Almaty - Urumqi by train: reports, Q&A

The Silk Road by train. Experts: Milad, Provodnik
Hubert64
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Re: Almaty - Urumqi by train: reports, Q&A

Postby Hubert64 » Fri Sep 20, 2019 5:48 pm

Hi,

I registered with your great community just for this post. I thought some of you might find my experience of today helpful.
I went to Almaty 2 train station and managed to buy a ticket for the train to Urumqi on Monday, October 21, at 08:53 (Almaty time). I have attached a photo I took of the timetable on display in the station. Sorry for the bad quality - since I am doing this on my phone I needed to resize the image by sending it through Whatsapp.

According to the timetable, train no. 104 leaves Almaty 2 for Urumqi Mondays at 08:53 local time and train no. 14 leaves for Urumqi at 0:22 local time on Sundays.

The arrival time in Urumqi for train no. 104 is indicated on my ticket as 08:54 the next day (not quite sure which time zone that refers to).

Tickets may be bought on site only at the official Kazakh railway ticket office, the entrance for which is to the right of the main entrance to the building as you stand in front of it. The ticket counters you will find if you go inside first and then turn right are those of private companies. Look for the state railway emblem in a large hall with a stucco ceiling and a chandelier.

You will need to take a number and wait your turn. However, since apparently only one of the 5 or 6 desks sells tickets to Urumqi you will probably be told to wait for that desk to become available even if your number has already been called. The price for a 2nd class (kupe) ticket is approximately 43.500 KZT (slightly more than 100 Euros) and must be paid in cash. Luggage allowance is 30kg per passenger.

Make sure to watch the agent enter your passport data into the computer in order to be able to correct spelling issues or typos in your passport number etc.
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Lubylu
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Re: Almaty - Urumqi by train: reports, Q&A

Postby Lubylu » Sun Sep 22, 2019 3:45 am

Train report: 00.22 Almaty to Urumqi 17th September.

Apologies for the length of this post. Before I did this journey I was really keen for any info from this forum, so I'm including a lot of detail which I hope is useful for those also considering taking this train.

Firstly, the train schedule.
We had read conflicting information online about how many trains per week, etc. The Man in Seat 61 website has correct info. There are 2 trains per week. One is run by Kazakh railways, the other by Chinese railways. The Kazakh train is number 013X (the return is 014X) and leaves Almaty 2 at 00.22 on Sundays, arriving Monday morning. Confusingly, the timetable at Almaty 2 station labels these the other way round (I guess an error). But our tickets definitely said 013X. This train has only kupe. The Chinese Railways train is number 104 and leaves Almaty 2 at 08.53 Monday morning, arriving Tuesday morning. We didn't find out which kinds of tickets there were definitively on this train but there definitely was kupe, possibly others.
These are Kazakh train numbers, in China they are referred to by K numbers - we were K9798 for the 013X.
These are the only two trains running each week. No trains leaving on Tuesday as reported by some websites.

Secondly, buying tickets.
I'd seen ticket prices quoted online by Real Russia and Tutu but neither of these could guarantee you a ticket, they would just act as an agent to then get hold of one for you.
On our arrival in Almaty 1 we chatted to a really helpful lady at the ticket desk. She could only see the Kazakh train in her system & quoted 44,928 tenge to travel that night. She couldn't yet sell tickets for the following weekend.
Later in the week, failing to find a helpful agent anywhere in the city, we tried our luck at Almaty 2 - with some trepidation following the reports here that it's the worst place to buy tickets etc but in fact our experience was really positive (possibly because we were buying expensive international tickets?)
On arrival at Almaty 2 don't go in the main entrance. A few metres to the right of the entrance is a small section of the building with ticket agency logos in the window with a door in the corner. Go in, you'll find your way to a reasonably large room with ticket desks around the outside and seats in the middle, possibly with a lot of people waiting. Take a ticket from the machine at the entrance to get a number in the queue. When we were there, only one desk could sell international rail tickets (number 5) but just tell whoever's desk you are assigned you want to buy tickets for Urumqi & they will get you to the right desk. Google translate and a bit of dodgy Russian from us made it pretty straightforward. Of course you need your passport. Note - they accept cash only in the Almaty ticket office. There are bankomats in the building.

