Thursday, November 20, 2008


Kazakhstan is a big country. Larger than all of Western Europe. Maybe like four times the size of Texas or something. But people still need to get places. The most popular way is by train. Of course airplanes are better (but more expensive), and buses are cheaper (and faster, but more uncomfortable), but trains seems to be the way to go.

My only experience so far has been in the “kupets” wagon of a train. I had never ridden overnight trains in America, so I can’t really compare. But here, you have a little room with two sets of bunk beds: four beds in total. There are about ten of these rooms on the wagon, all on one side of a hallway stretching its entire length. At one end of the wagon there is a place where you can get free hot water. And at both ends, there is a bathroom (where the cleanliness is about what you would expect on a train.) The compartments with the beds aren’t large by any means, but they are suitable.

I should probably say that I am one of the least qualified volunteers to write about trains, because my trips have only been twelve hours long. Some volunteers have forty hour train rides. But I rode enough to observe the at least some of the more important cultural aspects. To prepare for a train ride, you first need to get food for the train. Of course, they sell food on the train, but it’s expensive. And they also sell food at the train station, but it too, is expensive. Thus, your best bet is to buy it before and bring it from home. Boiled eggs and potatoes make great train food.

And of course you need chai (tea). As an American, you may think just bottled water would be good. Nope. You are in Kazakhstan, and you need some chai. Don’t worry too much about bringing your fine china though, as you can sometimes borrow a tea pot and cups from the conductor in the wagon. (She/He’s the train employee that works in each wagon. In addition to answering questions, loaning out dishes, and locking the bathrooms when you approach train stations, he’s the one you pay if you need to ride and you don’t have a ticket.) Having chai is actually a really fun part of the train experience. There you are rattling along, the train swaying on the tracks, and you and your kupet-mates are sipping on scalding black tea. It makes the trip feel more like home.

After you gather your train food, you need to pack your train clothes. So far, I have failed in this aspect of train riding. While Kazakhstanis put a huge premium on public appearance, this goes out the window on the train. Honestly, some of them are going to be hunkered down for thirty-plus hours. You don’t want to be unnecessarily uncomfortable. So you go down to the bathrooms and you change out of your fancy clothes into a jump suit, sweats, or shorts. The first time on the train I was not aware of this custom and had to wear my jeans the whole time. The second time, I just couldn’t manage to find a way to make “train clothes” accessible in my bags of luggage. For my next train ride though, I’m looking forward to being able to look a little grungy and have it be okay.

Once you have your food and your clothes ready, you’re pretty much good to go. Cards are also a good addition to play some durak with the locals. You can also bring on beer, but apparently liquor is prohibited and you risk being thrown off the train for having it. Oh, and toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but those are givens for where ever you are traveling.

1 comment:

Richard Morgan said...

We never had any problems with having beer on the train. Maybe it's just if you get too ridiculous with it.