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Getting around Kazakhstan

BY AIR Given Kazakhstan's huge size, internal flights are an important means of getting around the country. There is a relatively well-developed domestic network, with flights to every regional capital, as well as to a small number of other large towns, such as Semey and Zhezkazgan. Almaty and Astana are the main hubs of the domestic network, though there are also a few direct connections between other cities. The national carrier is Air Astana, a joint venture between the government of Kazakhstan and BAE Systems, which started out in 2002, and took over as national carrier two years later on the demise of Air Kazakhstan. The airlines rapidly expanding fleet is made up solely of Western aircraft: Airbus A-320 and A-321, Boeing 757 and 767 and Fokker 50.

The most important routes, including the flights between Almaty and Astana and those serving Atyrau and Aktau, use Boeing and Airbus aircraft and offer service standards to match those of western European carriers: travel from Astana to Almaty on a Friday evening, or Almaty to Astana on the last flight on Sunday, and the plane will be filled with senior Kazakhstani officials, heading between work in Astana and second homes in Almaty. Air Astana's flights to smaller regional capitals across northern Kazakhstan are different in character: these are 'social' routes, subsidised by the Kazakhstan government, and for which the ticket price is low. The downside is that they tend to be contracted out to other companies, such as Tulpar Air Service, who use old Soviet aircrafts, typically the Antonov An-24, a 44-seat twin turboprop which first flew in 1960 and which NATO for some reason gave the reporting name 'Coke' - a plastic cupful of which is likely to be about the highlight of the in-flight service you get.
There are other Kazakhstani airlines serving domestic routes. The largest network after Air Astana is that of a Shymkent-based airline named Scat, whose logo is a propeller, a fact which gives you an indication of the type of aircraft you are likely to fly on. Their network is strongest in southern and western parts of Kazakhstan, with flights across the Caspian to various destinations in the south Caucasus, and they also serve several local airports in East Kazakhstan Region. Their prices are somewhat lower than those of Air Astana (at the time of research, an economy- class flight from Shymkent to Almaty with Scat was T'14,200, against prices starting at T17,000 with Air Astana). But their fleet is made up mostly of Antonov An-24 turboprops, supplemented with a few real curiosities, including a couple of leased BAC 1-1 Is, veteran British jet airliners formerly in service with the Romanian airline Tarom. On some local routes within East Kazakhstan Region, they still use the Antonov An-2, a propeller-driven biplane which first flew in 1947, carries up to 12 passengers, and has been given the affectionate nickname Kukuruznik ('maize worker') since it was originally designed predominantly for agricultural use.

The remaining domestic airlines serve just one or two routes. They include Zhetisu Airlines, which operates the route between Taldykorgan and Astana; SemeyAvia, which has flights between Semey and Almaty; and Kokshetau Airlines, which has a route from Almaty to Kokshetau, then on to Petropavl. All use the Yakovlev Yak-40, a veteran three-engined aircraft, entered through a door in the rear of the plane, and nicknamed the 'Hying whistle' because of its distinctive humming sound. The Yak-40 has relatively little baggage space, so bear in mind that your baggage allowance on these flights may be lower than usual. Zhetisu Airlines for example allows only 10kg.

Check-in procedures typically start 90 minutes before the scheduled flight time, closing 45 minutes before take-off, though confirm the situation for your specific flight when you book. Snow and fog can cause flight cancellations and lengthy delays, even at Kazakhstan's major airports, so keep this in mind if you are travelling during the winter months.

BY RAIL While not a fast way to travel - taking their long stops at stations into account, Kazakhstan's trains average something like 40km/h - the train is a great way to appreciate the enormity of the country, as you sweep through great expanses of steppe and desert, and offers good opportunities for interacting with the local people, who will be your companions for many hours. It is also worth bearing in mind that train travel is less likely to be disrupted by winter weather menaces such as freezing fog than is domestic air travel.

Services are operated by Kazakhstan's national rail company, Kazakhstan Temir Zholy. There are some local trains, known as elektrichki, though these often compete rather poorly time-wise with bus services to the same destinations. But it is the long-distance train which really symbolises rail travel in Kazakhstan. These typically offer up to four classes of accommodation, though not all are available on all trains. A lyux compartment converts into two beds; a kupe into a four-bunk compartment. Both of these compartments are lockable. A platzkart is a six-bunk open compartment. Some trains also have an obshy ('general') compartment, where you don't get a bed at all. Lyux and kupe compartments offer more comfort and security, though a platzkart gives you the opportunity to interact with a wider range of local people. Prices are markedly cheaper than flying. At the time of writing, for example, tariffs on the Almaty to Shymkent route ranged from T2,500 for a place in a platzkart to between T6,000 and T7,000 for one in a lyux.

Railway carriages typically have a toilet at either end, and there is also a samovar at the end of every carriage, dispensing hot water. The attendant on each carriage sells tea bags, if you haven't brought your own. The attendant also doles out bedding, for which a small charge is payable. The safest place to store your bags is in the containers beneath the seats/lower bunks. Kazakhstani train passengers typically bring industrial quantities of food with them, supplementing their supplies en route at stations, where there are invariably plenty of places to buy pies, snacks, fruit and drinks on the platforms. If there is a restaurant car on the train, it will scarcely be used. Your enjoyment of the experience of travelling by train will depend heavily on your fellow passengers. Most travellers report positive experiences of friendly welcomes and hospitable sharing of food, though insistent requests from the fellow occupants of your compartment that you join them in vodka toasts can quickly become wearing. Drunken passengers on trains can also prove a real problem.

