Throughout Kazakhstan by rail – a photograph essay | Journey

The monotonous rattling of the prepare accompanies us by way of the steppe of Central Asia. The air that travels with us smells of cooked meals and the exhalations of dozens of passengers. Sounds drift over to me from numerous corners of the wagon: a sawing snore, kids’s cries, folks music and a hyperactive radio voice.

Mendacity in my higher bunk, I search physique contact with the cooling plastic wall due to the summer time warmth. I’m in a twilight state between shallow sleep and nervous glances at my cell phone: nonetheless no reception. I’m trapped within the right here and now. It’s shortly after 3am. It’s the starting of my nearly three-week prepare journey throughout the infinite expanses of Kazakhstan.

  • Above, within the mornings, borrowed bedding is neatly folded and handed over to the prepare crew. Proper, kids play on board

Children play on board
Kazakhstan Selection-50
Train crossing steppe

I boarded the night time prepare within the former capital, Almaty. At my aspect is Daulet, my translator. The 26-year-old Kazakh works for the nation’s Geographic Society, and I met him on Fb just a few days in the past. His phlegmatic method offers me a way of calm. Daulet’s response to strategies of every kind is: “Sure, why not? That’s how we do it.” Now he lies in his blue work jumper within the bunk throughout from mine, loud night breathing.

Outdoors, a whistle sounds, newly arrived passengers put together their night time’s lodging, and the prepare begins up once more. We fall again into our monotonous rhythm. Step by step, sleep overcomes me, regardless of all of the unfamiliar sensory stimuli.

Nearly all of the nation consists of huge plains, typically merging into hills, and nearly half is roofed by sand or gravel deserts
Nearly all of the nation consists of huge plains, typically merging into hills, and nearly half is roofed by sand or gravel deserts

Just a few weeks earlier than, I used to be taking a look at a map of Kazakhstan and questioning find out how to get round this huge nation. I quickly came upon that the state railway firm is the nation’s largest employer, with 146,000 staff. However, the railway community is barely 16,000km lengthy – far lower than Germany’s, though Kazakhstan is similar measurement as central Europe.

Nearly all of the nation consists of huge plains, typically merging into hills, and nearly half is roofed by sand or gravel deserts. The one mountainous space is within the south-east, the place the Tian Shan mountain vary runs alongside the border with China and Kyrgyzstan.

woman walking along tracks

  • Among the many nation’s 48,000 or so lakes is the Aral Sea, which is now nearly dried up. It is without doubt one of the best environmental disasters of current many years, brought on by large-scale cultivation of cotton in the course of the Soviet period

Among the many nation’s 48,000 lakes is the Aral Sea, which has nearly dried up. It is without doubt one of the best environmental catastrophes of the final many years, brought on by large-scale cotton cultivation in the course of the Soviet period.

Within the morning, I roll out of my bunk mattress and climb down the ladder. Just a few fellow passengers are already there, eyeing me curiously. Foreigners are a rarity on Kazakh trains. On my 7,500km journey, I’ll meet solely three western travellers. I introduce myself to the passengers with Daulet’s assist. Virtually nobody speaks English right here; on this far nook of the world, Russian continues to be the lingua franca.

Mayra: “On a train journey, your thoughts are completely free”

Daulet and I wander by way of the prepare and within the final carriage we meet Mayra, a 52-year-old lady who invitations us into her compartment with an infectious snort. Her pleasant face and spirit sweep away my tiredness. She provides us boiled meat from a plastic bag, which I gratefully decline. “Vegetarian most likely, like all Europeans!” she screeches indignant and amused on the similar time. “You’ll be able to’t even defend your self if you happen to don’t eat meat. Kazakhs are born to be warriors; that’s why they eat a variety of meat!” she says and promptly challenges me to an arm-wrestling match, which I settle for however shortly admit defeat.

In Kazakhstan, meals performs an vital social function. Within the prepare compartment, it’s always shared between passengers, which is taken into account an indication of respect and hospitality. Tupperware, cups and pots are piled up on the small tables.

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

  • Prime, Tupperware, cups and pots are stacked on the small tables. Meals performs an vital social function and is shared amongst passengers

Outdoors the home windows, the monotonous steppe passes beneath a milky sky. “On a prepare journey, your ideas are utterly free,” Mayra says, leaning again with pleasure. At the same time as a baby, she was usually taken alongside by her dad and mom to a household reunion hundreds of kilometres away. “Prior to now, there was a group between travellers. Folks shared their secrets and techniques with strangers. I began penpal relationships with some folks; some proceed to today. Immediately, most travellers lie there like mute fish, gazing their smartphones 24/7.”

railway bridge

The Kazakh railway community is state-owned and the rolling inventory is generally gradual Soviet trains. Every carriage is provided with three bathrooms and a kitchen, together with a microwave. There’s a colossal water boiler within the hall that may make tea across the clock – or Korean noodle soups, that are very talked-about amongst passengers. A minimum of one prepare attendant supervises every wagon.

Marat train attendant

We interrupt our attendant Marat whereas he’s washing up within the kitchen. His cabin is cramped and solely appropriate for sitting or sleeping. On the wall hangs his neatly embellished uniform, which he proudly places on for our dialog.

“My grandmother labored as a prepare conductor. As a baby I used to be typically allowed to experience alongside and watched her work with fascination,” the 63-year-old says excitedly. For 30 years, the trains have been his second house.

