Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Deported From Uzbekistan via Train

January 7th 2014
Published: January 7th 2014
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Mangyshlak to Oktaybrsk TrainMangyshlak to Oktaybrsk TrainMangyshlak to Oktaybrsk Train

Boarding the empty train in Mangyshlak
December 14th

Aktau was overcast, windy and the temperature was slightly below freezing when I stepped outside at 9:30 AM on December 14th to catch a ride to the Mangyshlak train station. Catching a ride in Aktau is pretty easy as people just stick out their hand and some random driver will usually stop in a matter of minutes and today was no different. A small blue Korean made car soon stopped and I quickly stepped back so Jyldyz could negotiate the fare. Most of the locals assume I am one of the many Caucasian Russian/Kazakhs that stayed after the breakup of the Soviet Union as long as they don’t hear me speak. Therefore Jyldyz always does the necessary negotiating because if they find out that I am a foreigner the fare will quickly double or even triple. She soon negotiated a fare of 1400 tenge and we were on our way. The plan was to take the train to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan via an overnight transfer in Oktyabrsk. After arriving in Bishkek I would apply for an Uzbek visa while Jyldyz would apply for her Kazakh work visa. We would then return to Aktau again via Uzbekistan stopping in Tashkent,

Preparing our bunks.
Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva and maybe a few other places if time allowed. I had almost four weeks of vacation, however with the wait times for the visas in Bishkek we could easily run out of time. For those of you unfamiliar with Central Asia, this trip would be a huge loop over a vast area that would be around eight to ten days of train travel without stopping and being we planned on making a number of stops we had to manage our time carefully.

After around 30 minutes we arrived at the train station and unloaded our bags. This would be the first time for both of us to travel by train in Central Asia. I had travelled by train in China and Vietnam many times before but was not familiar with the ex-Soviet rail system. However I was eager to experience it. We were about an hour early so I decided to try and locate a toilet before boarding. The one in the railway station had a sign on it that it was closed but I was soon told there was one outside. After asking various people outside I was finally directed to a corner where

The bottom bunk can be turned into a table with two seats.
two buildings met, well within sight of the old babushkas hawking their wares next to the railway. Seeing I wouldn’t be the first one to use this corner by the looks and smell of it, I decided I was probably the least of their worries and went on to relieve myself. After leaving I was soon approached by one of the workers unloading a freight train nearby asking for some dollars for using their corner. I acted as if he was making a joke and quickly left.

The train car I was on was the second to the last one so it was quite a hike but we were soon settled. It was definitely an older train but was relatively clean which was a plus. We had opted to take platzkart which were open bunks, six to a section. We unrolled our mats and were even given a small bag with clean sheets and pillowcases which was nice, and then attended to meeting our neighbours. There was a middle aged lady who had a five month old baby who was deaf in one ear. The lady had been to Aktau because of having to spend some time in the hospital there and was now returning back to her home in Beyneu. The lower bunk was occupied by an older man from Beyneu who had fallen off his roof and broken his arms in multiple places and also had to go to Aktau to get it taken care of and was now on his way home. I had had a firsthand experience with the local government hospital in Aktau and had to shudder at the thought that the healthcare system in Beyneu was so poor or non-existent that they had to take an eight hour journey to Aktau where in my opinion was still way below sub-standard.

This particular train was the Mangyshlak to Almaty train; we would have to transfer to the Moscow to Bishkek train at Oktyabrsk which was a 24 hour ride from Aktau. Jyldyz had fun playing with the deaf lady’s baby while I gazed out the dirty window at the double humped Bavarian camels roaming the endless desert landscapes. There was a light dusting of snow and the ever blowing wind whistling and sometimes even rocking the train car. The barren windswept desert with the tall steppes was an unforgettable sight and every so
Local KazakhsLocal KazakhsLocal Kazakhs

I played cards with these fellows on the way to Oktyabrsk.
often there would be small house, where presumably herders lived, out in the middle of the vastness.

At this time of the year the sun sets well before 6 PM and doesn’t rise again until 9 AM so it didn’t take long to see the last of its feeble wintery light disappear over a distant steppe. The inside it the train was remarkably warm and people were busy digging out their food from the massive bags they had lugged on the train with them. There was the never ending pouring of tea from the steaming hot cauldron at the back of the train and an unlimited supply of the round loaves of local bread. I dug out my paper bowl of instant noodles, a habit of the years spent living in China, and slowly savoured the hot broth in the dimly lit train carriage. After my meagre fare I slowly drank a piping hot coffee and reminisced about the many places I have been able to experience in so many faraway places. Moments that after being lived seem as distant as the planets in deep space and were it not for the photos and videos I would be forced to wonder, were they real or only imaginary dreams.

The train soon began to slow and I noticed the deaf lady and the guy with the broken arms began to pack their belongings and I realized we had arrived in Beyneu. We would have a 30 minute stop here so Jyldyz got off to buy some monti (similar to Chinese dumplings) from the old babushkas, which we ate while waiting for the train to move again. Our new bunkies were two 20+ year old men who invited themselves to a game of 500 Rummy Jyldyz and I were about to begin. We spent the next few hours playing cards and talking until the conductor turned off the lights. As I climbed into my bunk and began to drift off to sleep as train rumbled along the vast deserts and steppes of Kazakhstan, I thought how many things in this ancient land where still unchanged from the times Genghis Khan ruled this vast area. Times like these were times when I knew I was really living.

“Everybody dies but not everybody lives” Drake

December 15th

I was startled out of my sleep by someone shaking me and
Moscow to Bishkek TrainMoscow to Bishkek TrainMoscow to Bishkek Train

This was taken after the troop of miners entered and almost every bunk was filled.
saying coffee, coffee. Apparently the conductor had noticed that I had been drinking instant coffee the day before and wanted some at 6 in the morning. I groggily climbed out of my bunk and dug around in my bag until I found it, quickly handed it to him and went back to sleep. After another few hours of sleep I got up and changed our bottom bunk back into a small table and made some hot coffee which I drank with some squashed croissants I had purchased in Aktau.

Overnight the landscape had changed; there were now some trees and gently rolling hills as well as much more snow. I also expected it was much colder as the windows were beginning to frost over. Sometime during the night they had switched cars as we were now the second carriage in the train rather than the second to the last one. After breakfast our neighbours asked to finish the card game we had been unable to finish the evening before which we did until the conductor told us to clean our bunks as we would soon be in Oktyabrsk. Apparently each passenger is required to take their sheets off in
Our AntagonistsOur AntagonistsOur Antagonists

The third to the right was the friendly old fellow buying all the gifts for us. The other two were part of the two-faced mob that were friendly one moment and openly antagonistic the next.
preparation for the next passengers when exiting the train. We soon had our things packed and still had a 30 minute wait until our arrival at Oktyabrsk.

