Crossing Kazakhstan by Rail – Photo Essay | Travel

NSThe monotonous rattling of the train passes through the grasslands of Central Asia. The air that travels with us is the smell of cooked food and the exhalation of dozens of passengers. You can hear sounds from different parts of the wagon, including snoring, kid screaming, folk music, and super-active radio voices.

I’m lying on the top and trying to bring my body into contact with the cooling plastic wall due to the heat of the summer. I’m in a dim light between a light sleep and the nervous gaze of my cell phone: no reception yet. I’m trapped here now. It’s past 3 am. It’s the beginning of my almost three-week train journey. Kazakhstan..

  • Above, in the morning, fold the borrowed bedding properly and give it to the crew.Yes, the kids are playing on board

Children play on board
Kazakhstan Selection-50
Railroad crossing meadow

I took a night train in the former capital Almaty. On my side is my translator, Dorlett. The 26-year-old Kazakh works for the National Geographical Society. I met him on Facebook just a few days ago. His cold attitude gives me calm. Dorlett’s reaction to all kinds of suggestions is as follows: That’s our way. Now he is snoring on the blue work jumper on the bunk bed opposite me.

Outside, the whistle rings, newly arrived passengers prepare for the night’s stay, and the train resumes. It returns to a monotonous rhythm. Despite the unfamiliar sensory stimuli, sleep gradually overcomes me.

Most of the country consists of vast plains, sometimes joining hills and almost half covered with sand or gravel deserts.
Most of the country consists of vast plains, sometimes joining hills and almost half covered with sand or gravel deserts.

A few weeks ago I was looking at a map of Kazakhstan And I wonder how to avoid this vast country. It quickly became apparent that the state railway company was the largest employer in the country with 146,000 employees. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan is the same size as Central Europe, but its rail network is only 16,000 km, much shorter than Germany.

Most of the country consists of vast plains, sometimes joining hills and almost half covered with sand or gravel deserts. The only mountain range is in the southeast, and the Tian Shan Mountains run along the border between China and Kyrgyzstan.

Woman walking along the truck

  • Among the 48,000 lakes in the country is the Aral Sea, which is now almost dry. This is one of the biggest environmental disasters in decades caused by the large-scale cultivation of cotton during the Soviet era.

In the country’s 48,000 lakes Aral Sea, Almost dry. This is one of the biggest environmental disasters in decades caused by large-scale cotton cultivation during the Soviet era.

In the morning, get out of the bunk bed and get off the ladder. Some passengers are already there and mysteriously aiming at me. Foreigners are rare on Kazakh trains. On my 7,500km trip, I can only meet three Western travelers. I introduce myself to the passengers with the help of Dorlet. In fact, no one speaks English here. In this distant corner of the world, Russian is still a common language.


Dorlet and I wandered the train and met Myra, a 52-year-old woman, in the last carriage. Her gentle face and spirit wipe out my tiredness. She provided us with boiled meat from a plastic bag, and I am grateful. “Probably a vegetarian, like all Europeans!” She was indignant and at the same time amused. “You can’t even protect yourself without eating meat. The Kazakhs were born as warriors, so they eat a lot of meat!” She says and immediately challenges the arm wrestling match. I accept it, but soon admit defeat.

Food plays an important social role in Kazakhstan. In the train compartment, it is always shared among passengers, which is considered a sign of respect and hospitality. Tupperware, cups and pots are stacked on a small table.

Tupperware, cups and pots on a small table.
Tupperware, cups and pots are stacked on a small table
Young people in the compartment

  • Tops, Tupperware, cups and pots are stacked on a small table.Food plays an important social role and is shared among passengers

Outside the window, a monotonous meadow passes under the milky sky. “On a train journey, your thoughts are completely free,” Meila happily leans forward. Since childhood, she was often taken by her parents to a family reunion thousands of kilometers away. “In the past, there was a community among travelers. People shared their secrets with strangers. I started penpal relationships with some people. Some continue to this day. Today, most travelers lie there like silent fish and stare at their smartphones 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. “

Railway bridge

Kazakhstan’s rail network is state-owned and most of its vehicles are low-speed Soviet railroads. Each carriage has a kitchen with 3 toilets and a microwave. In the corridor, there is a huge water heater that brews tea 24 hours a day, and Korean noodle soup that is very popular with passengers. At least one train clerk oversees each freight car.

Muller Train Attendant

We are interrupting the attendant’s muller while the attendant’s muller is flushing in the kitchen. His cabin is cramped and only suitable for sitting and sleeping. The walls are hung with nicely decorated uniforms and are proudly worn for our conversation.

“My grandmother worked as a conductor. As a kid, I was sometimes allowed to ride with her and fascinated her work,” says the 63-year-old kid with excitement. For thirty years, the train was his second home.

