Getting there & away
Few hassles from officialdom are reported these days at either Khorgos (the main road crossing) or Dostyk (the rail crossing), though waits can be long.
From Almaty’s Sayran bus station, sleeper buses are scheduled to Ürümqi (5900T, 24 hours) at 7am daily except Sunday, and buses to Yining (3900T, 12 hours), about 100km from the border, at 7am Wednesday and Saturday. Departures are not always reliable, however. An alternative is to take a bus or minibus to Zharkent, 40km before Khorgos, then a taxi (about 600T) or minibus to the border, and a taxi from there to Ürümqi. The crossing is usually crammed with Kazakh and Uyghur families and traders with vast amounts of baggage. If you’re coming from Ürümqi, note that the bus tickets are not sold at the bus station there but in the Bian Jiang Bing Guan hotel in the southern part of Ürümqi.
The Zhibek Zholy (Silk Road) train departs Almaty-II station for Ürümqi at 10.59pm Saturday (a Kazakh train) and Monday (a Chinese train). It’s scheduled to take 30 hours, crossing the border at Dostyk (Druzhba). Kupeyny (2nd-class couchette) tickets cost 8500T. The return train gets into Almaty-II at 5.58am Monday and Wednesday. The trains have restaurant cars but it makes sense to bring some of your own food and drink too. At Dostyk, you have to wait several hours while the train bogies are changed and customs checks take place. The train toilets are locked during this time except for the 20-minute dash between the Kazakhstan and China border posts: get in line early for this!
The trains can get fully booked two weeks in advance. From Almaty the Monday train is particularly popular and tickets on free sale are rare. You can save trouble by booking through an agent: Stantours charges US$10 to US$15 for the service, plus any late-ticket surcharges (typically US$20). The international ticket office at Almaty-II opens from 8am to 1pm and 2pm to 7pm. You may have to show a Chinese visa when buying a ticket.
From Ust-Kamenogorsk in eastern Kazakhstan, there are buses to Ürümqi and the Chinese town of Altay.
Official Kazakh–Kyrgyz border crossings are largely hassle-free.
Seven daily buses and a similar number of minibuses (600T to 700T), as well as shared taxis (2000T to 2500T), make the four- to five-hour run to Bishkek from Almaty’s Sayran bus station, crossing the border at Korday. There are also overnight buses all the way to Cholpon-Ata and Karakol from Sayran, and minibuses to Bishkek from Taraz (500T, five hours).
No public transport makes the Karkara valley crossing, south of Kegen, Kazakhstan, and east of Tüp and Ken-Suu, Kyrgyzstan, but from about April to October you can get through by a combination of hitching, taxi and patience.
Trekkers and mountain bikers making the haul across the mountains between Almaty and Lake Issyk-Köl should note that there is no official crossing point so it’s impossible to get a passport stamp. Consult a trekking agency before setting off.
There are many road crossings between Kazakhstan and Russia.
There is a remote border point 200km south of Zhanaozen, which is a two-hour marshrutka ride east of Aktau. From the border it’s 50km south to the Turkmen town of Bekdash and a further 200km to Turkmenbashi. The roads are very rough for about 50km each side of the border. There’s no public transport from either side – expect to pay about 6000T for a taxi from Zhanaozen to the border, and US$40 from the border to Turkmenbashi. Vehicle queues at the border can be long.
The main road crossing is at Chernyaevka between Shymkent and Tashkent. This is an unpredictable border: some travellers breeze through, others have taken five hours. There are reports of corruption on both sides, especially the Kazakh side. If it looks bad, consider paying 1000T to 1500T to one of the ‘facilitators’ hanging around the border. The border is open 8am to 10pm (Astana/Almaty time).
Shared taxis and marshrutkas to the border (500T, one to 1¼ hours) depart from Shymkent’s Kolos bus stop.
Another road and rail crossing exists between Beyneu, western Kazakhstan, and Kungrad, Uzbekistan. Self-driving readers have reported that the road is poor and little used but the crossing is hassle-free. Uzbek customs is in Kungrad. Daily trains run from Beyneu to Kungrad (10 hours; customs are done on the train), and on Saturday and Wednesday (from Beyneu) train 332, coming from Saratov (Russia) via Atyrau (Kazakhstan), continues to Tashkent via Nukus and Samarkand.
A sea ferry between Aktau and Baku, Azerbaijan, leaves about every seven to 10 days (cabin berth 7800T to 10, 000T, about 18 hours). This service is reportedly less comfortable and less regular than the Baku–Turkmenbashi ferry.
Once a bureaucratic nightmare, the entry procedures into Kazakhstan are streamlined these days. Bribery is no longer common, although the road border between Tashkent and Shymkent can be problematic. On arrival you fill in a migration card, which should be stamped to show that your passport has been registered. Keep this card in your passport: you must hand it in when you leave the country.
Kazakhstan has steadily improved air connections with the outside world. The two biggest and busiest airports are at Almaty (327-270 33 33; www.alaport.com) and Astana (317-277 77 77; www.astanaairport.kz). Almaty has direct international flights to at least 25 cities in Europe andAsia, on airlines including KLM, British Airways, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines, China Southern, Transaero and the Kazakh-and-British-owned Air Astana. Astana has direct flights to Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Hanover, Istanbul, Kiev, Moscow and St Petersburg. Uralsk, Atyrau and Karaganda also have direct flights to Western Europe. Aktau is the main hub for trans-Caspian flights; Ust-Kamenogorsk has flights to Bayan-Ölgii (Mongolia). All these cities, plus Shymkent and Kyzylorda, have flights to Moscow and often other CIS cities too.
For other Central Asian cities, Almaty has flights to Tashkent (US$185) daily by Uzbekistan Airlines, and Dushanbe five times weekly by Tajikair or SCAT. From Astana, Uzbekistan Airlines flies weekly to Tashkent (US$230).
For regularly updated schedules, visit www.centralasiatourism.com.