A bit of later, the prepare pulls right into a station with screeching brakes. Marat squeezes between the passengers who wish to get off, opens the door after which stands proudly in entrance of the prepare. A benevolent nature is a prerequisite for this job, he says.

A conductor taking a nap
locomotive driver and mate

  • Prime, a conductor takes a nap. Above, previous Soviet locomotives and wagons nonetheless make up the vast majority of the Kazakh railway fleet. Proper, a portray within the Nationwide Museum of Almaty exhibits the then newly constructed Turkestan-Siberia Railway, which connects Novosibirsk, now a part of Russia, with Almaty

A painting in the National Museum of Almaty

“Just a few years in the past, an older man fell off his bunk mattress in the midst of the night time and broke his hand. I bandaged his hand with cardboard, let him sleep in my cabin and accompanied him to a health care provider the following morning on the first cease. There have additionally been ladies who’ve given delivery on the journey.”

Because the outskirts of town of Atyrau slowly glide previous the home windows within the early morning daylight, the temper within the carriages is already one among departure. All passengers neatly fold their bedsheets and blanket covers and press them into the prepare attendants’ arms. The compartments are left precisely as they have been discovered.

The Kazakh marriage tradition is complicated and requires several trips by the bride and groom. Here a newly married couple arrive in the groom’s home town

In Atyrau, a crowd of individuals has gathered across the wagon. A newly married couple is returning house from celebrations. Excitedly, the ready members of the family clap their arms, and confetti flies by way of the air. The disembarking couple are congratulated with numerous heartfelt hugs.

train at station

For our journey, stopovers are slightly inconvenient – we normally relaxation for about 12 hours in run-down resorts close to the stations earlier than boarding one other prepare. Most cities are usually not notably engaging, apart from the previous capital Almaty, which is very inexperienced and surrounded by breathtakingly lovely mountain surroundings. Nur-Sultan, the capital named after the not too long ago deposed president, appears to be like extra just like the playground of a megalomaniac despot. In the midst of the desert, futuristic buildings are lined up with dilapidated prefabricated buildings. The nation’s fascination lies within the many scenic highlights – which we sadly solely see passing by the window.


On the station in Aralsk, an uncommon determine catches my eye. An older man with a protracted white beard, a gray coat and a black fur hat stands out from the remainder of the passengers on the platform. He’s travelling alone with a large suitcase that he’s laboriously dragging alongside behind him. No sooner has the prepare departed than I set off with Daulet seeking him. We discover him within the second-to-last carriage. What occurs then surprises not solely the 2 of us however most likely the entire carriage: the person begins speaking with out Daulet having to ask him a query.

His statements are considerably disorganised – repeatedly, he slips in quotes from Kazakh philosophers – however not at all uninteresting. “Anybody who nonetheless mourns the Soviet Union at this time is out of his thoughts! There have been no freedoms then; society was godless and lived beneath fixed brainwashing,” he says angrily. The folks on the prepare are all silent and stare at him. “When the Soviet Union was slowly crumbling, our household largely ate solely bread. We solely survived as a result of our ancestors had a farm constructed up by way of years of arduous work! Immediately’s Kazakhs have all of the alternatives, however all they do is complain on a regular basis. Evidently arduous work has been unlearned.”

Immediately’s politics are usually not good both, and the outgoing president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, nonetheless guarantees, as he did 25 years in the past, that the very best instances are but to come back. The temper within the onboard eating places, nevertheless, is at all times cheerful. Peals of laughter and the odor of soup permeate the wagon, and the serving women convey one bottle of vodka after one other to the solely male friends.

restaurant customers

Three burly males invite us to their desk. Whereas Daulet performs the Muslim card to keep away from ingesting vodka, I accept a couple of glasses. Earlier than every toast, somebody has to make a want out loud. Smoked cheese and salad are served with vodka. The three males shortly grow to be affectionate, always desirous to shake my hand – and pouring me increasingly vodka. By the sixth glass, I’m shouting that we could all dwell fortunately and healthily for ever. Daulet interprets my want, already barely aggravated.

On our method again to Almaty after greater than two weeks, we sit down with two older ladies in a compartment. Their faces present deep furrows. They transfer in gradual movement however radiate internal contentment. Each put on white headscarves. On the little desk is a pack of milk and a teapot. Nubia is peeling an apple, which she, in fact, provides to us instantly. Reyma sits cross-legged in her seat and appears at us curiously.

Nubia, left, and Reyma

Then the 2 ladies start their story. Each are ethnic Kazakhs, however till 11 years in the past, they lived in Afghanistan. “We have been among the many kids of fogeys who have been a thorn within the aspect of the Soviet state. Folks like us have been put in jail camps at the moment. Our dad and mom have been conscious of this and fled the nation.” In Afghanistan, they grew up in Baghlan, close to the Tajik border. The Kazakh group in Afghanistan at this time nonetheless numbers a number of thousand.

Right here in Kazakhstan, Reyma says, there may be peace, and that’s all you want at this age. Effectively, that and this prepare journey: “Travelling on rails is probably the most thrilling journey. You’ll be able to drink tea all day, meet new folks and watch the steppe from the prepare window. It enlightens my internal self.”

After two and a half weeks, we arrive again in Almaty late within the night. In complete, we’ve spent 225 hours on trains. Even nights later, I nonetheless really feel as if I’m gently rocked backwards and forwards in my bunk mattress on the prepare as we journey by way of the pitch darkness.

The steppe from the train window

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