New East Digital Archive

Love, loss and celebration: take a soul-nourishing 7500km train ride across Kazakhstan

Just a few months before Covid-19 ushered in a wave of quarantines and travel restrictions, Berlin-based Swiss photographer Mario Heller set-off on a three week cross-country railway journey through Kazakhstan. In various compartments, he met people travelling for work, for weddings, and funerals. He saw children playing football in the corridors, and documented the lively conversations with strangers he met along the way.

25 March 2021
Text and images: Mario Heller
Interview: Liza Premiyak

Trains made me really happy as a child. I loved to travel by train; I played with model trains, and I was always leafing through railway books and magazines. This idea of speeding across the length and breadth of a country with the comfort of a good meal and friendly strangers has always fascinated me immensely. When I found out that you can still ride Soviet-era trains in Kazakhstan, some of which travel for 48 hours at a time, I started planning my own trip.

The journey took place in autumn 2019, a few months before the pandemic ground the world to a halt. I started my journey in the former capital of Almaty, with my companion, Dale Omarov, who I had met through the Kazakh Geographic Society. He was incredibly helpful and ended up being far more than just a translator or guide. In total, we spent 225 hours (sixteen days) on trains and travelled 7500km, travelling the whole country clockwise. The atmosphere on these trains is infectious. Everyone treated each other as friends embarking on a big adventure. Acquaintances were made, food was exchanged, and games were played together.

When you travel far and wide through the country, you’ll notice the steppe is not as monotonous as people describe — it is constantly changing, depending on the weather and light conditions. I couldn’t help but discover tiny details stand out from the steppe: sometimes these were just electricity pylons, other times they were small settlements, or a herd of horses. The landscape is minimalist, and that is precisely what makes it so exciting.


I am going back home to Aktau, after visiting my relatives in Ganushkino (a village in Atyrau region in western Kazakhstan), where I was born and grew up. After graduating from university in 1964, I spent the next 15 years teaching at a school in my native village. When I got sick with asthma, doctors advised me to find a more suitable climate. Ganyushkino is located near the Russian border, so the Astrakhan climate did not suit me at all. I had to move, and since then I have been living in the Mangystau region for the past 41 years. I have worked for 50 years in total, of which 20 years were spent at a specialised school in Aktau. I have been retired for the last six years, but at almost 80-years-old, I feel great.

My husband was also a teacher. We were born in one village, so we have a lot of relatives there and return regularly. While I travelled back to Ganushkino, my husband stayed to look after our grandchildren in Aktau. If he leaves, I remain, to help out while their parents are at work. We are the type of grandparents who lead an active life — and we love to travel. Some people criticise us, saying that people of our age should sit at home. But we were born during the war and shared all the struggles of life. As a result, nothing is scary now. We enjoy learning about everything that is happening in the world today, and we are people of movement.

Every time I need to go somewhere, I always travel by train. In the Soviet era, we would go on study trips and travel to seminars by train, and occasionally, when it was a long distance trip, we would travel by plane. Now that we are retired, there is nowhere to rush, so we prefer the train. It’s more comfortable, you know.


I have been working as a train conductor for 30 years. The train is my second home. For transport workers, home is movement. At the same time, it’s important to know that somebody is waiting for you back home — that you have someone to go back for. Those thoughts always warm my heart. Such a forced separation is very difficult, but absence makes the heart grow fonder.

In general, train conductors should love people and sincerely want to help them. I have learned to watch and observe for many years. A conductor must be a good psychologist because people are all very different: they might be happy or want to grieve, they can laugh or cry, they might want to talk to someone or be silent. When you see a person suffering, you try to cheer him up. And you should find an approach to suit each passenger, and try to help without being overbearing.

Often I’ll think that nothing surprises me anymore, and then something completely unexpected happens again: be it the old man who fell out of his bunk bed and whose broken hand I had to bandage, or the woman who gave birth on the train. Soon, I will retire. Of course, I will miss my job very much; half of my life has passed on trains. I’ve seen so many amazing things and met so many interesting people. My seven daughters are already married and have children of their own. I don‘t think I will get bored. And if I do, I’ll just start gardening.


I am originally from eastern Kazakhstan and have been in professional sports for more than 10 years: I am International Class Master of Sport in Kazakhstan, an Asian champion in Jecheon, South Korea, a bronze medalist at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China. I used to train for between three and six hours, twice a day. That was my ordinary, everyday routine. Any victory is the result of a lot of work.

After competing for so many years, I went into coaching. I was recently invited to work as a coach in Atyrau, a city in western Kazakhstan. My four young athletes are in the next compartment. We are coming back from a competition taking place in Karaganda. Even today, I feel the same stress, pressure and workload, but I think I am more suited to coaching. I’m in my league now.

This train is only a few stops from its destination now. Most of the time the train runs on time, but every now and then it makes extraordinary stops, like when people don‘t live near a station. It‘s the same in real life: you should always be ready to stop at the right time, even if it seems an unusual halt. There‘s never a direct route to your destination without stopping in between, just as a train never goes straight to the terminal.

Nurbiva and Reyma

We are the children of those parents who were a thorn in the side of the Soviet government. Through exile, repression or persecution, they had to flee to Afghanistan. Many Kazakhs have sought refuge in China, Mongolia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other countries.

Though we were born and raised outside our motherland, our parents taught us the Kazakh language, traditions, and customs, with the thought that one day we would return to the country of our ancestors. But as long as the USSR existed, it was not safe. Then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new law of voluntary repatriation was introduced for indigenous Kazakhs, who were given support to move.

It’s been more than 11 years since we moved. When we first set foot in Kazakhstan, it was a mixed bag of feelings: relief and joy, sadness and nostalgia, hope for a new life and great anticipation. Now all of our relatives, brothers, sisters, and children have returned to us; we are all close to each other. What else could we ask for? Especially at our age — 82-years-old — all we want is peace and tranquility in our home and in the whole country.

We’re not in a hurry right now. We are going from Aktau to Jetysay. We recently became relatives: our grandchildren got married, so we are kudagi to each other (grandmothers of the granddaughter-in-law and grandson-in-law). Each of us has three grandchildren, all of them have grown up. Therefore, we can only rejoice at their new victories and be proud that they can confidently make their next steps here in their native country.

At our age, a train ride is the greatest leisurely adventure. Here you can meet new people, learn their stories, tell them about yourself while drinking tea. Anywhere you go, Kazakh people are all brothers and sisters to each other. It’s possible to find your soulmate on the train.

We spent more than half of our lives as guests on foreign soil. So now, watching the steppe from the train window, is the greatest feeling.

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