Taking a train from Kazakhstan to China

Taking a train from Kazakhstan to China

I am making my big dream happen right now. A round the world trip. But I also have some small dreams, sub-dreams, so to say, which I would like to come true during this trip. One such dream is to go all the way from Slovakia to Vietnam by train. In steps, but only by train. The simplified route is Košice – Kiev – Moscow – Almaty – Urumqi – Xi’An – Nanning – Hanoi. The Almaty – Urumqi was the most complicated section. Well, it’s simple but I like to make things complicated. Actually, I don’t like it, I just do it.

41000 Kazakhstani tenge (KZT). Approximately 100 Euros for a single ticket. Expensive? I think so. Before leaving Slovakia I was kind of ready to pay the price. It seemed unavoidable. I really wanted to go by train. But as the day of going to China was getting closer I reckoned: ‘Perhaps, there is a way of making it cheaper. Let’s try splitting the journey into sections.’ After all, that’s what I did when I went from Slovakia to Ukraine and from Russia to Kazakhstan.

The departure board at Almaty Railway station

I thought I would split it as follows: Almaty – Aktogay, Aktogay – Dostyk, Dostyk – Alashankou, Alashankou – Urumqi. I would only take an international train across the border from Dostyk to Alashankou. I found a train to Aktogay and another one further to Dostyk. Easy. And cheap. I also found out there were trains from Alashankou to Urumqi. Can I, however, buy a ticket just from Dostyk to Alshankou? I went to the Almaty railway station to ask and as I found out later to fight for it, too.

The first answer at the international ticket counter was a no. Only Almaty – Urumqi or Almaty – Alashankou (21000 KZT ~ 50 euros). Still too much. I was told it was not possible due to the agreement with the Chinese railways – not possible to issue tickets from other stations. I didn’t like it. Let’s try an agency – a different counter. An unfriendly looking lady. But the information was good. Yes, you can buy a ticket from Dostyk to Alshankou. 1500 KZT. Excellent. I gave her my passport but then she stumbled upon a problem. She said the ticket could only be issued at the international counter. Hm. So there is a ticket, but I won’t get it. So I went to a different agency. The outcome? ‘Go to the counter number 7.’ That is the international counter. No. This can’t be happening.

One the train – one of my 365 daily selfies

So I went to talk to the person in charge. But she took me to another ticket counter where they just said it wasn’t possible. I think I talked to nine or ten employees before I said I wanted to talk to the station manager again (I had tried it before but they just took me to some lower level person in charge). They had already told me the station manager was on holiday but there was a deputy station manager. Finally they took me to the person I wanted to talk to. I explained everything to her and she took me to one of the counters I had been to before. I expected that I would get the same answer.

But this time things started moving. The deputy manager discussed this with the staff and we went to the international counter. Suddenly, they started typing some data into the computer. Boy, did the woman type hard. The outcome this time? ‘There is a ticket but we won’t sell it to you.’ The reason? It’s too cheap (527 KZT). What? What kind of reason is this? The deputy manager told me the employee would have problems if she issued such a ticket.

The engine that brought me to Dostyk

But she seemed she wanted to help me. She talked to some other employees and told me she would call the Aktogay railway station and ask if it was possible to issue a ticket there. She told me to go for a walk and come back later. So I went to have lunch because I had already been there for two or three hours. When I came back she told me there was an international counter in Aktogay and they would issue a ticket. She said it was even possible in Dostyk but she wasn’t 100% sure. Finally some encouraging information. So I decided to go to Dostyk first and take the international train from there. It still seemed a very risky step but I decided to take it.

When I loaded the Kazakh railway website for the 20th time I suddenly found out there were prices of tickets to Dostyk for the international train. The website hadn’t shown it before and I had thought it was impossible. So I decieded to go to Dostyk on the international train rather than on other trains I had intended to take before. So I went to the international counter again. To my amazement they issued a ticket for me. I couldn’t be more surprised and happier. I really didn’t think it was possible. It saved me the hassle of changing trains twice.

After 5 or 6 hours including a lunch break I finally left the station. I fought for what I wanted because I dislike giving up. The uncertainty was still high but I didn’t mind. I was one step closer to what I wanted.

The Dostyk Railway station


Once I took the train, I knew I had two options to try to buy a ticket from Dostyk

Departures at the Dostyk station

– in Aktogay or in Dostyk itself. First I wanted to give it a try in Aktogay. The train was supposed to stop there for 40 minutes but it was delayed so I only had about 20 minutes. The railway employee found out all the information, the price was 1000 KZT but she said there wasn’t enough time. I insisted. She started issuing a ticket but it took ages. There were so many steps in the process (they always fill in data from your passport) and a phone call that when it was two minutes to departure I told here I needed to go. I was extremely anxious.

But at this point she didn’t stop. She qouted a different price in the process. 3000 KZT. Interestingly, it was all money I had left for the ticket! She asked for the money and only then gave me my passport and the ticket. I ran to board the train. I couldn’t be more excited. I kept repeating: ‘I got it. I got it.’ I looked at the ticket and saw the price was 527 tenge, 1108 including a reservation. What? She ripped me off. But I tried hard to see the silver lining – I had the ticket I needed so badly. Screw the little extra money. I just don’t like it when locals rip off tourists. I hate it. I have never got used to it. The funny thing is she wanted exactly 3000 tenge. I didn’t have a single tenge more. She couldn’t have seen how much I had. Funny, isn’t it?

What is even more interesting is that when I asked about the price in Dostyk (I was really curious) the employee quoted the price of 3500 tenge. Reaaaally? So eventually I was glad I had bought the tickey in Aktogay because in Dostyk I wouldn’t have had enough money. I accepted the rip-off. I guess they charge a small personal commission believing they are doing foreigners a favour.

The engine that took me across the border

Anyhow, going through all this I saved a lot so it was worth it. I saved more than 70 Euros which is budget worth a few days of travelling! A penny saved is a penny earned. Or as I say: ‘Travel more by travelling cheap.’

Price information:
Almaty – Urumqi: 41000 KZT = 100 EUR (if booked as a single ticket)
Almaty – Dostyk: 4732 KZT
Dostyk – Alashankou: 3000 KZT
Alashankou – Urumqi: 61 CNY
My tickets cost 27 EUR altogether 🙂

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