People just kept bringing more melons.
They carried them in plaid plastic bags or under their arms and stuffed them wherever they could find room – in storage bins, under tables or on top of bunks.
What were they going to do with all these melons?
And then when night fell, wherever there weren’t melons, there were people. While one would assume no one could board the train without a ticket, there were far more people riding my train from Kungrad, Uzbekistan to Aktau, Kazakhstan than there were bunks. Younger children slept two or three to a bed or shared with parents while older children rolled out flimsy mattresses or blankets and slept on the floor between the bunks.
Such was my introduction to overnight train travel in Kazakhstan.
Having traveled the length of the Trans-Siberian and taken overnight train trips in Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia, I thought I was prepared to experience yet another former Soviet train system. The trains, after all, are still all exactly the same. But no, traveling by train in Kazakhstan – and particularly doing so in the middle of August – proved to be a bit different.
The trains sell out fast and may even be oversold.
I read that trains often sold out far in advance during the summer months, but I never imagined they also double booked the seats. Trains typically have two classes: kupe (2nd class, closed, 4-person compartments) and platzkart (3rd class, open, 6-person compartments). When I went to a travel agency in Aktau to buy a ticket for the 32 hour ride to Aralskoe More six days in advance, kupe was completely sold out and only four bunks remained in platzkart. After my experience in platzkart coming from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan (in which I had a lower bunk but had no fewer than 2 other people sitting on my bunk at all times), I opted for a top bunk so I could at least lie down when I wished.
Shortly after I boarded the train, I noticed that eight people were sitting on the two lower bunks below me. I wondered where they all would sleep, but by nightfall, they were all gone. I learned later that the lower bunks are often sold as 3 separate seats for shorter trips and that sometimes people just hop on board without having a ticket, hoping to grab one of those “seats.” I saw several people just pay the attendant once they found a spot. As a result…
Having a ticket might not get you on board.
My temporary travel companion, Blanca, learned this the hard way in Aralskoe More. The train stopped there for just two minutes. I had a kupe ticket for my journey from Aralskoe More to Shymkent and managed to find my carriage quickly and hop on – but was still making my way to my compartment when the train departed. Blanca wasn’t so lucky. She had a platzkart ticket and when she got to her carriage, she was fighting a crowd of Kazakhs to try to get on the train. There were so many (most of whom did not have tickets), that the train attendants prevented them from rushing on by not lowering the stairs. Even though Blanca had a ticket and waved it at the attendants, they didn’t let her on. She missed the train and had to wait for the next one.
You don’t need to worry about food.
It may have just been the time of year I traveled in Russia and elsewhere, but I didn’t find a lot of food options along the way on those trains – usually just chips, chocolate, beer and sodas. Kazakhstan had so much more variety. At every station stop longer than about 15 minutes, the platforms were crowded with babushkas selling a plethora of traditional Kazakh and Russian cuisine – pelmeni and manty, roasted potatoes and vegetables, bread in all shapes and sizes, and even shashlik. Melons (yes, more melons!), apples, apricots and grapes were everywhere and women even carried freezers full of ice cream. And they wisely froze the bottles of water and soda before selling them – it was so hot in mid-August that buying a frozen bottle of water was like heaven. Which brings me to the next point…
There is no air-conditioning.
While the Russian trains were sweltering in the winter because the heat was cranked up so high, the Kazakh trains were unbearably hot because they are not air conditioned. You have to rely on air flow through open windows to try to stay cool but when the afternoon sun shines in, there isn’t much you can do to cool down. And when the train stops for an extended period? You’re better off getting off the train because it is likely cooler outside.
Kazakhs are very friendly.
I never experienced much Russian hospitality when I traveled across Siberia. No one offered me food or vodka – or even much conversation. In Kazakhstan, everyone wanted to talk to me. They didn’t care that my Russian was just so-so, they wanted to chat and offered me plenty of food (although no vodka – Kazakhstan is a mostly Muslim country so I didn’t see much drinking on the trains at all). A three-year-old squealed with delight every time I took her picture while her ten-year-old sister shyly tried to practice her English with me. Two seventy-something men talked to me at length even though I could barely understand a fraction of what they said. The last woman with whom I shared a compartment offered to drive me to my hotel when we arrived. And a college student passed me a note in English with her phone number saying I could call her if I needed any help while in Kazakhstan.
Did I mention trains sell out fast?
I arrived in Shymkent, planning to go on to Almaty five days later to complete my journey across Kazakhstan. But there were no tickets available. At all. Nothing in kupe, nothing in platzkart. Nothing for the day I wanted to leave or even the two following days. The best I would do was get as far as Taraz, from where I could take a marshrutka for the final eight hour ride to Almaty. So much for crossing all of Kazakhstan by train.
If you go.
I learned too late that you can purchase train tickets online at https://pcentre.kz/. The site is in Kazakh or Russian, but with the help of Google Translate, it can be fairly easy to navigate. You can book online using your credit card and then just print the confirmation and bring it to any station. Many stations have automated machines (with instructions in English!) where you can redeem the confirmation for the actual ticket.
Kazakhstan is such a large country that train travel is almost a must if you want to see more than just Almaty or Astana (unless you want to go the expensive route and fly). Though the trains were crowded and sweltering in mid-August, the overall experience was one of the best I have had traveling by train.