The stony deserts of the Mangistau region (Маңғыстау облысы) stretch 400km east from Aktau to the Uzbekistan border. This labyrinth of dramatic canyons, weirdly eroded, multicoloured rocky outcrops, mysterious underground mosques and ancient necropolises is only beginning to be explored, even by archaeologists. A minor branch of the Silk Road once ran across this inhospitable wilderness, and centuries-old sacred sites – some with strong Sufic associations – are located where people buried their dead or where holy men dwelt. The underground mosques may have originated as cave hermitages for ascetics who retreated to the deserts.

A few sites can be reached by public transport of various sorts, but for most places you need a knowledgable driver with a 4WD vehicle. Getting to these places across the otherworldly desertscapes, with only the occasional herd of camels or sheep for company, is part of the fun.