When we finally arrived at Oktyabrsk there so many passengers crowded around to get on that it was nigh impossible to get off. It was really cold and snowy with a really nasty cold wind which was a jolt after being cooped in the stuffy train carriage for the past 24 hours. We had no idea where sleeping accommodations were but being Oktyabrsk was not much more than a village we thought it wouldn’t take long to find out. However the people didn’t seem overly friendly here and it took a while before we were able to find something. We were directed to a place where workers stayed and were able to get two cots for 5000 tenge. It was clean but very basic and by that time I was glad to just be out of the cold wind and snow. We would be in Oktyabrsk for a whole day and then catch the Moscow to Bishkek train at around 2 PM the next day.

After our afternoon naps we braved
Charm to Keep Us SafeCharm to Keep Us SafeCharm to Keep Us Safe

This was the charm given to us by the friendly old man supposedly to protect us from evil eyes and curses.
the cold wind and snow to take a stroll through the tiny town and to buy some bread, cheese and meat. There wasn’t much to see with the exception of some quaint little cottages built of wood that I hadn’t seen in Kazakhstan before. When we returned to our rooms we ordered a few local dishes which I didn’t have any idea what they were, took a hot shower and climbed into the narrow little cots for the long night. Hearing the cold wind whistling outside and the low rumble and lonely whistle of an occasional passing train I drifted off to sleep thankful for a warm room even if it was very basic.

December 16th

I woke up and fumbled for my phone to see what time it was and was surprised to see it was only 6 AM. Old habits die hard I guess as this was usually what time I get up to go to work, but being I hadn’t set my alarm I thought I may sleep until 8 or 9. It wouldn’t be light for another two and a half hours so I snuggled deeper under the thick woollen covers and went back to sleep until shortly after 8. I got up and took my coffee cup down to the kitchen were an old babushka filled it with steaming hot water. I noticed that there was fresh coating of new snow outside. The windows in the rooms were all covered with plastic so there was no way of knowing what was happening outside except for the sound of the wind which seemed to have died down sometime during the night. According to the lady working at the train station the Moscow to Bishkek train wouldn’t arrive until 2 PM so there was no big hurry to be at the station. This resulted in us loafing around in our room until around 11. I decided to take another shower as I knew it would be the last one for two days and if this train was anything like the last one the heat and stuffiness would be causing me to sweat.

At noon we decided to brave the cold and snow for the short walk to the train station. After settling the hotel bill and getting their address and phone number in case we pass through again we walked across the street to a small local shop. There we bought some bread, cheese and kielbasa for the next two days on the train. The wind and cold was as brutal as the day before and we hurried to get to the station which was a huge old building with only about 20% of it being used. However there was heat in it and it had large windows where one could watch the trains go by and the snow blowing and drifting. We spent the two hour wait watching trains and feeding a stray cat that had taken refuge inside the building and was lying on a hot water pipe feeding the old radiators used to heat the building. They soon announced that our train was arriving in about five minutes.

Being there were a lot of people in the station, I expected a large exodus when the train arrived, however there were only a few people leaving. After a brutal four minute wait the train slowly made its way around the bend and slowed. Our tickets showed that our carriage number was 5 which ended up being the very last car on the train. The conductor allowed us to board right away and we were pleasantly surprised to find the carriage mostly empty. There was someone in our bunks but quickly went packing when we arrived leaving only an old Russian babushka under a massive pile of blankets. This was a Kyrgyz train which surprised me as I had been told by a station employee that it was a Russian train. It seemed clean enough and the conductor was very friendly.

After being settled the train soon began moving again. The conductor collected our passport information and seeing that Jyldyz and I shared the same family name the usual questions began, are you married, where did you meet etc. etc. etc. She then explained that there were a large number of Uzbek migrants on the train and that I should use the women’s lavatory at the opposite end of the car as it was cleaner. This was the beginning of what turned out to be a very disturbing revelation about the biases and dislike for Uzbeks, not only by the Kyrgyz, but by Kazakhs and Tajiks as well.

This train didn’t make as many stops as the previous one and it was around two hours before we made the next stop. I didn’t expect many passengers as I wasn’t sure this train was even permitted to transport passengers inside Kazakhstan being it wasn’t a Kazakh train. I was dead wrong though and was quite unprepared for what happened next. The door was hardly open when a large group of middle aged men armed with massive bags entered the carriage. They worked at a nearby gold mine on two week shifts and were on their way to the city of Turkestan where they lived.

The chaos began with an immediate argument between them and the Uzbek migrants who were scattered throughout the train. Eventually Jyldyz was able to make out what was transpiring. The Uzbeks had bribed the conductor for a ride and consequently didn’t have any designated bunks. Because of this they had bedded down in other passenger’s bunks and had used other passenger’s mattresses and linens. The carriage was now almost completely full leaving them standing in the walkways and a troop of angry passengers with used mattresses and soiled linens.

What had been an argument was now fast turning into a swearing and name calling match with some of the Kazakh men calling an Uzbek woman a whore after she refused to give him his designated bunk which she had been occupying. This resulted in all the Uzbeks swarming around her and defending her in which she seemed to be doing quite well on her own. She was calling them names that even the most vulgar truck driver wouldn’t have been able to keep up with. She described, with great details how she would proceed and make eunuchs out of them and how she would rip a new outlet for them to relieve themselves. Following this tirade one of the Kazakh men began pushing her against the wall and telling her to remember she was not in Uzbekistan but in Kazakhstan and what has happened to Uzbeks in Kazakhstan in the past.

The conductor suddenly appeared and threatened to dump her off at the next station if she didn’t remove her belongs from the bunk and find another one being she didn’t have a ticket. This seemed to have the desired effect as she gathered her belongings and left to look for another bunk. The old Russian lady was also moved much to her complaint as her designated bunk was next to the toilet and she wasn’t willing to sit there. It was all to no avail as her belongings were plopped in her bunk at the end of the train as she hobbled away from her aggressors.

Because of all the chaos there were still some of the Kazakhs who were missing their mattresses and sheets when an old patriarch noticed mine and Jyldyz’s piled neatly on top of my bunk and started to help himself. Not wanting confrontation but also not willing to give up what was rightfully mine I politely explained that these where mine and Jyldyz’s and he quickly left them alone and hobbled back to his own bunk without further ado. As the day went on the poor Uzbeks continued to get bumped around like pin balls as people got on and off the train, dislike for them was evident from everyone except for the few ethnic Russians that were on board.

As the sun once more began to slide behind the horizon of the distant plains I opened another container of instant noodles and made a kielbasa and cheese sandwich with the supplies we had gotten at Oktyabrsk. As I was finishing my dinner one of the Kazakh men from the next bunk down the train began to make some gestures in my direction. Not being able to understand what he meant I asked Jyldyz to ask to which he responded that he wished to talk with me.

These conversations generally end up being a conversation with Jyldyz because of the language barrier but I agreed and he began with the normal questions about where I was from and what I was doing here. When he found out I was married to Jyldyz, an ethnic Kyrgyz born and raised in Kyrgyzstan the conversation became even more lively with more and more of them gathering around until the conductor came to make sure they weren’t making any problems.

