In general, so far in our trip we rarely took advantage of trains, in part due to lack of infrastructures; in part because buses are normally faster, cheaper and more frequent.
However once you get in Aktau, Kazakhstan, you have no many options to move forward to Uzbekistan: just the glorious, “soviet” train directed to Kungrad (first big city in Uzbekistan), a 25 hours-lasting “monster” crossing the harsh desert between these two countries.
No buses are actually available for this stretch. Only train.
Although apparently there is a Kazak website you can reserve the tickets on, it is nevertheless not translated in English and honestly even hard to browse and decipher (at least for us : ). This is why, in the end, we decided to directly go to the train station to test our fortune. The train supposedly leaves Aktau every day at 1 pm and arrives in Kungrad at 2pm of the following day. In the middle, the endless desert : )
In fact, due to special circumstances (we wanted to visit some of the imposing underground mosques in the Mangistau Region, but we mistakenly took the wrong marshrutka and we ended up in Shetpe, instead of following the road to Fort Shevchenko), we decided to catch the train in Shetpe, a town at around 2 hours east from Aktau. In Shetpe the train stops at around 3 pm. In the station, we lived strange moments as the girl at the ticket booth (non English speaker) started to phone everywhere to check if there were still available seats (we had no reservation). On top of that, the train was due in few minutes. Once we saw it, the girl was still with our passports and no tickets issued. We had eventually to put some pressure to speed up the lengthy operation : ) We got charged 14.000 Kazak Tenge each.
As final delay, we had to reach the really last wagon at the bottom (there were probably 25 compartments in the train that day), where we concisely got instructed to get in (after our tickets were confiscated) and take two upper berths (one of them had meanwhile been occupied).
Indeed, as it happened in our previous long train in Georgia, it takes a while to win the initial disorientation, especially when the train is arriving from another station and is already jammed.
Immediately you need to figure out where to shove your bulky backpacks; where to find sheets and blankets and how to manage your movements in tiny, overcrowded spaces.
Partially because of linguistic and cultural barriers, at the beginning staff and other passengers are often a bit sulky and offhand, even though in reality they are truly nice. You just need time to make friends with them : )
Besides that, we soon discovered that no food whatsoever is provided inside the train: neither offered (included in the ticket) nor for sale. Hence it is maybe better for you to buy some water and snacks before entering.
Nevertheless, we also soon realized that the “meal business” is well organized: in every stop and station you can just step down the train to find disparate sellers placed in row near the railways. You can then buy beverages, supplies and even dumplings : ). At about 10 pm, the train halts for at least 2 hours (long pause) in the middle of nowhere. Food sellers are there though : )
Another straining feature is the sultry heat inside the compartments (in summer). Although windows are all down, their size is quite small and not enough to leave the air pass in. You will get used after some time : ). We definitely relished the upper berths near the windows.
Albeit life in the wagons flows quite lethargically, you enjoy observing the peculiar microcosm moving through: from the sweaty staff wearing undershirts to the gossiping women drinking tea; from the motionless, 25 hours sleeper to the busy lady obscurely involved in some kind of dark business (hiding stuff behind the seats for example: )
At around 1 am we suddenly stopped at a last station in Kazakhstan where we could jump off the train to admire a local food market. At approximately 2 am we reached the Kazak border. In trains these moments are good and bad: good because you don’t have to get off and can stay on your berth; bad because they are generally quite prolix.
To our great surprise, then, we waited maybe 2 hours more before receiving the visit of the Uzbek border officers. It was about 5 am. So there is a big separation between the two borders. You can even sleep in between : )
The control here was a bit more thorough (documents check, immigration card to be filled out, luggage inspection, etc.).
Once you are in Uzbekistan, the train “micro-life” changes a lot. You will get a headache looking and listening to all the food, clothes and money sellers darting in the corridors. Apparently they have a license for it : ). There is no reason to be worried about money exchange: we could easily swap our remaining Kazak Tenges into Uzbek Soms while sitting on our berths. Then you can buy water, pastries and even fried fish. Free delivery!
This back and forth goes on until you get to the line terminus in Kungrad, normally at 1.30 – 2 pm. We after realized that the very same train continues then to Nukus, even though you are asked to get off and buy a new ticket for it (which we tried to do but unsuccessfully. We got eventually let in again without any ticket. A bit of lack in the end : )
To summarize, albeit tiresome, the train experience between Aktau and Kungrad was a close insight on local people (we could only spot 3 more foreign tourists) and a cheap way to cover the almost 600 Km between the two cities. We suffered a bit the hot temperatures (in July) and the confined spaces; but we made new friends and could appreciate the impenetrable desert landscape enclosed in this forgotten corner of Central Asia.
And you, have you had any “peculiar” train experience in remote areas? We are glad to hear your comments and, why not, recommendations!!