How to Take the Train

For anyone who really wants to get to know Kazakhstan, I recommend taking a train somewhere. It’s a full-on experience.

First off, this website has good information too (on all things Central Asian travel!).

IMG_6457A slow train

Schedules

I like to look at e.gov for a broad overview of the Almaty and Astana schedules. It’s in English but it’s not entirely fulsome. For example, I just got back from Ust-Kamenogorsk, which isn’t on the this site.

Look directly on the rail website for all schedules. However, you’ll need to use a Cyrillic keyboard. If you have a smartphone, it’s a good idea to add a Cyrillic keyboard and familiarize yourself with the letters when you’re in this area anyways.

Once you have Cyrillic keys sorted, just type in the names of the cities to see the options! Except, it’s Kazakhstan, so of course it’s not that simple, you dummy!

For example, when I bought my ticket from Astana to Almaty there were two options for Almaty. Why is there АЛМА АТА 1 and АЛМА АТА 2? When in doubt, check each one out by selecting an option and clicking on Поиск мест. In this case, I knew offhand to pick АЛМА АТА 2.

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Despite the language difference, the schedule is pretty straightforward.

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Speed and Price

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 A fast train

There are “slow” trains and there are “fast” trains. I’ve taken both and don’t have a preference in terms of the actual train itself. It really depends on time v. cost. For example, with the trains going from Astana to Almaty, you’re looking at 12 hours v. 20-something hours and 5000 tenge v. 13,000 (one-way). It’s really not that much more to fly to Almaty than take the fast train round-trip.

A lot of expats will train one way and fly the other when doing a trip within Kazakhstan.

Buying Tickets

Hang in there for a bit longer because buying the ticket is the hardest part. Buy as early as possible in the summer months since apparently trains often sell out.

On the rail site, I believe only Central Asian bank cards work. If you have one, then you probably also know someone who speaks Russian and you should ask them for help. Or if you know a bit of Russian/are feeling brave, use this guide I made.

Picking a Seat

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A non-passenger train

On the trains I’ve taken, there have been 3 classes: luxe/люкс (1st class), kupe/купе (2nd class), and platzkart/плацкартный (3rd class). Though it seems slower trains just have kupe and platzkart.

Kupe is generally comprised of a closed compartment for 4, with two bunk beds. Platzkart has 6 beds (3 bunks). On the two trains I’ve taken, I’ve been in kupe. Though I bought a train ticket to Almaty on the fast train for later this month in platzkart that looks to only have two beds. So, I’m confused but that’s okay.

On slow trains, it’s best to be on the lower bunk because there’s more room (especially for us tallies). On fast trains, it’s the opposite and best to pick the top bunk.

During the day, there are no bunks, and there are just seats. At night, you need to ask the conductor to put the beds down. I find the beds pretty comfortable! Much better than the 6-bed sleeping compartments I’ve been in on trains in Europe. The cabins on the slow trains are bigger and have more room. Space is tighter on the fast train so I think a kupe compartment would be a bit awkward with strangers.

What to Bring/On the Train

Kazakhstan is a big country, so prepare to be on the train for a long time, no matter where you’re going!

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Train bedding/towel

If it’s an overnight train, you’re given a set of bedding to use, including a pillow and a towel. Here’s a list of other things, compiled by my co-worker who gave me the same solid advice for my first train ride:

  • Passport
  • Wear something light since it’s blasted with heat in the winter and not air-conditioned in summer
  • Flip-flops or slip ons for walking around (bathroom floors get soaked because it’s impossible to wash your face without creating a total deluge)
  • A toiletry bag (it can be a hassle to get at your things after you make your bed, so bring a small bag to keep out with necessities)
  • Mug, spoon, fork, sharp knife
  • Books! Cards! Whatever keeps you busy. The fast trains have outlets if you want to watch movies on your laptop.
  • Food (anything that doesn’t need to stay cold or be cooked)
  • Water (if you’re on the slow train)
  • Water bottle (if you’re on the fast train)

There’s as much hot water as you could desire on the slow train and the train makes stops but they tend to be short and it’s more like a gas station run, in terms of food. There is both hot and cold water on the fast trains.

Bring food that’s good for sharing, whether you’re by yourself or with friends! Kazakhs are generally really forthcoming and happy to share.

There is also a restaurant car on the fast trains, which is absolutely terrible for food but good for beers. You might get shushed multiple times because your fellow passengers are likely not accustomed to inherently loud North American/British gals.

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 I opened this bottle of wine with a hairbrush since none of us brought a corkscrew

I’ve heard it’s not really okay to bring your own alcohol on the slow trains but as long as you’re low-key, it should be fine.

I haven’t had an issue but it’s a good idea to lock your compartment door before you go to sleep since a local friend told me that one time she woke up to a dude sitting on the end of her bed and not budging. Even though she was able to speak with him in Russian, of course, and tell him to go away.

