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.

Train1

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.

Train5

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…

Train4

Traveling at 50 km/h in outdated and overheated carriages

The train infrastructure in Kazakhstan is outdated.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.

Train2

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.

Train3

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.

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15 Responses to A long road ahead for the Kazakh railways

  1. Aidos Kapanov says:

    Hi, guys!

    My name is Aidos and I’m from Aktau. It was very interisting to read opinion about our country and travelling experience from indie journalists. Can I translate this article to russian and publish it on popular kazakh site? With reffering link to original of course.

    • Hi Aidos,

      Thanks for your interest in our article.Yes, you can translate and post this on your blog. As I see, you already did.
      We hope the readers of your blog like it!
      Best,
      Helga

  2. Dmitry says:

    I think that this journey was a really deed for you. It is not a train, it’s a tin under baking sun. I was born there, and my home is in Aktau (unfortunately). And for any journey I try to use planes, but for you to use Kazakh train was necessary.

  3. steven says:

    Ik wilde even een kanttekening maken bij jullie slotparagraaf. De rijkdom van Kazachstan is heel recent en de jaren 90 waren economisch enorm moeilijk. Slechts de laatste 10 jaar is er meer geld aan het binnenlopen van de grondstoffeneconomie en is de middenklasse zich aan het ontwikkelen. Tegelijk wordt er ook gewerkt aan betere treininfrastructuur. Nieuwe treinen rijden tussen Almaty en Astana, Shymkent en andere bestemmingen. Er wordt ook hard gewerkt aan een nieuw sneller traject voor de Iron Silk Road tussen China en West-Europa. Kazakhstan maakt ook zijn eigen Talgo-treinen.

    Voor positief nieuws op het eco-front moet je ook eens kijken naar de initiatieven voor expo2017 en green bridge, of de eco-brigade van posadi derevo en green salvation.

    Ik ben het zeker met jullie eens dat er veel beter kan in Kazachstan en dat de economie moet pivoteren weg van grondstoffen (zelfs corrupte beleidsmakers zijn het daarmee eens), maar op 10 jaar tijd kan je niet te veel verwachten. Ik ben zelf redelijk optimistisch over de rol die Kazachstan in de regio kan spelen als leider in ecologische issues, met een grotere middenklasse en meer hoogopgeleide mensen die terugkeren vanuit europa en de VS dan de omringende landen.

    • Dag Steven,
      Bedankt voor je input. We hebben gehoord over de snelle treinverbindingen. De vraag is natuurlijk of die voor de doorsnee bevolking betaalbaar zullen zijn. We hebben ook positieve zaken gelezen en opgevangen over het ecofront – o.a. expo217 – en er gebeuren inderdaad zaken. Toch hebben we het gevoel dat er wel wat dingen worden verpreid ‘het westen bereiken’ die door de regering niet worden ingelost. Onze gesprekken met verschillende ngo’s bevestigen ons gevoel daarin. Kazachstan zou inderdaad een grote rol kunnen spelen als leider in ecologische issues in de regio. Laat ons hopen dat ze die rol ook opnemen.

  4. Leo says:

    And this is our reality nowadays…
    By the way, the “Soviet era” was not bad at all, all the cities in KZ were built at that time, and many other good things happened…
    Now we have so called “idependence” they say, but we’ve hardly ever built anything since then, nor produced anything useful.
    It’s a disaster…

  5. Miko says:

    Hi, this was really interesting to read about, It’s always keen for me to learn on what other nations think about Kazakhstan, and how they are treated in our country. I’m actually very glad that in recent years we are having lots of visitors to our country, I’m sure your visit taught you lots of stuff as well as broadened your mind about other cultures. One thing I would add that is missing in your article is that you haven’t done much research, on train modernization in the country. Actually there are now some trains, alas few, but some that are updated and really comfortable to travel, for example there are new trains from Almaty to Astana and vice versa, their number is 10&11, which are really nice to travel and can be compared to those spanish trains “Talgo” we have. The tickets for that train’s “coupe” costs about 5000 tenge, not so bad, isn’t it? I think there is also a new train called “Kaspiy” that travels from Astana-Atyrau-Astana, which also offers some comfort. The price of this train could be higher, but its because of distance. And there are also some updates coming up in future, you should have mentioned that. I agree with you that we need to modernize our trains, but you should have mentioned those things that have been already done. I know, for example, that there are fast trains coming up in near future from Astana to the cities like Almaty, Atyrau and Aktau, so we will see, hopefully they will be able to offer what you have said about being ecologically, and also cheap and fast) Thank you!

    • Hi Miko
      Thanks for the extra information. We heard about some fast trains and it’s good to know more fast trains will come. We will be happy to try these when we come back to Kazakhstan.

  6. Bakhyt says:

    Hi!
    was glad to read point of view of our local railways from you.
    Thank you for interesting article.
    I think, you bought the cheapest tariff purposely? it is sure that you know that there are trains with better conditions, but, of course, it’s still far to the European trains, such as TGV.
    Best regards,

    • Hi Miko,
      We bought the cheapest tickets, I guess because that’s what we also do in Belgium – though over here the majority of the people do so. But also, I guess the cheaper tickets provide for more adventure :-) Kupye would be more comfortable of course. We may try that another time. Thanks for your comment!

  7. Nurlan Zhanybek says:

    Thank you very much for this nice article.
    It is really authentic and enjoyable to ready.

    I agree that after 20 years of independence, our train industry has to make a giant leap to improve its infrastructure.

    Can you imagine how many employees does KTZ (Kazakh Train Company) have?
    Yes, there are more than 163 000 people.
    This is the second biggest employer in Kazakhstan.

    Welcome to Kazakhstan and hope to read more about such adventures.
    BTW, you can visit our tourism site: http://visitkazakhstan.kz/ for more nice info

    About me.
    ELT Consultant, InterPress

  8. Ibragim says:

    naechstes Mal werde besser wenn ihr spanisches Zug ”Talgo” nehmen werden (da oben Steven hat darueber schon gesagt). es gibt Richtungen Almaty-Astana, Almaty-Shymkent, Astana-Atyrau, Almaty-Petropavl. Jedenfalls, willkommen nochmals zu Kasachstan :)

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