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  • Rashid

"This train does not go to Rotterdam!" - Or how to travel from Kyrgyzstan to the Netherlands by rail

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

Originally published or the ERMeCC PhD Club Blog here

Trains are environmentally friendly and convenient modes of public transport, with their ever-lasting nostalgic charm. For many journeys, trains are a logical alternative to aeroplanes as you don’t need to arrive hours in advance at the station and the conductor usually delivers you into the heart of the destination city. A cosy intercity train ride with the changing scenery in the window is a subject of many romanticised literary works and spontaneous afternoon daydreams of desk workers weary of the routine.

Have you ever considered taking a long train ride across a few countries? How about a train ride to cross over 6,000 km of rails? I have…and let me tell you how it went. 

Karaganda-Moscow train, a.k.a. the green monster

The decision

Turning 30 was marked by a significant life event for me – I was offered a PhD Candidacy position at Erasmus University. Needless to say how excited our little family was to start this important chapter of our life. The endorphins must have taken over our reason and my wife Natasha and I decided to test the Eurasian connectivity by taking a train ride from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Rotterdam, the Netherlands. We don’t seek easy ways…

Thanks to Natasha’s planning and logistics skills, the entire journey, which went through seven countries, namely Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany and the Netherlands, was wind up like Swiss watch, computed to the minute, with multiple train changes and time zone differences. I compensated by carrying all the bags…

Day 1: First borders between the ‘stans’ and the last of Wi-Fi

22 February 2017. Despite all expectations, the most smiling border guards happened to be hanging out at the border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Tossing through the passport pages with highly professional moves – a type of intricate finger dance, that merchants at bazaars in my home country of Uzbekistan perform when counting the inflated currency – the border guard stumbled upon the US visa, which brought an unmasked surprised to his eyes and a wide smile. “You got an American visa?” — he asked in amusement. “Where did you get it?” I began explaining that I studied and worked in the US on several occasions, but the story was of little interest to the officer. He studied the visa carefully; it seemed as if this was the first US visa he had seen. The officer began inquiring about the chances of his nephew for getting such a fancy sticker in the passport. To my rescue came a fellow border crosser who, apparently irritated with the queue, yelled at the officer something along the lines of “move it along, would you?” The guard complied, and I was relieved of the burden of giving a ‘consular matters 101’ crash course and was let go with the exit stamp. On to Kazakhstan…

The journey from Kazakhstan’s former capital Almaty to the current capital Astana was without an exaggeration — marvellous. The Spanish Talgo trains offer Wi-Fi, clean toilets and even showers. Too bad this train is not direct to Rotterdam Centraal.

In Astana, we switched to a ‘green monster’ — a type of Soviet-era train that Kim Jong Il used to take when paying state visits to Moscow, but I am sure this resemblance applies only to the façade. On the interior side, this was the type of train where you see the tracks when flushing the toilet and where movement between the wagon carts was to be taken at a rider’s own risk.

For three days we were kicking it in the belly of this green monster. Of course, WI-FI was not an option. Eventually, we ran out of sustenance. Not just Natasha and I, but the entire train ran out of food and water! I will elaborate on this a bit later. Though I must share that when telling this story at a party once, I received considerate sighs over lack of access to the global web and not a pity over lack of food and water. Priorities…

Day 2: This train does not go to Rotterdam!

The next curious encounter with the border guards occurred at the Kazakh-Russian border when a Russian officer asked us about the reason for entering Russia and our final destination. “Transit”, I said firmly, “our final destination is Rotterdam!”

“This train does not go to Rotterdam!” —confused and amused, the officer thought it was his obligation to make it immediately clear to us that the train we were on would never make it anywhere near 010.

We remained calm and informed the border guard that there will be a train switch in Moscow. Having settled train logistics with us, but still reluctant to believe the story, the officer inquired whether we had any drugs on us, given that we were on our way to the Netherlands, or at least so we thought while riding in the Soviet-era train that circulated between Astana and Moscow.

We assured the officer that we were drug-free, just naturally insane, and he seemed to believe us and in us. For a moment, I think, he even wanted to join this epic ride, just to see whether there is indeed Rotterdam at the end of the train tracks that he crossed every day but in the diagonal direction.

Day 3: Do you have a menu?

The 3000 km trip between Astana and Moscow was the longest single ride on our journey. The green monster, I refuse to refer to this train anything but a green monster, was equipped with a restaurant cart. I asked the staff for a menu and sometime later was offered a fascinating artefact.

The menu came handwritten on a piece of toilet paper with the list of available food items. It contained soups and salads. The only downside of this party was that it did not last long, and the crew ran out of all resources before day two even began.

Thirsty, hungry and desperate I was contemplating an escape plan — an exit strategy. By my calculations, we were nearing Russia’s city of Ufa, which has an international airport. I was ready to offer Natasha a scenario where we jump off this train in Ufa, run as fast as we can, buy a ticket for the first plane to Moscow and on to Schiphol from there.

I was building vivid and detailed scenarios in my head. But giving up at this point would mean a surrender. A surrender to the green monster, who was trying its best to take us over. Instead of jumping off the train, we refilled on water and piroshki in a few frantic minutes that the train spent at Ufa station. The worst would have been for the green monster to take off with our stuff and leave us be on our own with the Russian winter. Hydrated and fed we continued our journey. The green monster gently rocked us to sleep.

The legendary menu. Should be in railroad museum.

Days 4 and 5: Arriving after all

We crossed Belarus. We crossed Poland. We crossed Germany. We crossed the Netherlands. Train carts and windows were changing nearly as often as the scenery outside.

The only constant was us – two curious researchers whose craving for experiments led to an intricate choice of taking a train ride from the mountain peaks of Bishkek to the lowlands of Rotterdam.

Natasha and I still enjoy taking train trips but prefer ones that can be complete in a single day.

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