How Early to Arrive

You’ll want to arrive at the train station at least 30 minutes beforehand. Look for your car number and seat and show your ticket and whatever form of ID you listed when buying the ticket (likely, your passport).

Bicycles

Apparently it’s not a big deal to bring a bike on Kazakh trains – I’ll report back once I’ve done so at the end of this month! I picked a platzkart with only one bunk (still not sure how I got a platzkart with only two beds) so I can lean my bike on the wall side. But I also noticed one car of the train had a bicycle sign on it, so perhaps some trains now have special storage rooms.

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The steppe goes on and on and, on and on (video here)

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Russian Problems (Motion Verbs)

IMG_7317I had always though that Russian was an okay language, in terms of ease. I started dishing a bit of side eye after learning case formation with numbers, (1 of something = nominative singular, 2-4 of something = genitive singular, 5-0 or 11-20 of something = genitive plural, and some things, like potatoes, are “uncountable”). But it’s the motion verbs that had me consider quitting.

You don’t need to know anything about languages to appreciate this clusterfuck*.

There are four verbs used to express motion: Ходить Идти Ездить Ехать

  • Ходить Идти mean to go by foot
  • Ездить Ехать mean to go by transport
  • You generally go “by foot” whenever you refer to going somewhere in the city (without defining a mode of transport), even if you used transport.
  • Regularly scheduled trains and buses go “by foot”
  • Irregularly scheduled transportation goes by the “transportation” verbs
  • Rain and snow go “by foot”
  • Идти and Ехать indicate one direction
  • Ходить and Ездить indicate that going somewhere and coming back
  • The “one direction” verbs are used to state motion at a specific time or duration of time
  • Present tense is used to express a future plan to go somewhere
  • Идти and Ехать are used to express plans to go somewhere
  • Unless they are uncertain plans, then a different (future perfective) form of those verbs is used
  • If someone just left, perfective forms are also used
  • Anything done with frequency uses Ходить and Ездить
  • If you “love” to go somewhere, it implies frequency
  • Even if someone never goes somewhere, the frequency verbs are still used, because “never” is a type of frequency
  • The word for “now” (indication a specific time) can also mean “nowadays” (indicating frequency). The only way to tell the difference is context
  • Swearing at someone to “go to X” requires using Идти

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This snow walked

Asides (aka things I’ve Tweeted)

There is a formal and an informal word for potatoes

There is no word for “gravy” in Russian. Everything is “sauce.” The most successful definition I’ve found for Russian native speakers is “meat juice.” This came up when my Russian teacher asked me to write out a recipe for a Canadian food and of course I chose poutine because what else do we have?

Seven months of lessons and I can talk at people very nicely about the food I’d like to eat.

 

*May very well contain some mistakes.

How to Go to Almaty (and Avoid Arrest)

Almaty is the biggest city in Kazakhstan and was the capital up until 1997, when that title was bestowed on Astana. It’s an older city with lots character, cafes, parks, and mountains, and milder weather due to its location in the south. From Astana, you can take a 20-hour or 12-hour overnight train ride and easily spend a week exploring the city and surroundings. If you splurge on the 1.5 hour flight ($200-350 depending how far in advance you book), it makes for a good weekend trip.

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Uzbek pottery

I’ve been in Astana for about three months now and was feeling a bit antsy to get away but a trip to Almaty seemed a bit expensive, considering that I could only go for two days. But the steppe currently looks and feels like an apocalyptic arctic backdrop and so I went ahead and bought a ticket and booked a tour guide for Saturday to go into Alatau – Eliy National Park to see some greenery and land elevation.

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Our guide, Marat, picked Sophie and I up at 10am with a plan to hike up to Big Almaty Lake and hit Sunkar Falcon Farm on the way back. We rented an apartment and there were no coffee shops nearby so we asked to stop at a cafe on the way. He always drinks coffee at home and he also explained that cafes are constantly opening and shutting down and so this proved difficult. The first place didn’t have any coffee ready yet and the second place had coffee and to-go cups but no lids. Marat kindly waited to begin the drive until we had half-finished our cups since the hour-long way to the Park is very bumpy. It was the first of many times that he demonstrated his capacity for patience that day.

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Locals are allowed to drive right up to the Lake but foreigners must stop at a makeshift guarding point and hike up. I asked why but asking “why” in KZ is often the equivalent of asking a rhetorical question. I could tell the hike was a bit strenuous for Marat and I admired his tactic of stopping every so often to tell us some history or a story, while we all caught our breath. His favourite descriptor was “Stalin-style” and his stories ranged from telling us about the inspiration behind A Clockwork Orange, to why Kazakhs hate walking, to all of the people he knows who have been accidentally killed by guns (2). Somehow, this didn’t come off as dark, at the time.

