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. It is a cheap way to travel Kazakhstan in comfort, meeting locals along the way. We recommend it.
Remember that, like in Russia and China, all trains run on the time of the capital. 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 and during holidays, most trains are sold out days in advance. You need to be prepared, or you might have to get on a bus instead. For the fast train, discounts up to 40% apply if you book well in advance.
Seat and train choice
Slow Kazakh trains have the standard Soviet platzkart (open wagon), kupe (4-berth wagon) and SV/Lyux (2-berth wagon) options. Fast trains do not have a platzkart option. Instead there are 2 types of SV: Grand (with ensuite toilet and shower), and Business (regular SV). Kupe class is called Tourist for fast trains.
If you are confused about this choice, read the overview page on the Silk Road by train for seat buying and route planning advice.
The Kazakh Railways booking site now displays accurate descriptions of the facilities in the train, with pictures. It includes the build year of the wagons and the likelihood of the air-conditioning to work. Click the train number, then click the ‘description’ link just below the train number in the following window. Tutu has a rating system where other passengers have left reviews.
You can book directly from the Kazakh Railways booking site. Before, you could only pay with a CIS-country bank card, but it seems now everyone is allowed to book online. You get a printable e-ticket, no need to go to any train station in advance. It might still not work for you, though, in which case you can try one of the following options.
Trains to/from China can only be booked through a travel agency, not online.
You can buy train tickets on Qiwi payment terminals in shops and kiosks. You can also buy them at the train station, but be ready for a long wait. Also, the clerk might say there are no more tickets available, even though online there are. This is a corruption scheme to force you to buy tickets at exaggerated prices from hawkers milling around the station.
Finally, you can also buy tickets at any travel agency.
It is possible to cancel tickets and get part of your money back at a train station in Kazakhstan. You just need to ask, they will refund you. Online, the procedure is easy as well: just log in to your account, click cancel my ticket, and the money will be refunded. You lose only a small part of the ticket price.
Almaty and Astana both have 2 train stations from where different trains depart and arrive. Be sure to check both when booking a ticket.
The train experience
- Trains are not immune to being delayed for 1 or 2 hours. Do not plan tight connection times.
- Drinking alcohol on the train is officially no longer allowed. Depends on you if that is a good or a bad thing.
- If you have an overnight journey, you will get sheets, a pillow and a blanket.
- Luggage storage is under the bottom bunk.
- Toilets can be nasty. Do not forget to bring toilet paper.
A number of train stations have retained their Soviet names, which makes it difficult to find them in online booking platforms. These are:
|Place you want to go to||Old name needed for booking|
|Almaty||Alma Ata (1 or 2)|
- Like elsewhere in Central Asia, all major train stations have a luggage room open 24/7 where you can deposit your luggage for a small fee. In Russian, it’s called a “kamera khraneniya”.
- Most train stations have (very basic) hotels attached to them. These are very cheap places to sleep. But they are usually a bit nasty.
- Many train stations in Kazakhstan were built during Tsarist times and have opulent pre-Soviet interiors and exteriors. Well worth to have a look.
This is the old Soviet train system, that moves at the speed of thoughts, and has so many warm memories and romanticism attached to it. Trains are relatively spacious and comfortable, and you can while away the hours chatting to your neighbours or looking up from your book, watching the landscape out the window.
As elsewhere, you will be invited to share food brought on the train in copious amounts by your fellow passengers. Selling food on the train is now forbidden, so there are less food hawkers nowadays, but during stops there is enough time to buy food on the platform. A samovar provides hot water, but bring a cup.
One issue is the heating. AC may or may not be present, depending on the age of the train, and if you have an old woman or young child in your vicinity (high probability), windows will be ordered shut. It can get very hot, both in summer and winter.
The fast Talgo train goes about 80% quicker than the slow train and operates on most inter-city stretches as an alternative for the slow train. This is not high-speed rail. The train has max speeds of 150 km/hr instead of 100 km/hr with the slow train.
A restaurant and bar wagon are attached. We have no reviews on the food yet, only that the prices are about double that from a normal bar or restaurant. Like the slow trains, Talgo trains are all a bit different: Tashkent-Almaty is roomy and smooth, Astana-Almaty more cramped and with a cheap, plastic finish. Shymkent-Almaty can be very bumpy.
Trains dipping in and out of Kazakhstan
Quite a few train lines built in the good-ol’ 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: Depends. There is a daily Talgo train that runs between the 2 cities in 6 hours and bypasses Russian customs. A slower 10-hour train however does still cross the Russian border and you need to have the proper papers for that one. Slow trains to Almaty and Astana also use this route, start/stop your rail journey at Aqtobe if you need a Russian visa.
Saratov – Astrakhan: No passport control here even though it goes through Kazakhstan twice. No Kazakh visa needed.
Oskemen – Semey: Not certain but we assume you need a Russian visa here.
Tips on route planning
There are 2 train stations in Almaty. Almaty-2, located on Ablai Khan street, is in the center. Almaty-1 is located 20 minutes out of town. Make sure you know where you need to be. From both train stations, there is plenty of transport into the city.
(Astana) – Almaty – Urumqi train
The train from Almaty to Urumqi takes around 30 hours and costs around 120$. Find out more about your options at the Astana-Almaty-Urumqi train thread and the Almaty-Urumqi train thread. For info on buses and flights to Urumqi, see how to get from Almaty to Urumqi.
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.
Trains to/from China can only be booked with a travel agency, not online.
Almaty – Tashkent train
From Almaty you can take a train to Tashkent via Shymkent. It used to be quicker if you took a train to Shymkent and crossed the border to Tashkent by marshrutka instead. The issue was a 4-hour border halt: very hot in summer as the AC switches off.
However, since March 2017 a direct Talgo-train links Almaty and Tashkent in about 16 hours, 10 hours quicker than before. The train runs thrice-weekly. You can take your bike, but it’s uncomfortable. More experience reports welcome here.
If you prefer the slower version (not necessarily cheaper), train number 21 still runs from Almaty to Nukus. On this train, Almaty – Tashkent takes 26 hours (with 4-hour border halt). To go to Nukus, add another 24 hours. This train also stops at Samarkand.
Almaty – Bishkek train
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.
Aqtau/Atyrau – Beyneu – Kungrad train (Caspian Sea – Karakalpakstan)
There is a direct service from Atyrau to Kungrad, and beyond to Nukus, Urgench, Samarkand and Tashkent. A slower local train only goes from Kungrad to Beyneu. If you want to connect from Aqtau, you need to first get to Beyneu, then hop onto another train to Kungrad in Uzbekistan (Aqtau-Nukus train forum Q&A).
The border control on the Kazakh side happens in Beyneu: add an extra hour before/after you get off the train to pass the border guards. Beware, Aqtau is called Mangyshlak for train services.