- This article is an itinerary.
By far the most popular route for travellers wishing to travel from mainland Europe into China and beyond is the Trans-Siberian Railway taking the appropriate route through Mongolia or the region once known as Manchuria. However, a less travelled but equally fascinating route is to travel from Moscow (Russia) to Urumqi (China) via Almaty (Kazakhstan). Because this journey is in no way as well documented as the Trans-Siberian equivalent, more research and preparation is required for a successful trip. However, the uncertainty attatched to the journey at times and the fact that certain levels of improvisation are required can give a far more rewarding travel experience.
Even though one of the most enjoyable aspects of a journey of this nature is the ability to be flexible in arrangements, a certain level of planning is recommended, especially if your time is limited. Check train times beforehand so time wasted hanging around at railway stations is minimised. On lines from Europe to Russia there might be several trains a day, and there are departures to Kazakhstan virtually every day, but the train from Almaty to Urumqi goes only twice a week. http://www.poezda.net is an invaluable resource to travellers for this journey as well as many others as it provides acurate and up to date timetable information for all train routes travelling from, within, and to all former CIS countries.
The trains, ticket and reservation systems in CIS countries are similar as they share the common heritage from former Soviet Railways. The Russian train travel article gets you more detailed info.
It is advisable to purchase train tickets for travel in Russia and CIS as early as possible, especially if you want to travel on a specific train. Tickets can sell out particularly for the peak months of May to October. Tickets are available for booking 45 days before departure but it is sometimes possible to purchase them on much shorter notice. You can track ticket availability on your desired trains at the Russian Railways website. Further information and instructions on how to book tickets are available on the Russia page.
The European train reservation system is partly connected with CIS train reservation system. So it's possible to buy at European station an international ticket to any Russian and most of CIS cities, but berth reservations are often possible only to direct trains from Europe (mostly to Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Kiev). The berth reservation is almost always necessary, because Russian trains can ride through several days.
There are Ukrainian and Kazakh [dead link] railway e-shops. They are only in Russian and they do not accept many cards issued by non-CIS banks. They can offer international tickets starting in their country and with destination in other country. Apart from them, there are private agencies selling and sending Russian train tickets by post, but their prices are about 30–50% higher.
Currently there is no way to book a ticket from Almaty to Urumqi online. The train shows up on Russian Railways website but never shows ticket availability. However, the train usually has plenty of space available (last time I travelled on it there were only 12 passengers) and it is possible to buy tickets on arrival in Almaty. The Valentina's guesthouse valentina-gh.narod.ru/urumqi_train.html in Almaty can buy it for you with cca 20% surcharge, and you can pick up it at your arrival to Almaty.
It is vitally important to make sure all visa requirements are understood before travel. Contacting a travel agency with knowledge about those countries is recommended. Obtaining visas at the last minute in countries other than that of your passport's origin can prove to be expensive and time consuming and not always possible. For this particular journey, it is likely a visa will be needed for Russia, Kazakhstan and China. If traveling by rail to Moscow from Western Europe, it may be most convenient to travel through Belarus. In this case, an additional visa will be required.
In addition to determining what countries will require visas, the category of visa required needs to be identified. Sometimes only a transit visa will be required but for longer stays in a particular country, a general tourist visa will be required. If traveling on a direct service from Moscow to Almaty, the train will in fact cross into Kazakhstan and back into Russia again momentarily before returning to Kazakhstan. Even though the border is crossed twice, only a SINGLE ENTRY visa is required. It has proven difficult to find any documentation to support this, but this was still the case in April 2016, only a single entry visa was required.
UK citizens do not currently (2016) require a visa fro Kazakhstan, although they are required to register with the migration police if their stay is longer than 5 days.
Chinese embassies often require a onward and return air or train tickets, but you can try to ask for visa without it, only with itinerary of you trip in China. Presently (2010) it's not possible for foreigner to obtain a Chinese visa in Kazakhstan.
A final point of note, for stays of several days in Russia and Kazakhstan, any visas may have to be registered. This can be done at many travel agencies although embassies will be able to provide more information if required.
The route from Moscow to Urumqi involves, without any sidetrips, two trains. The first train takes you to either Astana or Almaty in Kazakhstan and the second from there to Urumqi.