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The lake was completely breathtaking, a perfect saturated blue. Formed from a glacier, it’s a protected source of drinking water. Visitors cannot walk along the edge of the lake, which accounts for its pristine condition. Foreigners and locals alike have to hike/drive above and walk down aways. Marat mentioned something about a big rock and stayed up top, letting Sophie and I on our own. I walked halfway down the muddy side and sat for a bit. Another tourist came up from the lakeside and seeing that she managed to make it up without slipping on the wet ground, I headed down. Sophie followed and we took some photos.

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Kind of worth it.

We were about to go back when a policeman with a huge gun approached us. He spoke no English but told us we had to follow him and said something about being arrested and made handcuff motions and talked about fines and generally looked very stern and unimpressed. I then realized Marat meant we weren’t supposed to go past the big rock by the lake because it’s an unmarked border. Uncertain of where we were heading, we were eventually passed off to a friendlier, gunless policeman. I motioned to make a phone call and explained the situation to Marat who said he’d come meet us by the lake.

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Marat and the friendly policeman

The friendly policeman also spoke absolutely no English but was very interested in speaking with Sophie and me. We chatted a bit but I mostly had to answer, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.” He then said, “you are very beautiful,” and I said, “thank you” and he laughed so hard that out of my limited Russian, I can clearly understand when someone is giving me a compliment. He also said Sophie was very beautiful and asked if we had husbands and then I began using a trick I picked up from a friend here – when Russian-speakers are getting too flirtatious, don’t let on that you know what they’re saying. So when he tried to to link arms and said we should fly to Canada together, I exclaimed, “I don’t know!” and traipsed quickly ahead.

Marat met us with the stern policeman and told us to keep smiling and all would be well. That was easy because I had been giggling the entire time. The other tourists took photos of us as we walked to headquarters, which was a small white shack similar to the kind you see in nature documentaries that feature photographers who stake out for years for the perfect snow leopard shot. It was a giant kitchen/garbage can. Marat talked our way out of arrests and fines and into simply writing statements. I was given a blank piece of paper and a pen. With no instructions, I began by writing the date in the top right corner. The policemen didn’t like that and so they turned the paper over and made me start again.

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Directly in front of me on the table, there was a container of dish detergent labelled, “BARF.” I clearly have poor common sense but even I knew it would be entirely inappropriate to laugh out loud. I have never bit my cheek so hard.

After our statements were signed we were on our way. Except Marat had forgotten his walking poles at the top of the lake so he ran up the long distance ahead to get them. I tried to offer to go instead since I felt terrible but he insisted we go ahead. By this time, I really had to pee and generally have no problem going outdoors (bicycle travelling makes you comfortable) but I didn’t want to risk another brush with the law.

A long time passed and Marat eventually caught up with us, breathless. He made us lunch in a sunny spot and we rested for a while. Sausage, cheese, Mr. Noodles: it was as if I’d placed advanced requests for the meal. The manager of the falcon farm notified him that the daily show time was changed last minute from 3:00 to 5:00, so we had a lot of time to kill. We told him we were okay not seeing the show but he wouldn’t hear of it.

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The falcon farm was terrifying and sad and beautiful and I felt conflicted the entire time.

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The birds are trained to hunt and sold. But who buys them?

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Marat walked around a bit, told me all he knew about the animals and then waited in the car while the show took place. We drove back and just before dropping us off he accidentally backed into a children’s playground.

As someone who works in a customer service position, I often wonder how other people feel when providing a service. There was no speculation in this instance.

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Picture of a jerk

Essential Russian Phrases

I’m four weeks into Russian lessons*. Major accomplishments include:

  • Being able to order an americano with milk, both to stay and to-go!
  • Passive-aggressively yelling “FINE!” at a taxi driver.
  • Last week, the corner store lady asked if I could understand Russian, I said yes and then she told me I looked nice that day.

My преподаватель is a lovely woman who teaches lessons to all the expats studying Russian here at the university. I’m sure there are other options out there but she’s so very good and already on campus so often, what would be the point in looking elsewhere? She’s also endeared herself to me forever because she once asked me if I was a ballerina.

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Language books continue to be racist.

We meet for an hour and a half once a week, one-on-one, which is ideal for me. She tells me my reading and writing is very good and she’s impressed by my memory but my conversational skills need a lot of work. When someone speaks Russian to me, I feel as if I’ve just been passed the ball in soccer and I get so panicky that I forget everything and kick/blurt as fast as I can in an aimless direction. I get especially nervous when people I know are around. My friend Kevin (who is fluent in like 7 languages) doesn’t think I know, but I KNOW, that he was laughing at the way I pronounced “coffee” in Russian yesterday. Or maybe my self-consciousness just makes me crazy. It’s probably both. If only more people had been around to hear my flawless зеленый чай order later that afternoon.

