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The Adventure that is Obshi-class Train Travel from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan

Posted by on June 29, 2012

A camel wandering around near the station at Aktau. Because that's normal.

A camel wandering around near the station at Aktau. Because that’s normal.

I had my train lined up to leave around 9pm, and got to the station with time to spare. I wandered in to find the train on the platform, so tried to board but was informed I was on the next train. Confused I looked around and found that either it was working on a different time zone or everything was just out by an hour. I would later find out that all trains in these countries run on Moscow time, and have done so since Soviet times. Oh well. I wandered around the food sellers for a bit and chased a stray camel down the road with my camera, before returning and walking the wrong way down the train before being sent to wagon ‘0’ down the other end. Turned out it was ‘logically’ in the middle of the long train. As such I was fairly warm by the time I found the wagon, and was looking forward to sitting and cooling down onboard.

I was in for a shock.

The crowd boarding / seeing off the train in Aktau

The crowd boarding / seeing off the train in Aktau

I boarded, walked into the cabin and the outside of my body turned to a river of sweat. It was a sauna packed full of peoople. Much like any platzkart carriage, it had 54 beds, but instead of having a person to a bed there were 3-4 people sitting on every lower bed. Most had something in the hands waving it uselessly to try and cool themselves down. I used my charades skills to look confused and ask a person where my seat was, showing them my ticket, but they seemed more confused and just waved me down the wagon. I quickly established that there was no assigned seating, and so I squeezed in between two others on a seat on the long-window of the wagon, stuffing my bag underneath. 2 minutes down, the best part of 24 hours to go.

About a minute later, however, a guy came up to me and said something to me semi-angrily. I suspected he wanted my seat, but in my best broken Russian said I didn’t speak Russian. Oops, turns out he was speaking Uzbek. He switched to broken English and said I was in his seat, but kindly allowed me to squash in as well. There were now four of us squished together. Literally sitting against each other. 3 minutes down.

Eventually, my clothes now soaked in sweat and only drink already half gone, we started to move and everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief as a tiny little breeze started coming in through the window.

Mahmoud, who showed me around the start of my time in Uzbekistan

Mahmoud, who showed me around the start of my time in Uzbekistan

The guy whose spot I’d grabbed introduced himself as Mahmoud, and after a few sentences back and forth started hearing others saying the various words that I could vaguely recognise for tourist and New Zealand, the topic filtering around the cabin. I’m sure the word for crazy was there too. I think mostly they were just surprised to see a westerner in this class of cabin. Personally I was surprised to see that many in that cabin.

The night went on, still stinking hot, and slowly some drifted to the beds above, the problem being that with so many people, most of the top beds were being used for luggage. People would nap for an hour and then switch with someone else, and twice those of us on our bench had to get up to move to allow a Muslim to perform his morning prayers (Mahmoud included).

Sellers and passengers milling around at train change in Beynou

Sellers and passengers milling around at train change in Beynou

We stopped at Beynou again and had an hour’s break, thank goodness. At this half-way point Mahmoud said it’d be great if I wanted to come and stay with him that night in Nukus – he and his brothers’. Sounded good to me. We were going to be in separate cabins for the next twelve hours as it was a different train, but we’d meet up again at the end. We bought some food from the sellers crowding the platform, and I proceeded to cause shocked faces among a few of my previous carriage buddies as I bit into an apple. I wondered what I’d done, before realising which hand I’d used. One of them helpfully (and very graphically) demonstrated first what the right hand was for (hand to mouth) and then (ahem) what the left hand was for…

I boarded again into a new carriage and found a spot, thinking I’d got quite a good amount of space until just before departure everyone piled on and it was crammed again. This time, we’d be crossing the border, and the guards came through checking passports. When seeing the New Zealand passport, however, they insisted I come and sit with them. As they had comfier mattress seats with more space, I happily agreed. Still hot down their end, at least they had piles of chai tea to offer me, and I happily spent the next several hours attempting to converse with them, sipping tea and napping.

Stoking the fire onboard for hot water for chai tea

Stoking the fire onboard for hot water for chai tea

We came to the border with Uzbekistan and the border guards got on to check people’s passports. Fortunately they had an English speaker who sat with me and went through the form. They insist on you declaring every cent you have of every currency, which was time-consuming as I now had several – even some left-over Polish. I decided not to mention my souvenir coin pouch in my daypack which still even had Peruvian coins from a previous long trip.

Uzbekistan has an unfortunate currency system. Their highest note is 1000 soms, which works out at about $US0.50. If you use the official rates, that is. All my advice (which was basically a sentence in the Lonely Planet) was not to – the black market could save you about 30% on any transaction. I was unsure about this but figured I’d see what people did. And soon enough a guy got onboard while we were still stopping and asked me if I wanted to change money. My usual suspicious self when money is traded at the border, I checked the rate, which was pretty great, and got some soms. However, because of the small value of their biggest note, I got several WADS of notes. I had to stuff them into four separate pockets; there was no way it was fitting into my wallet. Still, I was feeling mildly pleased with myself, I’d only just crossed the border and done my first black market trade!

