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3–6 May 2019 (Fri–Mon)
Exerting so much energy to arrive in Aktau for the Friday boat, and succeeding, only to be denied passage felt like a real set-back. Not quite dazed, I was drawn to the Sea.
Across the street from the Azerbaijan Caspian Shipping company's – Aktau’s ticket office - was an inviting park on a hill overlooking the Caspian Sea (Caspi). I set myself down for an hour to think about the next step. Clearly, I will be in Aktau for the weekend - and based on first impressions this looks like a good plan. My reservation at the Victoria Hotel was cancelled but it is still an option to explore. Took a picture of my bags against this beautiful blue sea and saw a restaurant down on the water off to my right. Had not had a proper meal since Nukus. Let's eat !
The restaurant had an excellent steak and strong WIFI. I received a message from Miwa and so we Skyped - she was at the Woodford Festival with Tom and so we each had stories to share.
The restaurant called me a taxi and my driver - with broken English - was full of insightful complaints. Big oil was making all the money in this town but locals were not benefiting - where were the jobs. The city government was corrupt and the Talban had started operating in this small seaside resort. Now that was interesting...
The Victoria Hotel not only had a room but a suite for A$50 per night on the 5th floor - sold. It had a kitchen - which I did not need - a proper double bed with a living area but best of all, windows in a separate room that opened onto a beautiful Caspi view - the kind of sight that is mesmerizing. Yes, three or more days here will be just fine.
The hotel is sightly north of the central city with buses running till 8pm for 20 cents Aus and taxis at 500 Tenge or A$2 anywhere in the city. I usually gave the driver a 1,000 Tenge note.
Late afternoon by the time I got settled so I walked into town - stopping off at a Turkish restaurant for dinner along the way. Google Map listed Guns and Roses - a bar named after a heavy metal band from the 80's that never impressed me - and that was all. Upon arrival I learned that the name had been changed to "Bukowski" although there were hundreds of pictures of rock bands on the walls. Change the name but keep the ambience... There was a lone singer attempting to follow background music - not very well.
Not a good start but I engaged the waitress - who seemed Russian - about the identity of this place. She was surprised that I had not heard of Charles Bukowski - a German born American that lived in Los Angeles that wrote books for the alternative press especially about the American underclass in the 1970 - 1990's. I googled him and found books like "Women", "Ham on Rye", "Pulp", "Love is a Dog from Hell" and much more...
How very curious to name a bar in a seaside resort in Kazakhstan after an obscure American writer. The owner had a fascination for this fellow, my Russian waitress said, and I wonder if the local community could relate to Bukowski the writer. She did not know but when I suggested that the owner lacked business-sense she was quiet for a moment and said - that depends on your point-of-view. What a polite way to disagree. OK...
All that train-time gave me some sore muscles. Google map listed a Thai massage studio not far from my hotel that was about to open on Saturday morning. The ambiance was very Thai although the receptionist/owner was Islamic - and so her religion did not allow her to do massage she said in very good English. She and her partner (two families that had known each other since childhood) had just taken ownership of this shop a month ago and had just sponsored a one-year visa for a middle-age Thai woman that had clearly mastered Thai massage. One of the best Thai massages ever - in Kazakhstan. How curious.
Outside my hotel window were bikes and much more for rent and so the afternoon was spent exploring the beach front. I biked north next to the Sea as far as the beach walkway allowed and then did the same south. This is a very charming city. Clearly, the community has worked hard to make it inviting. In passing, I would ask taxi drivers about statues - famous KZ writers, artists and musicians, I was often told. I wonder if politicians and warriors are also honoured in Aktau, as I could find none. How refreshing.
Hotel breakfast is nothing special but at least they have real coffee. On Sunday morning a Russian fellow and I shared a table and enjoyed an interesting exchange. He lives in Western Russia about 500 km from Germany but works as a mechanical engineer on ships for a company that brings him to Aktau for about six months every year - the Victoria Hotel is his part-time home. He had spent ten years as a mechanical engineer on boats and decided he had had enough of international travel and now he is very happy living in a small Russian town for half the year and in Aktau the other half. He was fascinated by my journey.
A Sunday afternoon of bike riding and this time travelled a long way south. Eventually I was pushed off the coastal path by large wealth homes with fences. Got some nice pictures along the way. Every city should have a coastline.
Monday morning and I learn that YES, the boat will depart on Monday evening. I must be at Port Kuryk by 11.30pm. OK. Did some shopping - four varieties of nut and some raisins - and returned to my hotel to pack. Then the bus back into the city for a late lunch.
I had not imagined that Aktau would have a Jazz Club so I did not even look - how foolish. On my Sunday bike ride, I found the Jazz and Rock Cafe - it was closed-down. Mr Google did list the Aktau Jazz Club so I went to see what was there. Yes, it is a real Jazz Club - so attractive - with music in the evening. Pity I did not find it earlier. A small shikabab shop offered a late lamb lunch and then I walked back to my hotel on a sunny early evening.
A minor note in closing. Just as I was so impressed by the prevalence of J-walking in Urumqi China, I was equally impressed by the driving behaviour at crosswalks in Aktau. Without fail, ever single car stopped every time regardless of how much time or distance they had for stopping. The consistency and the sincerity was simply remarkable.
Very glad I was unable to get on the Friday boat, as it would have been unfortunate to miss this charming city in the Western corner of Kazakhstan.