The monotonous rattling of the train accompanies us through the steppe of Central Asia. The air that travels with us smells of cooked food and the exhalations of dozens of passengers. Sounds drift over to me from various corners of the wagon: a sawing snore, children’s cries, folk music and a hyperactive radio voice.
Lying in my upper bunk, I seek body contact with the cooling plastic wall because of the summer heat. I am in a twilight state between shallow sleep and nervous glances at my mobile phone: still no reception. I am trapped in the here and now. It is shortly after 3am. It is the beginning of my almost three-week train journey across the endless expanses of Kazakhstan.
I boarded the night train in the former capital, Almaty. At my side is Daulet, my translator. The 26-year-old Kazakh works for the country’s Geographic Society, and I met him on Facebook only a few days ago. His phlegmatic manner gives me a sense of calm. Daulet’s response to suggestions of all kinds is: “Yes, why not? That’s how we do it.” Now he lies in his blue work jumper in the bunk across from mine, snoring.
Outside, a whistle sounds, newly arrived passengers prepare their night’s lodging, and the train starts up again. We fall back into our monotonous rhythm. Gradually, sleep overcomes me, despite all the unfamiliar sensory stimuli.
A few weeks before, I was looking at a map of Kazakhstan and wondering how to get around this vast country. I soon found out that the state railway company is the country’s largest employer, with 146,000 employees. Nevertheless, the railway network is only 16,000km long – far less than Germany’s, although Kazakhstan is the same size as central Europe.
The majority of the country consists of vast plains, sometimes merging into hills, and almost half is covered by sand or gravel deserts. The only mountainous area is in the south-east, where the Tian Shan mountain range runs along the border with China and Kyrgyzstan.
Among the country’s 48,000 lakes is the Aral Sea, which has almost dried up. It is one of the greatest environmental catastrophes of the last decades, caused by large-scale cotton cultivation during the Soviet era.
In the morning, I roll out of my bunk bed and climb down the ladder. A few fellow passengers are already there, eyeing me curiously. Foreigners are a rarity on Kazakh trains. On my 7,500km journey, I will meet only three western travellers. I introduce myself to the passengers with Daulet’s help. Practically no one speaks English here; in this far corner of the world, Russian is still the lingua franca.
Daulet and I wander through the train and in the last carriage we meet Mayra, a 52-year-old woman who invites us into her compartment with an infectious laugh. Her friendly face and spirit sweep away my tiredness. She offers us boiled meat from a plastic bag, which I gratefully decline. “Vegetarian probably, like all Europeans!” she screeches indignant and amused at the same time. “You can’t even defend yourself if you don’t eat meat. Kazakhs are born to be warriors; that’s why they eat a lot of meat!” she says and promptly challenges me to an arm-wrestling match, which I accept but quickly admit defeat.
In Kazakhstan, food plays an important social role. In the train compartment, it is constantly shared between passengers, which is considered a sign of respect and hospitality. Tupperware, cups and pots are piled up on the small tables.
Outside the windows, the monotonous steppe passes under a milky sky. “On a train journey, your thoughts are completely free,” Mayra says, leaning back with pleasure. Even as a child, she was often taken along by her parents to a family reunion thousands of kilometres away. “In the past, there was a community between travellers. People shared their secrets with strangers. I started penpal relationships with some people; some continue to this day. Today, most travellers lie there like mute fish, staring at their smartphones 24/7.”
The Kazakh railway network is state-owned and the rolling stock is mostly slow Soviet trains. Each carriage is equipped with three toilets and a kitchen, including a microwave. There is a colossal water boiler in the corridor that can make tea around the clock – or Korean noodle soups, which are very popular among passengers. At least one train attendant supervises each wagon.
We interrupt our attendant Marat while he is washing up in the kitchen. His cabin is cramped and only suitable for sitting or sleeping. On the wall hangs his neatly decorated uniform, which he proudly puts on for our conversation.
“My grandmother worked as a train conductor. As a child I was sometimes allowed to ride along and watched her work with fascination,” the 63-year-old says excitedly. For 30 years, the trains have been his second home.
A little later, the train pulls into a station with screeching brakes. Marat squeezes between the passengers who want to get off, opens the door and then stands proudly in front of the train. A benevolent nature is a prerequisite for this job, he says.
