The Rolling Sauna

After a wonderful week and a half of teaching at Haileybury Almaty, we set off for the sister school in Astana. Originally, we had two options: the 1.5-hour flight or the 14-hour overnight train (the Spanish Talgo train). I like trains, so I indicated my preference for the latter. We were told that we would see very little on the overnight train, so we ended up deciding to take the 24-hour old Soviet train instead! (I like trains.)

The day of departure, it became clear that David, the coordinator, could not come with us due to a contagious illness. He knows enough Russian to get by. As neither Alex nor I knew Russian, the headmistress wanted us to take the plane instead. After a few hours of agonizing and getting a better sense of what the risks realistically were, we decided to keep our train reservation.

The school reserved an entire compartment of four bunks for us so that we didn’t have to share with strangers. One teacher warned us that the ride would be interesting for the first fifteen minutes, but we’d soon get tired of the endless snowy steppes. After school on Tuesday, we took a cab to the Almaty-1 railway station.

We found our compartment and settled in. The sun had already set, and it was very dark. It was also extremely warm, a feature that gives this train its “rolling sauna” nickname. I think I was slightly sweating throughout the entire trip. Vendors roamed up and down the train, selling fruits, bread, drinks, snacks, and clothing. I read my book and ate a light dinner of salami, bread, and mandarins before retiring to sleep at 9 pm.

I woke up early the next day and watched the snow and the sunrise.

The next nine hours was a mix of more reading, napping, snacking, contemplating, and stretching. The train would stop for short times at tiny stations along the way. There was no cell service for most of the trip. I tried exploring the train (someone mentioned there may be a dining car) but only found the other cars to be just like ours.

I also amused myself by taking pictures of my travelling companion Totoro.

All in all, the ride was pretty uneventful. Nothing more exciting than having to pantomime a it when the train operators came around and tried to exchange bedsheets for our tickets (they didn’t collect the tickets from other people, I think they collected ours because we weren’t local or something?). No run-ins with drunk people, nobody trying to give us food. Before I knew it, the sun was setting and we were arriving in Astana.

Would I do it again? Probably, with the right people. I still want to take the Amtrak across the US at some point. But now I can say I survived a 24-hour train ride in Kazakhstan, and that ups my train cred. 🚆