NUR-SULTAN – Berlin-based Swiss photographer Mario Heller has always loved trains and their liminal space. It almost seems like a frivolous yet strong enough reason for an artist to travel to a far-away country for the first time, find a translator and spend almost a month meeting and observing people on trains with a studious eye of a photographer. But the result is captivating.
Fascinated by the vast size of Kazakhstan on the world map, Heller took it upon himself to research domestic traveling within the country. What he found was long train lines running across the country connecting the remote places with more populated localities. This is how Heller’s three-week train journey throughout the expanse of Kazakhstan started in October 2019.
Although his starting point was Almaty, Heller decided to not just take the most popular routes running through the larger cities like Nur-Sultan and Shymkent. These are the routes with often newer locomotives and shinier train stations. Instead, Heller set out to also travel less central passages via older trains that do not always come on time.
“The whole trip felt like a travel through time because many wagons reminded me of museums of the Soviet Union and not in a bad way at all. They have the soul of train travels that cannot be found anymore in high-speed trains,” commented Heller for The Astana Times.
Throughout his journey, Heller was able to take stunning pictures of the passengers saying their goodbyes on the platform, entertaining themselves on the train and finally embracing their family and loved ones at the destination.
Trains contain diverse groups of people brought together by chance and necessity. Heller took advantage of the opportunity to speak to Kazakh citizens of different ages, genders, ethnicities and opinions, including train workers. He offered each one of them an opportunity to speak for themselves on the exhibition’s official website. Heller’s perspective only shines through in the ways he captures the feelings of his temporary companions.
“My job goes far beyond ticket control. Sometimes I feel like a psychologist. Over many years I have observed all different kinds of people. Some seem happy, others sad. Sometimes I give people advice, sometimes I laugh with them, sometimes I just listen and keep quiet. In any case, being benevolent is a prerequisite for this profession. Often I think that nothing can astonish me anymore and then something completely surprising happens again,” shares Marat, a train conductor with 30 years of experience.
“When I came back to Kazakhstan, I had mixed feelings. Relief, joy and sadness were felt close together. I had finally arrived at home – but I had to leave all my friends and neighbors behind. In the end, it was still the right decision, because here in Kazakhstan there is peace and quiet, the only thing I need at this age. Being on the rails is the most exciting adventure for me. You can drink tea all day long, meet new people and watch the steppe from the train window. It illuminates my inner self,” says Reyma, an 82-years-old Kazakh woman who was born in Afghanistan.
“Most of the time the train runs on time, but every now and then it makes extraordinary stops, for example when people do not live near a station. It is the same in real life: you should always be ready to stop at any time, even if it seems like 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,” Aliya, a 20-year old professional sportswoman whom Heller also met on the train observed.
The snippets of these conversations with strangers indicate that Heller has succeeded in his mission to get to know the people of Kazakhstan during his brief time there. Looking back on his trip now, Heller is even more reminiscent of being able to travel and converse with people freely. “It feels like a time travel trip within a time travel trip because traveling by train back then was carefree. Social distancing and face masks were something nobody was aware of. I guess that the pandemic changed the whole way we travel and we behave, which makes me very sad,” says Heller.
The photographer concludes that he enjoyed his time traveling across the steppe and meeting friendly people along the way and that he hopes to come back to Kazakhstan one day to continue exploring what the country has to offer.