What It Was Like to Experience the Magic of the Silk Road on a Sleeper Train
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To The Point
I chose a 14-hour train ride over a 90-minute flight on a recent trip to Kazakhstan — and I’m glad I did. Pros: A beautiful way to see a beautiful country, surprisingly easy booking and plenty of beer on board. Cons: The bedding wasn’t exactly comfortable and the station in Astana was quite chaotic.
Long-distance train travel still conjures up images of an era gone by, of travelers talking to one another, of taking one’s time to get from A to B and truly enjoying the journey itself. Indeed, it’s still a great way to dive headfirst into a culture, to interact with locals, to see the country as it meanders by your window. For all those reasons, I chose to take a 14-hour train trip from Astana to Almaty in Kazakhstan instead of a 90-minute flight.
After two days exploring Astana’s incredible architecture (and lack of much else), I was more than ready to head to Almaty. Not only was Astana rather bland, but I was excited to go local and take the train. Little did I realize just how local I was going! The booking process was (mostly) simple and modern, as was the train, a Tulpar-Talgo, a joint venture of Kazakh and Spanish manufacturers, but that’s pretty much where it stopped. From the time I arrived at the station, it was very clear that Dorothy was no longer in Kansas. And I loved every minute of it.
The Kazakhstan Railways, or KTZ, booking engine was relatively easy to use, especially by the standards of the former Soviet Union nation. Having traveled extensively throughout Russia and Eastern Europe, I expected this to be a similarly red-tape-heavy, user-unfriendly experience, but that wasn’t the case.
I started at Kazakhstan Railways’ English-language front page. Right at the top was a search function. That’s where the fun began. Even though everything was in English, you had to fill in the search fields in Russian. (Stick with Russian as opposed to Kazakh, as Google Translate will have less trouble down the line.)
After copying and pasting “Astana/Астана” and “Almaty/Алматы” from Wikipedia, I was taken to a second page confirming my selections. Other than the front page, the entire website was in Russian and Kazakh only. Do not use Google Translate or another internet translator on this next page, as it will cause a fault with your search results. Once I figured that out, I finally confirmed my date and then hit the “РАСПИСАНИЕ” button. (‘Schedule,” if you’re wondering.)
The next page (and the rest thereafter) I could translate to my heart’s content. The page had a button by each train allowing me to see exactly how many seats were available in each carriage, broken down by class. I picked my exact seat for the trip, much like booking an airplane ticket.
I chose an upper bunk in luxe class for a whopping $70. In under five minutes, I had my tickets purchased and printed and was ready for my trip.
Don’t worry when your name appears incorrectly on the last page. This is an error resulting from translating into English from Russian. Your name is converted as typed into Russian, but then back into English by Google Translate, which is why it appears incorrectly. Fear not!
There are two stations in Astana. Astana Station is the main train station that most of the long-distance trains use, while Astana Nurly Zhol is a few miles out of town. Make sure you book from the right station (i.e., not from Nurly Zhol)! Similarly, there are two stations in Almaty. Almaty-2 is the central station in town, while Almaty-1 is a good 20 minutes outside of the center.
I took a taxi to the station and was dropped off roughly an hour before my train’s scheduled departure time. I wanted to make sure I had time to buy snacks and drinks, grab a bite to eat and just soak up the atmosphere.
I had images in my head of a station packed with babushkas selling their wares, platforms crowded with passengers ready to embark on their sometimes days-long journeys, and the sort of organized chaos that seems to characterize travel (and life) in this part of the world. That was mostly what I found.
Entering the station, I had all bags scanned, and everyone walked through a metal detector, much like at an airport. Unlike at an airport, though, the guards paid no attention when people beeped and didn’t seem to care much about the bags, either. The woman behind the screener, absent-mindedly filing inch-long, pink, rhinestone-studded nails and bouncing a leg in the air that was adorned with a fur-lined boot with three-inch heels, was more concerned with a kitty video on YouTube than the bags she was supposedly screening.
There was a small restaurant and café inside the station that served a wide variety of hot, local food in addition to a minimart full of the usual snacks and things one would want to bring on a train trip. No menus were available in English, so I just ordered a plate of food that I saw three other people eating and enjoying and figured I’d take my chances. It ended up being laghman, a ubiquitous Central Asian dish of pulled noodles, meat and veggies — essentially Central Asian stir-fry. And, yes, it was delicious!
I stocked up on beer and water at the minimart, not knowing what would be available on the train, and headed to the platform. Thank goodness for my basic knowledge of Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet, as the departure board only displayed information in Russian and Kazakh — no English to be had here, either.
