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33 Hours

Our journey by rail across endless desolation in the heat of summer, from Aktau in Kazakhstan to Nukus in Uzbekistan


Most journeys have a near breaking point, testing your will to move forward or questioning why you are doing this in the first place. I don’t doubt that the likes of Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta, world renown explorers of the world, experienced those as well. Stuck in endless desert without water or unable to take another step forward in icy mountain passes. We had one such experience, albeit in a slightly different makeup. From Aktau to Nukus, we already knew it will be a test of wills traveling hundreds of miles across endless desert in the heat of summer with a baby and toddler.  The reality pushed ourselves to new limits.

This is the story of our journey across the Mangystau into Uzbekistan, some of the most barren lands we have laid eyes on.

33 hours across the Ustyurt Plateau.

Pamir Mountains.jpg

The first hour unfolded quite well. Following a hearty, homemade breakfast in our rented apartment in Aktau, we hailed a taxi through Yandex to take us 2.5 north to Sherkala, one of the famous landmarks of the region as a mountain resembling a yurt, then to Shetpe where our afternoon train departs. Within 5 minutes our driver arrived at our doorstep, with some confusion where we actually wanted to go. He still agreed, perhaps a bit cautiously. Shortly leaving the eastern outskirts of Aktau, a depression formed. I’m not talking emotionally, but physically. We enter the Karagiye Depression, delving 440 feet below sea level and thus the fifth lowest spot on earth. Vast, endless, and flat expanse opens up to what was once the bottom of a large sea. Nothing remains here, well except the highway crossing it and a string of power lines. Minus 130 meters below sea level, one sign reads, the only thing of interest in this area. We soon ride out of the valley, the Kia Rio making its way through the landscape without a problem.

However, a new depression forms, and this time I’m talking mentally.

The car suddenly loses power, steam ejects from under the hood, and the driver is forced to pull to the side of the road. After attempting for 10 minutes to revive the car without avail, he translates to us one simple sentence.

“Get another taxi.”

In the middle of the desert, at least 45 minutes from the nearest taxi, with two restless kids as the temperature increases. The driver, though very apologetic, nonchalantly suggested we wait for another taxi. Waiting up to an hour on the side of the road was not an option I was willing to do, so I grabbed Zion, walked a bit up the road, and stuck out my thumb. Within 2 minutes a car stopped with a middle-aged couple and they soon began clearing out their belongings before we even agreed to a destination. They were very enthusiastic, blasted American music, and appeared to be having the greatest time. We joined in, thankful for their kindness.

On the way to Shetpe we are!

Shetpe was, well, as expected. A dusty outpost with very little to do, except if wandering around a tiny market, a parking lot, or at first appearance an abandoned train station is your definition of excitement. Arriving at 1 pm, we realized we didn’t have time to visit the ancient mountain of Sherkala nearby. We had to wait it out two hours for the train to arrive at 3 pm. The train arrived soon enough, though little did we realize it was an even greater test of endurance.


Imagine being in the middle of the 110 degree desert, while simultaneously being in a train compartment with tiny windows and no A.C. packed with nearly eighty, sweaty passengers. The temperature was unbearable enough, but our “beds,” separated across the train, were at the most unfortunate of locations. For seven hours we stood and half laid down restlessly, sweating profusely, and dealing with two children. Sure, we signed up for this, and we already knew it will be the toughest section of our journey, but it nearly broke us.

“This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,”

Mary said, holding Joy River to feel the flowing air at one at the only crack of open window she could find. I initially thought that by watching the landscape go by would be a valid passing time; however, the views had to be some of the most desolate, boring landscapes on earth. Endless stretches of flat desert filled with small shrubs. The middle of nowhere has a new definition.

Looking around, we could feel the agony on the Kazakhs as well. Parents were constantly soaking their babies in the faucet to cool them off, elderly ladies profusely waved their fans, and most others attempted to ignore the heat by sleeping it off. Despite it all, real comradery was felt. Food was shared, smiles were exchanged, and Google Translate was in full use.

It was a special moment where we were all equal and in the struggle together.

The train eventually arrived, a short miracle in itself. At nearly 11 pm at night, we grabbed our bags and luggage and made our way to a “motel” right next to the station. We peered inside to a deserted lobby, until two children appeared behind and shouted for the mom. A minute later out she came. She showed us a room of three grungy twin beds, and nothing more. For a few dollars, this will be our home until the 5 am alarm rings to hop on a next train. We were tired and didn’t care at this point the condition, so we all sleep quite quickly. A few hours of sleep would be nice… or so we thought.

Knock, knock, knock.

Knock, knock, knock.

“It’s 2:30 in the morning!” I thought to myself as I glanced at my phone and cautiously answered the door in the middle of the night, at the sketchy motel, next to the train station.

Knock, knock, knock.

I answered the door to find a 10 year old boy.

“Your train has arrived. You need to go.”


This can’t be, I shook my head profusely. Our locomotive was scheduled to depart nearly four hours later. Regardless, I still had to check out the pleas of the child. Hobbling out of the motel and onto the platform at painful hours in the morning, sure enough there she sat. Sure enough, the border guards were already herding sleepy passengers into the train, checking documents and meticulously verifying each traveler's credentials before allowing passage into Uzbekistan. Back I went to our grungy room, waking my precious boy while carefully strapping Joy River across my chest, hoping she stays sleeping. Together, our caravan of four ramble out of the room and onto the train. We boarded and waited as the tedious process dragged on. The stuffy carriages became ovens under midnight sky that never cools. After what felt an eternity, the final stamps hit passports. With a lurch, the engine roared to life. We were off to Uzbekistan at last.

Not all journeys along the ancient Silk Road unfurl like exotic tapestries, I mused. Sometimes are tests of endurance. Ours tested every last ounce of reserve as we hobbled two children across unforgiving terrain into uncertain fates. No, this misadventure did not create blissful bonding as a family. But it did strengthen our determination while relishing in the fact we  overcame adversity, together as a family.

And for that small win, we are grateful. Onward we go, grateful for each small step.

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