There is one notably fast domestic train in Kazakhstan, the overnight Tulpar service between Almaty and Astana, which feels much more like a western European fast train than the typical slow-paced Kazakhstani long-distance trains and which makes only three stops en route. The modern Tulpar with its pale blue interior decor nonetheless does not get universally high marks from the Kazakhstani travelling public, as it is rather cramped when compared with the slow and sedate older trains. Instead of samovars at the end of the carriages, there are plastic water coolers. A sign of the times, I suppose. Services on the Tulpar are much more expensive than on other trains, and there is a further supplement if you use it on a weekend or public holiday. Tariffs on the Tulpar at the time of writing ranged from around T11,000 for a platzkart place during the week (compared with T4,500 for a platzkart on an ordinary Almaty to Astana train) to some T19,500 for a lyux at the weekend, not far short of the cost of an economy-class air ticket.

One word of caution regarding train travel in northern Kazakhstan: the railway network, dating from Tsarist and Soviet times, shows no concern for the borders of the independent countries of the former Soviet Union. Between several Kazakhstani regional capitals the railway dips into and then back out of Russian territory. This is the case between Uralsk and Aktobe, Aktobe and Kostanai, and Semey and Ust- Kamenogorsk. You may therefore need a Russian transit visa to take these routes. The rules in this area appear however to be hazy. For example, the Kazakhstan train from Moscow to Almaty enters Kazakhstan and then passes briefly back into Russian territory, before going back into Kazakhstan again. It is a moot point therefore whether you actually need double-entry Russian and Kazakhstani visas to take it. However, at the time of research, most travel agents seemed to be advising that single-entry visas for each country were sufficient, though you should check this point when you book.
Kazakhstani long-distance trains get booked up: you should therefore aim to buy your ticket well in advance of travel. Buying through a travel agency will cost you more in agents commission, but will save you the strains of a disorderly queue and often abrupt, harassed service at the railway station booking office.

BY ROAD Intercity buses tend to be both a little faster and cheaper than the train. The fare for the 13-hour trip from Almaty to Shymkent was for example around T2,200 at the time of research. The quality of buses serving intercity routes in Kazakhstan is gradually improving, but there are still a fair few clapped-out examples around. In general, buses make a reasonable option for trips of up to a few hours between adjacent cities, but the train is a more comfortable option for really long-distance travel.

Also plying the roads between Kazakhstani cities, and generally also leaving from outside the bus station, are minivans, or marshrutkas. Unlike buses, these generally do not operate to a fixed timetable, but leave when the van is full, or when the driver is bored of waiting. These tend to be faster than the buses, but journeys can at times be quite alarming, with the drivers, in a hurry to maximise the number of trips they make, racing faster than the condition of the road or van often warrants. Another, slightly more expensive, option is a shared taxi. These are considered to have four seats, and again depart when the taxi is full. You should specify that you only want one seat, as drivers will probably assume that foreigners want to hire the whole car. Hie front seat is the one to aim for if you get the choice (you won't, unless you're the first customer, in which case you'll then have to wait for three more clients before the taxi is ready to depart). Again, be warned that some drivers have a reckless approach to the road. You should check before you agree on the car that seat belts are fitted, and working. Finally, hiring the whole taxi is an option worth considering, for example if you're getting bored waiting for other passengers to turn up, or you want to go to the kind of destination not usually served (for example an archaeological site, for which you'll need to negotiate a price carefully, stipulating how long the driver will be expected to wait at the site, and that he will bring you back). Hiring a full taxi costs four times the fare for one person on a standard intercity route.

If driving your own vehicle, be sure to take plenty of water, food and fuel, as rest stops are infrequent and the intermittent petrol stations, particularly in the west ol Kazakhstan, do run dry. The sight of a fellow motorist hitching by the side of the road with a plastic jerry can in hand is unnervingly frequent, and there is no pretence at a breakdown service. At the time of writing, the M32 between Uralsk and Shymkent, and the main road between Shymkenl and Almaty, undergoing major reconstruction work. Although once completed the new roads will significantly reduce driving times in the south and the west of Kazakhstan, in the meantime drivers should anticipate delays, diversions and long stretches of off- road driving. A snow shovel in winter is useful and can be bought in the bazaars.

URBAN TRANSPORT Regional capitals and other large towns in Kazakhstan are generally served by reasonably efficient urban public transport networks, comprising some combination of buses, minibuses, trolleybuses and trams. Fares are very cheap: typically T30-40. In Almaty you can expect to pay T25 for a tram ride and T50 for the bus. The vehicles in service are often decidedly elderly. Note though that services generally cease running well before midnight. These are supplemented by a well-developed unofficial taxi system. Hail a car simply by standing by the side of the road and making an up-and-down motion with an outstretched, downward-pointing arm. Agree destination and price before you get in, taking the opportunity to size up the driver (see Safety, page 42, for advice regarding the use of unofficial taxis, which always carries some element of risk). Typical fares at the time of research ranged from around T300 for a trip within the city centre of one of the smaller regional capitals to perhaps double that for an equivalent trip in Astana or Almaty. All the main towns in Kazakhstan also have official taxis which can be telephoned. The relevant city entries in this guide give a selection of phone numbers. Phoning for a taxi is more expensive than hailing a car on the street, though it has important safety benefits and is particularly recommended at night.