They all seemed friendly enough and were all eager to talk about their life, families and jobs. After a while the one who had initiated the conversation asked if I would have a drink with him to which I responded I would drink wine or beer but not vodka or whiskey. I was fully expecting him to pull a bottle of vodka out from under his bunk as it seemed to be what everyone drank in this part of the world. Instead at the next stop he got off the train and soon returned with two large bottles of Bavarian beer which we drank while chatting away. It turned out that his daughter had married a local guy from Aktau and was now living there and he wanted us to meet her on our return.

Soon the conductor dimmed the lights and everyone got in their beds for the night. Unable to sleep I lay in my bunk gazing out across the lonely desolate snow covered plains and watched as the moonlight from the clear sky illuminated everything to the point that I was able to make out the occasional herd of camels, horses, sheep and goats. I soon drifted off to fairyland until the stirring of fellow passengers getting their steaming hot tea from the large boiler at the back of train told me it was morning again.

December 17th

When I climbed out from my top bunk I found Jyldyz already awake and in a sour mood. Sometime in the early morning hours she woke up and overheard the guys we were talking with the evening before. They had been talking about how miserable her life must be being married to a foreigner and how she betrayed her own people by doing so. They also did not believe that her parents were aware of it thinking she was hiding our relationship from her family. They had also been making fun of their fellow worker who had bought me a beer asking him if he expected anything in return from a foreigner and mocking me claiming I was trying to act like I was better than them for not drinking hard liquor. I encouraged her to ignore them but was quite surprised as they had seemed very friendly the evening before.

After a few hours the guy who had bought me the beer the evening before came to visit again this time bringing a large smoked fish and a bag of apples he had bought at one of the many stops along the way. As he proudly presented them to us his friends began to openly make fun of him again chiming in with a song about Santa coming to Kazakhstan with gifts for the foreigner. It didn’t seem to bother him at all and at the next stop he purchased a small dream catcher like charm that he loudly stated would keep us safe from evil eyes and curses and gave it to us.

I was beginning to feel uncomfortable as it seemed the more his friends mocked him the more he was willing to buy and give. The next time a vendor came through the train selling jewellery he tried to buy some for us, Jyldyz pleaded with him not to before he finally relented. As soon as he went back to his bunk his noisy friends began picking on the Uzbeks again. The Uzbeks were well within ear shot and eye sight as they began calling them all sorts of names and making obscene gestures related to sexual acts that are looked upon with disgust. The Uzbeks didn’t seem to pay them any attention probably wanting to avoid another scenario like the one the day before.

The friendly old guy soon appeared again and I showed him my bird guide and binoculars I had with me. This sparked a lot of interest from his mocking friends who all came over to try them out and asking all sorts of questions about them. After another hour of his friends acting friendly again the conductor came along and announced the next stop would be Turkestan and the whole group began packing their belongings. We took some photos with friendly old man while the others quickly tried to get in as well.

Soon the train pulled into the station and they all left probably to the relief of most of the other passengers hoping for a quieter and more peaceful journey. I am still puzzled as a few of them really seemed like friendly and nice people with no ulterior motives while most of them were rude, ignorant and obnoxious one minute and seemingly nice and friendly the next. It seemed like they were ignorant of the fact that Jyldyz could understand them but they had to know she could being they had talked with the evening before.

We soon reached Shymkent were the Uzbek migrants left the train. I also got off as there was a 30 minute stop there and I had a headache from the hot and stuffy air inside the carriage. People were also continually smoking in the bathroom which somehow allowed the smell to waft through the rest of the car. As I stepped off the car some of the Uzbeks rushed over and tried to talk with me and wanted to take some pictures. Unfortunately I had left my camera in the car and couldn’t take any photos of my own.

The train was now only about half full and I played cards with some Russian/Kazakh boys for the next hour until they got off as well. After they left a group of Tajik migrants that had been keeping to themselves at the far end of the car came over to talk with us as our area was almost completely vacated now. They also proceeded to tell us how they disliked Uzbeks for whichever reason I still don’t know. Up until now, except for the Russian passengers, everyone seemed to think it was their duty to inform us how vile and dislikeable the Uzbeks are with no particular reason as to why.

Knowing that we would be crossing the Kazakh/Kyrgyz border sometime during the night I decided to take advantage of the quietness and try and get some sleep. It worked well for an hour or so until the last few stops before the border when more people began boarding again.

December 18th

Sometime around midnight the conductor came along and made everyone get up as we were approaching the border. We soon stopped and some border control agents went through and half heartedly searched the carriage and soon left again. After another 30 minutes a lone officer came through with a computer and webcam asking some basic questions and entering passport data after taking each passenger’s photo. He was serious but not rude in anyway and it was not an unpleasant experience as some web articles made it out to be. After he finished the conductor said we could go back sleep for a while.

The train soon began moving again and after another hour or so I was awakened again by someone shining a light in my face and jabbering in either Russian or Kyrgyz which turned out to be the Kyrgyz border police. For some reason this time the conductor hadn’t given prior warning and I groggily climbed out of my bunk again. They didn’t seem to search the train at all but collected about two or three passengers, including Jyldyz with my passport and took them off the train. It was pitch dark outside and I couldn’t see where they left to while I sat and waited while imagining all sorts of evil deeds being committed. What seemed like an hour passed by before Jyldyz returned with my passport and the necessary stamps. In comparing my own experiences in both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, I have had a few run ins with the police asking for bribes and being generally unprofessional in Kyrgyzstan but had never experienced this in Kazakhstan. This gave me more confidence in the Kazakh system than the Kyrgyz one. However everything seemed in order and we were soon rolling again with the Kyrgyz border officers not having said a single word to me except to roust me out of my bunk. It was now close to 3 AM as I once again crawled under the covers to try and sleep.

After another short 1 ½ hours the conductor woke us up again saying we would soon be in Bishkek. As I fumbled with my sheets and mattress and collected my bags I was mentally comparing this journey to the times I had flown to Bishkek. Was I glad I had taken the train, the answer an unmistakeable yes. It was much longer and in accounting for food and lodging etc. there was not much difference in price, but just the experience was well worth every dime and minute spent. The conductor kindly patted my back and wished me well as I stepped off the carriage and made my way around the cold and dark station building to look for my ride which was nowhere to be seen. All alone at 5 AM and with no phone credit we waited and shivered as the cold began to settle in hoping someone would soon arrive.

Dec. 19 – 25

The time spent in Kyrgyzstan was mainly spent in Bishkek at my sister-in-laws place waiting for my Uzbek visa to be approved and issued. The weekend was spent in Kemin at Jyldyz’s mother and older brother’s place. They killed a goat as is the local costum when guests come from a long distance and everyone gorged themselves with local food. The whole family was there including all the grand children which made for a full house. During the whole week the weather was moderate for Bishkek in December ranging from around 6 degrees at night to about a maximum of 35 in the day time. There were periods of snow and the ground was covered with about 8 to 10 inches. There were usually guests coming to see us each evening and as is the local custom they always brought something to eat or drink. Monti was for dinner on most evenings which is similar to Chinese dumplings except bigger and is eaten using hands from a common bowl. I still used soy sauce and vinegar to dip them in, a habit from the time spent in China.

