Off-road Adventures in Kazakhstan’s Deserts


The world was grey without any visible contours of clouds, making it impossible to see where the horizon separated the earth and the sky. It was a depressing start of our off-road journey across the Aralkum Desert and the Mangystau Plateau to the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan.

Highway to Aralsk, Kazkahstan (©Coen Wubbels)
Highway from Almaty, the capital, to Aralsk
Insulation foam (©Coen Wubbels)
winter, so extra insulation in the Land Cruiser

Aralsk on the Aral Sea

Our starting point was Aralsk, once a main port on the Aral Sea. Known to be the fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea became one of the world’s biggest environmental disasters when, in the 1960s, for irrigation projects the Soviet Union started using the water of rivers that fed the lake. Twenty years ago, only 10% of the original 26,300 square miles of water surface was left, divided over four small lakes.

In the 1990s the Soviet Union collapsed. The South Aral Sea became part of Uzbekistan and the North Aral Sea part of Kazakhstan (where we are). In 2004, the North Aral Sea had shrunk to the point where the Aralsk port was located 62 miles away from the shore. The construction of the Kokaral Dike in 2005 changed the fate of the North Aral Sea and stopped its depletion. Today, Aralsk is only a mere 12 miles away from the shore and the water level is still rising.

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Mural in Aralsk, Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)
mural in Aralsk

Hopeful as that is, a large part of the Aral Sea still is – and will remain – a dry sea bed. It is called the Aralkum Desert. We had no clue what to expect. How long would our journey take? Was there a way out on the west side or would we have to turn around? How much diesel did we need? Water? Food? Driving 400 miles isn’t a particularly long distance but may become so if there is no exit on the other side or you get lost, bogged down, or are stuck with a broken vehicle in the middle of nowhere.

Why go to the trouble, you may ask? Well, from Aralsk we had two options to get to the Caspian Sea: either we drove 1200 miles of asphalt or we drove 400 miles of trails. With a sense of adventure always dormant in our minds and waiting for the right opportunity, the latter option was the necessary trigger.

Who wants to drive 1200 miles on asphalt when you can have an adventure? 

We searched on Google, inspected satellite images and watched videos of salt plains that looked amazing. Was this indeed where we were going? Information was contradictory, confusing and inadequate. So we did what we do best, prepared as best we could, started driving and found out for ourselves.

Read More: A Surprising Wild Camp at Lake Bartogai (Kazakhstan)

map Aral Lake (©Coen Wubbels)
Jotting a route across the dried up Aralsk Lake

Stage 1 – Off-Road from Aralsk to Dike Kokaral

Leaving Aralsk, the trail zigzagged through dry vegetation. It was November and we wondered whether in summer the landscape would be all green, or was this simply desert – brown and yellowish all year round? Thankfully it had rained the day before so we didn’t have to drive through a dustbowl. The puddles were easy to navigate and we were more challenged by ruthless washboard. 

Using satellite images from Google, Coen had drawn a map on his iPhone. This saved lots of time and confusion because there were tons of sidetracks. The iPhone map gave us a sense of direction. On our right stretched the Aral Sea in the distance. Cows grazed around a handful of small cemeteries. Farming settlements that were once located along the shore now lay in the middle of the desert. We passed haystacks, wells and troughs, a couple of new houses with white walls and blue roofs, and cemeteries with brick graves. 

cemetery in Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)
Kazakhstan has imposing cemeteries; they are well worth a visit.

The Syr Darya River is the Aral Sea’s major tributary. The elevated path alongside the river suddenly turned into thick, black mud and we carefully fishtailed ahead, feeling like Bambi on ice. This quagmire stopped at a short stretch of perfect asphalt road in the middle of nowhere. How weird was that? It was comfortable driving for a few minutes until we were back on sand.

We reached Dike Kokaral during twilight; it was only 5pm. We set up camp right on the lake with ice along its edges and large patches of yellowish reeds. At night we got a couple of visitors, fishermen who asked Coen to join them for a drink but as it was past midnight Coen thanked them for their kindness, but no.

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Driving across Deserts in Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)
Aral Sea, Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)
Aral Sea partly frozen over

Stage 2 – Across the Aralkum Desert

When we got up at eight the world was covered in a thin layer of snow. Crossing the Kokaral Dam was no problem but then it became a gamble which sidetrack to take as the main road was leading away from our direction.

The snow made it harder to judge the quality of the tracks, some of which looked worryingly muddy. Maybe they all were but the one we took was soft indeed and our three-ton Land Cruiser sunk into deep ruts, fishtailing. Even if we had wanted to turn around, we no longer could as the Land Cruiser would doubtless get bogged down.

All we could do was keep our momentum and go all the way wherever the ruts were taking us. They were caused by big trucks that have a wider axle track than our Land Cruiser. Sticking to both left and right ruts was impossible and the challenge was to pick the right one and hope the differential wouldn’t dig itself in.

Read More: Overland Travel Guide to Kazakhstan

Aralkum Desert in Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)
Across the Aralkum Desert
Across the Aralkum Desert in Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)

We work well as a team when facing such challenges. The driver focuses on what is right in front of the vehicle, the passenger calculates what is needed further down to maneuver around mud pools or which track to take when it splits into different directions. We were now driving across the dried-up Aral Sea, which was a weird idea. Parts of the plains were pitch black, others covered by a layer of snow.

We climbed out of the seabed, onto the Mangystau Plateau. In the afternoon we reached the village of Akbasty, passing a ship that lay rusting away in the desert. This came as a surprise as we had been told these ships had all been sold as scrap metal. The village, however, had wanted to keep the memory of the disaster alive and an explanatory panel stood next to the wreck.

