This is an experience that seems to make it around the various expat circles. Let’s take the train to Issyk Kul! My first reaction to hearing it was something like, really? You can do that?
I just finished reading The Great Railway Bazaar and, influenced by the book, I imagined the train to Issyk Kul would be like the saddest Soviet routes described in the book (but secretly hoped it would be like the Darjeeling Limited).
The reality was in-between. We ended up sitting in a very typical, sort of uncomfortable, maybe Third-Class type of car (by accident, the foreigners never know where they’re going). A friend went exploring and found that the other carriages had cushioned seats and bunks and lots of drunk people.
The train takes longer than going by marshrutka or car, and makes several stops along the way. It was very early in the morning when we left, so I was mostly concentrating on drinking coffee and figuring out who I could hand Win off to next.
The trip was mostly unremarkable, except for one particular stretch above a valley and a river, just past Kemin. Everybody crowded to the north side of the train to see the whole landscape.
It was also interesting to pass all the little stations and structures built along the tracks, whether for people who live near the tracks or small shelters for people who look after the train, dutifully standing guard in their uniform as we rushed past. Well, not exactly rushed. The train never ended up gaining much speed.
It took about six hours all together, dropping us off in Balykchy, where we grabbed a taxi onto our guesthouse in Bulan Soguttu (a teeny village east of Bosteri).
I wouldn’t say that taking the train is a necessary Kyrgyzstan experience, but the plusses to doing so are the cost (70 som!) and being able to avoid playing Russian Roulette by sharing the road with a gaggle of crazies and drunks who think it’s okay to pass each other on a two-lane highway at full speed around blind curves. And if you romanticize train travel, then it’s a pretty solid experience.
I’m sure I’ll have many more thoughts on train travel once we move to Belgium though.