The gateway to Kazakhstan's largest oil field, Atyrau (Атырау), formerly Guryev, 30km up the Ural River from the Caspian Sea, straddles the Europe/Asia boundary. Oil money is evident in the proliferation of expensive hotels and upmarket restaurants; nowhere in the country is the disparity between the haves and have-nots greater, and crime levels are above average.
Originally a settlement called Yaitsky Gorodok, established by Cossacks in 1584 at the confluence of the Ural and Chagan Rivers, Uralsk (Oral; Уральск) is both historically significant and aesthetically appealing, with vintage wooden houses surviving in the leafy southern part of the city, Kureni, where Cossacks originally settled.
A Russian military fort built in 1869 grew into an important regional hub of Aktyubinsk with the arrival of the railway to Tashkent in 1901. Renamed Aktobe (Ақтөбе) in 1999, and associated with Hero of the Soviet Union Aliya Moldagulova, this oil and gas city is a major transport hub with a couple of quirky attractions to keep visitors briefly entertained.
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.