Train routes through Kazakhstan??!!
When Michael, Jeannie and Nora embarked on the first Ultimate Train Challenge, they all took different routes out of Lisbon before converging in Moscow. There, they hopped on the Trans-Mongolian Railway to ride across Russia, through Mongolia and into China. My guess is that if you are thinking about doing the UTC this time around, you probably have a similar route in mind.
But why not mix things up a bit? You’re already traveling from Lisbon to Saigon (or vice versa) in 30 days or less – why not get off the beaten path and check out a country you may not otherwise ever think to visit?
Why not go through Kazakhstan?
Sure, you may only know about Kazakhstan from a certain movie, but it very well could be the highlight of your entire trip. In my experience, the people were ten times friendlier than those in Russia. Where I was met with stone cold glares and complete silence during much of my Trans-Siberian journey, it seemed like everyone was eager to chat with me as I traveled by train across Kazakhstan. From elderly men who shared their watermelon and rambled to me in Russian to why teenagers who wanted to practice their English, I found the Kazakh trains to be incredibly social.
You are also likely to eat really well while crossing Kazakhstan. At nearly every stop, I encountered scores of Kazakh babushkas hawking plastic bags of steaming hot pelmeni and manty (dumplings), roasted potatoes, vegetables and even shashlik (grilled meat) – not to mention loaves and loaves of fresh bread and the most delicious melons I have ever had. I don’t know if there was a dining car on the train, but there certainly wasn’t a need for one.
Finally, you can make some interesting stops along the way. A quick stop that requires some advance planning is a visit to what is left of the Aral Sea – the site of one of the worst environmental disasters ever. Trains usually arrive at 2:30 a.m., so you’ll want to arrange for a homestay (or a room at the one grungy hotel in town) to take a nap and grab a shower before taking an excursion to the sea and the nearby “ship cemetery.” These are best arranged through a tour company and last just a few hours, so you can easily be back to catch an evening train out of town. If you have a couple days to spare, stop at Turkestan to explore nearby remnants of the Silk Road or stretch your legs strolling through the tree-lined streets of the former capital, Almaty or hiking in the mountains surrounding the city.
So how to do it?
For starters, you will need a visa – but for most Westerners, it should be fairly straightforward, without the need for a letter of invitation (rules can change often, so double check). I would recommend taking the train from Moscow to Samara, Russia and from there, continue into Kazakhstan via Kandyagash and onto the former capital, Almaty (possibly stopping along the way). From there, book a train to Urumqi in western China.
Note that trains in Kazakhstan can fill up a week or more in advance, so you’ll want to purchase tickets ahead of time, especially if you plan to stop. The good news is you can buy tickets online at https://pcentre.kz/ and collect them at the train station in Kazakhstan. The bad news? The website is entirely in Kazakh or Russian. But, with the help of Google Translate, it is entirely do-able.
Bio: Katie Aune is a former attorney who quit her job in higher ed fundraising to travel and volunteer throughout all 15 countries of the former Soviet Union. She recently returned to her adopted hometown of Chicago after a thirteen month career break that included running a marathon in Estonia, traveling the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway, teaching English in Russia and Tajikistan, volunteering with the national tourism board of Armenia, living with local families in Azerbaijan, and trying her best to speak Russian on a daily basis. You can read about her travels on KatieGoingGlobal.com or follow on her on Twitter as @katieaune.