It was the peak of summer, and the journey is 20 hours across the desert. An overnight train to Nukus, Uzbekistan.
WHY ON EARTH DID WE TAKE THIS TRAIN?!
The Aral Sea (more especially now) is one of the most remote inland bodies of water accessible as a traveller. To get there, we took the overnight train from Tashkent to Nukus for the first part of that journey.
Seriously though? We loved this train trip.
For us, this was one of our biggest train journeys to date and we loved the challenge and adventure of that being across the desert in Uzbekistan. Admittedly we had a bit of a dramatic start to the trip (picture us quite literally stuck in the train corridor where it was too narrow to turn around with packs on, and starting to panic in desert temperatures…) but it added to the adventure.
If you get to Central Asia; don’t miss taking the train in Uzbekistan. And if you are with kids for this part of the journey, then read on – it is totally doable.
QUICKLY; ABOUT UZBEKISTAN
Language: Uzbek, Russian
Currency: Uzbekistani so’m
Religion: Islam 92%, Eastern Orthodox 5%
TRAIN TRAVEL IN UZBEKISTAN
Uzbekistan has a network of high speed trains, so taking the Golden Road to Samarkhand can actually be done in just a few hours. But if you want to cross 1000km of desert towards Karakalpakstan, this is a job for the trusty Soviet era trains to make that trek. Quite honestly, it doesn’t appear that much has changed on the trains since it was left with the Uzbeks…
Uzbekistan Railways operates several night trains connecting Tashkent with Bukhara, Urgench, Nukus and Termez; with the longest of these trips being the 20 hour journey to Nukus. The train to Nukus departs four times a week from Tashkent (arriving from Almaty, Kazakhstan), leaving the station at 2:00pm and with a maximum speed of 90km/h, it arrives the next morning at about 06:00am.
Night train carriages and classes:
- 3 Spalniy Vagon (SV) sleeping carriages, each with nine 2-bed compartments
- 10 kupe sleeping carriages, each with nine 4-bed compartments [we chose one of these]
- 4 platskart sleeping carriages, each with 54 beds in dormitory style
THE JOURNEY FOR US
We turned up at the station in Tashkent at about 1:00pm, keen to be early for this adventure (remember, we don’t have train travel in New Zealand… so taking a train fullstop was an adventure for us). Staff checked us in and we passed through security with no hassles. We had our tickets in hand, but we were genuinely relying on the help of strangers to point us in the right direction, as the entire ticket is written in Cyrillic, and we had no way of knowing any of the details!
We had left our hostel early that morning to stock up on snacks at the Chorsu Bazaar, and felt largely prepared for a train journey in Uzbekistan. We bought another huge bottle of water and a juice for the kids at the station while we waited, as we had no idea what to expect as to whether the train had a restaurant car or not….
BOARDING THE TRAIN
At 1:40pm the guards waved for us to cross the pedestrian access to the next platform. The train to Nukus had arrived and it was time for us to board. We had spent the evening prior (with help from our hostel) marking the carriage and cabin numbers on our ticket. So in theory we knew where we should be. We boarded the train and found our cabin… but this was where the drama began. ‘Our’ cabin was already full of bags! Gavin and I were both carrying backpacks on our backs and fronts, and couldn’t even turn around in the corridor of the train. I started panicking as it was already 43°C on board and we were quite literally stuck – I wanted to get OUT!
We backed out of the corridor and trying to edge out of our packs we got back on the platform and started looking around in a panic. The platform was full and busy and no one spoke English.
CAN ANYBODY HELP US?!
Gavin sat down on the ground holding the bags and kids while I ran to find a conductor, or guard… or anybody(!) to help! I found one stern looking guard and tried desperately to explain (in panicked sign language) that we didn’t know where we were meant to be. No luck there. I was so thankful to remember Timur, who had come to the hostel that week and helped us book other tickets, and spoke great English that I fumbled around to find him on WhatsApp; rang him, and hurriedly thrust my phone into the hands of the stern guard in a hope to explain.
Whatever he said, it must have worked. The next minute the guard was throwing the bags out of the cabin and into the hallway as we made our way back in and nervously squeezed past him into the small space. Were we meant to be there?! Was this actually our cabin? Why didn’t we have any bedding?
But the train was off. And we were on board.
The rest of the journey was comparatively smooth.
THE HEAT OF SUMMER
It was suffocatingly hot to begin with. The boys took off their shirts as the heat was unbearable. The supposed air conditioning was struggling and windows weren’t seemingly allowed to be open.
