Friday, April 16, 2010

Day Five: The train to Astana (guest blog)

Friday morning I said my goodbyes to Acela and the city of Taraz to embark on the last leg of my journey - a 21 hour train ride to the Kazakh capital of Astana. The long haul from southern Kazakhstan to the middle of Siberia was an odd choice for my final day in Kazakhstan, but I really felt that it was important to visit the capital if I wanted to understand Kazakhstan post-independence from the USSR.

The other perk of a visit to Astana was a long-haul train ride on Soviet rails in a Soviet train. I've always had a dream of traveling the length of the trans-Siberian railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok, and I decided that 21 hours to Astana would be a good "trial run" of my ultimate train adventure.

You may remember that my original Kazakh train trip from Almaty to Taraz was in the luxurious 4-bunk-per-room Chinese train. Now on my fifth day in country, it was time for a "real" Kazakh train experience: platscart. Instead of sleeping in a room with built-in bunk beds and a door, I was now traveling in a train car packed floor-to-ceiling with beds and Kazakh families. Six beds now occupied the space of four. There were no doors, no hallway, just beds and spaces between beds almost large enough for you to stand up in. Pictures really explain it better than I ever could.

The train was full, cramped, and blazingly hot. It was also a place where bizarre things seemed to happen with no explanation nearly all the time.

Michael and I had a set of bunk beds, and the other bunks near us were occupied by a young family traveling with a six month old boy. Shortly after we departed Taraz, the entire family took turns changing out of their street clothes and into "train clothes," which Michael explained was normal and to be expected for such a long trip. Then the family had lunch together. Inexplicably, they had packed full, elaborate meals of chicken, bread, and endless side dishes. Entire bags I had assumed to be full of luggage were stuffed like sophisticated picnic baskets. There were drinks, there was vodka, there was Raxhat candy. Once they finished eating there were snacks. Then came another meal.

Food also abounded at the various stops that the train made throughout the night. Michael explained that each stop was "famous" for a certain type of food. Sometimes it was fruit or bread, sometimes kebabs, sometimes I couldn't even start to figure out. Then we reached the smoked fish stop.

I would have taken a picture but it was the middle of the night and the sight of fish was already too much for me to bear. Women entered the train cars holding dozens of smoked fish strung up by the gills. The fish were huge (easily 24 inches) and completely disgusting. They were brown and looked half-preserved, half-dried in the sun for weeks. They were fat and flat and people were buying them with reckless abandon. The family sharing our bunk area bought four or five, much to my disappointment. Michael later asked and they said they always brought them to relatives in Astana. It seems the smoked fish are a sensation throughout the country. This fascination with fish is particularly bizarre because Kazakhstan is about as landlocked as a country could possibly be.

After buying the fish, the family folded the fish in half (cue the cracking noise of fish scales and bones) and stuffed them in a bag. If that wasn't bad enough, they stuck the bag of folded fish on the luggage rack about four feet from my head. That's when I knew it would be a real Kazakh platscart experience.

By this point, it was dark outside, I was hot, and the fish were smelly. Michael wanted to take a nap and I decided to escape in search for fresh air. I found respite next to an open window at the back of the train car next to the bathroom. This location was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the window existed, but a curse because the combination of terrible bathroom facilities and a constantly rocking train care meant that the smell of bathroom pervaded the area.

I coped by hanging my head out the window and looking out over the steppe. The near-full moon and near-empty landscape were a welcome change from the relative chaos of the train.


R. M. A. J. Romero said...

I'm surprised the window wasn't completely surrounded by smokers.

Margie said...

the number1 thing I did not like about the train ride was the bathrooms. They were gross.