The platform was as crowded, chaotic and exciting as I’d hoped it would be. The train was arriving from Petropavl, and thankfully had a 20-minute stop scheduled in Astana — plenty of time to find my car and cabin.
Car and Cabin
I was greeted by a conductor in a royal blue, police-like uniform who checked my ticket and showed me to my cabin. Each luxe-class cabin accommodated two people.
The cabin was in day mode, with two seats next to each other facing the wall. The seat closest to the door corresponded to the top bunk, while the seat next to the window was for the occupant of the bottom bunk.
There was a private bathroom in the cabin, which included a toilet and a shower stall. All in all, it was a fairly narrow space and one I’d generally prefer to share with someone I knew.
All of the doors had keycards inserted in them on the outside, so you could lock your door if you wanted to take a walk on the train (or pop out for a smoke at one of the stations, as most of the locals did).
I was slightly apprehensive about who I’d be sharing a cabin with, and crossing my fingers that it might just stay empty. No such luck.
A man came in to the cabin 30 seconds behind me, smiled and introduced himself in a flurry of Kazakh (or maybe Russian?) so I just smiled, nodded and stuck out my hand — the international gesture for “nice to meet you and I don’t understand a word you just said!” His sister had boarded with him to say goodbye and interceded in decent English. He spoke some broken English, but not much. I offered him one of my beers, and we started by teaching each other to toast in English, Russian and Kazakh. So far, so good!
I stuck my head back out the door to see what was happening on the platform, and a woman was having an animated conversation with the same blue-clad conductor who’d ushered me on board. She handed him a large envelope that he eventually took and placed above the door in my cabin. At first, I thought he was just putting it there while he checked our tickets, but he left it there the whole trip. A big mistake — my mistake.
My cabin mate later explained, in a mix of broken English and Russian, and with some help from Google Translate, that I should never allow someone to do that. He said it might contain contraband, and if the authorities decided to do a check of the train, I’d be held responsible. I should have known better, but nothing happened.
While I was in the bar with my cabin mate (more on that below), we asked one of the attendants to make the beds, which she happily did. The beds came with a full sheet set, a blanket and a pillow. The pillow was an embarrassment — I think the pillowcase had more volume to it than the pillow itself. I used two sweaters to bolster it, and that made it somewhat bearable.
Wi-Fi appeared to be available on the train but in fact it was just an internal network that had some entertainment on it, much like you can find on planes now. The difference was that there was no way to actually connect to the internet, even if you wanted to pay. There was also no English content, so I passed on the entertainment system and stuck to the bar for amusement.
Finally, around 2am, I was gently rocked to sleep by the click-clack and gentle sway of the train (and the countless beers I’d consumed). I woke up a few hours outside Almaty, as the train sped through southern Kazakhstan. The views from the train did little justice to the vast, beautiful emptiness of this massive country.
Food and Beverage
About 30 minutes out of Astana, my cabin mate motioned for me to follow him. We walked two cars to a restaurant car that had table service on one side of the kitchen and a bar on the other side.
We went through to the bar — clearly the place to be on board!
I chatted with locals and two other tourists from Japan and France over round after round of local beer (they even had beer on tap) and a smoky, stringy, local cheese called chechil, which went down perfectly with the beer.
Everyone was fascinated by the American who was visiting Kazakhstan “just because” — not for work, not to visit family, just out of curiosity. Everyone had a million questions, and the more beer we drank, the more their English improved and the better my Russian got.
The restaurant had a relatively extensive menu, but having already eaten in the station, I wasn’t hungry enough to try it out.
None of the breakfast options appealed to me, so I settled for the pot of tea that one can get anytime, anywhere in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (the former USSR). Tea here is what coffee is to Italy or France.
We arrived at Almaty-2 Station 20 minutes or so behind schedule, which apparently in Kazakhstan is considered on time — if not early. I disembarked to find a platform scene quite similar to the one in Astana: merchants and babushkas selling their wares, families waiting for loved ones, bags everywhere and the semi-organized chaos that I had come to expect and almost found comforting.
I loved my experience with Kazakhstan Railways and its Tulpar-Talgo. It was a great way to see some of the country, save money on a hotel, and interact with locals and learn about their country and culture. Despite the somewhat chaotic nature of the stations, I never felt unsafe. Everyone knew pretty quickly that I was a tourist and was more than willing to help when needed.
I would absolutely travel this way in Kazakhstan again. Booking is easy, the food on board is plentiful, and the trains run (mostly) on time. I look forward to returning to Central Asia and the KTZ trains.
Featured photo by Getty Images.
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