The landscape of NW Uzbekistan

The landscape of NW Uzbekistan

And then I nearly wet myself as the guard came back on as we started moving, saw the trader and went ballistic at him, and literally had him thrown off a moving train!. Yes – read that again – the train was moving slowly – but it was actually in motion when the trader was removed! I panicked – my new soms burning a hole in my pocket, praying they wouldn’t check the very detailed monetary listing on my immigration form again. I’d heard stories of Uzbekistan prisons (the bug hole in Bukhara) and I didn’t want to go there! And then next thing, the guard returned, smiling, with his own guy, and asked me if I’d like to trade any money. The first guy had simply been stepping on someone else’s territory. Smiling politely I thanked them, but no, I’d happily use the banks in town. Cough.

Mid-afternoon we stopped and some food sellers came onboard. The guard said I should eat, and I said I’d heard about shashlyk – but he made a face and insisted I eat Plov. This sounds like a conversation, but it went more like this:

Guard: something something something (right hand to mouth motion), questioning tone
Me: oh I get this, he says there is food. Sweet, I’ll get me some of these mighty fine sticks of meat. “Shashlyk?” (questioning tone)
Guard: something something disgusted face nyet, something something plov (rubs belly, makes happy face)
Me: Hmm, I may have made some grievous tourist error. Make decisiony-looking face, “da, plov, da”.
Guard looks pleased, money changes hands, Mark gets food.

One of the guards finally agreed to a photograph. Note the chai bowls and pot

One of the guards finally agreed to a photograph. Note the chai bowls and pot

Ok, fine, I’ll give that a go. Plov is mainly rice, often with a few veges thrown in (small amounts of carrot, onion and often entire garlic cloves!). Finally it has a meat, which is usually just a handful of small pieces of mutton. It was pretty good, being exceedingly hungry, and I bought a large Coke to share with the guards as well. They also shared some of the plov, which may be why he was pointing me towards that.

We finally pulled in at Kungrad as the sun was setting, and I hopped off to find the others. Mahmoud insisted he could sort a taxi, and that I should stand back to avoid affecting the rates with my foreigner-ness. I dutifully hung back while he organised two seats, and then the two of us hopped in back, along with an older guy in the front and a big local in the back as well, with me in the middle, and our old Russian-make car bounced off into the night, on roads so horrendous I realised that this was probably where Danny had his sand crash, and could totally understand why. Huge potholes when the road existed at all, and then it’d just change to piles of sand at a moment’s notice.

We paused briefly for Big Fellow to buy a giant bottle of beer, and then continued as he happily passed it around the car for us all to share. It wasn’t bad, and I was relieved to see the driver merely stuck to his cigarettes, passing on the alcohol. Mahmoud also declined, on religious grounds.

Mahmoud, his brothers and myself at their place

Mahmoud, his brothers and myself at their place

Nukus was about an hour away, and we were the last two to get dropped off. It was a clear night and the stars in the desert were spectacular. Mahmoud was at his brothers’ place, the only problem being his brother had gone out, and we had no key. After a neighbour called around a bit we tracked the brother down, and the other brothers appeared out of nowhere as well. We chatted for a bit around nan bread and sweets, before Mahmoud showed me where to sleep – he’d kindly prepared a matress and duvet outside, under the stars. In what I thought was a bit strange at first but later found out to be tradition – they generally don’t leave guests alone, he had prepared one for himself as well, and I settled down under the stars in a remote village in Uzbekistan, in the back yard of someone I’d just met, after one of the one bizarre car rides and definitely the craziest train journey I’d ever been on. What a day.

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5 Responses to The Adventure that is Obshi-class Train Travel from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan

  1. Elizabeth Moffatt

    That train ride sounds awful with the heat! But clearly also a great way to meet a few new friends!

  2. Tom @ Waegook Tom

    This sounds like an awesome adventure! I’ve always been curious about the ‘Stans and getting about between the countries. Obshi class though….I think I’d want to upgrade to the next level as my hairy self sweats like an absolute beast in the heat. Phew!
    Tom @ Waegook Tom recently posted..The Fantasy Five: The USA

  3. Si

    Hi Mark, I had the pleasure of driving around Kazakhstan by car, well our London Taxi on the way to Kyrgy. By the sounds of your experience combating the potholes was a far simpler way to travel!

    Love the blog, kind regards, Si

    ps I’d love you to take part in our Picture The World Project
    Si recently posted..If Your Twitter Followers Were A Population, Which Country Would You Be?

  4. Andy

    So cool Mark! What a unique experience you had there. I have really become interested in that region as of late. Hope to get there before too long! Thanks for sharing!
    Andy recently posted..The Louisiana King Cake

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