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8 | Urumqi China to Almaty Kazakhstan

21 April (Sunday)


Another 24-hour train that crossed from China into Kazakhstan but not before we spent 5-hours at the Chinese border changing the wheel-sets for the entire train, as the two countries have different track gauge. Again, I met helpful people while travelling.

Train to Almaty

This train departed on time at 23.33pm Saturday and I was prepared to be on it till 8.41am Monday. So, I was pretty pleased to find myself escorted to compartment # 5 - a four-bed berth that was all mine for the entire journey. Nice to engage with the locals but also nice to have some privacy.

To excited to sleep but eventually drifted off listening to the repetitive rattle of steel wheels on tracks.

9.00am wake-up and particularly pleased that I had sufficient foresight to buy a small bottle of freeze-dried coffee. Not ideal but better than nothing. Fruit, the last of Miwa's nuts and bread, and you would think I was having a Brisbane breakfast - if not for the coffee.

A Long Delay

I was just starting to settle into enjoying the morning view - taking a few pictures of what was clearly industrial-farming - when a train official indicated that we were packing-up. Like pack-up now! No idea why but had the impression that we would be changing trains. Upon arrival, Mr Wang who had the compartment next to mine and a bit of English, explained that we had arrived at the last Chinese train station - after travelling mostly in the dark for 11 hours. Hou Er Guo Si Railway Station.

We would be taking the same train but it had to be fitted with new wheels, as Chinese and Kazakhstan rail use different gauge. Mr. Wang had made this trip many times and knew we would wait at this station for over 5 hours. He invited me and a Chinese woman to join him for lunch in town. I thanked him and told them that I would watch their bags.

Later I learned that Mr Wang procured cloth material in Kazakhstan and Russia for Chinese companies that manufacturer furniture. He had lived as a Chinese in Almaty for 20 years with a spouse and two young daughters.

There was absolutely nothing at this station and nothing in the distance but apartments, and unfortunately a major renovation at the terminal - the kind that uses jackhammers. At least I had plenty of food but felt disorganized given the sudden demand to pack. Have an entire train compartment to yourself and you spread out.

I found that the ticket office, next to the terminal, was slightly quieter and sought refuge there. It was empty for most of the afternoon. Sue, my editor, had finished editing my field research methodology paper so I spent several hours reading it one last time but this time off my smartphone.

But We Will Arrive Early

Mr Wang eventually returned and I learned that I was on the faster train. I did not know there were two trains. Yes, we would arrive Sunday around 11.00pm rather than Monday at 9.00am. Such information must be on the train ticket but its written in Chinese.

Well, that was a surprise... YES - next time I will confirm the departure and arrival time with the station agent that is selling me the ticket when a ticket is written in a foreign language. Don't depend on information off the Internet. I know - I appear as if I am an amateur...

Now I wondered if Almaty Backpackers could accommodate my early arrive. Mr Wang offered to call but the telephone line was imperfect. He offered to create a WIFI hotspot and gave me his password - how kind. I could not call either but I got an email sent before the connection faded away. Alas, the life of a digital traveller.

The hotspot returned but no answer. He told me of a clean inexpensive hotel near his apartment and that sounded better than my alternative. I signed on to his plan. But no - Almaty Backpackers came back confirming a double bed and I quickly accepted before the Internet faded away again.

Two nights on a train and I figured some wine would go down well on the second night, but there would be no second night so I asked Mr Wang if he could do me a big favour by taking this addition weight off me. I was really pleased that he took the bottle and he gave me his mob number. Mr Wang told me to contact him if I have any complications during my stay in Almaty. So, that's is the story of my entry into Central Asia.

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