Last Updated: 8/21/23 | August 21, 2023
Kazakhstan is a country I’ve always wanted to visit. In fact, I’ve always wanted to go to all the “Stans”. It’s the region of the world I probably want to visit the most. After having lived in Kazakhstan for 8 years, Doug Fears knows a thing or two about the country and how to navigate it. In this guest post, Doug offers some in-depth advice about how to travel around Kazakhstan by train!
Night spilled across the Kazakh steppe. The train’s steel wheels clickety-clacked below, gently prompting me to point toward a bowl of plastic-wrapped apples. Suddenly, my drunken dining car companion began gesticulating wildly while repeating his favorite, and perhaps only, English-language phrase, “No problem!”
With a shake of the head and wave of the hand, this newfound friend seemed to dismiss all other apples as second-rate. Apples originated from Kazakhstan, after all, and we had just departed the city of Almaty, “the father of apples.” I simply had to try one. (It was delicious.)
Taking the train through Kazakhstan, the world’s ninth-largest country, presents a changing cultural tapestry every time. Imagine a vast land, once secretive and closed to outsiders, where travelers can now experience an eclectic blend of Silk Road culture, offbeat Soviet-era history, and wide-open spaces spiced with warm Kazakh hospitality.
I’ve shared cabins with young soldiers, border police, language professors and martial artists, just to name a few. My favorite memories are the meals and card games enjoyed with these folks, even when I didn’t have a common language.
So, forget everything about the movie Borat, and climb aboard as you browse ancient bazaars, ride the rails, and trek to pristine mountain lakes.
Table of Contents
Planning Your Route
I suggest the following itinerary: flying into the capital, Astana (new airport code NQZ), heading north to Lake Burabay, taking a fast train back south to Karaganda, then an overnight classic train to Almaty in the southeast, with a possible extension to Turkistan (a city and region in the south of the country).
If you want to continue on in Central Asia, you can easily extend your trip from Almaty to see the gorgeous mountain vistas of nearby Kyrgyzstan or continue by train from Turkistan south to Uzbekistan.
The best time to go is between May and October, as northern Kazakhstan is blanketed in snow from November through April, with typical temps in the minus-10 C range. Those wanting to snow ski or experience the excitement of New Year’s, the country’s biggest holiday, however, should consider a wintertime trip.
Visas are no longer needed for many visitors to Kazakhstan (for 30 days), and a private trip visa (90 days) can now be obtained without a Letter-of-Invitation (LOI). Kyrgyzstan (60 days) and Uzbekistan (30 days) also have visa-free regimes, though always check your passport country’s specific visa requirements in advance.
Buying Train Tickets
There are three types of trains: the fast business-class Talgo, regular long-distance trains, and regional electrics. Budget travelers should opt for regular trains for most trips. Regional electrics, sometimes called “elektrichka” or “elektropoyezd,” are generally slow and will be of limited use. In recent years, Kazakhstan has been upgrading many long-distance trains to the modern Talgo-class wagons, though the classic Soviet-style railcars are still found on regional routes.
On regular trains — highly recommended for the best cultural experience — the two main classes are kupe (a four-person closed compartment with two upper and lower bunks) and platzkar (an open rolling dormitory holding 54 travelers on two-level bunks). The kupe is quieter and more private, but single women might want to choose the somewhat safer open platzkar, as they could be in a locked cabin with three men (no gender distinctions are made when making reservations).
The Kazakhstan e-ticket website has been improved. It now allows you to enter destination cities using an English keyboard, though the menu will convert them to Russian names. Foreign bankcards are accepted, but check that your ticket purchases are not blocked by spam filters. There is also an online help option to chat with an English-language consultant.
My suggestion is to use this site as a reference to find train timetables and to purchase long-distance train tickets that are more likely to be sold out (especially for summer weekend trains).
You can also try going to a train station or train ticket office in the city, as some have automated ticket machines. Another option is to write your destination and date on a piece of paper and present it to a ticket agent at a station or train office for help.
Once you have your ticket, the most important things to know are the date and time of departure, and wagon number. Check the posted signs in the station to find which platform number your train is on and walk toward that wagon — the conductor will check your ID and ticket and help you board.
Traveling by train is much safer and enjoyable than by bus, and an incredible value for the long distances traveled. A standard overnight train ticket from Karaganda to Almaty will be about $14 USD for platzkar and $20 USD for kupe. By comparison, the business-class Talgo on the same route costs $34 USD in a four-berth kupe, but it does reduce travel time by five hours (and has much cleaner bathrooms!). A night train provides double value, serving as both bed and transport; they are cooler and more comfortable in the summer travel season too!
Local city buses are cheap, about $0.20 USD per ride, regardless of distance. Note that some cities including Almaty and Karaganda introduced a new bus card system in 2022 (smartphone app “ONAY!”), but you can still pay the driver directly in cash (though the cash cost is higher, about $0.35 per ride). Note that many city bus routes end service around 7:30pm (use the “InDrive” rideshare smartphone app to call a taxi). For intercity car hire, you can also use “InDrive,” but it requires a working knowledge of Russian to negotiate with the driver.
Hotel rooms in the city centers of Astana and Almaty range from $30–$50 per night with breakfast. Full apartments ($25 USD/night) or shared guest rooms ($10 USD/night) can be booked on Airbnb.
Food is also reasonably priced. I suggest finding a hotel with breakfast included on booking.com, eating picnic-style meals on the train, and enjoying a streetside café for other meals (grilled shashlik skewers, bread, salad, and drink for about $5), though if you can’t peel it or cook it, it’s best to forget it. And make sure to try the local apples!
