The train rolled through an arid featureless countryside. The monotonous views did not invite us to look out window. There was no need, no time for it anyway. The real buzz, the real action was inside the carriages. Train travel in Central Asia is not about looking at the views, it is about socializing with the people. The time is filled with chat, sharing food and drinks.
In recent years we all heard about slowing down, taking our time, stopping to truly live in the moment. Slow travel, slow life, slow food. But most of us have very limited time to do it on holiday, so is it worth to take a train, as a part of the trip? Three days on train instead of few hours on an airplane, is it really a good idea?
For years now a long train trip was one of my travel goals. In January of last year (2019) I finally made it happen. I traveled solo in India and as part of the ‘Indian experience’ I took an overnight train. It was very enjoyable so I decided to take it a step further: a multiday train trip. And was there a better place to go than a former Soviet states? Uzbekistan was on my travel list ‘forever’ and finally it’s time had come. The best flight connections were through Moscow, so a visit to the Russian capital quickly become part of the plan. First arriving to Moscow, spending some time there and then the real adventure, traveling over land by train. A train trip from Moscow to Urgench, Uzbekistan, takes three full days!!! Yes, three days to leave Europe and enter Asia; Three days rolling through Kazakhstan and the west of Uzbekistan and to arrive in Urgench; Three days to understand the vastness and endlessness of this part of the world; Three days of living on a train, sleeping, reading, talking to our travel companions, sharing food, alcohol and experiencing the local hospitality.
The first part was an overnight train from Moscow to Volgograd. We traveled in a third class compartment, which we shared with a few dozens of other people. The bunk beds were very comfortable, the bedsheets super clean and everyone was busy with their own agenda.
The second part of the trip, between Volgograd and Urgench, was a true immersion into Central Asian life. We were the only tourists on the whole, very long train. We got the last two available tickets. It meant we were separated, but it was part of the adventure. We were in two different carriages, number 5 and 7, but we could have been on different planets… I was in a true party compartment, while John ended up in the more family orientated setting. In my carriage there was a lot of talking, celebrating, drinking alcohol and sharing food and stories.
Our travel companions invited us home, and during the journey made sure we were not hungry, or thirsty….. The train was full of traders selling hot food (samosas, I lost count of how many we bought), jewelry, fur coats, alcohol and smoked fish (yes!). Exchanging money was also possible. The train stopped frequently, so we could stretch our legs and buy more food. And at each train station new traders joined in, more smoked fish, alcohol and jewelry…..
We went through numerous boarder crossings. Leaving Russia, entering and leaving Kazakhstan, and then, entering Uzbekistan. Each time the train stopped for a few hours, there were careful passport checks and even more thorough luggage and compartment checks. Yes, celling panels from the train were removed and the space there checked with mirrors and cameras. The two of us were spared luggage checks, but our passports and especially our Iranian visas triggered a lot of interest. It was a good reminder of how lucky we are in the EU not to have true border checks.
On Tuesday evening it had come time to say good bye to our new friends and leave the train. We arrived in Urgench. Half of hour later we were in Khiva.
For train tickets https://www.tutu.travel/poezda/ very professionally and efficiently run company. Book well in advance!
There is hot water provided in each carriage. We used it to make teas, glasses were from our provadnica. Co-passengers take turns making tea, food is shared as well. There are food sellers on the train, but it is a good idea to bring some food with you.
There was no buffet carriage on our train. In every carriage there is a ‘Provadnica’, who looks after everything. A Provadnica will make sure you are comfortable, sell you teas, or coffees.
Language: unless you speak one of Central Asian languages, Russian is a must. Virtually none on the train spoke English. John was the only one who did have no Russian, so he spent a lot of time showing photos on his phone to his travel companion. And as native English speaker he did final editing to this post. He demands credits for doing it, so here you are boy!
Flights were plentiful, but pretty expensive. The cheapest fares were from Istanbul, Riga and Moscow.
Important: if flying through Moscow, check the visa situation. Some flights require changing airport, or terminal, in both cases you might need a visa. Going through immigration in Moscow airports can be very time consuming, allow plenty of it! For more information about traveling in Uzbekistan click here, or here.