But the journey was everything we hoped. We calmed down after the dramatic start, and the guard even turned out to have a bit of a soft spot for us. He came back several times to check we were ok and helped to organise sheets and pillows for us, and showed me where the hot water cistern was and the toilet.
We met the only other two tourists on the train and had an instant connection. It was great to swap stories and we met up again in Nukus and bumped into them two weeks later in Bukhara. A good reminder of how untouristy this part of the world is (and how grateful we are to be travelling during this time).
The journey passes through Silk Road cities (namely Samarkhand) that we couldn’t wait to get back and explore. The scenery could be deemed fairly bland to some, as the train lopes along the tracks passing literally miles and miles of desert style terrain – but for us, looking out of the (albeit hot) train window as desert, sporadic villages, and even the odd camel made for a pretty great afternoon of train travel.
SOME TIPS FOR YOUR TRIP…
- Check which station: Bear in mind that Tashkent has two stations so double check which one you are departing from. Tashkent’s main station (Pass Central) is connected with the Tashkent Metro (Toshkent station blue line). However most trains depart and arrive at Tashkents South station (Yuzhniy).
- Take a lot of water. If you are travelling in summer, the journey is LONG and HOT. My phone temperature read that it dropped to a subtropical 34°C by the evening… That’s still very hot!
- Plan ahead with snacks. We stocked up easily at the Bazaar that morning. We also took instant noodles to make on board (though we did also plan ahead with dinner substitutes that didn’t need cooking, as we really had no idea what to expect!).
- There is a hot water urn on board. This is great for an early morning coffee, and for dinner if you need heat; but just be aware that the samovar (hot water urn) is basically on the side of the corridor and looks to me as it surely must be a century old… There is no heat stopper whatsoever, and the boiling water comes rushing out of a tap that on our train, opened in either direction.
- Toilets: Like most Soviet style trains, the Uzbek train to Nukus had toilets that discharge their sewage onto the tracks. In the main cities (Tashkent and Samarkhand), the toilets are locked (a ‘sanitary zone’) so that human waste doesn’t fester in the middle of town. What this also means is that when the train starts up again, there can be a queue for the toilet. [This thought played over and over in my mind as I reminded the kids to keep hydrated with litres of water to counter the intense heat…!].
- Bring toilet paper.
ARRIVING IN NUKUS
Nukus is a city in the Karakalpakstan region of Uzbekistan; a city known as the home to the Savitzky Gallery, (an astounding collection of Soviet Avant-Garde art) and also as a good base for trips to the ruins of the Aral Sea. We did both, but it was the Aral Sea we were heading for.
We had not arranged any kind of pick up from our hotel when we got off the train in Nukus. Essentially, this did mean that on arrival at 6:30am we had to join the hoards of disembarking train riders and find and negotiate a taxi. Again, totally doable, and it made it that much more satisfying to arrive and be welcomed by our hotel when we finally did arrive… We were welcomed with hot tea, Uzbek style coffee, freshly baked breads, fruits, and dumplings.
I love Uzbekistan.
You can buy tickets for the train to Nukus in a number of ways – at the station, on your arrival in Tashkent; online with Uzbek Railways (if you are confident submitting your details and the destination, plus paying for your ticket with directions in Cyrillic…); or you can go with the most relaxing option like we did, and contact Timur at Sanat Travel Experts. Timur booked our train tickets online and then came to meet us at our hostel in Tashkent to hand over the printed train passes. This was useful to explain any extra details we might need (plus, he was brilliant in handling our panicked phone call when we boarded the train to find our cabin was seemingly taken!). I highly recommend contacting him!
WHERE WE STAYED
- Tashkent: Topchan Hostel [an amazing hostel; incredible breakfast; great staff and atmosphere; walking distance to small shops and also the swimming pools; can arrange anything for you].
- Nukus: Jipek Joli Inn (not ‘Hotel Jipek Joli’) [great place for staying in Nukus; awesome breakfast; walking distance to markets and State History Museum].
READ MORE ABOUT UZBEKISTAN
- Uzbekistan with kids: A travel guide (things to know, practicalities and challenges).
- Three days in Nukus, Karakalpakstan: What is there to do there?
- Exploring Khiva, our favourite Silk Road city.
- Visiting human disaster at the disappearing Aral Sea in Muynak.
- ‘Vodka, Plov and Non’: 12 best Uzbek Food experiences.
Would you take a train in Uzbekistan?! How about the overnight train to Nukus?