24 Hours From Aktau, Kazakhstan To Kungrad, Uzbekistan
I awoke in the sweltering summer heat of Kazakhstan.
The Kazakh summer is dry and dusty and the fierce Central Asian sun is relentless, even in the early morning. The old motel room I was staying in was stale with the stench of my sweat and with the sweat of every other occupant before me, while the dirty corridors reeked of cigarette smoke and vodka from the itinerant Uzbek workers who called this downtrodden building on the far western fringe of Kazakhstan home. But this home- Aktau- was thousands of kilometres away from Uzbekistan, thousands of kilometres away from anywhere really; separated from the eastern metropolises of Central Asia by vast stretches of nothingness- just desert, sand and rail lines.
A Kazakh Beach Holiday
My beach holiday on the oil strewn shores of the Caspian Sea was coming to a close as I left the motel in Aktau. This was an industrial city in the isolated West of Kazakhstan, with an out of place and bizarre holiday atmosphere. DJ’s played on the shoreline while oil rigs drilled within view of the sands.
After lounging on beaches and drinking beer as the sun set over the Caspian, I would be taking the long, long way to Uzbekistan- the homeland of my dormitory dwelling, oil field working motel mates- on the long, long train ride from the rocky desert like coast of Aktau, to the even remoter city of Kungrad, a rugged, desperately dry provincial city in double landlocked Uzbekistan’s little travelled, sparsely populated and unendingly vast Karakalpakstan region.
In just a little over 24 hours, I would be in Uzbekistan.
The Incomprehensible Size Of Central Asia
At Aktau’s train station waiting carriages were labelled in Cyrillic with the names of far off Kazakh cities. Shymkent, Almaty, Astana. The closest of which was at least two full day’s travel east. It was only here, even after spending two days crossing the Caspian Sea on a cargo ship from Azerbaijan to reach Aktau that I really began to comprehend the incomprehensible size of Kazakhstan and Central Asia. My journey would be short in comparison. I was taking the international train across the Karakalpakstan desert and into the interior of neighbouring Uzbekistan, only one day’s full travel.
Nothing at all really.
The platform was crowded with workers returning home from Uzbekistan, their suitcases loaded with Kazakh goods. Kazakhstan has huge reserves of oil, especially around the Caspian, and is a source of income for the relatively less well off citizens from across the border in Karakalpakstan, who have none of the oil but most of the polluted, arid landscape that the Soviet Union created when they drained the once plentiful Aral Sea that was once fished and channelled to create fertile agricultural plains.
Now little remained but dust.
The Long Ride Lays Ahead
In the carriages, people were setting up for the long ride, brewing cups of Chai, slicing cheese and sausages and stowing away exceptionally large quantities of luggage in whatever space was still available. The train was fully booked, and a few beds had whole families crowded onto them, their luggage overflowing into the cramped aisles and walk ways.
The train guard showed me to my seat after inspecting my ticket loosely and interrogating me fiercely in the leftover manner of a KGB agent about Manchester United. My cabin mates were already settled, drinking hot cups of Chai in the staunch heat of the carriage, their beds laid out neatly, their luggage stowed away.
I was offered a cup of Chai and some dried salami like sausage by the cheerful travellers as we attempted to communicate in broken English and Russian. They were all from Uzbekistan- returning home to see family- and were intrigued as to why I was travelling the same way, asking me if I was a ‘Journalista?’ or ‘Photographer?’.
I was here just to travel, just to see, more than anything
Despite the language barriers, I was welcomed into this little community of train travellers, the elder women even insisting on making my bed for me before the train had even departed, while I wondered why, at midday, all the beds were laid out in all the cabins so early into the long journey.
As soon as the train began to move, people began moving into their beds, lying down and falling asleep to the chunky rhythm of the turning wheels. The heat was insufferable until the train picked up speed, and then it was barely bearable, so I lay down too, and stared out of the window at the passing but never shifting landscape.
The train was eerily quiet as the sun beat down relentlessly upon the moving carriages. There was little to see, just flat brown land stretching to the horizon, punctuated here and there with low lying, brittle shrub.
No wonder that everyone had simply gone to bed.
The First Of Many Stops
A few monotonous hours later the train hauled to the first of its many stops. There was no station, no platforms, but people were jumping off and a few were getting on. Old ladies were selling takeaway meals in plastic bags as they walked down the aisles.
There was life still in this desert, and every hour or so onward the train would stop, seemingly nowhere, to drop off and pick up passengers and to replenish the travellers with food, drinks and cigarettes.
In between these abrupt stops of various length, people just slept. I would later come to regret my decision to not try as tirelessly as my companions did to fall asleep too, for at the border, it was clear that those who had travelled this route before knew that they would need all the sleep they could muster before reaching it.
