Ahhh yes I’m taking you Central Asia today for today’s train journey. The journey northward from Kazakhstan’s cultural capital Almaty to the somewhat Russian Semey in the north is certainly a long one, and although a good portion of it is overnight, it’s still rather a special time to spend on the rails.
An evening departure from Almaty had me heading off into the night, saying goodbye to the mountains that are many around Almaty to the flat steppe that is much of the rest of Kazakhstan. The blue carriages were old, but even second class sleeper was pretty comfortable with four beds to a cabin and some limited bedding provided.
At the end of each carriage was a samovar to dispense hot water for your noodles or whatever you might need it for. It was a pretty handy thing to have. The toilets were cold and not particularly pleasant, but not the worst train toilets I’ve encountered either.
Kazakhstan did purchase some Talgo trains from Europe some time ago, slick and very fast trains that do the Almaty to Astana route, but for most routes in the country, in particular the ones not involving the new capital Astana, it’s a diesel engine or two pulling along as many old Soviet carriages as they can.
Sleep was fitful. The issue was the heating, it was too hot and it seemed to get hotter through the night. People exited the cabin as I did and watched a whole lot of dark nothing out the window of the train, at least it was cooler in the corridor. I didn’t sleep much, and soon dawn arrived, a beautiful, red dawn across the stunning Kazakh Steppe. They say ‘red in the morning, shepherd’s warning’, but the weather that day was fine.
The occasional stop was made as the train continued on. It had left in the evening from Almaty, and arrived in Semey at about 3pm. I’m not sure if that was late or not. These stops were great. Not a lot of people leaving or joining the train, but little stall set up with food to buy for the passengers. Who needs in-train services?
The steppe is wild, wilderness that seems to go on and on as far as the eye can see with undulations kept to a minimum. If you went out into it far enough perhaps you find people living traditionally in yurts (a kind of hut), nomads living the way people in Kazakhstan had lived for an age. Or maybe not, you’d have to be lucky because Kazakhstan is not short on empty space.
As the train pulled into Semey, and the journey was over, it was strange to be at a population centre again. The journey was finished, but the memory remained. It was an unfamiliar land, but train travel is always special. This had been no exception.