I write from our carriage of the number 47 train heading north east from Atyrau to Astana, Kazakhstan. It’s our forth night on the rails and I might just have enough battery in the laptop to recount the weird but wonderful experience we have encountered since leaving Tbilisi, Georgia with our Russian and Kazakh visa’s in hand.
Nina, Sam and I woke in no hurry last Thursday, grabbed the Metro to the Didube station where we picked up a minibus for the 2 hour ride to Kazbegi, home of 5047m mount Kazbek and the last town in Georgia along the military highway into Russia. We had a night there in a home-stay, attempted to climb up to the church at 2200 metres but turned back when drizzled out. Sam made it to the top in his waterproof jacket. Nina and I wished we hadn’t given away our warm clothes 5 months ago and wondered how cold it will be in Russia.
On Friday Morning we rose early, a few Georgian Lari left in hand but determined to spend it on a coffee if we could only hitch the 8km to the Russian border. We gave it 40 minutes or so in the light rain before giving up and presenting our last “pennies” to a 4×4 Lada taxi driver, conscious that if we didn’t make it to Vladikavkaz in Russia by 16:33 we would miss our onward train. We’d heard the Russian border can take a while as it’s still a delicate area, only opened to foreigners since July 2012 and brushing past sensitive regions like Chechnya and Dagestan. It was now 10:30.
Lada man took us through yet more staggering scenery lined with snow-capped mountains and dropped us right at Border Control. Excited that we were finally at the frontier with our Russian visa’s, we would hitch from the other side once we were cleared. Little did we know that there is 5km of no man’s land between the Georgian exit and Russian entry. The guard stopped us and politely told us that we were not allowed to cross by foot, we needed to be in a vehicle. He pointed to an area where we should stand to try and communicate with passing vehicles, explaining that we were forbidden to loiter in the vehicle waiting zone.
Hitching already seemed hard enough with the three of us, now we were at a border crossing and presumed any passing traffic would think we were a hassle to take – extra time to process them foreign visas. We were feeling a touch unlucky when a Ukrainian couple showed up with the same problem. Now we were five, surely nobody will stop. I hailed an Armenian truck who seemed to give us an “ok” signal. As I followed the truck down to the no-go zone the same guard stopped me and a passing car simultaneously, somehow agreeing one space with the stranger. We shouted for Sam and we agreed to split, meeting at the train station in Vladikavkaz. With no local currency left between us we gave Sam 20 dollars in case of an emergency and he disappeared into the family estate. Nina and I looked at each other worryingly, hoping he’ll be ok but knowing we had little other choice.
Next we got lucky. The Ukrainian couple stopped an old guy in a Lada. He was alone. Before Nina and I could grumble at them for stealing our ride, they signalled us over, shoved us in the back and off we went. Our driver had a military hat on and flashed an army ID card at passport control, we were safe and on our way. We bounced through no-mans land admiring more mountains, trying to take pictures from the broken Lada window, feeling like we would make our train on time. The tunes were blazing – an english 90’s CD – Gangsters Paradise, 2unlimited, Barbie Girl, Ace of Base and Short Dick Man – quality! We arrived at the Russian Border entry only to spot Sam a few vehicles ahead explaining why the biometric chip on his passport was smashed – dodgy!
Lada man number two kindly dropped us right outside the Vladikavkaz train station. It was 14:00 and we had plenty of time to grab some lunch, get the tickets and board our 16.33 train – but no sign of Sam. I used the time to explore how much a Russian Rouble was worth before extracting too many thousands from the Bankomat machine. Nina waited with the bags. By 15.30 we were getting a bit worried. At 15.45 Sam marched in with a new friend. He’d been dumped out of town with no Russian money and whilst asking for directions Dimitri offered to pay for his tram, escorted him to the station and then generously interpreted our needs to the ticket officer in the station. He managed to get hold of our 3rd class, 5 hour journey ticket to Mineralnie Wodi and our onward ticket, where we would quickly swap to the 22:00 overnighter to Volgograd, arriving at 14:53 on Saturday.
3rd class train travel in Russia is cheap, it’s comfortable and it’s interesting. A 24 hour train ride is less than 20 quid. You receive blankets and pillows for the bed and a towel for a morning scrub up. There’s a conductor in each carriage who will wake you if your stop is in the early hours. There’s electricity sockets to charge ipods or laptops (essential if you want to watch a late night movie). There’s a hot water tank for endless cups of tea or instant noodles and you are sure to meet Russians eager to share their home made vodka, wine or smoked fish. We were even handed a strangely shaped citrus fruit by Vadim to wash with – maybe a hint? The scenery was bleak to say the least. The occasional 1965 soviet style cement factory dotted the otherwise flat and desolate landscape. We’d left the Caucasus mountains behind and were heading into the plains, north of the Caspian Sea.
