The train going into Kazakhstan was pretty similar to those in Russia – with the platzkart and kupe cabins. I’d opted for the kupe again, given that I hoped there’d be a powerpoint for me to use. I was missing my Kindle, annoyed I’d not been able to find a replacement.
Although I was in a kupe cabin of four beds, I was sharing only with a Russian / Kazakh woman, Victoria, who spoke a few words of English. She lived in Aktau and had been visiting family in Astrakhan. As the trip was 42 hours long and included two nights, it didn’t matter that we spoke little of each others’ language – you could spend five minutes trying to figure out how to explain one word to the other – time becomes irrelevant. An engineer with one of the Aktau oil companies, she had many stories about how things had changed from Soviet Union times. Back then every trip the company sent her on would be flying – it was that cheap, these days the train was the only sensible way to go. Of course half way into a 42 hour trip, your view on what is “sensible” changes somewhat.
Although there were the occasional stops, and I tend to shutdown eating-wise on journeys like this, she insisted despite my protests this wasn’t to be and kept making me share her teas, food, and some oddities – chocolate-covered cheese. This worked out very well for me.
At the Kazakhstan border I got a good long grilling in broken English, where I’d come from and so on. Was I really travelling through Kazakhstan on my own? A tourist? What were my plans afterwards? He then called it in, saying that it was the first time he’d seen a New Zealand passport, so had to figure out what to do. All cleared, he shook my hand and welcomed me to Kazakhstan, and I swallowed the temptation to quote Borat with “Very nice, high five!” (aside: Borat’s accent is not even close to accurate Kazakh). This was now country number 58 for me!
It started to rain shortly after entering Kazakhstan – just light rain, with a storm visible in the distance, lightning included. The landscape opened up to wide, bare, flat plains, with tussocks of grass. A spectacular rainbow passed us, and half an hour later, another. Before long, Victoria exclaimed and pointed out the window – there was the first of many camels to be seen. Some ambling in trains out in the semi-desert, others in backyards in the villages we passed by.
There was a four hour stop in Atyrau, but being at 6am I opted instead to stay on the train and nap while the train shunted back and forth 50 or so times. Victoria came back on with lots of shopping, she seemed pleased with her haul.
The second night, at Beyneu around midnight we stopped and a lot of new passengers boarded. We gained a couple in our carriage, more eastern-looking Kazakhs, also bound for Aktau. They had a ton of luggage, and chatted quite a bit to Victoria – and I gathered some of it was about me, as I’d pick up a bit here and there. Mr “Nova Zelandya” was becoming a common curiosity.
Victoria pointed out the vehicle roads near the track. “Very dangerous – barely a road”. I thought of Danny on his scooter. At least he’d made it through there already.
The line itself must be really popular, and I couldn’t work out why we stopped many, many times along the way, often in the middle of nowhere. This was one of the reasons it takes so long. Eventually I decided that it was stopping at small shunting stations, as for the most part it seemed to be one track, and doing this would allow trains in the other direction to pass.
Finally around 9am, almost perfectly to time again, we pulled into Aktau – or rather the small town nearby – Mangestau. Saying goodbye to the others, I followed the mass of people heading for the fence, jumped it and engaged in the horde of taxi drivers, eager to see my first Kazakh city, and to find the Caspian Sea!
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