Overnight Sleeper Bus from Urumqi to Almaty
There are three ways to get from Urumqi, Western China to Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Flying one-way will set you back around US$250 per person, while taking a sleeper train can take anywhere between 36-40 hours for US$110 or more. Taking the overnight sleeper bus was definitely an experience to remember, and for much less in comparison.
The bus ride would take approx 24-32 hours, much depending on how long you have to wait at border customs.
Tickets can be purchased from the NianZiGou bus station (碾子沟 客运站), but can be quite tricky to find. It is well-hidden, and the only signs you will see are a blue sign with Chinese writing next to the hotel. Once you see the sign, walk down the alley and you will see the ticketing area.
Cost for a bottom bunk will set you back 440RMB (US$74), and for a top bunk 460RMB (US$76). We got our tickets 6 days in advance, and there was not one seat sold. I have heard people buying tickets the day before departure and still getting on the bus, but earlier buying them earlier would be better as our bus was full in the end.
They do not take credit card, only cash. There is an ATM next door to the bus station, and another ATM across the street on the opposite.
The bus leaves at 7.15pm Beijing time (remember to check your time-zones and change your clocks), we arrived at the Urumqi bus station an hour earlier, but realistically half an hour will be enough time to get there. There were plenty of people bringing their luggage on board, it is well know that many Kazakh people will buy cheap goods from China and bring it across the border for a handsome profit in Kazakhstan. Arriving early might help with having your luggages in before the huge parcels take over.
Inside the bus
Having never been on a sleeper bus before, it’s actually felt quiet cosy inside. I’m about 175cm, and just had enough leg room to lie totally flat. The beds are designed with a bend at the hips to raise your head, so the person in front and behind can place their legs totally flat. If you’re a tall person there won’t be much comfort for yourself and you will probably need to bend your legs to fit in.
Above every bed there is a small airplane-like vent for air, and reading light available. The pillow and blanket provided were quite warm, mattress is soft but if you sleep on your left or right side, 1 to 2 hours later you will feel the hard metal pressing on your hips and would have to turn. For your big backpacks, they fit below the bus, but for your small carry on pack they fit in the walking area in the middle aisle or just in your feet area if you want it secure to you.
Paying a bribe for luggage space?
Reading online we heard people were charged 50RMB to store luggage under the bus. Surely this was meant to be included in the bus ticket price? When we checked in our luggage onto the bus, nothing was mentioned and no money was taken when we left the bus terminal.
Sure enough, one hour in, a Kazakh man appeared from the back of the bus asking everyone for 50RMB. Initially he asked me how many bags I had below. I said I had 1 big bag for both me and Cheryl (we had two big sized back packs).
As he didn’t speak much English I kept playing dumb, and eventually he left to ask other passengers for money, but some didn’t pay. He came back asking for the 50RMB, and after 20 minutes I gave in and folded a 50RMB. When he made it to the old Japanese couple who were smart and said they only had small bags, he ended up going to the driver, and after having a discussion, left it be.
So did I just get scammed? I ended making friends with a Kazakh man on the bus who spoke some English, and explained that the money was collected to bribe border security. He said if you didn’t pay the bribe, they would make you take out all your luggage to be scanned, which would slow down the entire journey. The strange thing is that when we reached the Kazakhstan border, we had to get out all our luggage to be scanned anyway. To this day I still have no idea why I handed over 50RMB.
Stops along the way
People have said straight after leaving from the bus, they made a one hour stop for dinner. We didn’t end up stopping, maybe our driver was not hungry. Along the way the driver would stop every few hours for a toilet break, at 2am to 5am our driver decided to take a nap before we reached the Chinese border crossing.
Once we started to continue, we reached the town just before the border and the driver stopped at a small local town for about two hours for everyone to stretch their legs and exchange money. We also had our breakfast which were some tea and steaming hot meat dumplings. Some passengers also took the chance to wash their face and brush their teeth at the restaurant toilets.
Changing money from Chinese (RMB) to Kazakhstan (Tenge)
We found out that changing money in Urumqi is an absolute joke.
In the afternoon before we left to Urumqi, we went to the biggest Bank of China in Urumqi and tried to exchange RMB to TENGE at around 2pm. With little to no Mandarin, and the only person at the bank speaking minimal English, they told me that they could only change RMB to Tenge in the morning at around 9am-12pm, any time after was not possible.
When I asked if any other banks could change to Tenge, they said only two bank branches in the ENTIRE Urumqi was able to change the Tenge currency, but both are only available in the morning.
Lucky enough when you cross immigration at Almaty, there is one café that serves some Kazakh food, but they accept Chinese RMB and will give you change in Tenge! The rate they give you back is actually very good, better than most of the touts asking you to change money before you cross the Chinese border.
Now moving on…
The ‘efficient’ Chinese customs
Arriving at customs on the Chinese side of the border at 9.30am, they were relatively quick to process my passport. However because the customs officers don’t seem to have seen Cheryl’s Singaporean passport, we had to wait around 20 minutes because they were unsure if she needed a visa to enter Kazakhstan.
The customs officer called over his boss and they started making some calls. The customs officer didn’t ask, but after waiting he told Cheryl that she needed a visa to enter Kazakhstan or she would not be allowed to leave China. What the customs officer forgot to check was that on the last page of her passport was her Kazakhstan visa waiting to be stamped and admired.
Seeing his boss laugh at him and leaving him red-faced, we gave a cheeky grin and waited for our luggage to pass customs. It was then when one of our passengers, Sasha ripped these awesome moves. Party time.
We reached Kazakhstan customs at around 11am. We disembarked to passport control which had 2 passport booths which were extremely slow. Passing passport control, there was one luggage scanner and a hundred people waiting to pass through each with 3 or 4 pieces of luggage with Chinese goods to bring over the border.
The first thing you start to notice, is that there is no line. Like a funnel, you just have to push in with your luggage hoping to get closer to the front. The border guards here look tough and menacing, and they are HUGE. I mean these guys are 190 cm and weigh about 140kg with black masks just showing their eyes with assault weapons.
After about 30 minutes of waiting to have our luggage checked, we had some lunch at the only café there, also where you can exchange your Chinese Yuan to Kazakhstan Tenge.
It was 4pm when our bus finally left the Kazakhstan border. During the painful wait, we had a Japanese couple in their 60’s from the bus teaching everyone how to make paper cranes, as well as a few acrobatic performance by our friend Sasha which really entertained the crowd and was a good time-passer.
Be sure to keep your eyes on your bags at all times while waiting at customs because although I didn’t feel any great danger, the place was as messy as could be and it was definitely the perfect place for an itchy hand.
Once you cross over to Kazakhstan, it is also when the journey starts getting rougher as roads were not as well-maintained in Kazakhstan compared to China, so expect the second-half of the ride to be a little more bumpy.
Anyway, we had our last stop around 5pm for dinner, sharing some delicious Kazakhstan Shashlik (grilled meat on a stick) and other Kazakh dishes. Stocking up on some backyard grapes and prunes from an old lady by the roadstall also made everyone happy before we got to our final destination at 10pm with great relief.
Despite the long journey, I will say that the time spent INSIDE of the bus went and felt surprisingly quick. Everyone shared food, talked, dazed, and fell asleep to sunset scenery of the rugged west of China, only to intermittently wake up to different kinds of mountain plains over in Kazakhstan (and to the occasional BUMP over a pothole the bus makes). The experience was amazing and we were glad to have shared that with the good people we met during on the journey.