A Border Far From Anywhere
From Aktau, the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is the halfway point to Kungrad, my destination. It’s a border that is far from anywhere. One that defines little and was defined not by Kazakhs or Uzbeks but by the Soviets, and until the independence of these two new nations when the Soviet Union collapsed, it was a border which could be crossed freely by those from both sides.
Along the road I’d heard tall traveller’s tales of nightmare interrogations, corrupt officials and fearsome border guards when crossing in this far west point, and Uzbekistan’s immigration bureaucracy is notorious for its archaic totalitarian manner. Perhaps in day’s past immigration officials would extort Western travellers, not so any more I found; the only nightmare would be the waiting.
Hours of of waiting.
The train neared the border around twelve hours into the journey, just as I’d managed to finally get some sleep amongst the Uzbeks who’d been snoring away comfortably for hours already. The train slowed to crawling pace and slowly inched ever onwards towards Uzbekistan.
The lights began to turn on, people rose from their slumber, and the carriage attendants began running up and down the aisles in frantic but calm fury, handing out paperwork and, strangely, sharing around boxes of shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste and other innocuous personal and household goods. Perhaps everyone was sprucing up before immigration, I thought, but later I learnt from an Uzbek friend that this train was known to be a ‘smuggling’ route from Kazakhstan, only the illicit goods were generally just basic items, clothes and cosmetics which were cheaper to buy in Aktau than in Uzbekistan. The carriage attendants were sharing out their goods amongst the passengers to hold until they’d crossed the border, as customs gave each person a small allowance to declare and seemed to turn a blind or bribed eye to this obvious routine. Once we were over into Uzbekistan, the carriage attendants came strolling around again collecting their ‘smuggled’ goods from the helpful passengers.
It would be a few hours though before we were in Uzbekistan
On the Kazakh side things were efficient. Immigration officers walked through the carriages, stamping passports and checking visas. I was stamped out of the country, and handed over my departure card before settling back into bed to wait for the whole train to be inspected. Within half an hour the train was moving again, crossing into no man’s land, and I hoped the next stage would be as quick as the first so I could rest.
The train stopped in the no man’s land between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. I was handed immigration papers and custom declarations from the train guard for entry, and with it all being in Russian my friendly cabin travellers helped me to fill it in, although what I was declaring I didn’t really know.
The train didn’t move soon. I fell asleep as the lights were dimmed, but too soon the train began moving again and the lights were on. Then we stopped for another hour. People got out, stood on the tracks, some slept. We were just waiting it seemed, for either the border to open or for the immigration officials to be ready. I didn’t know what exactly, and no one seemed concerned. This was just the usual waiting.
I was beginning to understand why the rest of the passengers had spent the afternoon and evening simply sleeping. Now I was dead to the world, just wanting to pass out in bed but fearing that at any moment the train would lurch forward and I would have a stern faced border guard shaking me awake and shaking me down for bribes.
Eventually the train did move forward, and stopped at the border post. Uzbek officials in peaked hats collected up passports and paperwork before exiting the train.
Then we moved forward again and simply waited.
Then we waited some more
I dozed off again, and awoke when the border guards appeared again, this time checking boxes and bags in an indifferent manner. When they left the train began to move, and this time to pick up speed.
Three hours after leaving Kazakhstan I was finally entering Uzbekistan.
I still didn’t have my passport back, but the carriage attendant had a huge stack of them in his office, flicking through and occasionally making notes from them. I fell asleep again, hoping mine was amongst them, and a few hours later when the sun began to rise I was called over to this little office at the end of the carriage.
Sat down with his peaked hat placed on the table before him was an official looking Uzbek border guard, the carriage attendant standing nervously behind him. The guard- who had clearly accompanied the train from the border- stood and shook my hand. Perhaps this was to be the interrogation I’d feared at the border yet hadn’t received.
He poured me a cup of Chai, asked if I spoke Russian, and then in a rather friendly manner began asking where I was from and where I was going. He flicked through my paperwork, he flicked through my passport and he seemed satisfied. Then he asked which football team I supported. This was indeed to be the interrogation I’d so feared on entering Uzbekistan. We chatted in broken English while we drank Chai, and then he shook my hand, handed over my passport and moved on down to the next carriage.
And with the KGB interrogation over, I had made it to Uzbekistan.
I settled back into bed, shared breakfast with my fellow travellers who were animated at being- almost- back home, and then 24 hours after departing Aktau, the train rolled into the station at Kungrad, having crossed the vast desert and time consuming borders of western Central Asia.
I climbed off the train, and into the sweltering summer heat of Uzbekistan.
I took the 24 hour sleeper train down to Kungrad in Uzbekistan, but you can also travel to anywhere in Kazakhstan, from Aktau too, although anywhere is a long way. Tickets can be booked at the train station, but this is a bit of town- I paid 2000 Tenge for a taxi there when I left- or there’s a few booking office’s in the city centre. Tickets can sell out, so book your onward travel as soon as you arrive.