Kazakhstan is the ninth biggest country in the world, but also an empty country. Throughout it’s history this emptiness has been used for many things. Especially during the Soviet times Kazakhstan was used as Russia’s trashbin. The so called gulags or working camps brought many political prisoners to the country where they were forced to work under austere conditions.
Stalin even deported whole ethnic minorities such as the Chechens to Kazakhstan out of fear that they were not loyal enough to the regime. Famous persons like Trotsky and Dostoyevski all spent time in exile in Kazakhstan.
The hospitality of the Kazakh nomads is impressive and could be a lesson for the world today. Many of those deported that chose to stay explain they could not have survived without the Kazakh people that helped them and taught them how to survive the harsh climates of the steppes.
Kazakhstan was not only used to dump unwanted or suspicious persons. The Soviets build their space launch program in Baikonur because of it’s isolation. Away from spying eyes even though the rhetoric was that with rocket debris falling from the air they would cause the least casualties in this empty space. As much as they were concerned about the lives of the Russians they were less so about the Kazakh nomads that were actually living on the steppes.
The area around Semipalatinsk was used for Russia’s nuclear tests untill Nazarbayev put a stop to this in 1991. But even today the people are still suffering from the consequences due to increased rates of genetic mutations and cancers as can be seen in this article from National Geographic.
Kazakhstan by train
There is no better way to get a true sense of the vastness of Kazakhstan than travelling by train. The distances are huge and the train journeys are long. The old Soviet trains are slow, but offer a nostalgic journey back to the good old days where in a few minutes you became friends with your fellow passengers. They will share their food and vodka with you while discussing the meaning of life. If you have time on your hands this is still the way to go.
But since a couple of years Kazakhstan introduced new high-speed trains from Spain. This reduces the train journeys between Astana, Almaty and Shymkent considerable from 20+ hours to comfortable nighttrain journeys between 13 – 16 hours. The Kazakh hospitality remains the same.
From Astana to Shymkent
I got my first sense of Kazakhstan’s ermptiness on the train journey from Astana to Shymkent. The old trains still take more than 24 hours, but the new high speed train goes there under 20 hours.
The nighttrain was comfortable with 4 bunk beds in each cabin. I woke up to a desert landscape of endless flat grasslands with dried yellow grass. It continued for hours and after a while the landscape got boring. During the whole journey we only stopped in 4 cities where we could go out to buy some food from old ladies selling pancakes and dried fish. God knows where they got the fish from.
Even though the landscape might get boring this will be well compensated by the interesting people you will meet. I shared my cabin with a russian couple and a young Kazakh girl with her one year old son. Word traveled fast and soon everyone in my part of the train knew there was a foreigner from ‘gollandiya’ on board.
People were curious and passed by to take a look. Nobody spoke english, but with Google Translate they managed to ask me all kinds of questions. Why was I in Kazakhstan? Did I like their country? What kind of work did I do? Did I have brothers and sisters? Where was my husband? And then in shock, Why wasn’t I married yet?
As we came near Shymkent the landscape became more interesting. The dry grass lands changed into green hills with the occasional river flowing through. We were close to the border with Kyrgyzstan and in the distance i could see the Tien Shan mountains. Snow was still on top of them.
In Astana it was warm and sunny and even though we travelled further south it was cloudy and rainy in Shymkent. Despite the icy cold weather I got a warm welcome from Natalia in Shymcity Hostel. The one backpacker hostel in town where I was the only guest. Maybe not the only guest, because at night the mosquitoes kept me awake. I remembered reading something about them being plentiful in the kazakh steppes together with all kinds of other wildlife. Maybe the steppes are not so empty after all.
Backpacking Kazakhstan by Train: A 2 week itinerary
Day 1-2 Astana
I started my journey in Astana. Whether you like Astana or not, it is an interesting start of any journey to Kazakhstan. The capital will give you a better understanding of the country and it’s politics. Look at the futuristic buildings, visit some museums and get your first taste of Kazakh food.
I can also recommend a visit to Alzhir in Malinovka. A former gulag from the Soviet times for the wives of political enemies of the state. It makes for an easy half day trip from Astana. Add an extra day if you would like to visit the Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve. An important site for birdwatchers where you can spot pink flamengoes if you are lucky.
Read more about what to see and do in this city in my guide to Astana.
There is a daily nighttrain to Shymkent leaving at 23:35 and arriving in Shymkent at 15:30 the next day.
Day 3-5 Shymkent & Turkestan
If you arrive by train you will arrive in the late afternoon. Reserve a day to visit the city of Shymkent and another day to make a daytrip to Turkestan to see the mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasaui. Add 2-3 extra days if you want to visit the Aksu Zhabagly Nature Reserve where in spring you can see the wild tulips in bloom.
Read more about Shymkent and Turkestan: Kazakhstan’s Silk Road.
There is a daily nighttrain from Shymkent to Almaty leaving at 21:35 and arriving at 08:50
Day 6-13 Almaty
Almaty is a fascinating city surrounded by spectacular nature. While the city itself deserves 2-3 days to explore you can add several days to get out into the mountains. You can make day trips to Big Almaty Lake, Medeu Ice skate ring, Chimbulak ski resort and to the Charyn Canyon. Kolsai Lakes needs at least 2 days, but preferably 3 days.
After Almaty you can either travel back to Astana or continue your journey to Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek is only 5 hours by bus from Almaty.
There is a daily night train back to Astana leaving at 17:24 and arriving at 06:48 the next morning.
Backpacking Kazakhstan by train: Practical information
You can find more information about travelling by train in Kazakhstan and how to book tickets online on Caravanistan.
The high speed trains fill up quickly, especially in summer and during holidays. Therefore I can recommend to book your tickets as soon as possible. I booked my tickets on the site of the Kazakh Railways. Before you needed a Kazakh credit card, but the site now also accepts international credit cards.
The high speed trains all have a restaurant that serves decent food for decent prices. Each train wagon also has a water dispenser with both cold water and boiled water. On overnight journeys you get sheets, a pillow and a blanket.