As part of a great adventure, Martin Nott takes us on a fascinating journey from Kazakhstan into China by train. Settle down folks, it’s this month’s long read.
Do night trains still run in the UK? I guess they do, sleepers from London to Penzance in Cornwall to the west and Aberdeen in Scotland to the north with exotic names like Night Riviera and Caledonian.
I’d always liked the idea of sleeping on a train. There’s something appealing about dinner with white tablecloths, silver service and a glass or two of fine wine then sleeping in a cozy compartment before waking for breakfast shortly before arriving at your destination. All very Agatha Christie, like the Orient Express or Le Train Bleu, although hopefully with fewer actual murders. Of course, I know it’s not really like that anymore, but still, more interesting than the 0900 from Southampton Central to Waterloo.
My first night train experience was going to be from Kazakhstan to China. I had booked on a 9-day package tour of Uzbekistan starting and ending in Tashkent and visiting Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara on the ancient Silk Road. 22 assorted and mainly experienced travellers, mostly British (one German who was nearly as British as the rest of us and an American travelling on a Canadian passport) with a tour manager and a local guide. Organised by UK company Great Rail Journeys, based appropriately enough in York, home of the National Railway Museum. Everything was organised for us, visits to some spectacular ancient sites, food, hotels, everything. All we had to do was get up at the right time each morning. I thought this approach would suit someone like me traveling to Central Asia for the first time, and it did.
But having gone that far I thought it would be fun to keep going!
The most complicated part of the whole affair was the night train into China. The guidebooks tell you that it runs only once a week leaving Almaty in Eastern Kazakhstan on Monday morning. The more up-to-date websites of the Chinese Railway said it now leaves every Tuesday. It was getting confusing. Most agreed that due to a new mountain pass the distance had been reduced dramatically and it now only took 22 hours not the previous 31. The Chinese sites gave the train number as K9796 and the Kazakhstan and Russian sites called it 103. I couldn’t buy a ticket on-line through the Chinese sites or the Kazakhstan site and although the Russian site did offer on-line purchase, I now didn’t believe anything any of them were telling me, especially as I was clearly told more than once that buying a ticket outside Kazakhstan was impossible.
Finally, I was pointed in the direction of a travel agent in Almaty, STANTours. They were fantastic. Alena confirmed everything; the name of the train, the timings, cost, everything. (There is also a Sunday train but it’s slower). They offered to book my ticket on the 08.25 on Monday in return for a deposit of $50 wired to their bank account plus my passport and Chinese visa details. Finally, I was getting somewhere.
I had originally planned to get the night train from Tashkent to Almaty, but this only runs three days a week and the timings were all wrong, so I flew, arriving on Saturday afternoon, giving me a day to explore. The nice man at check-in at Tashkent Airport asked where I was from. This had been a recurring theme over the last two weeks, people often asked where we were from and asked for photographs with us. The answer ‘England’ only got one response. We may once have been a global imperial super power, but now England only means one thing. Not the queen, not princess Diana, but football. The universal response was ‘football, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, football, football’. The flight on a newish Airbus 320 with Uzbekistan Airways was uneventful, we even got lunch.
Having got to Almaty I had to get my hands on the ticket. Alena had sent a photo of it, so I know it existed, but their office is closed at the weekend, so we arranged that I would call when I arrived at my hotel and Alena would meet me there. At the appointed time Alena arrived, I handed over the remaining dollars in cash and finally I had the ticket I had been trying to buy for months. Time for a Kazak beer or two.
Almaty turned out to be really nice, with a completely different feel to Tashkent, very low-rise, green, clean and tidy. It had formerly been the capital of Kazakhstan and is still the country’s biggest city with 1.8 million inhabitants. The snow-covered Trans-Ili Alarau mountains to the south provided a dramatic backdrop. I walked around for a while, strolling through the Central Park, Green Bazaar (where you could buy everything including the kitchen sink), found a Sunday market with crafts and another selling food before stopping off to have a coffee on the way back to my hotel. In the early evening I headed for what was apparently the coolest cafe/bar/restaurant in town (it was closed), so a Georgian restaurant just around the corner from my hotel, also recommended, did just fine and even had live traditional music played on a balalaika.
