Kazakhstan: Shymkent – Astana

It was an early start for me in order to catch the 6.55am train from Shymkent to Astana. As Shymkent’s railway station isn’t centrally located, the lovely Nina from House Hostel arranged for a taxi to pick me up and take me to the station for 500 tenge. There I was greeted with just one large platform with hordes of people waiting for (I hoped) the Astana train.

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An early start at Shymkent train station.

It was to be a long journey. A very long journey – my longest ever on a train. Being the 9th largest country in the world, Kazakhstan takes some effort to traverse and this was reflected in the 24 hour journey from southern Shymkent to northern Astana. The trains also have a habit of filling up fast, especially during the summer. The good thing is you can book tickets online in advance. There’s a great guide to doing that here. I checked the website about 3 weeks before my trip was alarmed to see it was almost fully booked for my intended travel date.

When I did book, I paid just over 8000 tenge for a bed in a 4 berth cabin. It was easy enough to find the correct carriage and berth. Thank god they don’t have Cyrillic numbers in the former Soviet states. When I got to my cabin I faced the exciting prospect of meeting my travel buddies for the next 24 hours. I was with an older couple and a big brute of a man, none of whom spoke a word of English.

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The berth was a tight squeeze…

I had heard beforehand of Kazakh hospitality on trains and they did not disappoint. In fact, it was this hospitality that made it one of my favourite sleeper train journeys ever. The woman in my cabin was incredibly motherly, constantly making Chai for me, feeding me weird and wonderful food, directing me when to make up my bed and telling her husband off for hassling me too much. Meanwhile, the two men were just in a constant state of fascination with me. Gruff, abrupt but always friendly, they tried to find out as much about me as possible through the art of mime. The big man adopted the habit of yelling “Jacques!” like a Frenchman whenever he wanted to get my attention.

News began to spread of the presence of a foreigner in the carriage and a few people came to have a gawp. People’s greetings ranged from using Google Translate to say “Welcome to Kazakhstan!” to patting me affectionately on the head as if I was the train’s pet. People’s friendliness and curiously shone through always though. When one woman in the compartment next door was able to hold a conversation in broken English with me, the others gathered round her eagerly to find out what information she had collected. I think primarily they were fascinated by what the hell I was doing here, despite the fact Kazakhstan is holding the biggest tourist event in its history.

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The vast wilderness of this enormous country.

Of course food is a language that knows no borders so I was relentlessly fed with “tort” (a tasty cake) and “samsa” (a kind of mini pasty) and endless supplies of tea. Everything they fed me required an English lesson from me and a Russian lesson from them which was fun. They particularly found the word “cucumber” to be absolutely hilarious and you could hear them muttering it and giggling hours after I’d taught them it.

I slept surprisingly well once the lights went out and woke up the next morning with daylight pouring in and the train less than an hour from Astana. It had gone incredibly quickly – it certainly didn’t feel like 24 hours. I had to return my sheets to the guard in order to get my ticket back before I bid farewell to my roommates, my lasting memory being the trio repeating “cucumber” again and again throughout the morning before falling into fits of childlike laughter.

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