In my quest of visiting every country in the world, I had to visit Kazakhstan. I took 2.5 weeks to visit Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, traveling low budget and using whenever possible 3rd class (platzkart) trains.
Originally my plan was to visit Baikonur cosmodrome but after 2 months of emails google translated from Russian I decided to skip this...it was too complex to get a permit and super expensive.
I will describe the itinerary day by day, adding when possible exact locations of the places visited and prices.
This was spent mostly traveling from Copenhagen to Astana, the starting point of my trip. I had found a convenient ticket with Turkish airline ( around 300 EURO return). I have arrived in Astana very late in the night, the border control was super easy and since I don't travel with luggage it was super quick. I had a hotel booked in the old part of Astana ( Hotel Tourist) and the rate for a single room, including breakfast, was around 10 EURO per night.
This first day in Astana was spent mostly visiting the crazy architecture of the city. Luckily they are all in the same area and you can spend the whole day discovering these unusual buildings. These are some of my favorites:
I have also managed to get a SIM card so I could check things on the go, surprisingly it was VERY CHEAP: 3 EURO for unlimited internet for a week.
My 48-hour train to Aralsk was at 4 PM so I had still most of the day to explore more of the city and to buy some platzkart necessities (instant noodles, some fruit, water and coffee!). I have decided to visit the army museum but unfortunately when i got there it was closed ( apparently it is always closed on a Monday); but I still got a chance to take some pictures with the tanks that are just outside the building :)
I arrived at the train station one hour before just to make sure I was in the right place. I booked a taxi to get to the station but he wasn't sure where the station was and which station so I just hoped we were going to the right one.
I booked conveniently all my train tickets for Kazakhstan online on this website: https://tickets.kz/en/gd
They send you an email and an E-ticket with a code, so for a change traveling in central Asia, without speaking Russian, was actually easy. The ticket from Astana to Aralsk in a 3rd class compartment cost me around 13 EUROs
As all my trip in Platzkart, you will find some old ladies either taking your lower bunk seat or trying to get you to swap tickets. Armed with google translate you have to be firm and tell them that it is not possible as I heard many people getting in trouble with the train conductor because they were not seated at their allocated seats. So for all my train trips in Kazakhstan, I had to tell everytime these ladies to move.
The hospitality of 3rd class trains is second to none, people will invite you to have dinner with them (just don't ask what you are eating) and drink tea together. I love interacting with the locals and understand more of their culture; yes I don't speak Russian or Kazakh but thanks to google translate we managed to have conversations and when you have a 48-hour journey you can take all the time in the world!
This day was mostly spent on the day continuing the 48-hour journey to Aralsk. The train was going to make a 5 hour stop in Zhezqazghan but I wasn't sure yet if passengers were allowed off the train to explore a bit the city.
On the train, I met a local lady that was traveling with her 12 years old and 18 months old daughters. This lady was super nice and she spoke some basic English so it was easy to make conversation and understand each other.
Finally, the train stopped in Zhezqazghan, in a field just outside the main train station; we decided to take a tour of the city together... I was very surprised she left the 2 daughters on the train.
We took a taxi (500 KZT, 1.2 EURO) and we reached the city center where there is a monument to space travel and this would have been the closest to Baikonur I could get in my trip. There is also a boulevard where cosmonauts plant a pine tree to mark their safe landing on earth, so this was also pretty cool.
We took a taxi back to the field where the train left us...but when we arrived the train was NOT there anymore!! This was very surreal, especially with the lady having left behind the 2 daughters! after 20 minutes we finally located the train again that was moved back to the main station.
The train journey continued to Aralsk.
The train arrived in Aralsk at 5 AM, my guide Serik ( you can contact him at this email address if you want a reliable guide that speaks fluent English: email@example.com) booked for me a homestay accommodation so I could get some rest before we set off with his jeep to discover the Aral Sea region. If you are not familiar with the Aral Sea disaster, the biggest man-made natural disaster, you can find plenty of information on google. When we think of the Aral Sea we all think of the rusty boats on sand dunes but I was happy to discover that there is more than that to discover, amazing landscapes and super welcoming people.
We started our journey at 9 AM sharp; earlier I had breakfast with the homestay lady and her children but unfortunately, nobody spoke English.
We drove all day long, stopping to take many pictures and going through so many different places: abandoned villages taken over by the desert, long dusty roads with many camels roaming around, the famous rusty boats, hot springs, the seashore where fishermen are getting their boats ready for the night and finally we arrived in Tastubek one of the main fishing villages.
Here I stayed with a local family. They made a nice dinner (no idea what it was), we ate from the same communal plate that was in the middle of the table and we drunk a lot of tea! The toilet situation of course in central Asia is very different from back home: 1) there is no shower, apparently the people of the village shower once a week in the nearby village 2) the actual toilet is basically a hole in the ground with a small wooden structure built around which is absolutely ok during the day but at night when everything is pitch black it might be a bit challenging (luckily I always have with me a headlamp).
The day started with a breakfast with the family of the homestay and then I decided to explore Tastubek.
We continue the road trip on the seabed of what was once the Aral Sea, you can still see seashells in the sand!
We arrived back in Aralsk in the early afternoon so I managed to get a shower ( FINALLY!!) and some rest before the train to Turkestan. Aralsk station still has a fantastic mosaic featuring Lenin in the waiting room and I couldn't miss that!
The train to Turkistan left Aralsk at 15 minutes past midnight and I was sure to find an old lady sleeping in my bottom bunk bed! This train journey was relatively short: 15 hours. I arrived in Turkistan around 3 PM and I have spent in this city only 24 hours. Most of the sights are all in the same area so a day in this city is more than enough. This place reminded me of my trip to Uzbekistan with all the turquoise tiles. I stayed in a more expensive hotel this time since I spent the previous 4 nights in 3rd class compartments and homestay. The hotel (Hotel Khanaka) was 30 EURO per night including breakfast. The train ticket from Aralsk to Turkistan in a 3rd class compartment cost me 6.5 EUROs
The train from Turkistan to Shymkent takes only a couple of hours and this time I booked a second class train as the Platzkart was not available. The ticket cost me 7 EUROs in a 4 berth cabin. Luckily this time I didn't take a taxi from the station to my accommodation and I discovered an amazing soviet era mosaic of Lenin. I don't remember the exact location but it is on one of the side roads on the right side.
My final stop in Kazakhstan, before entering Kyrgyzstan, was Almaty. I took the train from Shymkent at 5 PM and as usual, I booked a bottom bunk in the Platzkart compartment, this time no old ladies trying to take my seat :) the cost was 8 EUROs.
In Almaty, I mostly wanted to see the many Soviet-style architectures and also do a half day trip to lake Almaty.
Almaty has a metro system but I have decided to explore the city by walk since I had 3 full days there. I have found a super useful blog with a map and list of all the Soviet-style building, I have downloaded the map and took it with me. You can find the info and locations here.
To go to the Big Almaty lake I organized a car with the hotel I stayed in ( around 15 EUROs). The Big Almaty Lake is not far but the traffic to exit the city is crazy, so it took me the whole morning to go there and back. The view over there is absolutely amazing and it is something I strongly recommend doing if you have some time!
The rest of the day was spent finally relaxing and getting ready to cross the border to Kyrgyzstan by land, but this will be on the next blog!