great panoramas, includes three gold-domed towers, a she-wolf monument (by legend the first Kazakhs were born from a wolf), and a symbolic torch commemorating the legendary use of this site for warning beacons.

The awesome 332m-high, 1km-long chalk outcrop Sherkala (Lion Rock) rises mysteriously from the desert about 22km northwest from Shetpe by paved road. A three-hour taxi round-trip from Shetpe bazaar should cost 6000T, including a couple of other interesting spots nearby. Shortly before you reach the track turn-off to Sherkala, a 'Kyzylkala Kalashygy' sign indicates a 1km track to the remnants of the small Silk Road settlement of Kyzylkala, beside a small green oasis with trees. Over to your right as you approach Sherkala from the road is the abandoned, little-known Temir Abdal Ata cave-shrine, with the carved stones of an abandoned necropolis scattered in front of it. Not far from Sherkala is the tranquil oasis of Samal Canyon, with greenery shading a clear stream.