ASTANA -- Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are opening new cross-border bus routes between the two countries after 17 years of no bus service, according to the Kazakhstani Ministry of Investments and Development.
Bus service between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was halted in 2000 for unclear reasons. At the time, relations were poor and economic ties were weak.
Until now, buses only reached the border on each side. Passengers were required to debark for passport and customs procedures and then walk to the other side of the border to board waiting buses.
The years of inconvenience appear to be nearing an end.
"During 2018, regular bus services will be gradually opening between the major cities in the two countries," the Ministry of Investments and Development said in a statement January 9.
The 145km-long route linking Shymkent, Kazakhstan, and Tashkent, Uzbekistan, began operating on January 5. The Kazakhstani firm KazNetworkBus and the Uzbekistani firm Manzara Tourism are the carriers on that route, according to the ministry.
The buses operate hourly from 6am to 8pm.
"Every day 15 trips occur," Nurlan Baygut, director of the South Kazakhstan Province Department of Passenger Transport, told Caravanserai. "Passengers cross the border ... in an expedited procedure."
New routes to permit stronger family ties
"The trip takes three hours," one of the first passengers, Rustam Saidov of Tashkent, told Caravanserai.
Despite border formalities and slippery roads, Saidov expressed hope that he and his relatives in Shymkent will be able to see each other more often now that travel is easier.
"There used to be many problems that hindered us in maintaining family ties -- we had to transfer [to other means of transport] and pay various service charges," he said.
"It's easier now to visit our relatives," he said.
Another passenger on the same route, Farkhad Berdiyev of Tashkent Province, said the border formalities for bus riders were relatively short, estimating they took "15 to 20 minutes".
Berdiyev is a native of Uzbekistan but works for a bakery in South Kazakhstan Province, which means he has to cross the border to see his own family.
Saule Bayangaliyeva of Taraz, Kazakhstan, took one of the new bus routes to Shymkent to continue onward to Tashkent to visit friends.
"Tickets cost 3,000 KZT ($9.12)," she told Caravanserai. "I think that's affordable. You can see the demand -- there are a lot of passengers. A direct route without transfers ... we are very grateful that such a route opened."
She hopes that direct buses to Uzbekistan will begin serving Taraz, in Kazakhstan's Zhambyl Province.
New routes to link major cities
Bayangaliyeva's hopes seem likely to materialise this year, according to the Ministry of Investments and Development.
The ministry expects more bus routes connecting Kazakhstani and Uzbekistani cities to open this year.
Such routes are important given the countries' economic interconnectedness, economists say.
"About 800 Uzbekistani companies work in Kazakhstan and 200 Kazakhstani companies work in Uzbekistan," Vladislav Morozov, an economist at the Shymkent-based consultancy Shymkent-Invest, told Caravanserai. "Trade between our countries is growing and totals $2 billion annually. ... [but] the potential for economic ties is significantly higher."
In addition, Uzbekistani and Kazakhstani citizens have families and friends across the border, he said.
"We expect that bus services connecting the Uzbekistani cities of Samarkand and Bukhara ... and the Kazakhstani cities of Shymkent, Taraz and Almaty" will open soon, Morozov said.
Other modes of transportation are part of the boom.
Passenger train service launched last year between Almaty and Tashkent and between Astana and Samarkand is quite popular, according to Morozov.
Meanwhile, nonstop flights between Almaty and Tashkent are planned, according to Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev's office.