Below is a list of the quotes we have had:

Ticket office Almaty 2: for the Kazakh train we were quoted on Tuesday for next Sunday 47,000 tenge
Ticket office Almaty 2: for the Chinese train we were quoted on Tuesday for next Monday 43,000 tenge
Ticket office Almaty 1: for the Kazakh train to travel that night (Saturday afternoon quote for the Sunday 00.22) quoted 44,928 tenge
Tutu rail seems to only be able to quote the Kazakh train. Quoted about a week ahead of time 7975 rub = ~47900 tenge
Real Russia >£200 (>100k tenge) again only the Kazakh train possible.

We bought at Almaty 2 ticket office on Tuesday for the next Sunday and the train was not busy at that point, lots of choice over where to go on the train etc.

The train & journey:
No special boarding arrangements at Almaty 2. The train started boarding about 30 mins before departure.
The train was only 4 wagons long leaving Almaty, all kupe. Usual Kazakh railways train. No restaurant car. At no point during the journey did any hawkers get on but there were a few longer stops if you want to buy food.
At Almaty 1 they switched the end of the engine around which was quite quick. Our carriage was probably half full at Almaty 2, then filled up almost full at Almaty 1.
At Aktogai they switched the engine around again, which took around 1h 20 rather than the 31 mins scheduled.
At Aktogai there were a number of kiosks etc to buy food, some hot food available.
There was a long stop at Dostyk to do the wheel change before the Chinese border. We arrived at 17.30, so about an hour late. By this point 4 additional carriages had been added to the train - not sure when this happened. The train was still busy at Dostyk but pretty much everyone got off and weren't continuing to Urumqi. Those staying had a couple of hours to kill at Dostyk for the wheel change - the train goes to another location for this.
What to do at Dostyk - you were allowed to stay on the train for the wheel change if you wanted, most people got off as did we. We later chatted to one guy who stayed on to watch and the videos did look pretty cool. If you're getting off, probably your best bet is to stay around the station. We walked a few blocks from the station - nothing really, a nice view of the mountains. Lots of military, border town. There are two places to eat/drink inside the station - one is more like a restaurant, the other a cafe. We checked out both and concluded the less formal cafe (called Laim) was better unless you want a bigger meal. With your back to platform, this is the one on the left. A pretty decent chicken wrap was 600 tenge, they also did some crazy milkshakes and coffees. They had wifi. There is a small shop and a pharmacy in the station also (both seemed to close at 19.00). There were some pretty basic toilets in the building. No bankomat, cash only for everything.
When the train returned to the platform from its wheel change, they had moved people going to Urumqi into one carriage, as only 8 of us were continuing. We remained in our original carriage & cabin but for other passengers it was maybe a bit odd as the provodnik had moved all their stuff into new cabins. It's probably advisable to have all your bags packed up ready for customs anyway (so all your stuff is in one place) so maybe a good idea to do this prior to arrival in Dostyk in case they have to move you (or just ask them if they will). No one had any issues with stuff being moved, they'd left behind a bottle of water one guy had, provodnik just went to get it for him (all carriages still attached).
We departed 19.35 from Dostyk station to the Kazakh border check.
You could use the toilet after Dostyk before the border stop. Journey takes about 15 mins. If you haven't already packed your stuff up probably good to do it now. You'll also get your arrival card to fill in at this point.
19.55 we stopped for the Kazakh border exit & customs check, all took place on the train as usual. Pretty straightforward, friendly guys. Did some serious looking at our passports presumably as only 8 of us, but otherwise just the usual chitchat about where we'd visited in Kazakhstan and football.
Kazakhs left the train & 21.05 we departed from Kazakh checkpoint. We then travelled through an amazingly fortified and brightly lit Chinese border area, which in itself I found both fascinating and somewhat terrifying.