Snoozing under my duvet I was aware of a strange noise coming from my bag. At first, I thought it might be the effect of the Georgian white wine (the waitress told me the Georgian red wine was medium sweet and I wouldn’t like it). It was a sort of scratching, maybe the sound a hungry woodworm makes chomping its way through a Chippendale sideboard. I took everything out of the bag, expecting to find a large clothes moth caterpillar devouring my new clothes. But nothing, so I re-packed the bag. Eventually I found a large black beetle in the small zipped compartment on the end of the bag where the pull-out handle lives. I don’t use the handle, so I can only think that it must have wandered in when the bags were being loaded onto the coach some days before in Uzbekistan. I had actually been asked about the contents of my bag at Tashkent airport, the security man wanted to check that the few loose UK coins that showed up on the X-Ray machine were not ancient Uzbek ones. My passenger obviously didn’t show up. It must have been fairly hardy having been to 39,000 feet in the Airbus hold but was captured and consigned to a watery end. I hate to think what would have happened if I had been caught smuggling livestock into China.
I set my alarm early on Monday morning, the last thing I wanted was to mess this up now, I could always have a coffee at the station buffet (there wasn’t one). The hotel Uyut (as in yurt, a traditional desert nomad tent and now trendy for glamping apparently) arranged a taxi for 0630 for the short journey to the railway station, I recce’d this the day before just in case.
Almaty station 2, confusingly actually called Alma-Ata 2, is an old soviet building, grand on the outside, not grand at all on the inside. I went through the security scanner and passport control and arrived in a fairly small lobby. There were a few people hanging around looking suspicious, although they were probably thinking I was the suspicious looking one. I spotted an information desk; did she speak English? No. She did however have a translation app, so “which platform is train 103 please” received the answer…3.
At this point some of the hangers around got involved. “Mister, mister, platform 3, bridge, platform 3”. Then a young couple took control and led me through a door onto a platform, then across the tracks to a second platform and pointed. There in the dark was a line of six green coaches at the next platform, platform 3. There were no platform numbers, you just needed to know that the platform nearest the station building was 1 and work it out from there. And there really was a bridge, but not much point using it when you can just walk across the tracks instead.
I walked across more tracks and around the carriages to the platform. Reassuringly the carriages had Chinese writing and the numbers K9795/K9796, the train numbers I had seen on the China rail website, one number for the train going from China to Almaty, the other to China. It may have been cold and dark but at least I was in the right place for the night train to Urumqi…
As the sun came up some activity began. The crew on the train were cleaning, moving up and down the carriages. Using my best international sign language, I suggested they let me on the train. They replied using the same method saying no. The wheel-tapper came along with his hammer checking that everything was in order. In due course some other passengers arrived. Three Swedish guys on the way to Tibet. Is there a restaurant car on the train they asked, I replied hopefully that I thought I had read that there was (there wasn’t)? They had travelled by ferry to Helsinki then train to Moscow, then on to Kazakhstan’s capital Astana and then Almaty. They had done the leg from Astana to Almaty with only bananas and vodka, hence their interest in catering. Uncharacteristically for me I had planned for this non-catering eventuality and bought supplies in the bazaar. Two loaves of bread, like the round type we had in Uzbekistan that stays fresh for ages, two bars of chocolate that didn’t last long, two small bottles of water, two bottles of Coke, a large packet of paprika crisps (my favourite) and a toilet roll. I had meant to get some local somsa (like a samosa) and some fruit but failed.
Other passengers arrived. A young French couple, he was from Paris and she from Aix de Provence, a nice place to come from, an elderly lady of indeterminate nationality and a Chinese gentleman. Eight passengers in total. With about 15 minutes to go we were allowed on the train. We all had tickets showing a carriage and berth number, all were disregarded, and we were directed to carriage number 10 (of six!), which was at least obviously the newest. It was clean and new, with two toilets and several four berth compartments. I was sharing with the Chinese gentleman, but I was first on-board, so chose the berth/seat facing forward and sat down.
The train rolled slowly out of the station more-or-less on time.