“A few years ago, an older man fell off his bunk bed in the middle of the night and broke his hand. I bandaged his hand with cardboard, let him sleep in my cabin and accompanied him to a doctor the next morning at the first stop. There have also been women who have given birth on the journey.”
As the outskirts of the city of Atyrau slowly glide past the windows in the early morning sunlight, the mood in the carriages is already one of departure. All passengers neatly fold their bedsheets and blanket covers and press them into the train attendants’ hands. The compartments are left exactly as they were found.
In Atyrau, a crowd of people has gathered around the wagon. A newly married couple is returning home from celebrations. Excitedly, the waiting family members clap their hands, and confetti flies through the air. The disembarking couple are congratulated with countless heartfelt hugs.
For our journey, stopovers are rather inconvenient – we usually rest for about 12 hours in run-down hotels near the stations before boarding another train. Most cities are not particularly attractive, with the exception of the former capital Almaty, which is extraordinarily green and surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful mountain scenery. Nur-Sultan, the capital named after the recently deposed president, looks more like the playground of a megalomaniac despot. In the middle of the desert, futuristic buildings are lined up with dilapidated prefabricated buildings. The country’s fascination lies in the many scenic highlights – which we unfortunately only see passing by the window.
At the station in Aralsk, an unusual figure catches my eye. An older man with a long white beard, a grey coat and a black fur hat stands out from the rest of the passengers on the platform. He is travelling alone with a massive suitcase that he is laboriously dragging along behind him. No sooner has the train departed than I set off with Daulet in search of him. We find him in the second-to-last carriage. What happens then surprises not only the two of us but probably the whole carriage: the man starts talking without Daulet having to ask him a question.
His statements are somewhat disorganised – again and again, he slips in quotes from Kazakh philosophers – but by no means uninteresting. “Anyone who still mourns the Soviet Union today is out of his mind! There were no freedoms then; society was godless and lived under constant brainwashing,” he says angrily. The people on the train are all silent and stare at him. “When the Soviet Union was slowly crumbling, our family mostly ate only bread. We only survived because our ancestors had a farm built up through years of hard work! Today’s Kazakhs have all the opportunities, but all they do is complain all the time. It seems that hard work has been unlearned.”
Today’s politics are not perfect either, and the outgoing president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, still promises, as he did 25 years ago, that the best times are yet to come. The mood in the onboard restaurants, however, is always cheerful. Peals of laughter and the smell of soup permeate the wagon, and the serving girls bring one bottle of vodka after another to the exclusively male guests.
Three burly men invite us to their table. While Daulet plays the Muslim card to avoid drinking vodka, I settle for a few glasses. Before each toast, someone has to make a wish out loud. Smoked cheese and salad are served with vodka. The three men quickly become affectionate, constantly wanting to shake my hand – and pouring me more and more vodka. By the sixth glass, I’m shouting that we may all live happily and healthily for ever. Daulet translates my wish, already slightly annoyed.
On our way back to Almaty after more than two weeks, we sit down with two older women in a compartment. Their faces show deep furrows. They move in slow motion but radiate inner contentment. Both wear white headscarves. On the little table is a pack of milk and a teapot. Nubia is peeling an apple, which she, of course, offers to us immediately. Reyma sits cross-legged in her seat and looks at us curiously.
Then the two women begin their story. Both are ethnic Kazakhs, but until 11 years ago, they lived in Afghanistan. “We were among the children of parents who were a thorn in the side of the Soviet state. People like us were put in prison camps at that time. Our parents were aware of this and fled the country.” In Afghanistan, they grew up in Baghlan, near the Tajik border. The Kazakh community in Afghanistan today still numbers several thousand.
Here in Kazakhstan, Reyma says, there is peace, and that is all you need at this age. Well, that and this train journey: “Travelling on rails is the most exciting adventure. You can drink tea all day, meet new people and watch the steppe from the train window. It enlightens my inner self.”
After two and a half weeks, we arrive back in Almaty late in the evening. In total, we have spent 225 hours on trains. Even nights later, I still feel as if I am gently rocked back and forth in my bunk bed on the train as we travel through the pitch darkness.