21.25 Chinese police and customs boarded the train. Most spoke reasonable English. Firstly police had a short talk to each passenger in their cabin - the usual, where are you from, where have you been, look at passport etc. They took away our passports & arrival cards. Then the border police asked to look through our main bags in the cabin. They didn't look too hard but did pay some attention to electronics (not phones yet) and books. No interest at all in the gazillion packets of pills I'd overbought in case someone has diahorrra or a headache for 3 months. They weren't really bothered about smaller bags, just the main bag (that's possibly because we had massively overpacked and they'd seen enough!) so overall it just felt a bit of a semi-check rather than anything thorough. They then asked us to repack our bags, and we were then told to take all our bags with us to the receiving centre a short walk from the platform.
This is like the customs part of a (very small) airport terminal. It's massively overstaffed which means plenty of time to investigate the 8 of us and all our luggage. You wait in line and put your bags through the x ray scanner. Then at the other end they asked to see any books, maps etc we were carrying. They also asked to see any food. My boyfriend again had to empty out most of his bag, I got away without doing it again (probably because the xray showed I had no books or electronics in mine...or again they were just bored of us). They looked in great detail at every book we had*, including notebooks and a sudoku book. Then we sat in a small waiting area next to the x ray, and another police officer came and asked to see any tablet, phone, camera, laptop. They looked through all the photos on my camera and phone. We forgot to give them our tablet at this point - they didn't notice. They took zero interest in our pretty old Amazon fire with all our kindle books on it, despite their obsession with paper books.
I had express vpn, Instagram, WhatsApp, gmail etc etc on my phone, no interest paid, just photos.
While they looked through our phones we were individually sent to a counter next to the waiting area (3m away, you can still see your phone and them looking through it, they didn't take anything away) and have your fingerprints and picture taken. There is only one machine so everyone does this one by one, pretty relaxed. On return to the waiting area they gave back my phone & camera, no questions. Others got a few questions about one or two photos (where were they taken) but nothing major. After some more waiting they returned our stamped passports and the departure sections of the arrival cards.
Eventually after some more waiting we were allowed back to the train. They'd clearly done some serious checking of the train while we were inside, ceiling panels in every cabin pulled down and beds moved around. We sat on the train, some more waiting around, with a few Chinese police pottering about but no one talked to us. Then finally 23.20 (now 01.20) we moved off (so a total of 2 hours at the Chinese border from train arrival to departure).
Chinese police remained on the train having left the border, staying in another cabin, all the way to Urumqi.
The train ran incredibly smoothly from the time of the Chinese border, presumably the benefits of new rails - it was the best night's sleep on a train for me! We moved extremely slowly on the journey from the border to Urumqi and spent a lot of time sitting in one place. Despite the significant delays earlier in the journey we still arrived in good time just outside Urumqi, but had to wait for a platform so arrived at the station at 9.10am (so about 15 mins late). When you look at the distance it's clear there's a huge amount of fat in the timetable - over 9 hours to travel around 570km - presumably to cover for delays at both borders.

Our Kazakh train manager was lovely & really looked after us all through the process from Dostyk onwards, despite our limited Russian. Would be interested to hear if this would also be the case in the Chinese train.

Urumqi station is very large, signs in English as well as Chinese, some of the staff spoke English too, pretty easy to navigate around. Expect multiple passport and security checks on entry or exit to the station.

Happy to answer any questions, just post here.

