Atyrau is perhaps not a location that will be on the top of most people's list of holiday destinations. In fact it is unlikely to be on anyone's list unless they have a particular reason for going there.
The city is still struggling to free itself from it's Soviet past, but the changes currently taking place are dramatic and noticeable for travellers that are returning to the city on a regular basis. There are now a selection of hotels that offer a reasonable standard of accommodation, and there are also a handful of restaurants to serve very good food. So for a business traveller it is quite possible to have a both enjoyable and comfortable stay in Atyrau at almost any time of year.
But away from the posh office buildings that keep popping up at regular intervals and the glitzy hotels and restaurants there is a different side to this city. Most people still lives in houses that would be considered quite poor by most people in the west, and with average wages between 500 and 1,000 USD a month it is obviously often difficult for locals to get ahead in a city where the costs are only going up.
This has caused some resentment towards the outsiders, in particularly expats involved in the oil industry. And unfortunately random attacks on foreigners walking home from bars late at night have become quite common.
Taxis in Atyrau don't have meters. Instead a fixed price should be agreed before you get into the taxi. This is often difficult unless you spak Kazakh or Russian. So a basic knowledge of Russian numbers is recommended. Typical rates from the Airport to the town centre is from 1,000 KZT (about USD 8), while a trip inside the city centre should normally be less than 500 KZT. However, prices commonly double or triple at night or when the taxi driver thinks he can get away with it. The best strategy is to get the hotel to book a taxi whenever possible and get them to ask how much the fare should be.
During the summer Atyrau becomes very hot dry, and dusty. Temperatures in excess of 30C are common, and can even go above 45C. In the autumn and spring the city gets wet and the dust then quickly forms mud that gets everywhere. It becomes virtually impossible to move around the city without getting mud on your shoes and clothes. Special trays can often be found near building entrances where you can scrape off the mud off your shoes or boots and give them a quick wipe. In the winter the temperature can drop down to -30C, and snow is also quite common, although there is rarely more than 10 or 15 cm of snow. Winter usually lasts from the beginning of December to the start of March.
Atyrau airport is quite small. Although many improvements have taken place during the last few years (a new runway has been opened, and the terminal building has been renovated) it is still far from the most comfortable airport to travel through. But at least with the new international arrival and departure halls it is no longer necessary to stand outside in -30C in the winter, or while trying to swat a host of mosquitoes trying to suck you dry in the summer, while waiting to check in for your flight to Amsterdam or Istanbul. And of course it is also very nice to not have to go outside to try to pick out your suitcase among 50 others in pitch black and freezing temperatures in the winter.
However, immigration is still painfully slow and can be a trial for anyone's patience. But patience is the only thing that works and the best thing is just trying to put it down as one of those experiences that you hopefully will only have in Kazakhstan.
The latest improvement at the airport is that it is now free Wi-Fi internet access available both in the waiting areas and in the departure lounge.
Atyrau have few attractions that are worth going out of your way to see. However, if you find yourself with some free time on your hands then here are some suggestions for thigns to do:
1. Walk across the bridge across the Ural river. The Ural river is considered the border between Europe and Asia and there are a few monuments to celebrate this fact at either end of the bridge.
2. Go for a walk in Victory Park. This park is located close to the river in the Avantgard area of the city, about two km from the Renaissance Hotel. The park is poorly maintained and not that impressive. However, it may give you an idea of some of the tension that break-up of the Soviet union has created with respect to memorials honouring the fallen from the 2nd World War. There is also a small amusement park close to Victory Park, although I have never seen it open. So not sure if it is still in operation. A pedestrian bridge allows you to walk over to the park on the other side of the river (the Asian side).
Both of the above walks are only recommended at day time in the spring or summer.