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By train through Kazakhstan
Aktau (Kazakhstan), September 15th 2015

Kazakhstan is huge; very huge. Here a few figures to emphasize the size of this country for the sake of clarity. Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world. It is over 65 times larger than the Netherlands, more than four times bigger than France and is only slightly smaller than Argentina. A train journey from east to west, from Almaty to Aktau, lasts over 70 hours. The number of people living in this vast country, the largest landlocked country in the world, is only 18 million. And that is only slightly more than the Netherlands.

Many people use the train to travel through Kazakhstan. It's cheap, reasonably comfortable and you can carry a lot of luggage. And the latter is important for Kazak people. We have seen people in the train who use the train as a transport vehicle for their watermelons. And these water melons did not go into a separate transport wagon. No, they disappeared under the seats, between the seats and even on the baggage racks. We are not particularly fond on traveling by train. The train is admittedly comfortable and cheap, but it also has a number of disadvantages. Often, the train is much slower than the bus, is less frequent and often starts at a very adverse times (like in the middle of the night). In addition, you often have to buy the tickets days in advance to have a good seat. So, where possible, we take the bus. And only if it’s really difficult or impossible, for example when it is a night bus (which we do not like), we prefer the train.

We in the train from Atyrau to Aktau

We have arrived in the town of Aktau on the shore of the Caspian Sea. We have traversed Kazakhstan from east to west and have covered about half of the 4,200 kilometres by train. Two of the three trips in a third class wagon, and the last journey by second class. There is not much difference between the second and third class. The second class wagons are more luxurious and spacious, but a bed does cost 50% more. The biggest difference is in our opinion the type of passengers. The more expensive second-class beds are attracting wealthier people, who are generally quieter, but also take a lot less baggage. And that is nice if you also want to have a place for your luggage. In the third class, the travel culture is more like "every man for himself and god for us all". People are not ashamed for the fact that they arrange the best ‘comfort’ for themselves and their baggage, even if it is at the expense of the comfort of others. If the watermelons that are positioned in between the seats in front of you is preventing you to put your feet on the ground for 70 hours, is more your problem than a problem for the melons trader. And the weird thing of that all is, that no one has a problem with it. People take life as it is.

You buy your ticket for the train in Kazakhstan before boarding the train. Some trains are popular and can be sold out in the high season already weeks in advance. Especially in the period that many male Central Asians are traveling to/from Russia for work are busy. Buying a ticket is for a non-Russian speaking foreigners not always easy. Kazakhs generally speak no English and do not always have the patience to allow you to struggle with the language. The Soviet mentality, for that matter, after more than twenty-five years, is still somewhere in their genes. Additionally, you often have to communicate with the Svetlana behind the counter through a small window and a 'made-in-china’ speaker/microphones set, which is not really helping the already not-so-smooth running conversation. But we found a solution. Kazakh railways has a good working website, complete with the entire schedule, the train number, wagon numbers, times and available seats/beds (https://epay.railways.kz/ktz4/proc?pa=clients). You need to read a little Russian and install a Russian keyboard on your laptop, tab or smartphone, but then you have the possibility to prepare the trip completely at your hotel, so without the pressure of an annoyed-looking Svetlana, who actually cannot believe that you came to Kazakhstan without speaking Russian. And she absolutely does not understand why you choose her window to buy the ticket. If you prepared your trip, you write down your travel wishes on a piece of paper (in Russian!) which you slide through the small window so that Svetlana knows exactly what you want. And now hope that she has no further questions for you.

Ready to board the train in Atyrau

As the train journeys in Kazakhstan are often long, there are generally no train seats, but beds. With the exception of the fourth class, all the higher classes work with reserved beds. On your ticket you can find the train number, car number and bed number, which leads you to your bed. There are lower beds and upper beds available. The lower beds are much more popular than the upper beds because they give you the possibility to look out the window, give you the disposal over a table, and does not require acrobatics skills to reach the upper bed. The price of an upper bed and lower bed is identical. In for example China, it was normal that people with an upper bed, had the right to sit on the lower bed during the day, since you cannot expect someone to lay down on an upper bed the entire trip. In Kazakhstan it is possible. If you have a ticket for a lower bed, it is your bed, and you can do with it whatever you want. And since the Kazakh rail passengers really love to sleep, you can forget it as passenger with an upper bed ticket.

Each wagon in a Kazakh train is equipped with a toilet, a samovar and a provodnik. A samovar is a tank of boiling water which you can freely use for your coffee, tea or instant noodles. The provodnik is the steward of the wagon and must ensure that everything runs smoothly. He does not only check the tickets, he also ensures that everyone ends up in the right bed, that the samovar is always full, the sheets and pillows are distributed, and no one smokes illegally in the wagon. What he does not, is cleaning the toilet. That is something nobody does. The toilet is like so often, a place you like to avoid as long as possible. But yeah, try that on a 20 hours rain ride! So, some soap to wash your hands isn’t a luxury on a Kazakh train.

Ivonne early in the morning in the train from Aralsk to Aktobe
Edwin on his upper bed
Waiting early in the morning in Aralsk on the train to Aktobe
Ivonne is preparing her noodles on her upper bed
A prepared note to order train tickets

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