On the afternoon of Christmas Day I called the Uzbek embassy to check on my visa and was told it was approved and ready to pick up. This resulted in a race to get there before the embassy closed which I succeeded with about 5 minutes to spare. After getting my visa I quickly rushed to buy train tickets to leave the next day as I felt I was already short on time to see and do everything I had planned in Uzbekistan. There was no train running directly from Bishkek to Tashkent so we would have to go through Kazakhstan and change trains somewhere along the way.

There was one train leaving Bishkek the next day which was a Russian train running from Bishkek to Moscow. I had to spend considerable time poring over the various routes and railway maps as there are no good English, and maybe not even Russian, schedules or routing websites where one can put in two destinations and see a list of trains that are available. I did however find a train running from Moscow to Tashkent and then compared the list of stops to see if they stopped in a same station somewhere in Kazakhstan where I could change. Lo and behold, as luck would have it they both stopped at a station called Timur. The only problem was that the Bishkek to Moscow train would arrive there at around 3 AM and the Moscow to Tashkent train would stop about 8 hours later at 11. I had heard that most stops have places where one could find a room so that was my plan.

The schedule was to leave Bishkek on December 26 at around 11 AM and arrive in Timur, Kazakhstan at 3 AM on the 27th, get off and find a room and then catch the Moscow to Tashkent train that would stop at Timur at 11AM and arrive in Tashkent at 5:30PM. The lady selling tickets couldn’t find the Timur stop and was poring through a large worn book trying to find it. As luck would have it she finally managed to find the routes and trains I wanted and then sent me to a nearby bank to pay, after which I was to return again with the receipts and would then be issued the tickets.

I had found that this is a very normal procedure in any government run and owned enterprise in Kyrgyzstan that was implemented to reduce corruption. I assume it was a success as the person selling whatever it may be never received any money, however it is also a great inconvenience for the person purchasing something as there is always the ever present clump (queues don’t exist in Central Asia) that one has to battle and push through to ensure one gets his turn at the register. After a better part of two hours I had my tickets in hand and was on the way back to Zhypara’s house for one last night.

December 26th

Not wanting to miss my train I planned on being at the station at least an hour before departure plus we wanted to stop and get some supplies as well as change our Kyrgyz som to Kazakh tenge. My brother- in-law would be dropping us off at the station as well as the few stops we had planned. After the good bye hugs we piled into the car and were off by 9 AM. It was an overcast day and I was really ready to leave Bishkek, spending time there in the summer was pleasant enough but the wintertime was not a time when I felt like I wanted to be there. Most days were cold and overcast with the gray drab soviet style apartments billowing coal smoke from the chimneys plus the dirty snow gave the city a depressing feeling. After getting some snacks and changing money we were dropped at the train station a full hour and a half early which was just fine with me. Bishkek has two stations called Bishkek 1 and Bishkek 2 and on arrival we had gotten off at Bishkek 1 which was a small well kept station. However, being we had arrived very early everything had been locked and I had not been able to see the inside of it. In contrast, Bishkek 2 was a huge old grey building that looked like it had been the city’s centrepiece a long ago time. Inside was nicely kept and clean even though quite cold. With the high ceilings the small radiators couldn’t even begin to keep it warm resulting in people crowding around the radiators to soak up the little heat coming from them.

A sleeping homeless man was stretched out on the cold steel benches bundled in an odd assortment of clothing. It was evident by the sight and smell that he had wet himself and seemed totally oblivious to the fact and was in a deep slumber. As I was shivering and watching his laboured breathing I wondered what had befell his poor soul to be in such a state. Did he lose his family, who is ones financial insurance in this part of the world or was he mentally unstable and therefore unable to fend for himself in this cold drab city? While I will never know the answers to these questions his seemingly dismal future continues to haunt me when I see the cold winds and snow blowing in this unforgiving and hostile environment.

At 30 minutes before departure time the train slowly rolled up to the station. It was indeed a Russian train sporting the red letters PD Railways on the silver cars that I had seen so many times on their commercial on CNN. We quickly gathered our bags and left the station anticipating a wait in the train would be much warmer than the station. This proved to be a wrong assumption probably as this was the beginning of the route and the carriages hadn’t had time to be heated properly. As with the Kazakh and Kyrgyz trains this one was also heated by a coal burning boiler that sent hot water along the pipes at the wall and floor corners. There was also the big open pile of dusty coal at the end of the car. As we stuffed our bags in the storage areas and settled down to wait Jyldyz got a phone call from her younger sister saying they were coming to the station to say their good byes. Being we were already on the train we told them we might already be gone by the time they arrived but lo and behold a few minutes before we left they managed to make it up to the train window waving goodbye.

Being we had arrived in Kyrgyzstan in darkness we were looking forward to seeing the countryside on the way out. There were only about five stops until we would reach the Kyrgyz Kazakh border. There were two tall Russian conductors (ladies) on the train and they soon had the coal boiler going and the carriage slowly began to warm. As we wound our way through the large valley between the towering mountains on one side and the Kazakh border on the other one could see the villages in a way that would been impossible from the highway. Poverty was evident and one could see the harsh living conditions these people were living in. Young boys walking along the tracks would often flip the middle finger at the train as it went by. Workers working on the tracks had built small fires and could be seen huddled around them trying to keep warm.

As the cold feeble yellow winter sun was slowly sliding behind the looming mountains and as I was refilling my coffee cup for the tenth time the conductor began calling for the few people in the car to prepare their documents as we would soon be approaching the Kyrgyz border control post. By this time this process was becoming old hat and being I hadn’t had any problems thus far I was not too worried. The train soon slowed to a stop when along with a cold gush of freezing winter air the border guards came clumping down the carriage poking around under the seats and luggage storage areas with their large batons. After they left without a word another two followed checking passports.

Upon seeing mine they motioned and barked something in Russian which I assumed meant to follow. Seeing Jyldyz nod her head in their direction I quickly grabbed my coat and followed. After a short walk we entered a cold small concrete building with two bare desks and a lone border official talking on the phone in a loud voice. The one I was following dropped my passport on an empty desk and just as quickly left again. I sat on the edge of the cold metal bench and pulled my tuke down over my ears trying to stay warm.

After 15 minutes with the lone officer still having his conversation on the phone the door suddenly opened and another large officer walked in bundled in his camouflaged coveralls and slowly took a shiny new laptop out of a bag hanging on a hook. After 10 minutes of setting up the computer and hunting for the mouse he finally took my passport and entered some details. After stamping it he handed it to me with a large smile and in his best broken English almost shouted Sank Yoo. I quickly mumbled a your welcome and half ran back to the warm train wondering how these people managed to work and function in their cold buildings with seemingly no heat.