Moscow to Kazakhstan
You can choose among three trains to travel to Kazakhstan:
- Train 7 "Kazakhstan" leaves Moscow Pavletsky station at 21:33 in the evening and arrives in Almaty on the fifth day at 6:27 in the morning.
- Train 72 "Belgorod" leaves Moscow's Kazan station at 22:48 and arrives in Astana on the fourth day at 10:27.
- Train 84 has the same departure time, but is in Astana a few hours earlier, at 7:50.
If you travel east to west:
- Train 7 "Kazakhstan" (note that the train number stays the same in both directions) departs Almaty at 7:34, and is in Moscow on the fourth day at 10:38.
- Train 71 "Belgorod" leaves Astana at 9:15 and is in Moscow at 15:20 on the third day.
- Train 83 leaves Astana at 11:15, but it too is in Moscow at 15:20 on the third day.
All of these trains depart every second day, on average.
Train 7 to Almaty is rather different from the Trans-Siberian, where you travel through Russia for several days, passing most major rivers and large cities east of Moscow. The route goes south-southeast from 1 Moscow, and you will pass two notable cities; 2 Tambov and 3 Saratov. In the latter the train crosses the Volga river, and from there it isn't far to the Kazakh border at 1 Ozinki, about 24 hours from Moscow.
Traveling across the Caspian Basin, you will first stop at the city of Uralsk, also known as 4 Oral, before briefly crossing into Russia again. The journey continues to 5 Aktobe and southwest passing near the former Aral Sea, about 48 hours from Moscow and through the Kazakh Desert towards the historic Silk Road. Notable stop include the ancient world heritage listed city of 6 Turkestan and Kazakhstan's third city 7 Shymkent. From the latter you can take a sidetrip to Tashkent (requires a Uzbek visa for most nationalities). One more night of travel on the train, and you will arrive in 8 Almaty in the morning.
Starting from the 1 Kazan station in Moscow, these trains travel a more easterly route, and pass more large Russian cities. The most notable ones are 2 Ryazan, 3 Samara, 4 Ufa and 5 Chelyabinsk. This used to be the route of the Trans-Siberian railway at one time. At 2 Petukhovo/Mamlyutka, around 40 hours from Moscow, the border is crossed. After the city of 6 Petropavlovsk, you will arrive in Kazakhstan's capital 7 Astana, in the steppe of northeastern Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan to Urumqi
From 1 Almaty, there are two departures (train #14) a week to Urumqi, at 0:15 on Tuesdays and Sundays. Going through scenic mountain landscapes, the train is at the 3 Chinese border late in the evening and arrives in 2 Urumqi at 9:50 in the next morning (Wednesday or Monday). Starting your second leg in Astana is only possible once a week, on Saturdays. Train 54 departs Astana at 16:20 and connects to the train from Almaty en route.
In the other direction, there are likewise two weekly trains to Almaty. Train 13 leaves Urumqi at 23:41 on Monday and Saturday, and the Saturday departure has cars going to Astana (in this case the train is numbered 13/53). The border is crossed the following morning, and you will arrive at the destination on the third day, in Almaty at 5:50 or in Astana at 12:16.
If you've arrived in Urumqi and want to continue by rail, you literally have all of China ahead of you. If you intend to make your trip a more southernly version of the Transsib, Beijing is 33 hours away. Xian with its famous Terracotta Army is equally far away, and in the same direction, 44 hours from Urumqi, is Shanghai. If heading further south — maybe even into Southeast Asia — consider one of the direct trains to Chengdu, 49 hours away. Lanzhou, while not a tourist hotspot, is an important railway junction 24 hours away (or half that by high-speed train) and from there you can travel to Lhasa (a special permit is needed to travel to Tibet) and from there all the way down to South Asia. Alternatively you may want to "backtrack" to Kashgar, another Silk Road town and take the scenic Karakoram Highway down to Pakistan.
From Moscow you have the options of continuing by train to Saint Petersburg or other destinations in Western Russia, or further west into Europe. There are daily trains to all neighboring countries and a few direct trains a week to places further away such as Paris or Berlin.