The Joy of Train Travel in Kazakhstan

While low cost air routes are growing, trains remain a pleasant way to travel in Kazakhstan. This guide is meant for those going to Kazakhstan for their first time. Old hands probably won’t find anything new in here, but maybe it will bring to mind your own fond journey on the ol’ Kazakh Iron Road.

How long will it be, a mere 12-14 hours to Shymkent? A miniscule 7 hour hop to Zhambyl? Or a proper 23 hour train ride to Kyzylorda, 28 to Pavlodar or even 48 hours to the Russian border. Chances are it will be somewhere in the middle, about 17-24 hours, such as from Almaty to Astana. This may seem daunting but it’s really just a day to chill out, chat and drink tea. And best of all, it’s also day when it’s socially acceptable to be in your pajamas in public.

Buying Your Ticket

Your journey requires you to start planning well ahead of time. Depending on the season you might need to book your ticket a few days or a few weeks beforehand. The worst times are the summer/winter vacation season (August, around New Years’) and around university breaks

You certainly can reserve and pay for your space online, but if you’ve made it all the way to Kazakhstan, why start being shy now? So take a stroll around town and find a ticket office, like the one I used to frequent on Lenina – Shevchenko in Almaty. This tiny little office was helmed by a woman subsisting on a ~250 tenge commission for each ticket sold. She had a computer and printer hooked up to the train network, and a wall plastered with calendars, timetables and maps. You’ll probably have to wait in line, but there are a couple of extra chairs free for you and your travel-mate. Here you can stare at the timetables posted onto the walls and let your imagination run wild. Imagine buying a ticket all the way to Moscow! Or north to Novosibirsk to hop onto the Trans-Siberian! Or just to Shymkent to party for the weekend! The regional train system is so extensive your possibilites are endless.

After a few minutes your turn comes and you give her the destination, departure and return dates and class preference. There are two main classes: Platzkart and Kupe (something called Luks also exists. But not for mortals like you or me.). The former is open, with 2 bunks – an upper and a lower – on either side of a small table and two bunks lengthwise alongside the opposite window. The benefits of Platzkart are:
  1. Cost – it’s dirt cheap.
  2. Social Activities – so much space! You are not confined to your area and can meet and greet.
Kupe cars, meanwhile, have just four beds with a door enclosing each compartment. It’s pros are:
  1. Privacy – although you might be stuck with some loud kids or overly chummy chatterboxes.
  2. The ability to stare out of the windows. If the weather is nice they might even be open, for us romantics wanting the wind in our hair and all that nonsense.
  3. Longer beds – good for those 6’+.
  4. More storage space for your produkti.

After deciding on the class of ticket, the most controversial decision is whether to get the upper or lower bunk. I for one am firmly on the side of upper. While it can be a little claustrophobic, and it’s a pain to have to schlep out of bed, you are in complete control over when to lay down. If you were on the bottom and your kupe-mate wanted to eat at the table, how could you refuse? The upper bunk gives you freedom to sleep when you want to.

Pay for your ticket, and it will be printed on a bright pink slip of paper, a nice souvenir. The saleswoman will circle your wagon number and seat number, and ensure you know when and where to go to claim your rightful place on the train.

 

Preparing for Your Trip

The day is almost upon us! Are you ready for your journey?  Step one is to head to the market. You will need the following:
  1. A mug, preferably with a cute cat on it, for glugging copious amounts of tea onboard. There is plenty of hot water down at the end of the car, next to the conductors room and the toilet. Bring along a few packets of yellow label, or splurge on something nicer. Being on a train there is not much else to do besides drink tea and snack, so you better be prepared for it. In theory you could rent a mug, or use this disposable one they have started providing, but I like to bring my own.
  2. Some nice slippers. I would recommend these over sandals, especially in the winter months, to help keep your feet warm should you step outside at night. Don’t worry, the trains themselves are well-heated.
  3. Some food to eat, but *not* everything you plan on eating. If you need 3-4 meals onboard, you could get some boiled eggs, couple of packs of ramen noodles in plastic bowls and some kishmish. Also ALWAYS, I repeat ALWAYS bring a bar of chocolate to share. Get the Cadbury’s with the fruit and nuts in them. The big one you cheap-o. How will you obtain the rest of your food? More on that later.
  4. A good book. For on the train you have plenty of time to sit and think about life. Get something deep for the winter, or a trashy novel for the hot hot summer.
  5. More snacks to share. Don’t be stingy.
  6. A big (1.5L) bottle of water. It’s way overpriced at the station and along the way and I usually get dehydrated from the heating or A/C.
  7. Note: It is indeed fun, and perfectly safe, to get drunk on the train, but I’d avoid bringing your own alcohol, lest you be motivated to finish it all in one night. Train hangovers are not fun.
IMG_3849
Platform vendors