*A separate note on Lonely Planet China - we'd been aware this might be confiscated at the border. I'd managed to get some sticky funky coloured paper in Almaty to cover it. I also stuck down/stuck pages together with any maps of China and covered any obvious reference to LP/logo on the inner cover pages. They got all our books out both on the train and at the customs centre, and really really looked intently through this book, multiple people studying it. We had several LPs/other guidebooks with us, including LP SE Asia, they scanned every map in them presumably looking for China missing Taiwan. Obviously didn't find it in any book so we were allowed to continue with it. Given the amount of attention they paid to my LP China I was pretty surprised we got it through. We also had it on kindle app too, but no one cares about that seemingly. Another guy also on the train had not covered his and they confiscated it on sight. He had a bit of a row with them about it which I do not recommend. Strangely - despite them telling the other guy it was illegal in China - at no point did any Chinese officer ask us "What is this book?" when they were trying to figure out what it was. Clearly they couldn't read English and were just taught to look at maps - it felt like a bit of a strange game - they want to know what the book is but won't ask(?) It can't be long before they become more sophisticated though and a simple cover doesn't work. LP will have to do something to solve it. Either way - if you want to have it as a reference while you're in China ensure you prepare your disguise beforehand and have a backup plan in case they do take it!
Last edited by Lubylu on Mon Sep 23, 2019 9:39 am, edited 1 time in total.
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BakuBound
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Re: Almaty - Urumqi by train: reports, Q&A

Postby BakuBound » Mon Sep 23, 2019 7:46 am

Just a reminder to those reading this fine report that the intensive searches by customs are peculiar to land borders in the West, and sometimes with Laos. Elsewhere you can expect to bring in your LP without problem.
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MrIdK
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Re: Almaty - Urumqi by train: reports, Q&A

Postby MrIdK » Mon Sep 23, 2019 10:36 pm

Thank you for your report! Could you please upload the train tickets you've got for the train?
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travisthetrout
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Re: Almaty - Urumqi by train: reports, Q&A

Postby travisthetrout » Fri Sep 27, 2019 2:06 pm

Adding on to lubylu‘s excellent post, here a very detailed description of our trip from Almaty to Urumqi, however, with the Chinese train.

Departure: Monday, September 23 @ 08.53
Travellers: two Swiss citizens
Train: K9796 (Kazakh number: 103)

After an easy bording procedure, we were assigned a fourth berth soft sleeper for just the two of us. Two „provodniks“ (no idea what they are called in Chinese), one speaking only Chinese, one also Russian. Thankfully we were in the same wagon (the infamous number 10...) as a group of ten pensioners making their way from Iran to Beijing. They had a guide with them who spoke Russian and some Mandarin and he took us under his wings (although, tbh, it‘s no problem as long as you understand excessive body language).

The train is comfortable and you get fresh linen. There are two toilets (although one didn‘t lock) and an open area with two sinks. There was hot water available but no restaurant car and no posssibility of buying food until late in the evening so stock up in Almaty. Important: there was also no toilet paper provided!

We departed Almaty 2 punctually and were soon at Almaty 1 where the engine changed ends. There must have hardly been any other passengers on the train besides us for the whole trip to the border.

At 13.44 there is a 50-minute stop at Altynkol. You can get out but there is nothing to do or see.

At 14.50 we arrived at the Kazakh border. After a cursory glance in our rucksacks, we were then taken - one at a time - to the end cabin to have our photos taken and passports stamped. No questions asked. Another Kazakh guard then entered our cabin, asked for our passports again, asked if we were going to Urumqi and then informed us that Urumqi was „bad“. Ok, pal, thanks for that. The whole border proceedings took 90 minutes.

16.20: Before reaching the Chinese border you get an immigration card to fill in.

(CHANGE TO BEIJING TIME +2 hours)

19.00: arrival at Khorgas train station. Border proceedings begin. We had read many reports about people entering Xinjiang by land and were expecting the worst. We were - sort of - pleasantly surprised.

After being lead from the train (Passport Check 1) to the immigration building, we lined up to have our bags scanned (Passport Check 2), presumably for explosives or flammable liquids.

We were then escorted to the first waiting area (Passport Check 3) where a rather surly Chinese guard asked for our phones and inspected them intently for 5-10 minutes each. On mine he only looked at my photos, on my girlfriend‘s he looked at photos and a lot of other apps (including a period tracking app, goodness knows what he made of that). No software installed, no other electronics inspected. It is important to note that the group of pensioners were spared almost all of this. Only one of them had her camera checked.