The train was soon rolling again and knowing the Kazakh border would be coming up soon I hesitated to become too comfortable knowing I might again be required to exit the train and wait in some old cold crumbling concrete building.

All too soon the train slowly rolled to a stop and within a few seconds along with the familiar gust of freezing air five border guards entered the car along with a large dog on a leash. They soon left with the exception of the one with the dog who started asking Jyldyz questions about me. Being tired of translating she had begun to answer them herself which didn’t seem to bother the officers and this one was no exception. He was however, spending much more time than any previous officers had and the dog was still running and sniffing everything in its sight much to the dismay of some well dressed female passengers sitting nearby. There was soon another officer that came by collecting everyone’s passports and just as quickly left again.

Unlike previous border crossings this one proved to be a little different as when the passports were returned they were already stamped. There hadn’t been anyone coming along taking photos of each person like before. In the next hour while still sitting there two additional dogs were brought in and one could also hear border patrol officers walking along on the roof of the train cars. When we finally did leave Jyldyz explained that the one officer who had stayed so long had told her he wanted to scare me to which she had replied to go ahead and try. He then claimed he had forgotten his English and soon left. In both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan all the border patrol officers looked relatively young with the exception of the ones that collected and stamped the passports. I expect they hadn’t had much exposure to westerners and were simply curious.

We were soon rolling along again in the pitch darkness of the cold night and I climbed into my bunk knowing my 3 AM stop would be coming all too soon. It had begun snowing quite heavily and I was sure it was quite cold outside because of the frost forming on the windows. Not trusting the conductors to wake me I set my alarm for 2:30 AM.

December 27th

I was sleeping deeply when the alarm woke me and quickly got dressed. We rolled up our sheets and pillowcases which needed to be given back to the conductor before disembarking the train. After making sure all our things were packed we quietly waited in the darkness as I kept peering out the window hoping I could see some lights as according to the time we should be arriving at Timur any moment. I could feel that the train was already slowing and there was still no sign of any human habitation outside. A few short minutes later the conductors asked us to get ready to get off so we lugged our bags to the door and stumbled down the stairs as the conductor muttered softly to herelf (in Russian) “I wonder what they want in this strange little village.” As we stepped off the train it immediately left as I looked around wondering where Timur was as there was nothing to be seen except a well kept small station building. I was hoping it was unlocked as it was still snowing with a biting cold wind.

With a sickening feeling I slowly walked to the station building fearing it was going to be locked and having no idea what I would do then being there was nothing else around and this was 3 AM. As luck would have it, it was indeed unlocked, well lit up and fairly warm. There were three rows of metal benches and a few doors leading to other rooms that were locked and no one in sight. With a sigh of relief I settled on the corner of a bench and wished I didn’t have an eight hour wait.

I had figured that if it was worthwhile to have a train stop in Timur there would also be a hotel where one could shower and get some more sleep. However I was also well aware of how lucky we were that we had a place to stay that was warm enough to be comfortable. After stretching out on the metal benches I managed to catch a few small naps and after almost four hours the door burst open and three old ladies and an old man entered the station. Within another half an hour the small station was almost filled with people and at seven sharp a sleek glossy three car electric train slowly came to a halt. In looking at the train one would have thought it was in Western Europe instead of some small village in Kazakhstan. Every person in the station hurried out and once again we had the whole station to ourselves except for the station manager who had appeared at around 7. After another two hours the cold winter sun peaked over snow covered hills surrounding the station and I could finally see what was beyond what had up to this point only been darkness. There were a few old mud houses scattered about and what appeared to be an old factory building that had long ago fell in a state of disrepair and was no longer being used. Where the 20 plus people that had boarded the electric train had come from was beyond me as there was simply nothing more than maybe ten or fifteen small mud houses here.

As I stood at the door watching the occasional train passing by, the digital clock on the wall kept flashing the time which was a full 4½ hours ahead of my watch. As the forenoon dragged on I began getting excited as I would be sleeping in Tashkent that evening if everything went as planned. At long last at ten minutes prior to the scheduled arrival time of the Moscow to Tashkent train I grabbed my bags and braved the cold winter air to wait next to the tracks. By the looks of things we were definitely the only passengers boarding this train. Sure enough right on time the hulking tall locomotive came roaring down the tracks. The windows on the locomotive were clean and I could plainly see the engineers and saw immediately that they were Uzbek which told me this was an Uzbek train.

As it slowed and stopped just long enough to allow us to quickly climb up the steep steps with the conductor telling us to hurry, it was soon moving again. This train seemed newer and cleaner than the Kazakh, Kyrgyz and the Russian train, however when entering I was shocked at the sight inside. Every possible corner was packed with luggage including the area between the cars. We were in platzkart which were sleeping bunks but on each bunk there were two or three people sitting. As I lugged my bags down the crowded narrow aisle I heard Jyldyz muttering something to the effect that this would be the last time she would be riding an Uzbek train.

When I finally located our bunks at the far end of the carriage it was already occupied by four other people and the luggage areas were also filled. I gestured to the people sitting in our bunks that this was ours and they would have to move which had no effect in any way. They looked like they had no plans on budging and even if they would have there didn’t seem to be any place where they could go. Just as I was trying to figure out how to claim what was rightfully mine the conductor came along and took a quick look at our tickets. In a language neither of us could understand he soon had the squatters removed. I politely showed him my bags and pointed to the luggage already there and in a short order he had it moved as well. As we changed the bunk into a table and seats and took off our heavy coats and placed them in the empty bunk overhead I felt what seemed to be everyone’s eyes following our every move. When we finally settled down the conductor came along and asked for our passports saying he had to list the details and would have them back in ten minutes.

After a long period of silence one of the passengers began talking to Jyldyz in Russian and as they talked more began to join the conversation. I had a genuine interest in these people as they seemed to be so despised and hated among the other Stan countries. Just on this trip we had Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tajiks all saying openly and without shame how they dislike them even when they were sitting well within earshot and could hear and understand everything that was being said. I had so many questions but knew they could only be answered in observing them. As the afternoon wore on they kept talking and offered to share their food with us. They tried to speak to me with the few English words they knew and seemed so proud when I understood what they were saying. They asked if they could see my passport and it was passed down the train and back up until I was worried I wouldn’t see it again. However after a long 30 minutes it was returned by a middle aged lady with a big smile as she proudly said thank you as she handed it back.

Jyldyz had been very worried and anxious about going to Uzbekistan and I was happy to see that she seemed to be enjoying herself talking with them and holding their babies. I knew there was a long history of cross border violence and fighting between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and her family was not really happy that I wanted to go there telling me repeatedly there was nothing worthwhile seeing or to do there. I was hoping that at the end of the trip Jyldyz would have a glowing report on the Uzbek people and it would maybe in some small way help to build trust and help quell what I expected were mostly unfounded rumours.

