For those who have the time to appreciate the still-enormous size of our world, traveling the Silk Road by train in Central Asia is a delight. The beds are comfortable, your fellow passengers are sociable and the samovar at the end of the wagon keeps the hot water flowing so you can refill your cup of tea endlessly. This is not a fast way to travel: I reckon the average speed of a train, including the many stops, lies around 40 km/h. But train travel in Central Asia is more comfortable and only slightly more expensive than the bus, and cheaper, more ecological and more fun than an airplane. Also, trains are less likely to be disrupted by extreme weather conditions in winter than airplanes or buses.
The rail network of Central Asia has been largely built up by the Soviets (except in Afghanistan) and still operates on the same time-tested formula. There are some local trains known as elektrichki, but these are really just slow substitutes for bus services to the same destinations. For long-distance routes, there are 4 options, although not all may be available on your chosen route.
- Lyux: A separate, lockable compartment with only 2 beds.
- Kupe: A separate, lockable compartment with 4 beds.
- Platzkart: An open compartment of 6 beds.
- Obshye: No sleeping space, only a seat.
Obviously, lyux will be the most expensive, with obshye being the cheapest. Usually you will also be presented the option to choose whether you want the top bunk or the bottom bunk. Personally, I find platzkart the best option. It is inexpensive and the extra noise you might get from the open compartment you can get in a kupe too, if you are stuck with a heavy snorer. Also, you will have more options to socialise during the long hours on the rails and your eyes have more freedom of movement inside the carriage.
Other fun features
Bed linen is provided for you, the price of which is usually already included in your ticket. In bigger stations, hawkers come onto the train to sell you their food and drinks, which include hot meals, or you can step outside to buy something at a stall. When boarding a train, most passengers are loaded as much with food as with luggage, and sharing meals is a wonderful way to get to know your fellow passengers.
Some people are however, too much fun, and drunken passengers on trains can be a problem. If you have a problem refusing one too many vodka toasts, try explaining that you are on medication, or in extreme cases, that you are an alcoholic. Works wonders. Trains are well-heated in winter, but can be poorly aired during the hot, sticky summers. If you need to go to the toilet before the train leaves, remember that, for some reason, the toilet only opens about half an hour after departure.
Timetables for trains in Central Asia
Your best bet for updated online information in English is the CIS country train timetable site Poezda or the website of the German railway company Bahn. Note that for Bahn.de, you need to enter names in German (eg. Taschkent instead of Tashkent) and for Poezda, some cities are still mentioned by their old Soviet names (eg. Chimkent instead of Shymkent). A third option is Kazakhstan’s Nur (only in Cyrillic). It seems dependable as well.
For connections with Russia, check the Russian railways website (in Russian). Always check with the information on the ground, with the national train website if it exists (check our pages on train travel in specific countries), or with a travel agent.
Central Asia railroad map
For route information, consult our Central Asia railroad map. This map of the railroad system in Central Asia lists all stops on all major long-distance routes. Click on it to see the map in more detail, or right-click to download the map.
Note that yellow marks lines under construction, and dark purple marks abandoned lines. Light blue means freight traffic only.
What to bring
- Your passport (you might need to show it when you want to buy a ticket in the station, and again when you board the train)
- A drinking cup and some tea/coffee
- Tasty food (don’t forget your cutlery!)
- Comfortable clothes to relax while staring out the window
- Some easy-to-use personal hygiene items (there’s no shower, but a little wash basin is available in the toilet)
- Toilet paper
Bicycle on the train
Can you take your bike on the train? Yes, you can. In some cases, the conductor might be a bit harder to persuade, but there is room to store your bicycle in between compartments and they should not refuse you. Many people have done this before. Be sure to mention that you are taking your bike with you when you are buying a ticket, you might have to pay a surcharge for this.