When we arrived in Kazakhstan as part of our Central Asia overland, we knew the first thing we had to do was purchase a train ticket. We did so, using a mix of pictures and charades, and later that night arrived for our first real train journey on this entire trip.
Aboard the train we just showed people our ticket until someone showed us to where we were supposed to be. We had ‘berth’ numbers assigned to us but we were looking at the wrong numbers…ticket was in Russian of course. Our birth had four beds, two below that served as benches during the day and two above. We had the top bunks, and our things were on the shelves above our heads. There were two more bunks across the aisle along the side of the rail car. It was sunset and once the train was underway we crawled into our alcoves and fell asleep.
The train resembled the inside of a Klingon space ship. Everyone slept on metal shelves. It was a giant case of function over form. My feet hung over the edge of my berth into the aisle…this was a good use of space since the aisle wasn’t always in use. There were cushions on the top shelf for us to roll out on our metal racks and we did so….next we were given sheets. We were able to lay horizontally. This was some of the best overnight transportation we’ve had this entire trip.
The next morning, very very early, we were awaken to transfer to another train to head into Uzbekistan. Getting onto the train was the first challenge. Not since our entrance to Egypt had we seen such an awful display of humanity, it was a stampede to get onto the train. We really didn’t understand it, we thought we had assigned seats but we guessed maybe we didn’t with how everyone was pushing. Jill took a couple of duffel bags to the head as she managed to finally climb aboard.
The conductor handling our rail car didn’t like it either, but he did take a liking to us. We had tickets just for the daytime so we had no sheets given to us, but they managed to find some for us. He and his wife, the only other person in our berth, were going back to their home in Western Uzbekistan…called Karakalpakstan. They had tons of ‘chai’ (tea) contraband which we found very funny the way they hid it all over the train. They took care of us, showed us the good food to buy when we stopped and made sure Uzbekistan customs didn’t harass us….by helping us to fill in our forms. They even checked to make sure we received the proper black market rate for our money. The conductor’s name was Saperbai, I know that because for 10 minutes we passed our iTouch back and forth as he tried to use our letters and I corrected the spelling based on his pronunciation. We shared photos of our family and trip with them and it didn’t take long before our berth of 3 had a rotating audience of 30.
The second train we took was much the same experience, but a lot nicer. It was funny because the ticket agent first told us there were no seats available…because the only ones that were available were for the top (3rd shelf) of the less nice train. It was easily twice as nice as our first train.
This time though, we boarded in Eastern Kazakhstan and rode a shorter distance. The ride though started earlier so we found ourselves with plenty of time to socialize before bed. There was the man getting on with us who worked in the legal department of one of the telecom companies (not the one we had a SIM card for) and three women who had traveled all the way from Chechnya (just north of Georgia in the Caucus) over three trains and four days.
With them we had much the same experience we had on our first train. We shared photos of our family and trip. One pointed to a photo of my mother and said ‘mama’ before pointing to my father and saying diedushka, or grandpa. They spoke nearly no English but it was enough to give Jill an impromptu Russian lesson and keep our hands filled with apples just as fast as we could eat them. We took photos together and one of the women became emotional over the fact that a photo of her would make it to America.
IF YOU GO: Be at the station at the right time. All trains in Kazakhstan run on Astana time, which is one hour ahead of the local Aktau time where we boarded. Within Russia proper, the entire expanse of the world’s largest country runs on Moscow time.