After a short distance we stopped at the new modern Alma-Ata 1 station a little out of town. This stop was for two reasons. The first for the train crew to pick up supplies from a market, (for them, not us), they returned with loaded carrier bags, and the second to move the engine from one end of the train to the other. So now I’m facing backwards! Almost an hour after we arrived, we rolled slowly out of the station heading back towards Almaty, passing large Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen dealers before finally turning east. It should be noted at this point that this journey is not done in a hurry. Those with a tendency to rush about impatiently expecting things to happen immediately should stay away (you know who you are).
The outskirts of Almaty were not as tidy as the city, with low-rent car repair workshops and the like, but we soon moved into open countryside. I sneezed. The Chinese gentleman put on his surgical mask. A good thing too judging by the bag of at least 10 different pills he was carrying, the last thing he needed was to catch something from me, a funny foreigner. He would intermittently get up and do his exercises in the corridor. This involved swinging his arms backwards and forwards for about 10 minutes, I was worried his arms would fall off. Communication was pretty much impossible. We established that I was going to Urumqi and he wasn’t, although it wasn’t clear where he was going. I offered him some bread, he refused. He offered me something I didn’t recognise, I refused. One of the train staff gave me a Chinese immigration card to fill in.
We arrived at another station and stopped for a while. This station also had a grand Soviet style station, presumably a result of some long-gone important activity. We moved on past a scrap-yard with a fuselage of an elderly civilian aircraft, a bit like a Boeing 727 with engines on the tail, and the remains of a large military helicopter.
Our driver must have had a boyhood ambition to be a train driver, so he could blow the whistle, which he did about once a minute. The whistle sounded the same as on American trains like in the movies. Any crossing or animal got a long blast. The landscape was very flat, almost desert like, with small course scrub like bushes and the occasional small cotton tree. At one point we came close to a large lake and followed it for a while, just visible as a strip of blue in the distance. Every so often there were herds of sheep, with the shepherd on horseback, and cows and horses grazing together, with a cowboy also on horseback. The cows and horses are headed for the same fate, eating horse meat is traditional in Kazakhstan and it was readily available in the bazaars in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the largest steaks you’ve ever seen, although I didn’t fancy the look of the sausages much.
The landscape started to change, we started climbing higher and higher. At 4 o’clock we arrived at a place called Altykol, with modern new buildings, big but with only a few people in uniform around, and we stopped. Now I don’t speak Kazakhstan, but Alt is the word for high (as in altitude) and Kol is like the Alpine word for a pass (as in Col de Turini, a stage on the Monte Carlo Rally), so this was the new high pass.
After a while we moved forward a little to another set of new buildings and stopped again. Some people got on. The customs man in full desert military uniform came into our compartment looking slightly menacing, which I guess is part of the job. He gestured for me to unpack my back, looked unimpressed, gestured for me to put everything back in my bag, and left. The immigration lady was much friendlier, wearing a big fur hat, she set up in an empty compartment and we were ushered in one at a time. She asked the usual questions; where had I been? where was I going? Did I like Kazakhstan? She said she had been to Europe once to visit a cousin in Germany. She had a laptop, neither top-of-the-range nor modern, it was about two inches thick. She noted everything down, presumably checked on-line that my details were correct, took the immigration card I had filled in at Almaty Airport and took my photo. She explained that she was Kazakhstan immigration and China immigration was just ahead down the line. She said it in such a way as to suggest that “if you think this is slow wait till you get there”. She thanked me, told me I was free to go, I thanked her and returned to my compartment. When all the formalities were completed, they got off the train and we moved slowly forwards.
We arrived at the Chinese border and were ushered off the train with our bags. We marched in a line along the platform, down the stairs and into the station. The immigration and customs hall took up more than half the station building, it wouldn’t have looked out of place at LAX and was over the top for a train with only 8 passengers, but I guess they are planning for a busier future. We showed our passports at every stage, first going through a full body scanner with a little conveyor belt moving you sideways through the machine one by one. Then the usual baggage X-Ray machine, metal detector and so on.