The border crossing in the Stans when travelling with the train do not actually occur right at the border but at the last village, town or city that the train passes through before entering another country. By using the GPS on the phone I suspected we were getting close to where the Kazakh officials would be entering the train again soon. However before ever got there the Kazakh police entered the train and walked into our carriage just as one of the passengers had lit a sparkler which he hurriedly flung out the train window. Up until then I hadn’t even realized the windows could be opened. It was a little too late as their bunk area had already filled with a thick blue smoke. The police were angrily asking who it was and there were 10 guys crammed into in area made for six and no one uttered a word. The police finally found the conductor who tried to figure out who it was all to no avail. Finally in exasperation the police left. I had already learned something about these people which was that they apparently don’t rat on each other and I highly doubt that they had even known each other prior to meeting on the train.

After another hour or so the train rolled to a stop at the Kazakh border control and the customs officers entered and again only collected the passports rather than processing them in the carriage and left. There was very little searching going on as I expect the Kazakhs couldn’t care less what is leaving Kazakhstan but are more concerned what is entering. It took a full two hours or longer of waiting before our passports were returned, again all stamped and processed. I expect this was probably due to the sheer number of people on the train.

Just prior to leaving there was an older heavy set guy walking along the train calling out that he will exchange Kazakh tenge and US dollars for Uzbek som. Knowing that the Uzbek government strictly controlled the exchange of money and it was illegal to exchange outside the government bank I was surprised to see this. Also knowing the Uzbek government controlled the exchange rate at around 2,200 UZS to 1 USD I decided to ask how much he was willing to exchange it for to which he replied he would pay 2,500 UZS for 1 USD. This seemed to be a lot better rate than in Uzbekistan and we were technically still in Kazakhstan so I thought it would be alright to exchange some. I negotiated with him for an exchange of 2,600 UZS for 1 USD if I exchanged 500 USD to which he soon agreed. He whipped put the largest pile of cash I had ever seen which came to 1,300,000 UZS, all in 1,000 UZS notes. They were bundled in neat bundles of 100 and I counted a random bundle which had the correct amount of notes and then proceeded to hand him the 500 in USD. I was conscious of all the people on the train now knowing I had this money as the transaction had taken place right in the carriage where everybody could see it. This fear was soon pushed aside though as I secretly gloated that I had managed to get such a good exchange rate. I stuffed the massive pile of cash into the bottom of one of our bags and put it under my seat where I could keep a watchful eye on it.

When we finally got rolling again there was immediately a long line at the toilets. In the trains that I had been on prior to this the toilet flushed the waste right out on the tracks which results in the restrooms being closed at the station stops so there won’t be piles of human waste right in front of the station. Knowing that we would be stopping again after we passed into Uzbekistan for another two or more hours, everyone was making sure they had their bathroom duties taken care of. While standing in the ever present clump a fight broke out between two guys trying to both enter but was quickly broken up by fellow passengers. I didn’t expect I would get a bathroom turn as there was a lot of pushing going on and I was not about to participate in the who pushes the hardest gets the toilet game. Much to my surprise after a short wait some of the passengers in the clump motioned to me that it was my turn and I quickly entered to take care of business, wash and was back out in short order.

Upon returning to my seat I saw on my GPS that we had already entered Uzbekistan and were on the outskirts of Tashkent and I was surprised we hadn’t stopped yet. Just as I was pondering this, the train rolled to a stop and in looking out the window I saw we were immediately surrounded by what looked like camouflaged, rifle toting military personnel. There were two that entered our carriage barking out some kind of orders which I didn’t understand. I could see that they were collecting passports and quickly handed him both mine and Jyldyz’s when he passed. As soon as he saw the Kyrgyz passport he stopped and stared at Jyldyz with a cold stare and asked what she wanted here. As she explained he said it’s not legal to enter Uzbekistan from a third country if you are a Kyrgyz citizen. Thinking he was just playing hardnosed I tried to explain that that Uzbek embassy said we can enter through Kazakhstan and it also said this on their website. He quickly replied that I was not the problem and this was not about me.

He then handed us the customs forms and left to my relief. I took this as a sign that he was probably bluffing and everything would be fine. The custom forms were all in Russian and there were two identical ones for each passenger. All the money and anything of value had to be listed as well as a number of other details. When halfway through filling out the customs forms with the lone pen in our possession the conductor came along and said we were wanted by someone outside the rail car. We collected all our baggage not knowing what was going on and made our way up the crowded aisle to the open door where another young gun toting guard was standing. He immediately began scolding and yelling at Jyldyz in Russian. Still not knowing exactly what was occurring Jyldyz told me she has to follow them and they said I was free to go.

Thinking it was not a good idea to leave her there alone as the smell of alcohol on their breath was unmistakable and being they were carrying guns and being very unkind and rude I decided to follow and see what would happen. I made sure I was carrying all the money and electronics on me and slowly followed her down the train stairs and across the large rail yard. When the officer looked back and noticed I was following as well he angrily informed me that should I not return to the train that I would also be deported to which I replied I would rather be deported than continue travelling in a country where government officials treat foreigners in this manner. There were two additional officers waiting outside the large glass building and all proceeded to talk and shout at once.

I soon saw it would not do any good trying to reason with them as one of them was obviously half drunk and the others were acting like they were. They took our passports and told us we were to stand under a small foot bridge until 7:30 PM as we would be put on the train that was due then and be sent back to Kazakhstan.

It was bitter cold with a strong wind and there was no protection anywhere. Two thickly bundled rifle toting officers were stationed on each side of us to watch us. When they finally quieted down so that I was able to ask Jyldyz what they were saying and what our options were she explained that they were not speaking coherently, however they claimed she was only allowed to enter Uzbekistan directly from Kyrgyzstan or via the airport. They had originally said they would deport her directly back to Kyrgyzstan and when she said OK they changed their story and said that they were sending her back to Kazakhstan to which she also readily agreed.

While waiting there I was seriously debating whether to call the US Embassy but eventually decided against it fearing they would call in and I would be placed in their possession and Jyldyz would be left there alone. There was an occasional officer that would walk by and sometimes shout something which I was not able to understand because of my non Russian speaking capabilities. When I asked Jyldyz what they were saying she replied that they were saying that we should be thankful that we were not given a harsher punishment as she deserved it for how the Kyrgyz treated the Uzbeks living in south Kyrgyzstan. I told her to just ignore them not wanting to escalate an already tense situation. When the guards saw me fooling with my phone they shouted and threatened to confiscate it should I get it out again. This caused me to quickly stuff it back into my pockets and go back to pacing around trying to keep warm.

