This post is a travel guide about travelling by train in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is the perfect destination to explore by train and in recent years Kazakhstan has invested in its railway system making train travel while backpacking Kazakhstan easier than ever.
This post will tell you everything you need to know about travelling by train in Kazakhstan. From how to book train tickets online to what to expect on a Kazakh train. However, let me first explain why you should travel by train in Kazakhstan in the first place.
Why travel by train in Kazakhstan?
Kazakhstan is the ninth biggest country in the world and besides some mountains in the south and east, most of the country are empty steppes and grass lands.
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 who will share their food and vodka with you. 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 Nursultan (Astana), Almaty and Shymkent considerable from 20+ hours to comfortable nighttrain journeys between 13 – 16 hours. The Kazakh hospitality remains the same.
My experience travelling by train in Kazakhstan
I got my first sense of Kazakhstan’s ermptiness on the train journey from Nursultan (Astana) to Shymkent.
The new high speed 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. 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.
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.
Despite the icy cold weather in Shymkent I got a warm welcome in my hostel 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.
A history of the Kazakh steppes
Throughout it’s history the supposed emptiness of the steppes in Kazakhstan has been used for many things. Especially during the Soviet times Kazakhstan was used as the dustbin of the USSR. The so called gulags or working camps, like the gulags in Karaganda, 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, Koreans and Volga Germans 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 live in the harsh climates of the steppes.
The dustbin of the Soviet Union
Kazakhstan was not only used to dump unwanted or suspicious persons. The Soviets also build their space launch program in Baikonur because of it’s isolation. 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. Villages near Karaganda sometimes see rocket debris falling from the sky hoping it wont fall on their roofs.
Another example is the area around Semipalatinsk that was used for Russia’s nuclear tests untill former president 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.
Trains in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan has both the old Soviet style slow trains and since 2015 the newer high-speed trains that run on an increasing number of routes.
The older Soviet trains
The older light blue trains are still the cheapest way to travel around in Kazakhstan and provide the essential nostalgic Soviet experience. That said, they take their sweet time. Compare 24 hours from Nur-sultuan (Astana) to Shymkent by slow train that will only take 16 hours by high-speed train.
The newer high speed trains
The newer high speed trains are not yet available on all routes and come with a considerable increase in price. However, if you have limited time in Kazakhstan they are the perfect way to travel around the country. The Spanish Talgo trains allow you to cross huge distances in comfortable overnight journeys.
In 2013 the introduction of the high speed trains were postponed due to doubts about passenger numbers, but the trains are very popular and they fill up quickly, especially in summer and during holidays. Therefore I can recommend to book your tickets online as soon as possible.
How to book Kazakh train tickets online?
I booked my tickets directly on the site of the Kazakh Railways. Before you needed a Kazakh credit card, but the site now also accepts international cards. Other reliable sites to book tickets online are TicketsKZ and Tutu. Of course you can also book tickets at the station itself, but chances are its sold out.
If you want to know whether the train you select is the older train or a newer high speed train, it is easy to tell the difference by the higher prices and much lower travel times of the high speed trains.
Train classes in Kazakhstan
The slow trains have three classes. Platzkart has open wagons divided in compartments with 6 bunk beds. Kupe has seperate closed compartments with 4 beds and Lyux/SV is the most expensive with only 2 beds in a closed compartment. The option Obshye is a seat only and although it is cheapest it is best avoided on long overnight journeys. Platzkart is my preferred option, because it is the best way to meet people.
The high speed trains also have three classes, but does not have platzkart. Tourist is the cheapest and is comparable with Kupe (4 beds in a closed compartment). The more expensive Business has only 2 beds and Grand has an ensuite toilet and shower. I travelled in Tourist class and found it very comfortable.
What to expect on a Kazakh train?
Kazakh trains are a very comfortable way to travel in Kazakhstan. Each wagon has an attendant that checks your ticket and passport. On overnight journeys they will provide you with sheets, a pillow and a blanket.
There is a toilet with water basin at each end of the wagon. Hygiene varies a lot, but in general they get more dirty as the journey progresses.
All trains 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. The boiled water is great for making tea, noodles or instant soup.
Kazakh trains do not make a lot of stops, but at the stops you often have local woman selling homemade products such as plov, blini’s and dried fish. Do keep in mind that for the high speed overnight journeys the stops will be during the night.
What to bring on a Kazakh train
Despite the trains having a restaurant wagon it is a good idea to bring some food and snacks. People will often share their food with you and it is nice to be able to give something back. With the hot water dispenser you can make tea or noodles. Also bring toilet paper and wet wipes.
Popular routes by train in Kazakhstan
The train from Nur-sultan (Astana) to Almaty
The route between Nursultan (Astana) and Almaty is served by both the older trains (18 hours) and newer trains (14 hours).
Keep in mind that both Almaty and Nursultan (Astana) have two stations so check what station you depart or arrive from.
Nursultan (Astana) ‘s old station (ASTANA – 1) is in the old part of town. The high speed trains arrive and depart from the newer Astana Nurly Jol station near Mynzhyldyk alley.
Almaty also has two stations. Almaty 1 is 20 minutes outside of town while Almaty 2 is in the centre at Ablai Khan street.
The train from Almaty to Shymkent
The route between Shymkent and Almaty is served by both the older trains (14-16 hours) and newer trains (11-12 hours).
The train from Nur-sultan (Astana) to Shymkent
The route between Shymkent and Nur-sultan (Astana) is served by both the older trains (24 hours) and newer trains (16 hours).
Trains to Turkestan
Turkestan can only be reached by the older Soviet trains. The trains on the Route from Almaty to Aktobe all stop in Shymkent and Turkestan. You can either catch one of these older trains from Almaty or take the newer high speed trains to Shymkent and change there to one of the older trains to Turkestan.
There are about 4 to 5 trains daily at convenient times from Shymkent to Turkestan that take between 3 – 4 hours.
Trains to Aral
The trains from Almaty to Aktobe or Atyrau eventually also make a stop in Aral. Once an important fishing port on the Aral sea, now a rather isolated town. From Almaty it takes about 30 to 34 hours by train and from Shymkent 16 to 18 hours.
Kazakhstans efforts to replenish the Aral sea by building the Kok Aral Dam has been somewhat succesfull and from Aral you can make trips to the current sea shore.
Trains to Karaganda
Karaganda makes a nice stop on the train route between Nur-sultan (Astana) and Almaty.
Karaganda is best visited from Nur-sultan (Astana). The train from Nur-sultan (Astana) to Karaganda takes between 3 and 4 hours to reach Karaganda. There are two trains in the early morning and 4 trains in the evening.
The train from Almaty to Karaganda unfortunately has rather inconvenient times. Your best option is taking the daily older train leaving Almaty at 17:36 arriving in Karaganda at 08:44 (15+ hours).
Last tips on travelling by train Kazakhstan
Make sure you arrive at the station at least 30 minutes before your train departs. There are sometimes security checks and it can take a while to find the right carriage. The train attendant will check your ticket and passport before you can enter the train so there is sometimes a queue as well before boarding the train.
The talgo trains close their doors 5 minutes before departure after which it is no longer possible to enter the train.
Last updated: June 2019
Ellis is a travelblogger from the Netherlands with over 20 years of experience as an independent budget traveller in more than 50 countries. She has a Master degree in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health with a specialization in South Asian cultures and the Caucasus.