When we finally got to passport control, I was behind one of the Swedish guys. The very young soldier on duty had clearly never heard of Sweden. “Where are you from” he asked. “Sweden” was the answer. This didn’t go down well “Sudan?” Asked the soldier. “No, Sweden” he said pointing at the passport. Luckily an older more experienced soldier in full camouflage gear arrived and sorted it out. Then photograph and fingerprints, with detailed demonstrations of the correct angle to place your fingers on the finger print pad. 4 left fingers together, then four right fingers then 2 thumbs together. The Swedish guy was allowed through. My turn, I handed over the landing card they gave us on the train and followed what had just happened. They had heard of England and I passed as well. I sometimes have trouble with finger print machines due to excess use of sandpaper, but this time was ok.
Then customs, more passports and another bag scanner, they ignored me, so I carried on. Finally, a very junior looking policeman at the exit of the area checked my passport and ticked my name off a list, which he couldn’t read as it wasn’t in Chinese, so I pointed to my name and walked through. Our passports must have been checked 10 or 12 times in the space of an hour, quite what each person expected to find that the other hadn’t I have no idea, and neither did they, but I can’t really complain as they very kindly allowed me into the People’s Republic of China.
And the Swedish guys had the rest of their bananas confiscated.
We exited one by one into the normal part of the station, with a large waiting area and a small shop that opened intermittently based on demand. There were now seven of us, just like a stockbroker returning home to Winnersh Triangle, the Chinese gentleman called his wife to pick him up at the station. At this point we were abandoned. Had I been alone this would have been slightly disconcerting, but we were happy enough that something would happen in due course. The lady of indeterminate nationality announced in a French that we would be waiting another 10 minutes. She soon corrected this saying she meant 2 hours. We slumped back into our waiting room chairs. I bought some rice crackers in the shop using my last Kazakhstan Tenge and received change in Chinese Yuan. I don’t particularly like rice crackers, but they were the only thing I recognised.
An hour later the train crew came into the waiting room and sat down. They didn’t communicate with us at all, but we took their arrival as a good sign. A while later our train appeared on the illuminated noticeboard now with its Chinese number of K9796 and a departure time of 22.26. Another positive step. At 22.15 our carriages rolled into the station. We got our things on board and followed the crew onto the platform and back to our carriage. There were more passengers this time, but they were directed to other carriages, coach 10 was clearly reserved for the international service.
Nothing happened. At 23.03 the local train left on time, but we didn’t move. I got into bed and pulled down the blind. Just before midnight we slowly started on the next part of our journey and I fell asleep, stirring only when a faster train went by or when we stopped. I slept really well, I don’t know if this was because of the motion of the train, but when I woke up it was nearly 9 o’clock. I stumbled out of my compartment to find the young French couple standing there. “You should look at this” they said, pointing at a bright orange sun rising ahead of us. China is obviously a huge country and would normally expect to have 4 or even 5 different time zones, but all of China runs on Beijing time, giving timings for sunset and sunrise that seem odd to us.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the morning view, but it was farmland, fields of cotton and other crops, with tall slender trees and small villages. It could have been rural France. It changed as we got closer to Urumqi. The odd old mud-built building, small brick workshops and the like soon turned to concrete. Small light industry then tower blocks. People were building new railway lines with a mig of hi-tec and muscle power, and then just after 10 we were in Urumqi.
We were nearly an hour early, it took me by surprise. The staff hurrying us out still throwing my bags together. Once on the platform of this new, huge modern station we followed along the platform into the spotless station building and one final set of security. The young police officers checked everything once more, passports (they had never heard of Sweden either), bags through the X-Ray machine, then metal detector, and asked for my ticket. All the tickets in China look the same, ours didn’t, it was 3 layers of paper, nobody told these police that they do things differently in Kazakhstan. Eventually they lost interest and let me though anyway. I said goodbye and good luck to my fellow passengers and had arrived in China.
The 9-day tour of Samarkand and the ancient Silk Road was booked with greatrail.com. My flight from Tashkent to Almaty with Uzbekistan Airways was booked through Expedia, the Hotel Uyut in Almaty and all other hotels in China were booked through booking.com and the Almaty to Urumqi train by stantours.com. Ongoing China trains were booked using the China Train Booking app.
Words: Martin Nott
Pictures: Martin Nott (indeterminate as he was trying not to get arrested for taking them)