Baku to Almaty #2: train across the steppes

“In Europe and America people in a train travel in a train fully aware that it belongs either to a state or company and that their ticket grants them only temporary occupation and certain restricted rights. In Russia people just take them over. ” – Laurence van der Post, Journey into Russia

The problem with Kazakhstan is that it is a sodding big country. It is approximately the size of Western Europe, except with a population of only about fifteen million and not an awful lot going on apart from a lot of steppe. Aktau on the Caspian is, according to my Beacon of Progress map, at least 1000 km from the nearest town of interest, and my own particular interest lay with the Kyrgyz consulate in Almaty, over 2000km away on the other side of the country (3000 km travelling distance. The placement of transport links here is somewhat eccentric.). Since internal flights are not exactly cheap and buses non-existent, I was obliged to grit my teeth for the four-day-three-night marathon train journey.

Steppe. Lots and lots of steppe.

Ex-Soviet trains aren’t awful – OK, so they’re not the Orient Express, but the compartments are clean (even the toilets aren’t too hideous) and the bunks are comfortable and there are samovars of hot water in every carriage so the tea supply remains constant – but not anywhere I’d choose to be stuck for four days in a row. Particularly when I haven’t showered for the previous two (the Aktau customs-house was good, but not that good). Plus, the scenery for the first three days was not especially stimulating. Having spent much of the past year or so visiting cities whose illustrious histories tended to end with “and then Jenghiz Khan came and burnt it to the ground”, I had been given in my more idle moments to speculate vaguely about what drove a person to such extremes of destruction, but no longer. After a mere eight hours of brown, scrubby steppe I was ready to set something on fire just for variety’s sake.

In case you forget where you're going.

However, my mood was improved immeasurably when I succeeded in wheedling two kettles of hot water out of a woman at the station at Aqtöbe (1000 km from Aktau in the wrong direction – seriously, what is up with the trainlines here?) where we stopped to change trains, and I can now confirm that it is both possible and exquisite to wash in 3 litres of water when the need arises; and more so when I returned to the train to find that my compartment now contained a Kazakh matriarch who immediately produced a large bag of bread and cakes and pronounced it time to drink tea. Train travel here is a ridiculously sociable affair, and though most passengers were younger guys returning home from work on the western oil and gas fields, and thus not necessarily the best choice of conversational partner (unfortunately experience has indicated that it is for the best if my Russian skills vanish entirely when faced with any unaccompanied guy between the ages of about fifteen and fifty – when the opening conversational gambit is “Soooo, do you have a boyfriend?” you know it’s only going to go downhill from there), there was a family or two and seeking out the women rarely goes wrong. I commiserated with girls my age about how tiresome it was to have to find a husband when you’re also trying to get your phD, admired various small children, was firmly advised against my planned travels to Kyrgyzstan (“Don’t you know they’re having a revolution there? Anyway, you should stay in Almaty. It is civilised. Not like Asia.”) by everyone, and drunk tea and kefir (fresh drinking yoghurt, absolutely heavenly) by the bowlful. Every hour or two the train would idle to a halt at a tiny settlement with no name on the platform (I have no clue how anyone else knew where we were, I only occasionally saw a sign), just dozens of women selling iced water and instant noodles and fried fish in plastic bags and meat dumplings of dubious freshness, so although there was a restaurant on the train, no one bothered with it. As a foreign guest I was urged to eat more and more, and people kept stopping by with ice creams and blini and fish and mutton and potatoes and plov, none of which could be refused. It’s probably a good thing the journey didn’t last much longer, or I probably would’ve exploded.

73 hours later the train pulled into Almaty, and I was immediately whisked off to the house of a couple I’d met on the train, to be fed even more and oh bliss, they had a sauna too which I practically had to be dragged out of. I can confirm two things: that Almaty is indeed very civilised, and that I am never doing five nights on public transport ever again.

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