Trans Eurasia travel

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Getting to Kazakhstan

BY AIR The easiest way to get to Kazakhstan from western Europe is by air. Almaty and Astana are the two major international airports and both offer modern terminals (a new passenger terminal recently opened in Almaty). Astana airport is the less busy of the two, and many visitors rate it as providing a smoother passage into the country.

From London, there are flights to Almaty on Air Astana and British Midland. Other airlines serving Kazakhstan from Europe include Lufthansa, KLM, Austrian Airlines, Air Baltic and Turkish Airlines. There are flights from Frankfurt, Hanover, Istanbul, Amsterdam (to Almaty only) and Vienna (to Astana only). There are as yet no direct flights to Kazakhstan from North America, so you will need to route through one of the European hubs. For travellers seeking connections from Australia or New Zealand, Air Astana's routes to Bangkok, Delhi, Beijing or Dubai, or Seoul (served by both Air Astana and Asiana) or Etihad's routings via the Middle East are probably the most helpful.

There are also some international services to western parts of Kazakhstan, and it is worth remembering that the flight from Almaty to Atyrau takes around three hours, that from Astana to Atyrau around two-and-a-half, so if you are coming from western Europe, flying direct cuts an appreciable amount off your journey time. Air Astana serves Atyrau from both Amsterdam and Istanbul, and it is possible to fly to Aktau via Baku in Azerbaijan, connecting with either the Scat or Air Azal services to the Kazakhstani city.

Another possible routing from western Europe to Kazakhstan which may be worth investigating is via Russia. There are two potential advantages here. One is that there are flights from Moscow to a range of regional airports in Kazakhstan, with companies such as Transaero, so if your destination is not Astana, Almaty or Atyrau, you may find that a routing through Moscow is more convenient. Another is cost. But there are some potential downsides too. If you are transiting through Moscow, please note that the city's various airports are located some distance from each other: arrival at Sheremetevo airport and departure from Domodedovo in particular requires a lengthy transfer. You will also need to check whether your flight arrangements necessitate getting a Russian transit visa.

Connections within central Asia are not extensive, but you can fly from Almaty to Ashgabat, Bishkek, Dushanbe and Tashkent, as well as to Urumqi in western China, and there are also connections from Astana to Tashkent and Urumqi. There are services from Almaty, Astana, Atyrau and Aktau to destinations in the south Caucasus.

BY RAIL There is a range of railway connections between Kazakhstan and Russia, and some services to destinations in Ukraine. The most useful service is probably the 'fast' (though this is relative) train which runs every two days between Moscow and Almaty. It is known as Train 8 in the Almaty direction, Train 7 in the Moscow one, or alternatively as The Kazakhstan. It takes more than three full days (you depart Moscow in the late evening of day one, arriving in Almaty in the early morning of day five), and offers a choice of lyux (two-berth sleepers), kupe (four- berth sleepers) or platzkart (bunks in an open compartment) accommodation, plus a restaurant car. The cost of a ticket ranged from around US$160 for a basic platzkart, to over US$500 for a lyux. From Almaty there are other services to the central Russian cities of Novosibirsk, Sverdlovsk and Novokuznetsk, as well as Simferopol in the Crimea. From Astana you can take a train to Moscow, St Petersburg, Kiev, Sverdlovsk, Omsk and Novokuznetsk. Locomotion is certainly not fast, and you are advised to check the timetable carefully to ensure you do not choose a particularly somnolent option. The extent to which you enjoy the experience is likely to depend heavily on the fellow passengers you find yourself sharing a compartment with, and the volume of vodka you are happy to share with them.

One routing being billed as a southerly alternative to the Trans-Siberian Railway is the 'Silk Route' to China, from Moscow to Beijing via Almaty and Urumqi. A number of operators run tours along this route using private trains, aimed at the luxury end of the travel market, but you can travel the route on ordinary trains, starting with Train 8 from Moscow to Almaty. From Almaty there is a twice-weekly service, the Zhibek Zholy, to Urumqi in western China, leaving late in the evening of day one, arriving early in the morning on day three. Since China uses a standard gauge of 1.435m, and Kazakhstan uses the broad gauge of 1.52m found across the former Soviet Union, there is a long wait at the Dostyk border crossing while the bogies are changed. You have a choice of soft class (four-berth sleepers) or hard class (bunks in an open compartment). From Urumqi there is a daily train to Beijing.

