When covering long distances in Kazakhstan, hopping on the train seems to be the most reasonable and ecological option. Below we share some pros and cons after three train trips.
Experiencing the land and its people for no money
Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world covering 2.727.300 square kilometers. Why would you take the train to cover these enormous distances?
First of all, train fares in Kazakhstan are inexpensive. We paid 2330 KZT (11.55 euro) for an overnight train in platskart from Atyrau to Aktau. Platskart (3rd class) is cheaper than coupe (2nd class), and the preferred choice if you like to socialise with other passengers or want to avoid to be stuck in a 4 berth coupe with possibly annoying passengers. Since our knowledge of the Russian (and Kazakh) language is limited to ‘spasibo’ (meaning ‘thank you’) and most Kazakh people don’t know (a lot of) English, we were not able to profit from interesting encounters with local passengers. However, traveling by train gave us a better insight in local customs and showed us that people with different ethnic backgrounds seem to coexist quite happily in Kazakhstan. We mainly observed people with more Kazakh features, and others that were clearly of Russian decent. We also saw strict Islamic women wearing long dark clothes and a mouth cover and using a bed sheet for hiding their berths from the other passengers. By choosing the train we were not only able to experience the people of Kazakhstan to some extent, but also the vastness of the land that is marked by the ever present desert steppes dotted with small villages.
Other advantages of traveling by train are the ability to stock up on food and water, even though we didn’t make use of this, being well-prepared vegetarians in a country where meat is the number one staple. Vendors frequented the train with bottles of waters held cold in a bucket of ice. Women sold cookies and sweets. And on the train along the Caspian sea, elder women sold strong-smelling dried fish. Other vendors were peddling mobile phones, clothes, and toys. During the longer stops, small markets arose out of nothing on the platform and were much loved by the passengers that wanted to stretch their legs and cool down from the overheated wagon. Yes, taking the train in Kazakhstan can be demanding…
Traveling at 50 km/h in outdated and overheated carriages
The train infrastructure in Kazakhstan is outdated. Trains, carriages and (sleeper) wagons date back from the Soviet-era. The windows are mostly blurred with dirt, making it almost impossible to enjoy the landscape. In addition, the trains get unbearably hot since air-conditioning is missing (at least in platskart) and small windows can open only at one side. Despite these, the train could be a sensible choice. In Europe for example, the train is much favored as an ecological mode of transport, being powered by electricity. However, our three train trips in Kazakhstan were powered by diesel locomotive engines. Only 28 % of Kazakhstan’s 14,600 km of main train line is electrified. This makes the train less ecological.
But the maybe greatest drawback to taking the train in Kazakhstan is the speed. Our over night train trip from Atyrau to Aktau, covering a distance of 900 km, took 20 hours. During at least two hours in total our train was not moving. An approximate calculation tells us that the train was running at an average speed of 50 km/h. Sometimes we stood still at a small station during 20 minutes or longer, during which people went out to buy drinks and food. At other times we had a short stop in the middle of the steppes or desert. Often, a cargo train with liquid carrying carriages – probably oil – would pass by after some time. Do the oil trains receive priority over passenger trains? At least we have seen that there are many more cargo trains on the rails than passenger trains. At several train stations, only one up to three platforms were reserved for passenger trains, while cargo trains occupied all the remaining rails. The rail is still the transportation backbone in Kazakhstan, shifting thousands of tonnes of goods, next to people, across Kazakhstan every day. The Kazakh authorities have opened a fast train between the capital Astana and Aktobe, a booming city near the gas fields in the north-west. But even that journey of 1500 km still takes 16 hours. The low speed of Kazakh trains is an important issue, since long train journeys can get quite annoying, as we experienced when we had reserved two upper berths, as a result of our poor Russian knowledge. Other passengers wanted to occupy their lower beds immediately after boarding, leaving us for 18 hours apart from each other and sweating in our upper berths. Meanwhile, the other passengers sat below on their lower berths; chatting, eating and laughing the heat away.
A future for Kazakh trains
Trains should have a future in Kazakhstan, so that they can remain competitive with the expensive but more comfortable flights. From what we have seen, the railway system in Kazakhstan needs a major make-over. Trains need to be modernized, but most of all they need to run faster. We are well aware that Kazakhstan needs time to leave the remains of the Soviet-era behind and rebuild its own infrastructure. However, more than 20 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, we would expect to see more progress, especially in a country that thrives from the immense exploitation of oil and other natural resources.