A weekly train running the route from the capital of Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul region was set to depart on its maiden trip on the evening of March 22. And earlier in the week, Uzbekistan Railways began offering the option to travel by rail from Tashkent to the Russian cities of Saratov and Volgograd.
As Uzbekistan makes progress in its endeavor to reconnect with the outside world, it is looking for new ways for its citizens to embark on long-distance travel.
The train traveling from Tashkent to Balykchy, a town on the western end of Issyk-Kul Lake, will be able to carry up to 300 passengers. Tickets are selling at between $50 and $80. For now, the route is running only once weekly.
The Tashkent to Issyk-Kul route was established in 2015, but only for the summer months. Following a two-year hiatus, it will now run all year round.
Uzbekistan owns three resorts on Issyk-Kul, so the train is to some extent intended to serve those facilities. The line is reserved for passengers for the time being, but will be extended to cargo traffic in due course.
“In the near future, cargo will be heading to Kyrgyzstan. Ultimately, this route will join up with China,” Uzbekistan Railways official Abdurahim Hikmatov told Eurasianet.
Talk of linking up to China is probably premature, however, since the varying gauges present a significant technical difficulty. Kyrgyzstan and other former Soviet republics run on 1,520-millimeter wide tracks, while the standard in China is 1,435 millimeters.
There are also plans to significantly expand the options for cross-border travel by bus with Tashkent-Bishkek, Ferghana-Osh, Andijan-Osh and Tashkent-Issyk-Kul among the routes under consideration.
As for the new train routes to Russia, those began on March 20. Some recent infrastructure work has cut travel time slightly.
The trains are running along a 355-kilometer section of track linking the city of Navoi to the town of Miskin that was inaugurated late last year, but was only available for transporting cargo. Completion of that $250 million line, which is an alternative to a more circuitous route, reduced travel time by two hours.
Uzbekistan Railways currently offers routes from Tashkent to Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and Ufa. There is also a train from Andijan, in the Ferghana Valley, to Moscow.
The need for the provision of safe options for long-distance travel to Russia acquired fresh urgency in January when an aging coach carrying Uzbek laborers burst into flames on a highway in northwest Kazakhstan, killing 52.