After the better part of an hour and almost frozen I dug out some thermal underwear which I planned to put on not caring anymore whether the guards saw me or not. As I was removing my pants one of the guards quickly left and returned after five minutes and shouted at Jyldyz that they were allowing us to go inside. After listening to a ten minute sermon on how they were being kind and could rightfully treat us much harsher they were going to let us go inside were it was warmer. They sent us to a small room where three older males were working in civilian clothing and a lone guard was placed to watch over us. There was soon a heated argument going on outside which Jyldyz was able to understand with the drunken officer and one other arguing we should be made to stand outside. Apparently their boss had told them to move us inside as they were worried about getting in trouble because of my citizenship and expected me to refuse to go inside without Jyldyz.

When they left and there was finally a little peace and quiet I began to appreciate the warmth of the radiators. The heat was finally beginning to soak into my almost frozen bones when one of the officers came inside and asked Jyldyz to follow him. As I started to follow he shouted that I was to stay where I was that he was only taking her outside for a minute to question her. Torn between whether to argue or just obey I finally decided if it was only outside the door I would stay as I expected I could hear what was going on. As they left I peeked through the small opening and saw her following him outside into the now dark rail yard. A large knot began forming in my stomach as up to this time we had been able to stay together and because of their attitude and obvious drinking I was hesitant to allow them to separate us. After a long 20 minutes with all sorts of evil thoughts and imaginations running through my mind the door suddenly opened and Jyldyz appeared followed by one of the officers carrying a piece pf paper.

She informed me that they had forced her to write a letter stating that she was at no time mistreated and she had no complaints about any of the officer’s actions and the Uzbek government. They also told her to write one for me and to sign my name to which she refused. They told her to tell me to write one as well before they would allow us to leave. I half heartedly scribbled a few lines in my worst cursive and quickly signed my name. When I handed it to the officer he pretended to be reading it and asked Jyldyz what almost all of the words meant. Not being happy with what I wrote he told Jyldyz the exact words I was to write in Russian to which she was to translate and I was to write them in English. Soon realizing that if I wrote exactly that it wouldn’t be a logical sentence, so I hurriedly wrote it and handed it back to him. He took it and quickly stuffed it into his pocket.

He then told us to follow him and took us outside to a lone rail carriage sitting in the darkness and told us to board. He handed our passports to a short fat little conductor sitting at a small table in the corner. The car was as cold as the outside and there was no light so I used the light from my mobile phone to place our bags underneath the wooden seats and settled down faced with trying to keep warm again.

After about 45 minutes about 20 guys bundled up in thick winter clothes entered the car. Some tried to talk with me probably thinking I was an Uzbek because of the darkness. They then began talking with Jyldyz through which we learned they were Uzbek rail workers who worked on the railroads in Kazakhstan. They told us this was a single rail car which would be taken to Shymkent. When they learned Jyldyz was Kyrgyz they also began talking about how bad the Kyrgyz people treated the Uzbeks living in south Kyrgyzstan. After taking all the verbal abuse she had from the customs officers she was in no mood to take any from civilians and the conversation rapidly looked to be becoming a heated argument. I quickly told them to sit somewhere else and leave us alone and which to my surprise they complied. They soon had a lively card game going using their flashlights at the lone table in the carriage.

Just as I was beginning to think we were never going to leave, there was a sudden jolt and we were soon rolling down the tracks. As soon as we left the customs rail yard the conductor handed me my passport but explained that he was to give Jyldyz’s to the Kazakh border officials along with our deportation papers. After a short 10 minute ride the train slowed and two Uzbek custom officials entered again. They began to thoroughly search the car and our bags and collected my passport and along with the conductor disappeared into a nearby shack. With my GPS on my phone I could see we were now very close to the Kazakh border. After another long 30 minutes of sitting in the cold and darkness I finally persuaded Jyldyz to ask one of the workers what was going on to which there was a short unintelligible grunt which also followed each “what?” Probably because of me asking them to leave us alone they really decided to do so. After what seemed like another eternity the conductor suddenly emerged from the building and climbed the steep stairs into the carriage. He handed me my passport and we were soon rolling along the tracks again. Not seeing any officials on the train I kept my GPS turned on and gave an audible sigh of relief upon entering Kazakhstan.

Knowing how the Kazakhs felt about the Uzbeks I made up my mind that I had taken the last Uzbek insult that I was going to take since I was no longer in their country. However I fully believe the Uzbeks also know their place when not in their own country as upon entering Kazakhstan the boisterous card game came to an end as they quietly settled into the hard cold benches until the train slowly rolled to a stop.

There were three border control officers that entered and being I was the first in line was asked for my passport. As I handed them mine Jyldyz explained that the conductor had hers and we were being deported. A booming shout brought the conductor from his slumber in a corner as he scrambled to find Jyldyz’s passport and our deportation papers. The officer read the deportation papers and then asked us to come with him. We quickly gathered our bags and followed him to a small building where he asked us to wait and disappeared into another room. After 10 minutes he appeared with our passports stamped and he had even filled out our immigration cards for us. After asking what our plans were and what we wanted to do he listened quietly as Jyldyz explained everything that had happened.

He then explained that his brother married a US citizen and lived in San Francisco and him and his colleague would take us to the train station to buy tickets and then to a hotel or a taxi whatever we wished. He also said he would call someone that would exchange our Uzbek Som. After a kilometre long walk we arrived at the train station where the taxi and money changer were already waiting for us having been called by the border patrol officer. I knew the train going to Aktau wouldn’t pass here and not wanting to have another experience like the one in Timur we decided to take a taxi to Shymkent which was a hundred kilometres away. We quickly purchased two tickets from Shymkent to Mangyshlak (Aktau) for the train leaving the next day. It would leave Shymkent at 1:30 PM and the only two bunks that were together were in kupe. Kupe is an upgrade from platzkart as there are only four bunks and a lockable door. I quickly paid the fare and carefully placed the tickets in my bag and turned my attention to the money changer. I had already resigned myself to taking a loss on the Uzbek som knowing they were almost worthless outside of Uzbekistan. After some haggling with the help of the still present border officers I finally agreed to a rate in which I would receive the equivalent of 430 USD resulting in a 70 USD loss. After seeing it was well past midnight and we were almost starving we decided to take the taxi to Shymkent that night and agreed on a price that included a stop to get something to eat.

December 28th

When we finally got started for Shymkent after stopping to get a few Turkish doners and a cold coke, the first food all day, it was already midnight. Trying to sleep was out of question as the roads were quite rough and the driver was swerving and trying to dodge the biggest potholes with minimal success all the while trying hard not to slow down. When I finally couldn’t hold myself I had Jyldyz ask him what his hurry was to which he replied that he had promised the border officials he would have us in Shymkent in an hour. Shymkent was a full 100 kilometres away and how he planned to reach it within an hour was beyond me but I was past really caring.

