A slow train to China

We knew that it was going to be a long train trip crossing the border from Kazakhstan to China. The books warned that it would take 32 hours to cover the roughly 1300 kilometers (800 miles) from Almaty to Urumqi, China, and the border formalities in the middle would take hours while the train’s toilets were locked.

It took all night and most of the next afternoon to reach the border. I doubt those Kazakh tracks were ever good, and they surely have seen little maintenance since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Even at speeds of under 50 kilometers per hour (30 mph), the train often lurched over bumps. In some places, it slowed to a crawl.

We emptied our bladders as we approached the border.

The first step was to change the train’s bogies (wheel assemblies). The Soviet Union used a track gauge 85 millimeters (3 inches) wider than China, which uses the “standard” gauge also used in the US and most of Europe. To do this, they moved the train cars into a special track with jacks that actually lifted each car about a meter in the air. They could then roll out the old bogies and roll in the new, set the train back down and screw everything back together. This took about two toiletless hours.

Next came the Kazakhstan customs and immigration inspectors, who asked a few questions and took our passports to their office, probably to write numbers in their books that no one will ever look at. Two and a half more hours.

The minute the train started its 20-minute journey across the no-man’s land, everyone raced for the toilets. They were locked again once we reached the Chinese border station.

The Chinese were far more careful, making us open all of our bags. Satisfied that we weren’t smuggling any drugs or subversive literature, they let us repack and took our passports into their computerized offices. While we waited, one of the policemen spotted my iPhone and came over to show off his, which he said he had cost him over $1000. We admired the cute pictures of his two-year-old son to pass the two hours we sat there.

It was after midnight when the Chinese inspectors came back with our passports and declared the train ready to proceed. The whole process had taken almost eight hours start to finish.

The Chinese tracks were much better, and the train moved quickly and smoothly. We slept soundly while the train covered the remaining half of the distance in less than eight hours. We had made it to Urumqi, an almost-first-world Chinese city that is the capital of the Xinjiang region we will explore in the coming week.

It was an experience, but next time we’ll fly.

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