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Kazakhstan Time Travel

In advance of the 30th anniversary of the independence of Kazakhstan from the former Soviet Union, Mario Heller took a 7,500 km train journey around the country, spending 225 hours over 17 days on Kazakh railways.

The State railway company is the country's largest employer with 146,000 employees. However, the railway network is only 16,000 km long - far less than Germany, even though the area of Kazakhstan is the same as Western Europe. The majority of the country consists of vast plains, sometimes merging into hills, and almost half is covered by sand or gravel desert.

The only mountainous area is in the south-east, where the Tian Shan mountain range runs along the border with China and Kyrgyzstan. The snow leopard, Kazakhstan's national animal, lives in the spruce forests. Among the country's 48,000 lakes is the Aral Sea, which has almost dried up. It represents one of the greatest environmental catastrophes of the last decades, caused by the large-scale cotton cultivation during the Soviet era. Foreigners are a rarity on Kazakh trains. Mario only met three western travellers on his journey. To learn something about the history of the country Mario talked via his translator to his fellow passengers including Marat, who has worked as a conductor for over 30 years and talks about his family and his early life in Turkmenistan; 83 year old Adylet give his forthright opinions on politics: 'Anyone who still mourns the Soviet Union today it out of his mind' he exlaims and 52 year old Mayra who challenges Mario to an arm wrestling match which she duly wins, accusing him of lacking in strength because he is a vegetarian.

Younger passengers give their views on the state of Kazakhstan today and take a more philosophical approach, 'most of the time the train runs on time but every now and then it makes extraordinary stops ... It's the same in real life: you should always be ready to stop t the right time, even if it seems an unusual halt' says Aliya. Her journey in some way mirrors Kazakhstan's first 30 years of independence.
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