At approximately an hour after we left his phone started ringing and sure enough it was the border control officials asking if he had gotten us to a hotel in Shymkent yet, to which he replied that because of the snow and the roads being slippery we were running late. I was beginning to be impressed that the border control officials were so interested in seeing us get to our hotel safely when in Uzbekistan they made a point of making us as miserable as possible. When we finally arrived in Shymkent the taxi driver took us to a hotel right across the road from the train station but as luck would have it all the beds were full. He then decided to walk to the train station where there was always a mob of movers and shakers running their little mafias. Sure enough an old babushka claimed she had a nice room with a Russian banya for 2500 tenge. Thinking we hit the jackpot we said good bye to the taxi driver, grabbed our bags and followed her on what was supposed to be a short walk to her house.

She cut directly through the huge rail yard where trains were moving about connecting and disconnecting cars and doing whatever else trains do in large rail yards. Finally after making it across the rail yard we squeezed through a well used hole in the chain link fence and wound through narrow alleys in the pitch darkness. We asked her three different times if we were about there to which the answer was always, da da. Everything was covered with hard packed snow and walking in the darkness with all our luggage, plus the long stressful day was beginning to take a toll on both my physical and mental well being. I soon made a misstep in the dark and landed smack on my hip in the cold hard packed icy pathway. Not really wanting to, I slowly gathered my things together and tried to catch up with the old babushka still trekking through the darkness.

When we finally entered into one of the nondescript shacks and waded through a few rooms filled with dusty old broken machinery and furniture we climbed up a long narrow winding stairs. She proudly threw open the door to a dirty little room with nothing more than an old filthy brown carpet and with a toothless grin proceeded to tell us where we could find the Russian banya. Shocked I asked her if this was the room she expected us to sleep in and after she assured us it was I angrily grabbed my bags and left not even bothering to explain that it wasn’t fit to keep an animal in, much less a human. I figured if she was so dense to think that we would sleep here and pay 2500 tenge an explanation wouldn’t have changed anything anyway. Knowing we would have a difficult time finding our way out through the maze of narrow alleys in the darkness I once again relied on the GPS on Jyldyz’s phone heading in the general direction of the train station. By winding and weaving our way through the narrow passage ways we managed to come out to the same hole in the fence and trudged through the rail yard again.

Not knowing where else to turn too we headed back to the front of the train station thinking we may be able to find a taxi that knew where a hotel was that we could stay in. There was a heated argument going on among a group of taxis and not wanting to get involved I waited for a minute to let things cool down. Suddenly I was once again surrounded by three old babushkas all claiming they could find me a room or a taxi but I was in no mood to be taken on another trek through the slums of Shymkent so I ignored them the best I could.

I soon saw an old beat up Lada parked nearby with an older man standing next to it. I sent Jyldyz to ask if he could take us to a hotel and if so to negotiate a price while I kept the old babushkas at bay knowing they would follow and try to not allow it to happen. I had not realized how they create their own little monopolies on things like that until I had seen the argument with the taxis. Apparently some poor taxi driver that had dropped someone at the station and had made a deal to take someone from the train station until mobbed by the babushkas which soon had him chased from their turf. I saw Jyldyz beckoning and saw they had the trunk open so I made a dash for the car to get my bags in before the babushkas noticed what was going on. Just as I was climbing in one of them noticed and with a shout came waddling toward us but it was it little too late as we pulled out on the road.

We soon pulled up to a large glass fronted hotel to which I fully expected to pay a 100 USD for a room but not really caring at this point. As Jyldyz went in to check on price and availability I began to unload. Just as I finished she gestured to come in and I hurriedly paid the taxi and entered the spacious lobby. She had gotten a room for 4000 tenge, the equivalent of 25 USD and I lost no time in climbing the three flights of stairs to get to our room. While small it looked like a bit of heaven. As I filled the tub with hot water I saw it was already 2 AM. I slowly lay in the warm water letting it soak into my seemingly frozen bones as all the days’ miserable hardships and disappointments slowly faded away. I set the alarm for 10 AM and climbed into the think warm covers. Sleep hadn’t felt this good in years.

December 29th

Ten AM came all too soon but I felt energized enough to tackle to world again. It was surprising what a few hours of sleep in a comfortable bed could do. I took another shower knowing it would be the last one for over two days as our train ride was about 2½ days nonstop. There was a nice big restaurant that was deserted except for us where I slowly drank a cup of hot coffee savouring each sip. Warmth, being clean and having something hot to drink and eat can make a world of a difference in life, something one cannot imagine until one has been deprived of it for a time.

When we were full and well rested we got our bags and checked out. The friendly lady manning the lobby kindly told us which marshutka went to the train station which eliminated the need for us to find a taxi. Luck must have been with us as exactly as we left the hotel room the number 120 marshutka stopped as happily we hopped on. After a short ride we were at the train station a full two hours early.

The station building was huge but fairly warm and we quickly bought some snacks and found an empty spot by a hot radiator to watch the people pass by until 1:15. When I saw a crowd beginning to gather on the platform and knowing our train was due at 1:30 I figured I could brave the cold for 15 minutes so I gathered my bags and quickly pushed through the large crowd. Right on time the train rolled up to the platform, a full 25 cars long making it the longest passenger train I had seen yet. We were on car 16 and were soon settled in our kupe where there was on old man with a young boy sitting on the opposite side. This train originated in Almaty and ended at Mangyshlak (Aktau) so we wouldn’t have to change any trains.

The train ride in itself was quite uneventful compared to our previous experiences. The old man with the child got off in one of the stops along the way and we soon had another bunkie who was an oil worker in Aktau. He was very friendly an insisted on sharing his food with us. The two and a half days passed by with us relaxing by sleeping and watching the endless rolling hills and plains pass by. I couldn’t help but notice that the closer we got to Aktau the windier it got, with wind large gusts sometimes seemingly rocking the train carriage. When we finally pulled into the station at Mangyshlak 30 minutes late I quickly exited with the bags and tried to push my way through the masses of people. Jyldyz soon had a taxi lined up and on the 30 minute ride to our apartment I couldn’t help but be happy to be home but at the same time I must admit I will always wonder what lies beyond the borders of Uzbekistan that I wasn’t able to see. But then again there is always another day and another time.

Link to google maps with marked locations https://mapsengine.google.com/map/edit?mid=zipaPRtRjJVw.kRYoYVi7-bmQ

Some myths that I was told by the local Kazakhs on the train. Upon hearing them I would only smile and nod my head knowing that nothing I said would change their minds about it.

All the camels with two humps (Bactrian camels) are female and single humped camels (Dromedary camels) are males.

The Caspian Sea is the only sea in the world with no sharks, reason: the water is too salty.

There is a small deer-like animal living in Kazakhstan that’s almost extinct because of poaching. Its horn is ground into powder and sold to the Chinese for 120,000 USD per gram. And then claiming we can buy their meat at the train station kiosks if we find the right one.

When a camel rests and gets up the following morning he will graze all day in the direction its head was pointing at while resting.


8th January 2014

Very interesting!
Amazing story, though bad of course. You guys literally were 2 days ahead of me on the Uzbek/Kazak border. Pretty f'ed up place for sure! (Uzbekistan) Kazakhstan was great though I must say.

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