Back on the wagon

I missed the first train by a few minutes. I am getting good at that.

Actually it was mostly because of my highly developed fear of buying a ticket too far in advance of leaving time (some kind of deepseated commitment phobia?). So I was standing in a queue at the train station when my train left. I don’t have the Russian ability to push in to the front when my train is leaving soon. Too tentative. Too polite. How very anglo-saxon.

The train I am on left only 20 minutes later. But it is a much slower train, and it stops a lot more. So I lose 7 hours. Which kinda does defeat my chances of stopping to go see the dent where the Aral Sea used to be. Next time, my friend. Next time. There is a lot of the list for next time.

I just met a guy called Jenghiz. Last name not Khan. He lives near Turkestan. Although when I say “near Turkestan”, I actually mean “far from Turkestan”. It is about 10 hours south of Turkestan by train. But that counts as near in Kazakhstan (I am never sure whether to put the “h” in or not).

Jenghiz tells me that Kazakhstan is not democratic just yet. “Working towards it”, was his charitable description. Big social problems include the usual alcohol (that is not hard to see with the number of drunk people wandering about at any time of day), smoking (ditto) and drugs (huge industry in cultivating and selling marijuana, apparently centred on a place called Chyu (which we pass in darkness) apparently).

The government sounds fairly venal too, riddled with corruption and nepotism, and not exactly supporters of robust political debate. At least the citizens feel free enough to criticise the government, even if only to foreigners. In Turkmenistan no one would even express a view.

At least, Jenghiz says, the country is “stable”. Which I take to mean that, given the government’s uncompromising stance on freedom of speech (or its lack) there is not the widespread social unrest that has marred the recent histories of the other Central Asian republics, but particularly Tajikistan.

He earns $200 a month. He says this is quite good money. Train carriage attendants make half of that. It is enough to live on.

People keep wandering through the carriage selling things. Food, drinks and cigarettes are normal. Here they are also trading dinner sets and clothes. The fitting room is a little public, it has to be said. But you have to admire their initiative.

Mostly people seem to assume I am Russian. Not, I guess, because they don’t see many Russians around here, but because they don’t get many foreigners from anywhere else. Especially on a passenger train. Third class.

I don’t look like my passport photo (who does?). The carriage attendant on this train straight up said that it was not mine. Not that he cared, because the name on the passport matched the name on the ticket, and that was his only interest. But it made me smile, and try to convince him before I realised.

Out the window is all steppe. Flat scrublands. Grassland if you are feeling charitable. Desert if you are not. We went uphill for a little while before. But they soon stepped in and stopped that.

This train does stop a lot. Oh to have got in the ticket line earlier. It pauses in the middle of nowhere for apparently no reason. It is stiflingly hot. Oh to not travel in the middle of the day. At least that young man managed to get the windows to open.

My travelling companions are seriously prepared for this trip. They have their own teapot and plates and cups. Everything they need, it seems, except a knife. Fortunately, while i lack a teapot (my Nalgene bottle suffices), plates (one of my pots) and cups (the attendants lend them for free), I do have a knife. We are a good match.

Ah, thanks to that last stop I now have bread and cold beer. Evening has come on, and with it cooler temperatures and a fuzzier, less defined, more pleasing aspect to the landscape. Too much desert, sorry grassland, can get to you. The acquired travel pleasures of the steppe, as Lonely Planet put it.

The train is racing towards the orange horizon (west, that is). As if it is keen to chase the setting sun. What is so crucial, train, that you left in yesterday? If only I had got in the queue a little quicker, I might have been able to find out.