Kazakhstan is an intriguing country that stands between Europe and Asia. As a former Soviet Union state, it exudes a feeling of mystery for many Americans even decades after the Cold War. This mystery is a come-on for tourism, and thousands of tourists from China, South Korea, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom have proven to themselves that Kazakhstan is truly an enchanting country to visit. Located in the middle of Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, getting around Kazakhstan may involve short plane rides or long land trips. The choice depends on your budget, time and demands, but either way is very scenic.
The most popular way of getting around Kazakhstan on land is by train. Kazakhstan is a huge country, the ninth biggest in the world in terms of size, and this could mean hours and hours of traveling for you. The best way of covering long distances between cities is by train. The main train stations are found in Astana (the present capital and second largest city), Almaty (the former capital and the largest city) and Karaganda (the industrial city). The station’s ticketing and reservation systems follow the old Soviet Railways system and is therefore very similar to how Russia does it today, although tickets around Kazakhstan are much cheaper than in Russia.
Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country. There are so many steppes and land areas to cover. A train trip from Almaty to Astana alone takes about 24 hours, but the trip is not at all a humdrum. It is a good way to meet people and get to know more about the local culture. A vodka drinking party could happen anytime inside the train at the slightest provocation. It is common for local passengers to bring along vodka and plenty of food inside the train because it is a long trip and there are not many good restaurants along the way. It is a good idea that you bring your own food, too, and be ready to share with strangers. There are food vendors on each station but the train stops for 15-20 minutes only. The Talgo express train can cover the distance much faster at only about 9 hours. It is much more expensive, though.
A popular alternative is by bus, and only in Kazakhstan, perhaps, are the buses faster than the trains. It is less comfortable, however, since long-distance bus rides are often crowded with people, produce and livestock. You will need to buy tickets in advance to get guaranteed seat. Locals prefer the bus because it is cheaper than the train and by air.
Meanwhile, taking the public bus is a popular way of getting around the major cities of Almaty, Astana and Atyrau. There are a number of public transportation systems to choose from in the city such as buses, minibuses, trams or trolleys. They are often crowded, however, and never come on schedule. There are no planned or scheduled bus stops, whatsoever, and the drivers often speak only Russian. In some towns (not Almaty), you might want to try taking a fun and cheap ride on a “marshrutka”, which are old vans that travel around town, for your cultural immersion. Their signs are in Russian.
Some tourists with a few more money to spare find it much more convenient and cost efficient getting around Kazakhstan by plane. Air Astana is the main local carrier, offering trips to major cities across this Central Asian state. With so much land to cover and interesting places that could not be found elsewhere in the world, you will find getting around Kazakhstan a fun and intriguing ride.