How to get from Urumqi to Almaty
There are a few options for getting to Almaty (Kazakhstan) from Urumqi (China). The first is to take the train but this is the most expensive and time consuming of all the choices. What you lose in savings and time however, you make up for in comfort and ease.
There are two trains per week and the journey time is round 30 hours. See the excellent Seat61 page or Caravanistan for more details. The reason for the delay is that Chinese and Kazakh gauges are different. Therefore the bogies will need to be changed at the border.
The next option is to take the (sleeper) bus from Urumqi to Almaty. Journey time is around 24 hours and cost is around 500RMB ($70).
The third option, and the one that seemed to make most sense for me in terms of time and cost, was to take an overnight train from Urumqi to Yining 50 or so miles from the border. Then I could take the sleeper bus to Almaty from there. The journey time is 8 to 12 hours depending on how long you spend at the border.
Update – May 2018
There was no longer a bus from Yining to Almaty. Instead I had to take a bus to the border town of Khorgas and wait at the bus station for the daily bus to Kazakhstan. Then I was told the bus would go to Almaty, but was driven a few kilometres over the border and dumped in a tiny village miles from anywhere. Thankfully there were unofficial taxi drivers waiting and I paid one the equivalent of 40 Euros to to take me the 500km/6 hours to Almaty).
Update – August 2019
There was a daily bus running between Almaty and Urumqi in summer 2019. The bus no longer goes from next to Nianzhigou Bus Station which has been pulled down. The bus seems to go from Urumqi International Bus Terminal next to Urumqi Railway Station. (that’s where I was dropped off when coming from Almaty).
There is still a bus that runs between Khorgas at the border in China and Zharkent in Kazakhstan. It leaves around 3pm every day from Khorgas Bus Station and you can buy tickets the same day. Like in previous years, I arrived early and waited hours for the bus to fill up before it left. We arrived in Zharkent around 8pm Kazakh time.
Also worth noting is that in 2019 for the first time I had my phone confiscated and searched. I was made to sit for an hour and answer questions about various pictures and posts, and was asked to delete two “memes” they objected to.
Urumqi to Yining Train
The overnight train leaves Urumqi at 21:42 and arrives in Yining at 07:00 the next morning (cost 184RMB / $30). I travelled in early March and it was still pitch black at this time. The taxi cost was around 60rmb ($10) for the ten minutes ride which was a blatant rip off, but being the Englishman I am, I didn’t dispute it and the driver actually settled for 50, but you really shouldn’t pay more than 30.
I arrived at the small bus station and after going through the usual luggage scans, found the ticket counter and was then directed to another guy by the boarding area who was in charge of the Almaty bus.
I paid the 200RMB ($30) ticket price and was directed to sit down until I would be called to the bus. As usually happens in this part of the world, there is no timetable as such and the bus leaves when full.
The Khorgas Border
We left at around 09:30 and drove to Huoerguosi on the border where we pulled into the bus station/service area for lunch and a toilet stop at around 11:00. We spent half an hour there before the bus being loaded with goods and moving on to the border proper.
The bus itself had seen better days but was perfectly comfortable. The insides had been stripped bare and beds installed along each side with a Persian style carpet running along the middle (you take your shoes off and put the provided plastic bags on your feet).
We waited at the Chinese side of the border for another half an hour before disembarking (you have to take all your bags with you) and going through the various security checks and x-rays.
Being a westerner at such a lonely outpost and in the problematic Xinjiang region garnered more attention than I would have liked and I was questioned quite rigorously by a polite but slightly intimidating border guard.
They scrutinized my passport and asked questions about what I was doing in China, where I lived and worked, previous trips and what I was doing crossing the border in this region. She let me go and fill in the exit card and then threw a few more questions my way, trying to catch me off guard, but eventually she was happy with my answers and let me on my way to the border and customs check.
I was stamped out of China and went to the waiting room behind customs with the others from my bus. We waited only a few minutes before re-boarding the bus, which was then loaded again with various building materials destined for Kazakhstan and Central Asia.
The bus pulled over for one more once-over by the border guards and while we were stopped. Things were straightforward at the Kazakh side. Again, we were escorted to a waiting area for the bus to pick us up. We set off at 2pm and the first noticeable thing was the lack of paved roads. The main A-6 road to Almaty was nothing more than a bumpy mud track and reminded me of the roads in Mongolia.
We stopped at various villages to drop off supplies and passengers. At around 14:00 we stopped for lunch at a roadside cafe. We arrived in Almaty at around 21:00. I had naively thought we would be dropped at one of the main train stations.
However, we were deposited abruptly in the middle of an industrial estate. As luck would have it I had chatted to some young Kazakh guys at the border while we were waiting. Presently, one of these fine fellows offered to drop me at my hostel. This wouldn’t be the last time I was to face Kazakh hospitality. I was pleased that it was a good omen after the nightmare in Urumqi.
For more on Central Asia, see my guide on How to Travel from England to China along the Silk Road.
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