Taking the train in Kazakhstan is a great way to get around this vast country, provided you have enough time to roll through endless steppe country and great expanses of desert landscape. For general information about what to expect on a train journey in Kazakhstan, check the page on trains in Central Asia, which includes the Central Asian rail network map for route planning and more information on timetables.
The online booking site of Kazakh Railways has updated timetable information as well as prices, but is only available in Russian. You can use an automatic translator, but you need to fill in your destinations in Cyrillics (use Google Translate or a Russian keyboard emulator). Learn how to buy tickets here.
Remember that, like in Russia or China, all trains run on the time of the capital, in this case Astana. All clocks in the train station are on this time. This is important for West Kazakhstan, which gets up 1 hour earlier.
Beware: in summer, most trains are sold out days in advance. You need to be prepared, or be prepared to wait.
Trains dipping in and out of Kazakhstan
Quite a few train lines built in the good-ole Soviet days before borders existed weave in and out of Kazakhstan. Do you need extra visas?
Almaty – Moscow: There is uncertainty about what visas are needed for this train, since it dips in and out of Russia before entering definitely. Some travelers say a single entry Kazakh visa and a single entry Russian visa suffice. Others say they needed a double entry visa for both. Careful travelers use the second option. Updates welcome.
Aqtobe – Uralsk: you definitely need a double-entry visa and a Russian visa. Better to take the bus there.
Saratov – Astrakhan: No passport control here even though it goes through Kazakhstan twice. No Kazakh visa needed.
Main routes and ticket prices
There are 2 train stations in Almaty, but the main one that you will need for all of the trains below is Almaty-2, located on Ablai Khan street, just below Rayimbek avenue. Almaty-1 is located 20 minutes out of town.
Almaty – Urumqi train: The train from Almaty to Urumqi runs twice weekly. From Urumqi, it leaves at 23.58 on Saturday and Monday night and arrives in Almaty at 6.30 on Monday and Wednesday morning. From Almaty, the train leaves at 23.58 on Saturday and Monday night and arrives in Urumqi on Monday and Wednesday morning at 8.58.
The long travel time is due to the fact that the Kazakh railroad system has a different gauge than the Chinese one, and 8 hours will be spent on the border, changing the wheels of the train carriages. Taking the bus is about 10 hours faster. Another problem with this option is that it books up fast, especially in summer. The Saturday train in particular can be booked out up to 1 month in advance in peak season. Get your tickets as soon as possible.
In Almaty, go to the train station, a travel agent or one of the many booking offices around town. In Urumqi, tickets are sold in the office at the Yaou Hotel, to the right of the main station. Ticket sale for the Saturday train starts on Monday 10am, for the Monday train it starts Friday 10am. Current price for a ticket is around 110$ one way (august 2014 report).
Almaty – Astana train: 3 to 4 trains daily run between Almaty and Astana taking about 20 hours. Prices are 3000 tenge for platzkart, 5000 tenge for kupe and 10000 tenge for lyux. There is also 1 overnight train, the sleek Spanish-designed Talgo-Tulpar, which takes only 12 hours to arrive and makes only 3 stops en route.
It’s a more European traveling experience: faster, more expensive, less spacious and plastic water coolers instead of samovars. Prices are 10000 tenge for platzkart, 15000 tenge for kupe and 20000 tenge for lyux.
Almaty – Moscow: Train number 7 leaves in the morning from Almaty, to arrive in Moscow about 80 hours later. There is a restaurant carriage.
Another, quicker option, is to take the fast train to Astana, and then hop on the Astana – Moscow service, which doesn’t have any border issues. From Moscow, train number 8 leaves from Paveletskaya station and arrives 3 days later in Almaty. The route is Moscow – Saratov – Uralsk – Aqtobe – Aral Sea – Kyzyl Orda – Turkestan – Shymkent – Taraz – Almaty.
Almaty – Tashkent: Train number 21 leaves every Sunday from Almaty to Nukus, and arrives in Tashkent 26 hours later. To go to Nukus, add another 24 hours. This train also stops at Samarkand. Most people heading to Tashkent prefer to take the train to Shymkent and do the last bit by marshrutka.
In the other direction, the train leaves Nukus on Tuesday, enters Tashkent the next day and Almaty-2 at on Thursday. Another option is the Novosibirsk – Tashkent train, known as the Turksib.
Tashkent – Almaty – Novosibirsk train: Attention: in May 2014, 1 reader was denied tickets from Ust-Kamenogorsk to Novosibirsk because the border is supposedly not open to foreigners anymore…weird, and perhaps a grumpy desk clerk.
The Turksib goes every 4 days. It leaves Novosibirsk, arrives in Almaty-1 (!) at 3.31 am on the 3rd day, and in Tashkent on the 4th day. In the other direction, the Turksib leaves Tashkent, arrives in Almaty on day 2 and in Novosibirsk on day 4.
Astana – Moscow train: From Astana, train 71 leaves on odd days (1, 3, 5, but not on the 31st)arrives 60 hours later in Moscow Kazanski . Train 83 leaves on even days from Karaganda, and passes Astana 4 hours later. It arrives a day later in Ufa and another day later in Moscow.
From Moscow, train 84 leaves from Kazanski station on even days and arrives in Astana the 3rd day. Train 72 leaves on odd days (but not the 31st) from Kazanski at 22.45 and arrives in Astana at 10.33 the 3rd day. There is also a Bishkek – Ekaterinburg service, which runs weekly and passes Astana.
Note that there is no direct train going to Bishkek from Almaty. You could take a train to Taraz, and from there another one to Bishkek, but this would constitute a huge detour, since it only takes 5 hours to go to Bishkek from Almaty by minivan.
Trains to / from Aktau: First off, don’t look for Aktau on the train timetable, it’s called Mangishlak or Mangistau for some antiquated reason. There is one train every second day from Almaty and from Astana to Aktau (and back). There is 1 daily train to Aktobe and 1 train a day chugging through the desert to Atyrau.
Kungrad – Beyneu – Aktau: In Kungrad get to the railway station with your passport and som. Queues can last an hour. There is a daily train to Aktau (Mangyshlak). Only two of the train cars go all the way to Aktau the rest just to Beyneu. But there are additional Beyneu – Aktau trains running.
A traveler regales: The Kungrad to Beyneu train was fantastic! Lots of food and drink supplies throughout. Even som-tenge money changers. No dollar changers. I’d advise eating from the vendors all day, get the passengers to haggle for you. Our change in Beyneu was fairly traumatic. A rush to the ticket counter to find all sleeper tickets sold. Sold a ticket for 7500 som that had a seat number but carriage number “00”. This means no seat. You have to fight for it!
And there were fights! Two men got arrested , handcuffed and beaten by police! We managed to get bums onto seats, but we were lucky. No petty crime on board, just drunks and fights for sleeping space. Advice: book your direct Aktau to avoid this problem at 1am. 2-3 days beforehand should be enough. Then it’s 9 hours to Aktau from Beyneu. Shared taxis to the city cost 500 tenge.