 

The Train Station
So you’re all packed up, have your ticket, food provisions and some comfy slippers. The day has come and it is time to to head to the station. In Almaty there are two stations, Almaty II down at the end of Ablai Khana and Almaty I way down Seifullina. The Astana train station is a completely different beast, much more lively and interesting than the southern capital’s.

Now if you haven’t already gotten a ticket, or if it’s sold out, you can approach the shady looking scalpers. Don’t worry, they are harmless, even downright helpful. They are speculators who’ve bought tickets for busy routes and times, and who charge a premium to switch the passenger name. I once paid 100% over face value to avoid getting stranded in Shymkent. Well worth the price if you ask me.

I recommend getting to the station 30 minutes early to be safe. If you are leaving from Almaty II, which is the ‘end of the line’, the train will be waiting on the platform. Other trains embarking from Almaty I or another city will probably just be passing through, and thus only stop for a few minutes. Panic accordingly. Find out where your wagon will stop and present your ticket with ID to the conductor and hop on.

 

Picture 731
Onboard the Ulyanovsk-Tashkent Express

All Aboard!

Your first order of business should be to cast of your shoes, put them away in a bag and don your slippers. In fact, go ahead and change now. If you are in a Kupe then you will usually take turns changing while the others wait outside.

If you followed my recommendation and took the upper bunk, then you will store your luggage up above, where there is a little crawlspace-like area. Take out the food for the rest of the day, a mug and your tea and put it against the window on the table.

After you get moving the Provodnik will come by twice. The first time to check your tickets and ID, the second to distribute linens, for which you may be charged a couple of bucks. Then you take turns making your beds. Cover the mattress with the one sheet, put the pillow in the case and put another sheet on top. If it’s winter there will be a blanket, but usually the overzealous heating makes things too hot for you to need it.

It’s probably afternoon or early evening, time for a relaxing tea and a chat. The hot water is down at the end of the hallway, on the side you entered from. Greet your kupe-mate and go through the formalities: where are you from, where are you going, etc. Take the chance to practice your Russian, Kazakh, Tatar, Uzbek, Bashkir, Korean or Turkish in a safe environment.

Run out of food? You have three solutions. One is your hopefully friendly kupe-mates. They will undoubtedly bring too much and will happily dole some out to the skinny foreigner. They wont want anything you have to offer (Once we brought some homemade palak paneer to share, with interesting results), which is where the chocolate comes in. Everyone loves chocolate. So don’t feel shy in grabbing a chicken leg or piece of cheese and salami from them. The second way to get more food is on the frequent stops the train will make. (For this remember small bills, but you should already know that anyway.) The train stops for 2,5 or 15 minutes at a time, and there is be a mad rush of people getting on and off. A second group of people gets off to smoke a cig or pickup some food. You can buy lepeshka, boiled eggs, various meats or manti. If you are passing Lake Baikal you can get some dried fish if you’re into that kind of thing. (Don’t forget to make a joke about passing Chu to show off your local knowledge.) The third option is the restaurant car, which is decent grub but risks offending your kupe-mates, who’ll think you anti-social.

Night time is a fun time on the train, when everyone gets ready for bed, with a toothbrush and towel to wash off. PRO TIP: use the hot water from the boiler to wet your towel to wash your face, but don’t do it in front of the provodnik.

Picture 637
Train station in Kazan’, Russia

Bon Voyage

After more chai, chatting and the like, go and get some sleep. Don’t wait for the conversation to die down naturally, that can take until well into the wee hours. Once in bed let the rhythm of the train lull you to sleep.

And when you wake up the next morning, you’ll have a grand view of the immense Kazakh steppe, expanding to the horizon like an ocean. Ak Zhol!
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