It is Saturday afternoon and I am sitting on a rather empty train that moves slowly along the frosty steppe of Northern Kazakhstan. The quiet humming of the train reminds me of those long journeys in Russia that I have loved so much – how much of a contrast with the busy Southern Kazakh trains I have travelled with in the past few days!
The first impression when you get on a train in Kazakhstan is the exact same as in Russia. No wonder because the two neighbours share a number of routes (with sometimes Kazakhstan being just a passing by country, such as on the Moscow-Tashkent line) and use the same carriages with the same distinctive berths disposition; and equally the codes and the behaviours on-board these trains tend to be the same.
But there are a few observable differences as well; and these go much beyond the landscapes you can admire through the train’s windows – endless birch tree forests in Russia, endless treeless steppe in Kazakhstan.
The top 3 differences I have observed in people’s behaviours show a lot about the Kazakh collective, clan-based culture and traditions.
- Not just a tea mug; you need a whole tea pot.
It is customary on trains in both countries to travel with a tea mug; every coach has a samovar where you can get hot water and people drink tea throughout the whole journey.
But unlike in Russia, in Kazakhstan I have seen many groups with whole tea pots – either their own that they took in their luggage with them, or even an official one with printed logo from the railway company they had borrowed from the coach master.
For many people in Kazakhstan travel in parties of family or friends; and tea is a social affair here.
Even those who travel alone are quite likely to meet someone they know on board, or to meet new friends along the way, and end up sharing a tea pot.
- A different notion of personal space
That feeling when you wake up feeling something touch your legs; and realise there is someone sitting there – yes, right here, on your own berth – comfortably installed and having a chat with another person equally settled on the opposite berth (which also belongs to nother sleepy passenger).
Personal space is clearly, albeit tacitly, regulated on Russian trains. None would start invading your personal space (especially on your own bed sheets) unless expressly invited to do so. But it is different in Kazakhstan.
- Kazakh trains, a sales channel for small businesses
Very small businesses to tell the truth. There is some trade going on in Russian trains – you often see old ladies selling dry fish to help pay for their ticket – but this takes a complete different proportion in Kazakhstan.
Every 2 minutes, someone is passing with goods to sell. Food and drinks of course, but also clothes, iPhone covers, colouring books for children, and any other made in China crap you would normally expect to find in a bazaar, not a train.
Selling on trains is a typical phenomenon of developing countries, and I’ve seen that for example in Mumbai’s suburban train or Cairo’s metro. But nowhere is there so much time as on a Kazakh train (where it probably takes over 10 hours to get to the next big town) so these ladies have the time to sit down and touch the fabric and discuss the cut…
One of the key reasons I travel is to spend time with locals and get to know them; and at this level, Kazakhstan has been very generous so far! But as an introvert traveler, I also enjoy a bit of calm sometimes…
Luckily today’s journey is much quieter, and actually the only guy who tried to sell something on the train today was a dumb man with 2017 calendars; a bit of quiet does me good!