As regards rail services south to Uzbekistan, the main route is that of the Tsarist- era Orenburg-Tashkent railway, which runs through Aktobe and Kyzylorda. There are services on this route to Tashkent from Moscow, Chelyabinsk, Ufa and Kharkov. To join this line from Almaty, change at Arys. There is also a weekly train from Almaty to Nukus in Uzbekistan, and a more westerly railway line into Uzbekistan, which runs into the western region of Karakalpakstan. A twice-weekly service from Saratov to Tashkent uses this line, which passes through Atyrau in western Kazakhstan and Samarkand in Uzbekistan. There are also trains terminating in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan but, unless for the love of the train, it doesn't make sense to travel by rail from Almaty to Bishkek, since the routing is so circuitous that the journey is much quicker by road.

The general advice applicable to all trains in Kazakhstan, to buy your tickets well in advance, is even more necessary in the case of international trains. The Almaty- Moscow and Almaty-Urumqi services both have a reputation for booking up quickly.

BY ROAD There are numerous bus services between cities in northern Kazakhstan and various Russian cities. But before shelling out for that bus ticket from Aktobe to St Petersburg, do bear in mind that long bus journeys, even in the 'luxury' coaches which have started to appear on some routes, can be decidedly cramped and uncomfortable. At least in trains you can walk around. Driver fatigue can also be an issue. There are many crossing points between Kazakhstan and Russia along their lengthy land border: the best advice for those travelling under their own steam at these, and indeed at other land border crossings around Kazakhstan, is to arrive early in the day and be patient. Note that most border crossings are not open at night, although the crossing on the M32 north of Uralsk is a notable exception.

The main road crossing of the border with China is at Khorgos, east of Zharkent in Almaty Region. There is a bus most days from the Sairan bus station in Almaty to Urumqi. There are also crossings further north, at Bakhty and Maikapshagai in East Kazakhstan, which may be of interest if you are travelling Chinawards from Ust-Kamenogorsk. As regards Kyrgyzstan, the major border crossing is at Kordai, on the upgraded Almaty to Bishkek road. Buses depart for Bishkek from the Sairan bus station in Almaty, and in summer there are also departures for the popular resort area of Lake Issyk Kul. The border crossing at Kordai is usually fairly straightforward, as is the crossing further west between Taraz and Bishkek, served by marshrutkas. There is another, summer-only, crossing further east, at the Karkara Valley, which makes for a particularly scenic way to get from Kazakhstan to Karakol and the eastern part of Lake Issyk Kul, though note that there is no public transport beyond Kegen in Kazakhstan, around 30km short of the border.

As regards the border with Uzbekistan, the main road crossing is at Chernyaevka, on the main road between Shymkent and Tashkent. Plenty of public transport heads in this direction from Shymkent. Tashkent is only a few kilometres over the border, which is open 24 hours a day. In the event that Chernyaevka is closed, there is another crossing approximately 40km southwest near Abay that is used predominantly by lorries. There are two decidedly remote road crossings much further west, serving Mangistau Region. One of these runs southeast of Beyneu, alongside the railway, into Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan. The other runs south of Zhanaozen, along the east coast of the Caspian, into Turkmenistan, taking you to the port of Turkmenbashi. These options require both pre-planning and for you to either have or hire your own transport.

BY SEA There is a ferry every few days across the Caspian from Baku to Aktau, but it doesn't run to a fixed timetable. You may have to wait up to a week for a boat as one will only leave when its cargo deck is full. The crossing usually takes 16-20 hours (though two to three days is not uncommon on older boats or in bad weather) and the price, negotiable at your point of departure, is US$100-120 per person. You will need to bring your own food on board and may be expected to pay extra for a cabin. If you are travelling to Baku, you will require a visa before leaving Kazakhstan as they are not available on arrival.