Western Kazakhstan – so far west that the part beyond the Ural River is in Europe – is a hot, arid gateway to Central Asia from the Caucasus and the Volga and Ural regions of Russia. For those with a taste for adventurous exploring, the deserts outside the Caspian-side city of Aktau, dotted with underground mosques, ancient necropolises, wandering camels and spectacular rock formations, are just the ticket. The other main cities – Atyrau, Aktobe and Uralsk – have limited interest for travellers except as overland transit points.
Kazakhstan’s biggest oil and gas fields – Tengiz (oil), Karachaganak (gas) and the offshore oil of Kashagan beneath the Caspian Sea – and a glut of other mineral resources have brought boom times to the west’s main cities, but elsewhere the human population is sparse and the landscape is chiefly desert and steppe. The region is one hour behind Astana time.