Ideally, Nik and myself would have like to travel by train throughout the Silk Road route. There are several Silk Road train tours to choose from ranging from luxury train coaches on private tours to the ordinary economy class coaches on the regular intercity trains. Depending on one’s starting point and final destination, the train journey could be as short as a few days or as long as several weeks. For example, the Beijing to St. Petersburg route takes about three weeks.
Two weeks is all Nik could spare for this trip. Thus, to make the most of it and considering the fact that we had been to Beijing, Moscow and Ekaterinburg (in Russia) on earlier trips several years ago, Nik decided that there is no need to travel the entire route (Beijing to Moscow). He chose to start from Xi’an, China and wrap it up in Uzbekistan. And, so as not to miss the scenery one enjoys from ground travel, we went on the train from Xi’an-Lanzhou-Urumqi, and then from Tashkent-Bukhara-Samarkand-Tashkent. From Urumqi-Almaty-Tashkent we travelled by air.
THE CRH TRAINS
THE XIAN-LANZHOU-URUMQI TRAIN JOURNEY
We left the hotel early on Thursday morning. The taxi ride was about 20 minutes through foggy roads. Upon arrival at the Xi’anbei Railway Station, we checked in by presenting our tickets and passports. Then, our bags were scanned just like at the airport. The waiting area on the upper floor is spacious and clean. About 10 minutes before departure we went through the departure gate and down to the platform. Nik had bought tickets in the first class coach. The seats are wide and comfortable while the legrooms are more spacious than the economy seats on the plane.
The train (D 2651) left the station at 8 o’clock sharp. Snacks and drinks can be purchased from the passing trolley. Hot water is available from a dispensing machine at the end of the coach. The ride was a smooth one with a noted maximum speed of 248 km/h and average high speed of 245 km/h. Our train ran on elevated rail tracks, passing through many tunnels. The journey to Lanzhou took just over 3 hours.
The stop over at Lanzhou was just a transit before another long train ride to Urumqi (Wulumuqi) the next day. We put up at Kunyi Boutique Hotel about 2 km from Lanzhouxi Railway Station. It was a warm sunny day in Lanzhou, a stark contrast to the wet days in Xi’an.
On Friday morning we checked out early and hailed a taxi to go to Lanzhouxi Railway Station. “Railway station,” Nik told the taxi driver. He shook his head. “Train, train,”. Another head shake. Then Nik took out the train tickets and held them out. He nodded, finally understood where we want to go, and we got into the taxi. The Lanzhouxi Railway Station is a new and modern train station. There are constructions still taking place outside the station. Just like the previous day, we checked in and had our bags scanned. The waiting area on the upper floor is very spacious, almost like an airport terminal. Altogether there are 24 platforms. Small shops and restaurants are located above the waiting area.
Nik and myself had chosen to travel from Xi’an to Urumqi by train instead of air travel because we would like to see the landscape across central China. Of course, we were not disappointed. The entire distance travelled is about 2500 km and over such a long distance the landscape changes dramatically. Initially the row on the left (we were in the right row) got a better view. However as the sun rose higher, they get plenty of sunlight streaming in through their windows. Farms and villages made up the countryside. Over on the other side, there were reddish brown hills. Snow capped mountain appeared about 2 hours into the journey. Corn fields became a familiar view while hills and lakes also dotted the vast landscape. Halfway into the journey we came upon vast areas of barren, uninhabited land. Energy farms filled with rows and rows of wind turbines and solar cell panels harnessing renewable energy are found at several locations along our route.
Our D 2703 train made many stops at towns and small cities along the way. Just passed Hami, cotton (I think) fields occupy the landscape. Flat, black earth dotted with small hills ran for miles. By this time (5.40 pm), the sun was already quite low.
THE UZBEKISTAN RAILWAY TRAINS
THE BUKHARA-SAMARKAND-TASHKENT TRAIN JORNEY
Arriving at the Bukhara Vokzal or train station, the taxi dropped us at the gate. Only train passengers are allowed into the building. The security check here is similar to the ones at airports. At the gate we presented our passports and tickets and went through a metal detector. Once inside the building, it’s another metal detector and scanner for the luggage.
Just like the trains in China, our train was on time leaving Bukhara at 3.52 pm. For the Uzbek rail trip, Nik booked seats in the economy class on the Afrosiyob (VIP) train. The seats are very comfortable with plenty of legroom. The 90 minute journey took us through the relatively flat and not particularly interesting countryside. On the train, snacks and drinks, including alcohol can be purchase from the passing trolley. This train travelled at a noted maximum speed of 231 km/h. The fare was USD 25 per person.
For the Samarkand-Tashkent journey, we were on a similar Afrosiyob service but the train number was different. The train left Samarkand a few minutes earlier than the scheduled time of 6 pm. A short while into the journey, the sun went down and it was all dark outside. Each passenger was given a pack of snack and drink. Both Nik and myself and the couple facing us soon dozed off.
On the Uzbek trains, upon lighting onto the coach, passengers will hand their tickets to the railway staff waiting at the door on the platform. Towards the end of one’s journey, the tickets will be returned. We reached Samarkand just over two hours later. Outside the train station, there were taxi drivers offering their services.
For inter-city travel in Uzbekistan, travelling by taxi is another affordable option and you will probably enjoy a more interesting scenery along the way.