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There are many sites out there that will tell you basic Russian phrases but how often am I going to say “I’m looking for John?” So here is my comprehensive list of phrases/words that I actually use on a regular basis and I think, would be helpful for visitors here. I’ve also linked them to pronunciations on Forvo, rather than write garbled phonetic strings. And if you want to learn/brush up on the Russian alphabet, this is my favourite site.

General

Getting a Taxi

Once you’ve flagged down a cab, go up to the driver and say the name of your location. Then if they say да (yes), you ask сколько. Agree on a number, which will probably be between 500-1000 tenge and off you go.

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Thanks!

Restaurants

Можно means “may I” and is used to preface any ordering.

Putting this altogether, here’s how you could order two beers: Можно два пиво, пожалуйста. And then you will probably be asked a question, which I always assume is about the size and so I automatically respond with a size-related answer: Нул пять. If it turns out to be about something else, then a не понимаю is in order.

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The power was out over the weekend. That’s the building I live in.

Cafes

You have to ask for milk when you order since it’s not kept on the counter. Things like latte and cappuccino are all pronounced the same way, except the “i” in Americano is pronounced like an “ee,” and roll the “r” if you can.

Deciding Which Dumplings to Buy

Potato is best, in my books. Mushroom is worst (said by someone who likes mushrooms).

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One of the last morning runs I’ll go on for some time, probably.

Taxi Conversations 

Sometimes taxi rides are really long and often the drivers want to have a conversation or know more about you. Here are some common questions they ask and answers you can give (I got lazy about the pronunciation linking here. There aren’t links to the full phrases, anyhow):

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I went to the Canadian Embassy for Thanksgiving. Best sugar pie of my life.

*This post is not conducive to photos and so there are some random ones throughout.

Russian Problems #2

hairdresser

I went with a friend to his appointment at a salon.

Hairdresser: Coffee? (the word sounds the same in Russian as it does in English)

Me: Да (yes).

Hairdresser: Ahiahug higoeah gehiogea? (incomprehensible words)

Me: Я не понимаю (I don’t understand).

My friend: He just asked you in English if you wanted your coffee black.

Me:surprised-cat-640x420…… Yes.

The hairdresser was really handsome, which added to my embarrassment.

Russian Problems #1

People often confuse my name with “Rachel” back home, which I don’t understand because it shares no similarities to “Rebecca” other than beginning with “R.”

In Astana, this happens instead:

Taxi Driver: как вас зовут? (What is your name?)
Me: Rebecca
Taxi Driver: Barbara!
Me: Rebecca
Taxi Driver: Barbara!
Friend in the back of the taxi: Rebecca!
Taxi Driver: Barbara Barbara Barbara!

How to Learn Russian

People mostly speak Russian in Kazakhstan. Kazakh is also an official language but doesn’t seem to be spoken as commonly since the country’s independence is still so recent.

Here is my approach to learning Russian. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it but it works okay so far:

  • Take Ancient Greek for three years in university.
  • Take Latin too and inadvertently develop a system to getting an A+ in any 100-level European language course.
  • Take too many upper level credits during your undergraduate degree, forcing you to take a bunch of 100-level classes in your last year
  • Choose Russian because the Cyrillic alphabet is based on the Greek alphabet and you’ve always been entranced by Russian culture. Also take German, just because.
  • Travel to Russia for two weeks after graduating. Say the phrase, “I don’t understand” so many times that you will remember it forever. It proves very useful over the two weeks.
  • Keep your Russian 100 textbook.
  • Move to Kazakhstan six years later, where you are forced to use the few words you remember every day!
  • Make a point of saying “hello” in Russian to all of the locals, which sounds like “ZDRAHS-tvooy-tyeh.” If you are shy, you can just say the “zdrahs” part and mumble the “tvooy-tyeh.” But make sure you say hi to everyone, lest your shyness be mistaken for being a jerk.
  • Also say “thank you” constantly, because it’s easy to say (spaseeba) and you’re Canadian and need a substitute for apologizing all the time.
  • Don’t worry about learning new words for the first few weeks. It’s easy to get by with basic phrases. Say, “I don’t understand,” a lot. Mostly when cashiers ask you for exact change because people are fiercely possessive of change and small bills here.
  • Realize you should really relearn your numbers. You remember how to say “1” “2” and “4” but not “3”, which is weird, because “3” is the easiest one to say (tree).
  • Hit your low point when you order at a restaurant, and the waiter asks what kind of shashlik you would like, and you don’t know how to communicate any meat words. You try a few times, using a translation app but it doesn’t work. Finally, the waiter goes, “Baaaa, baaaa!” and you excitedly nod.
  • This humbling experience motivates you to crack open your textbook and plan on hiring a teacher for lessons once a week by the end of the month.

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Now I will always know how to order lamb.