Read More: Off-road to Lake Tengiz (Kazakhstan)

Shipwreck, Aralkum Desert in Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)

The village appeared deserted with three more small ships on the main (sand) road standing as a testimony to their past. Coen entered a school building, asking for directions to the banya (hot spring). I had seen an image of it on the Internet and the winter temperatures were a good reason to visit it. We were sent to a house across the road, where somebody kept the key.

“How did you know where to get the key?” the home owner asked.

“From the school.”

“Do you know how to get to the hot spring?” she asked.

“Well, I know it is in that direction,” I said, pointing vaguely southward.

She tried to explain where to go, and had my Russian been perfect I would probably have understood her. But alas, I could only grasp the bare basics of her instructions. My rapidly blinking eyes and questioning look made the woman change tactics.

“Oh, okay. Here, my daughter will show you the way. Please, do bring her back immediately,” she said.

And so it happened that in a village in the middle of nowhere it was possible for a five or six-year old girl to get into a car with total strangers to guide them to a hot spring on the other side of the village. I climbed in the back and Siva climbed on the passenger seat, pulling herself up on the dashboard in order to look over the hood.

Aralkum Desert in Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)

On the other side of the village she pointed at a dilapidated white building. Coen checked the key; the door opened. We brought Siva back and returned once more to the banya. Outside hot, steaming water ran on the ground from a thick pipe but with the option to bathe indoors, our choice was quickly made.

The inside was like a dark, damp and humid cave. Condensation was everywhere and finding a dry place to put our clothes was a challenge; I wrapped them in a plastic bag. The walls and ceiling were all covered in thick, black deposits of minerals in the water. That thick pipe ran through the building and had holes in it with water pouring down from them in abundance – it was the simplest shower ever but it was bloody hot and reinvigorating.

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Stage 3 – Settlements on the Track to Beyney

Once out of the dried-up Aral Sea, driving had become much easier. Sandy tracks cut, meandered, and zigzagged through endless open desert. Parts of them were frozen, making for particularly easy driving. We spotted camels and herds of horses, all seemingly undisturbed by the freezing temperatures and fierce wind.

After camping in the wild in total solitude we woke up to a blue sky and a bit of sunshine. What a difference the weather can make in how kind or hostile your surroundings look and feel.

We passed a town, Bozoy, which had a couple of small grocery stores where I bought eggs, bread, and biscuits. The people were distant and not interested in a chat. Finding the one gas station was not a matter of course and we were sent from pillar to post – at least we got to see the whole town.

Read More: Overland Camping in Kazakhstan

Across the Mangystau Desert in Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)

Bozoy must be a terrible dustbowl in summer and a quagmire when it rains. Now, with freezing temps, the surface was more like an ice-skating rink. People heat their houses with gas – the good fortune of living in a gas-exploiting region – and pipes around nine-foot-high crisscrossed the town along the houses. Nine feet is (more or less) the height of our Land Cruiser, so at some points I got out and checked when Coen drove underneath the pipes to make sure we weren’t causing any damage.

With a full tank of winter diesel we moved on south, confident that there would be a road all the way to Beyneu. Monotony set in. Long hours of driving through empty spaces, only being shaken up if the frozen ground suddenly turned into a quagmire that required our attention for a while until, just as sudden, the ground would harden again. 

However, as we know only too well, never take an easygoing ride for granted. Right when the journey was progressing smoothly and the last 150 miles to Beyney seemed to slip by without any hiccups Coen suddenly uttered a soft, ‘Shit’, followed by louder versions. 

No more brakes! He let the Land Cruiser roll to a standstill and opened the hood.

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Problem – Brake Failure!

A quick inspection showed that one of the two break-line flares of the brake master had broken off. Not having the right tools to make a new flare on the line, we opted to drive on, without touching the brakes. Keeping moderate speeds and downshifting in time was the way to drive until we could get to a workshop with a flaring tool.

At least the road was flat and straight so there was no urgent need for the brakes, apart from the sudden bumps that did require a low speed. Coen didn’t want to use the brakes in order to preserve the brake fluid. Although we did carry a small container with spare brake fluid, we knew we’d need it in Beyney where we’d have to find our way to a workshop.

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Help in Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)

But, lo and behold, in the vast emptiness we suddenly spotted a complex of buildings springing up on the horizon. We decided to check it out and see if people there could help. They were building a new pumping station for the gas pipe that was running from Kazakhstan to China, almost 2000 miles. At stations like this, they make sure the pressure is maintained on the gas.

Remote as these places are, the workers have to be self-sufficient in many ways. Maintaining their gear and equipment is part of this and behind the office building stood a large maintenance station and a fleet of heavy machinery. The mechanics immediately spotted an opportunity for some distraction and flocked around the Land Cruiser, fascinated by the vehicle as well as our journey.

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Across the Mangystau Desert in Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)
Solitude in the Deserts of Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)

One man immediately knew what to do. He had the exact right tool and fixed the issue in a jiffy. Instead of asking for money – which they refused when we asked how much it cost – they offered us food, a shower and even a bed!

Our energy recharged and with perfectly working brakes we hit the road once more. We were about halfway to the Caspian Sea and curious as to what adventure was waiting for us around the corner. That part will have to wait for another story.

Originally published on Expedition Portal

Read More: Why we Travel – The Tuzbair Salt Lake in Kazakhstan

Mangystau Deserts in Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)

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