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Published: July 30th 2010
Sounds exciting doesn't it? Well in fact the vast majority of the 54-hour journey mentioned in the title was made lying down. I saw a hell of a lot of Kazakhstan, but 99% of it was through a train window. In fact, the only times when I was not seeing Kazakhstan or lying down were when I was tottering down the aisle to fill up my mug from the samovar, a huge, ancient, silver tea pot which the carriage attendant kept alight by snapping pieces of wood and throwing them inside every now and then.
I cannot comment on the scenery during the fourteen hours we headed south from Ekaterinburg to the Kazakh border as most of it was done at night. After the long, arduous border crossing early in the morning, however, I was awake enough to take in some of the spectacularly flat and uninteresting countryside. The main difference between this and your average Russian train-window scenery was that the trees here were not pines and firs but smaller, squatter steppe-loving bushes and shrubs and were fewer and further between.
The towns we passed through in northern Kazakhstan were, judging from the people I saw at the
train stations, roughly 50% Russian. Made up mostly of concrete bungalows and with a relatively high density of factories, they did not look like places where I would particularly have wanted to get off the train. Whereas many Russian villages are built of pretty, old, wooden houses, the very idea a Kazakh village or town must only really have emerged within the last hundred years or so as the Russian colonists settled the previously nomadic Kazakhs; this presumably had something to do with the lack of traditional old houses and the predominance of concrete.
"Where are you from?" the Kyrgyz carriage attendant asked me on the third day.
"England," I replied.
"Oh, cool. Do they have many casinos in England?"
"Yes, I guess. I live in Moscow though."
"In Moscow, do they have casinos?"
"They used to but they've been banned."
"They still have slot machines though?" he asked eagerly.
"Yes, a few," I answered.
"I usually lose all my money in those places. I play them constantly, have done for years."
"Mmmm," I said, nodding.
"What about cannabis? Do you smoke it?" he asked. We were now sitting
on a lower bunk with several other passengers around us.
"No, I don't."
"I do, I've got some hidden at Bishkek station if you want to have a smoke."
"I'm fine thanks," I said, smiling.
"Well where are you staying in Bishkek?" he asked.
"A small guest house, why?"
"We arrive at 2am. There are no buses or minivans. You should sleep on the train and go to your guest house in the morning." And so my first night in Kyrgyzstan was decided.
The rest of the day I spent chatting with a Korean girl whose family had lived in Uzbekistan for generations and two Russian tourists coming from the Far North to spend ten days on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan's main tourist draw card and somewhere I was intent on avoiding. Over a period of several hours Azamat, the pot-head carriage attendant, lazily fixed a metre-long ceiling light that had been dangling by a wire next to my upper bunk since day one.
When we came to the Kazakh - Kyrgyz border I, as the only foreigner, was whisked off the train and taken into an office. Only
one of the soldiers, all of who smelled of vodka, spoke English.
"Give me US$15," he said to me in English so that the others couldn't understand.
"I'm not paying you anything," I replied in Russian so that they could. He eyed me angrily before storming out of the room. Other than that the border crossing passed without incident.
"Everything OK?" a middle-aged female carriage attendant asked me as I got back on the train. She had for some reason been worried that as a foreigner I would not be allowed into the country due to the "Revolution" and "War" that were currently raging.
"Everything's fine," I said.
"Thank God," she replied.
We arrived at 2am as Azamat had said we would. After all the passengers had left, the doors were locked and around ten attendants gathered in a sleeping berth for a smoke.
"Do many people in Kyrgyzstan smoke weed?" I asked.
"At least 80%!" Azamat replied. "It's ok though, isn't it? I mean it's not really considered a narcotic."
After their spliffs Azamat phoned someone then said to me, "Come on, Ed, my friend's just arrived in his car,
let's go for a drive!"
I could see this escapade going on all night though. I had a lot to do the next day, so much to prepare for my trip, so I politely refused and went to sleep on my upper bunk.
Click this link for advice on independent travel in Russia
, with individual sections on many beautiful, interesting, hard-to-reach and off the beaten track destinations within the country.
Click this link for advice on independent travel in Kyrgyzstan
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