Essential Kazakhstan Travel Hacks
- Do reserve an upper bunk if you like relaxing onboard (lower bunks are shared during the daytime and used for communal meals), but you need to be reasonably fit to climb the mini-ladder.
- Do bring a comfortable change of clothes to wear onboard (track suit, shorts, and T-shirt). It’s perfectly normal to ask others to step outside while you change.
- Do bring extra food to share (tea/coffee, instant noodles, sausage, cucumbers, bread, biscuits, apples, sweets). Note: there is always a steaming samovar of hot water in each car for making tea or noodles.
- Do pack a small train kit (mug, fork/spoon/knife, toilet paper, plate, wet wipes, plastic sandals, collapsible hand fan, deck of cards, bottled water).
- Do take your street shoes off when entering a train compartment.
- Do plan your bathroom visits, as the toilets are locked about 15 minutes before and after station stops (read the timetable posted in each wagon). Note that bathrooms in the business-class Talgo trains are not locked for station stops.
- Do take some small gifts from your home country (magnets, key rings) to share.
- Don’t buy unsold seats from touts lurking around stations — I’ve been stuck sharing a four-berth kupe with six people plus a giant-screen TV!
- Don’t get scolded for lying on a bare mattress, but don’t pay extra for sheets and towels in kupe class. They are now included in the kupe ticket fare, but beware you may be awakened very early by the conductor collecting them on overnight trains!
- Don’t be bullied by transport police or immigration officials at borders — show your passport and ticket and nothing more.
- Don’t miss your stop, get stranded on the platform buying ice cream, walk across the railroad tracks, or, above all, be forced to jump off a moving train!
Best Kazakhstan Train Routes
Here are some helpful train routes for getting around. Note that schedules change periodically and not all trains run daily (many run every other day on even or odd-numbered dates).
While northbound trains from Astana stop at Borovoye/Shchuchinsk, it might be easier to take a shared taxi or minibus for the short two-hour trip. You can use the “InDrive” smartphone app or ask for “Borovoye” at the train stations, where vans wait to fill up and leave throughout the day. You can do the same if heading directly south from Astana to Karaganda, as a new tollway has opened, cutting the travel time between these two major cities to 2.5 hours, although all Astana-to-Almaty trains also stop in Karaganda. Note that both Astana and Almaty have two train stations in different parts of the city — make sure you go to the right one!
Train #031 from Almaty to Semey in the northeast traces the historical “TurkSib” route — from here you can head east to explore the Altay Mountains or continue north into Russia to connect with the legendary Trans-Siberian route.
Note: +1 means “arriving the following day”; p = persons
What to See Along the Way
The major cities of Astana, Karaganda, and Almaty are all on the main rail line and make both good stopovers and bases for exploring the surrounding natural and historical sites. Other off-the-beaten-track locations, such as the Baykonur rocket base and Altay Mountains, require special permission and advance planning. Here’s an overview of the major destinations:
- Astana – one of the world’s youngest capital cities, a futuristic Tomorrowland-esqe blend of gleaming buildings, shopping centers, and sculpted monuments. Note that this city has undergone several name changes in recent years including Tselinograd and Nur-Sultan. It is again simply known as Astana (Kazakh for “capital”).
- Lake Burabay (formerly Borovoye) – a scenic, forested lake resort just two hours north of Astana, featuring a wide range of accommodations and attractions.
- Karaganda – Kazakhstan’s “third city,” with its leafy wide boulevards, is a good base for exploring Soviet-era history, particularly the museum of political repression at nearby Dolinka (use bus #121 or InDrive app), one of the largest labor camps in the Gulag system.
- Lake Balkhash – Known for its turquoise waters, this unique half-fresh, half-salt water lake makes a nice summer stopover (train station Balkhash-2) between Astana and Almaty. Enjoy swimming and watersports at the Zhemchuzhina Hotel.
- Almaty – Central Asia’s most cosmopolitan city. The stunning backdrop of the Tien Shan Mountains frames this busy business center, a great base for making day trips to the nearby mountains, the skate/ski center at Medeu/Chimbulak, and the red rock Charyn Canyon.
- Turkistan – Kazakhstan’s holiest site, and the country’s best place to see Silk Road architecture and tile work.
- Baykonur Cosmodrome – the world’s most active launch site for manned space missions. Rocket enthusiasts will need to book well in advance with an agency like Nomadic Travel Kazakhstan to try and see a launch.
- The Far Northeast – Well off the beaten path, Semey, Ust-Kamenogorsk, and the pristine Altay Mountains are in a beautiful region worth the extra effort to see. Visiting the sensitive border zone or former Polygon nuclear test site will require special permits and advance planning.
As a child of the Cold War era, I recall hiding under my desk during drills to the sound of air-raid sirens, as we lived in genuine fear of nuclear war. I never dreamed I would visit the big blank spots on the map labeled “USSR,” especially the Siberian steppe and Central Asia.
Nowadays, with internet communication and open borders, an amazing opportunity awaits to wander across these once-forbidden zones, sharing goodwill and learning something too.
And one final tip: make sure to buy apples before you board the train! Though I only visited the train’s dining car once, I did purchase the pack of shiny apples that evening, munching on what I figured was a true local delicacy. The next morning when unpacking, though, one lazily rolled across the table, revealing a surprise sticker reading “Product of USA”!
Douglas Fears has always loved everything about trains, boats, and maps. After running a marathon on every continent and working as a computer consultant for 20 years, he moved to Kazakhstan and spent 8 years working in education and administration. He currently lives on the Black Sea and spends his time running, reading, mentoring young people, and writing funny travel stories for his blog Rails, Whales and Tales.
Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner to find a cheap flight. They are my favorite search engine because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- Safety Wing (best for everyone)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional evacuation coverage)
Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.