We arrived in Volgograd, famous for the battle of Stalingrad, the bloodiest and most fatal massacre site of WWII, bang on time. The Russian trains leave plenty of time for arrival and if they’re early they rest a few kilometres from the station in order to slink in on the dot. It was cold. We had five hours to fix our next nights sleeper train. Previous research pointed towards making it over the border to Makat in Kazakhstan but every ticket saleswoman screeched “Nyet” at the slightest glimpse of the word Makat. It seemed obvious after trying for a while that there were either no trains to Makat or that they were full. I’d previously found an alternative itinerary on the bahn.de website that gave a border town train change at Aksaraiskaia. We tried for a ticket by writing down the train number and were duly rewarded with three “platskartny” (3rd class) tickets. Leaving at 19.19, it gave us a few hours to explore the city, collect some rations and eat a late lunch. We boarded the train, had a beer and tucked ourselves in ready for our second night on the trains and a 4am rise at the border.
We were woken and unceremoniously hurried off the train at 04:32. It was dark. It was cold. There seemed no obvious place to collect an onward train ticket – no sign of life whatsoever. We were on the cusp of Kazakhstan but it still seemed so far away. There was one security officer and on the other side of the gates a few taxi’s waiting to take people to god knows where. One of the taxi drivers pointed us to a building, a dim light shone from the inside and there were certainly people there. We entered and a stroppy looking lady sat behind a 12 by 4 inch hatch.
“Makat?” I asked.
“Nyet” blah blah blah. “Nyet” something something.
“I don’t think we can get a ticket for Makat guys”.
“Nyet” blah blah blah, something something.
We looked around to the half dozen or so Asian looking guys in the small building.
One man shouted “Aytrau”. We took some paper and deciphered a map.
It soon became apparent that we could take a train to Atyrau and then change to the Almaty train, our destination in Kazakhstan. The guy came to the ticket hatch, chatted in Russian for a bit, asked for our passports, got refused something, marched us to an office, presented our passports, looked disappointed at the guard shaking his head, noticed our Kazakhstan visa’s, marched us back to the ticket office, discussed more info with the lady and then gave us the thumbs up. We were heading to Kazakhstan! By this time we had some intrigued onlookers, the same train would head on to Uzbekistan, which seemed to make up the remaining passengers.
Our fixer disappeared, the lady began typing and a few minutes later had our tickets in hand. She gestured for some money. We knew we had none. Same as at the last border. We didn’t want to leave the country with useless local currency and so were waiting to find out the cost of the tickets before extracting the exact money from the ATM. There was no ATM. It was a border train junction and nothing else. I gave her a visa card. She shook her head. I asked for money exchange. She shouted “Nyet” at me. I went in search of some kind of solution. We had dollars. I opened the door and Mr Fixer appeared. Using a pen and paper as communication, drawing numbers, crossing out things that weren’t possible to show what was, he took our dollars. We had 90, our tickets were the equivalent of 80. Another saviour, this time an Uzbek guy agreed to take our dollars in exchange for the Roubles we needed to purchase the ticket – a total relief (and now the opportunity to get some sleep). Our train would leave at 16.57. We had 9 hours to wait in the clinical ticket room. Luckily we made lots of Uzbek friends and the day flew by exchanging family photos and friendly smiles. Russian officials seemed hard but the folk friendly and we all agreed that we would like to visit Uzbekistan.
We walked to the platform an hour or so before departure. The friendly Russian Border control would release us there ready for our trip through another no-mans land and up to the Kazakhstan frontier. It was to be our third consecutive night on board the trains, this time in a Kazakh wagon. As we bumbled down the steps onto the platform the crowd immediately took to us, we chucked our bags down, sat on them to wait and Sam began to make a cigarette. The Uzbek crowd honed in on us in what Sam called the “circle of bewilderment” (see photo). I am still surprised by how many people I see smoking and for all the smokers in the circle it was clear that none of them had seen Golden Virginia being hand rolled before. Sam made a couple extra and handed them out, hesitant Uzbek’s asking “Narcotic?” We waited to be called through the passport control, plenty of new friends waved us ahead of them. The Russian guard was nice and said it was very strange to see English or Australian people on the train platform. It left exactly on time. Next stop Atyrau, Kazakhstan.
The evening was a pleasant one, more family photo sharing by Nina with her new Kazakh lady friends and a few language lessons here and there. We were stamped into Kazakhstan by an official who boarded the train with a “welcome to Kazakhstan”. We passed some desert and tucked ourselves in for the night. As morning broke we woke to desert. More desert, some flat dry grassland, a bit more desert and then Atyrau. There was no train to Almaty. Some misinformation, so we decided to head to the capital. We had heard the illusive China visa could be obtained there and another 30 hour overnight train left 2 hours later. We took the plunge, collected some Kazakh Tenge from the Bankomat and booked our onward journey.
On route to Astana, the world’s coldest capital city, only 300km from the Siberian border, we’ve passed desert, grassland, a few villages and more desert. As I write this blog we are day 5 of train transit after 4 consecutive nights on the rails and I’m beginning to feel at home in the carriages. The world feels very big today. Since our first train in Vladikavkaz we will have made 3815km when we arrive in Astana this afternoon, it will be double that distance to Yunnan in China and more than triple the whole lot to reach Australia. We will rest in China – let’s just hope we get that visa tomorrow!