Slowly Across the Steppe
Train travel in Kazakhstan is an adventure, a vital component of the experience and not just a means of getting about.
Trains are slow, great green (or sometimes blue) beasts trundling across the steppe at about thirty miles an hour.
Travelling is a convivial affair. Most people change into their tracksuits and slippers and settle down for the night or day, or possibly a more extended period.
Unless you are in a group of four, or splash out on a carriage for two, you will find yourself traveling with strangers. If you are lucky by the end of the trip they will be firm friends. Alternatively, they might be drunk on vodka, refuse to go to bed, or, if they do, snore all night on the one occasion in years that you have left your ear plugs at home.
Along with the vodka drinking – or it might be tea – there is constant hot water available, and teapots and cups, so you just need to supply the tea bags – there will be picnics. Usually everyone pitches in and pools their resources, either bought from home or from the platform. Occasionally someone will guard their provisions, not letting so much as a raisin pass the lips of a fellow passenger. No great loss, you probably wouldn’t want to strike up conversation with such a miser anyway.
It is likely that quite a lot of time on a train journey will be spent looking out of the window. This is interesting for a while, watching the unchanging landscape of the steppe for mile upon mile. Fairly soon, though, you are likely to want to seek solace in a book, or try to talk with your fellow travelers. Watching comings and goings at stations, or getting down from the train if time allows – there is a timetable in the carriage and you are unlikely to get left behind – help the time go by too.
Time can be whiled away on the train looking at the various wares – books, or hair slides, or shirts that people try to sell along the way. They will just walk into the carriage, dump a pile of things on the seat, and come back a few minutes later, hoping that someone will not have been able to resist the temptation to buy. So far nothing has appealed to me enough to buy it. This doesn’t pass a lot of time but every little helps.
Perhaps I am not making it sound all that enticing, but the journeys I have experienced have been memorable for the right reasons. They might have been too hot or too cold – guards seem either to stoke over enthusiastically or not at all, the toilets might only have been visited in real desperation, and the traveling companions might not have been my first choice, but still I did not leave the train vowing “never again.”
On one journey I was accompanied by a small boy quite a lot of the time, and his rather sweet little dog. He really belonged in the compartment next door, but perhaps found us talking English, strange alien noises to him, more interesting than spending the trip with his Dad. The dog seemed to enjoy our company too. I have spent journeys with babes in arms, twelve-year-olds traveling alone without any luggage for 24 hoursv – the guard seemed satisfied with his story, excited children on their first train ride, and all ages upwards. Train travel gives you a glimpse of the way people live – friendly, open, uncomplaining, and hospitable to visitors.
Getting to the train can be an adventure too, especially in the ice and snow in the dark. Assuring taxi drivers that you don’t need their services – why would you, you are clearly heading towards a train, trying not to fall over with your luggage, being sure to board the right one. Actually it would be quite difficult not to, as tickets are thoroughly checked. I was once severely admonished for having not cared for my ticket properly.
Kazakhstan is in the middle of things, and because of its size – it is the 9th largest country in the world – train travel across its borders, to China and Russia, is possible. Take a side trip from the Tran Siberian railway, or travel to China. It is all part of the adventure of traveling across this vast undiscovered region by train.
You could save time by flying or money by taking a bus, to get around, or out of Kazakhstan, but where is the adventure and romance in that?
To be really adventurous, though, get away from the train, off the beaten track. Make your way to villages and live with the people of Kazakhstan. You will be warmly welcomed. As yet tourism is not well developed, which makes the work of the Ecotourism Information Resource Centre such an exciting challenge. Established very recently, it works in partnership with seven remote destinations to promote tourism as a means of regenerating the poor rural areas struggling to come to terms with the changes brought by the emergence from the Soviet system.
Taking things slowly, trying to learn from mistakes made in some tourism developments, training is given in what is involved in running a guesthouse, business planning, and the importance of involving the whole community. We hope to work with more villages in future but for now we are concentrating on just seven. They are alike in that the all offer simple, clean accommodation with locally produced, home cooked food, and a chance to share in the life of the people. There will be an opportunity to see local games and dancing. It isn’t luxurious, but it is an adventure.
Each place has a special appeal too: Zhabagly, near to the country’s oldest nature reserve, offers riding or walking and observing wildlife. Kaskasu, close by, is also set in beautiful countryside, but is closer to the second Mecca, Turkistan, and a good jumping off point for people traveling on to Uzbekistan. In the east, close to the Chinese border, is Lepsinsk, said to produce the best honey in the country, and praised by visitors for the wonderful food. Try honey beer, or make a healing balm. Further north, Ridder and Katon-Karagai are in the remote Altai Mountains. Asian legends call this region Shambala “a paradisal realm that will be revealed after humanity destroys itself”.
Nearer to the capital, Astana, is Korgalzhyn, a haven for bird lovers. Thousands of species congregate on the lakes near here. It is the most northerly place in the world to be visited by flamingoes. Finally, there is Karkaraly, a small town from a fairytale, surely the home of Hansel and Gretel, with Little Red Riding Hood as a neighbour. There is a nature reserve here too, and an artificial lake with a lovely beach. Whichever place you choose, you will be benefiting not only yourselves. You will return home refreshed and full of rich memories and food. You will also have aided the people in these poor communities to a better and more sustainable lifestyle.
Come and discover Kazakhstan. Come with a capacity for vodka (or a good excuse to refuse it), a willingness to make toasts, and an open mind.
Come by train, or bus, or foot, but come. The people are waiting to welcome you.