Shortly after, the train arrives at the station with a sudden brake. Muller sandwiches between the passengers he wants to get off, opens the door and proudly stands in front of the train. The benevolent nature is a prerequisite for this work, he says.

Conductor taking a nap
Locomotive driver and companion

  • Above, the conductor takes a nap. In the above, old Soviet locomotives and freight cars still make up the majority of Kazakhstan’s railcars. On the right, the painting at the National Museum of Almaty shows the newly constructed Turkestan-Siberian Railway at the time, connecting Novosibirsk and Almaty, which is now part of Russia.

Paintings at the National Museum of Almaty

“A few years ago, an elderly man fell from a bunk bed at midnight and broke his hand. I bandaged his hand with cardboard, put him to sleep in my hut, and went to the doctor at the first stop the next morning. I took him. Some women gave birth during the trip. “

The carriage mood is already one of the departures, as the suburbs of Atyrau slowly pass through the windows in the early morning sunshine. All passengers fold the bed sheets and blanket covers neatly and push them into the hands of the train crew. The compartment is left as it is found.

The Kazakh marriage tradition is complex and requires several trips by the bride and groom.Here the newlyweds arrive at the groom's hometown

At Atyrau, a large number of people gather around the wagon. The newlyweds are back from the celebration. Excited, the waiting family claps their hands and confetti flies through the sky. The disembarked couple is blessed with countless heartfelt hugs.

Train at the station

Stopping is quite inconvenient on our journey. Usually, you take a break for about 12 hours at a dilapidated hotel near the train station before catching another train. Most cities are not particularly attractive, except for the former capital Almaty, which is very green and surrounded by breathtaking mountain views. Named after the recently dismissed president, Nur-Sultan, the capital, looks like a playground for megalomaniacs. In the middle of the desert, dilapidated prefabricated buildings line the buildings of the future. The charm of the country lies in many scenic highlights-unfortunately we only see it passing by the window.


At the train station in Alarsk, you can see the strange appearance. An elderly man with a long white beard, a gray coat and a black fur hat stands out from the other passengers on the platform. He is traveling alone with a huge suitcase and he is struggling to drag behind him. The train departed as soon as I searched for him and departed with Dorret. He is in the penultimate carriage. What happens then surprises not only us two, but perhaps the entire carriage: the man begins talking without Dorlet having to ask him.

His remarks are disorganized and, although he has repeatedly quoted from Kazakh philosophers, it is by no means uninteresting. “Everyone who mourns the Soviet Union today is out of his mind! There was no freedom at that time. Society lost God and lived under constant brainwashing,” he said. Say angry. Everyone on the train is silently staring at him. “When the Soviet Union was slowly collapsing, our family ate very little bread. We had a farm built by our ancestors over the years. They just survived! Today’s Kazakhs have all the opportunities, but all they do is always complain. It seems that hard work has not been learned. “

Today’s politics isn’t perfect either, and retiring president Nursultan Nazarbayev promises that the best of era will not come, as it did 25 years ago. However, the mood of the onboard restaurant is always cheerful. The laughter and the smell of soup permeate the wagon, and the serving girl brings bottles of vodka to male guests one after another.

Restaurant guests

Three strong men invite us to their table. I settle into a few glasses while the dollet is playing Islamic cards to avoid drinking vodka. Before each toast, someone must make a loud wish. Smoked cheese and salad are served with vodka. The three men soon became affectionate and always wanted to wave my hand – and more and more vodka on me. By the sixth cup, we are all crying out to live happily and healthy forever. Dorlet translates my wishes, but it’s already a bit frustrating.

On my way back to Almaty after more than two weeks, I sat down in the compartment with two older women. Their faces show deep grooves. They move in slow motion, but radiate inner satisfaction. Both wear white scarves. The small table has a pack of milk and a teapot. Nubia is peeling an apple and of course she will provide it to us soon. Reima sits cross-legged and strangely looks at us.

Nubia, left, Reima

Then the two women begin their story. Both are Kazakh, but lived in Afghanistan until 11 years ago. “We were among the children of our parents who were thorny on the side of the Soviet nation. At that time, people like us were in prisoner-of-war camps. Our parents noticed this. In Afghanistan, they grew up in Baghlan near the Tajik border. Even today, there are thousands of Kazakh communities in Afghanistan.

Here in Kazakhstan, there is peace, which Reima says is all that is needed at this age. Well, and this train journey: “Travel on the rails is the most exciting adventure. You can have a cup of tea all day, meet new people, and look at the meadows from the train window. It’s mine. Enlighten your inner self. ”

Two and a half weeks later, I will return to Almaty late in the evening. I took the train for a total of 225 hours. Even at dawn, I feel like I’m gently swaying back and forth on the bunk bed of the train while traveling in total darkness.

Meadow from the train window

Crossing Kazakhstan by Rail – Photo Essay | Travel

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