Afterwards we lined up for fingerprinting (Passport Check 4) and were questioned (very politely, I must add) about our visit to China. No special questions just the usual: How many times have you been to China? What are your plans? Do you know anyone in China? (Always reply no to this last one)

Afterwards we had to have our bags x-rayed again and - after being rigorously sniffed by a cute dog - were then told to bring them to an inspection table (Passport Check 5). Here it apparently pays to not be first in line as the first lady going through customs had to unpack most of her stuff. Both my girlfriend and I didn‘t have to open our large rucksacks. For me they were only interested in my small rucksack (my power bank seemed to have a suspicious shape), whereas they looked at the food my girlfriend had in her bag. They asked me whether I had any maps. I said I hadn‘t, to which the gentleman seemed quite surprised („No maps?“ he asked again, twice). He then asked whether we had any book, I said one and showed him our travel diary. Even though our Lonely Planet was visible whilst I did this, they didn‘t seem to notice it so - to our amazement - we managed to get it through. It was weird as it seemed as if I could choose what to show them instead of them unpacking my stuff and looking. Afterwards, they said I could leave and then you only have Passport Check 6 to go, the most amusing one as it is the youngest guard checking you off on a list, at least in theory. As he couldn‘t read Latin script, I had to tell him where I was on the list.

20.30: After 90 minutes, you are officially and legally in China. We were informed by our „provodnik“ that the train leaves at 23.00 (wheel changes) so you have a lot of time to kill.

The train station is an eerie introduction to Xinjiang. There is almost nothing there: no ATM, no timetable, no clocks. There is a small convenience store which opened after a while and where you can buy pot noodles, chocalate, ice cream, drinks etc (and where - according to one online report I read - you can also pay in KZT, we didn‘t try that). There are also toilets and hot water to eat said pot noodles. However, there really is nothing to do except walk around outside of the station for a bit of exercise (and get an introduction to Orwellian Xinjiang with its many cameras, a security check and cloned architecture) as the town centre is around 10km away.

From around 22.00 onwards the station started to fill with Chinese passengers and the only digital sign told us that train K9796 (our one!) was scheduled to leave at 22.26. Finally, an end was in sight. However, our „provodnik“ said that this wasn‘t our train. Ours would depart later at around 23.00.

As the waiting area started filling up, the sign changed and indicated that another train - Y592 to Urumqi - would be leaving at 23.00. As the train pulled in, it looked just like ours and we were ready to board when our „provodnik“ said that this wasn‘t our train either. Ours would depart at 23.15.

Soon, the boarding commenced and everyone except us tourists boarded the train (including our „provodnik“), leaving us pondering as to what was going on. Soon, however, the two ticket ladies ushered us onto the platform and we returned to our carriage number 10. We departed at 23.15, so goodness knows what the right schedule is.

After a comfortable night, we woke up at 08.00 expecting to be in Urumqi for 08.54 as scheduled. Actually, we arrived at 10:40, almost two hours late. We waited for an extremely long time 10km before Urumqi, presumably waiting for a platform. Our „provodnik“ said that we weren‘t late but this was the new schedule. However, who knows.

Some important points:

- The Kazakh train apparently takes a different route from the Chinese train (and takes longer).
- The tickets cost KZT 40‘436 each (we also paid an extra cost for the agent to get them for us).
- According to the ticket office we used to book our tickets, there were almost none left. As there were 9 cabins with four beds each in carriage 10, however only 12 places booked, this leads me to believe, they only put a maximum of two people per cabin and might sell out after 16-18. This might be important for planning in summer months.
- We arrived at Urumqi High Speed Station, which is to the north east of the city. There we had to go through security again before joining the taxi lane for an easy and fast taxi to our hotel.
- Our relatively easy experience might have been influenced by the fact that we were with a group of pensioners. I am pretty sure border proceedings would have been tougher had it been just the two of us.
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