Modern Talking to Almaty

Uzbeks and Kazakhs are rivals since their countries were formed. There is some underlying mild hostility when talking of each other’s neighbouring country. Being a tourist in a train running from Nukus (Uzbekistan) to Almaty (Kazachstan) is therefore a bit a diplomatic chess play. Being in the region now for almost a month, I can tell Uzbeks and Kazakh apart by simply looking at their faces. But there are Kazach-looking people living in Uzbekistan and vice versa. So it is best, when asked an uncomfortable question (“which of the two countries do you prefer?”), to play the “Niet panimayou” (I don’t understand) game. It is actually surprising how many times I have been asked this question – by both countrymen.

The animosity between these two strong Central Asian countries probably dates back as far as the times of the warlords Genghis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane). Timur is the national hero of Uzbekistan and sure every city has a statue of him somewhere. Make no mistake, their national hero was not short of any kind of brutality towards his own people, same as it was with Genghis Khan. Somehow, in the Western hemisphere, we tend to know only the latter of these two warlords. But I promised to myself, that I would pick up somewhere a book about Timur, because the abstracts I read in various guide books and Uzbek museums are intriguing and I do want to know more about this aspect of Uzbek history.

Sadly, I had to leave this beautiful country and made my way from Khiva to Tortkul station where I boarded the train coming from Nukus (a city located in the western Uzbek desert). During the 50 km taxi ride to the Tortkul train station, we did cross a river on a makeshift steel plates bridge. I have no idea why drivers have to pay a toll to cross this kind of structure. Maybe it is to pay the salaries of the dozen steel workers constantly soldering the crackling plates to keep them together? Or maybe the fee contributes towards funding a new bridge? One of the many mysteries which will remain unsolved, since I still don’t speak Uzbek.

As for the trip on the train to Almaty (Kazachstan), my budget decided to go “Platzkartny” (3rd class). This means dormitory-style sleeping in a bunk bed on the train. With that ticket comes sort of a culture shock, boarding such a car – especially if it is not along a tourist route. Again, I seemed to be the only tourist here. And my train had a three number designation: 321. One has to know that in Russia – as well as its former federations – the train numbers also describe the standard to be expected: The lower the number, the more luxurious the cars are. Single digit trains, such as train number 7 running the famous Transsiberian route are top notch. Even in 3rd class. My train here, in the Uzbek outback, carried number 321. That really was the lower end of the scale of comfort – tourist guidebooks warn about taking these trains. Sounded like something that I had to try.

Upon boarding, the Provodnitza directed me to Mischa, a charismatic passenger, who remained very quiet about his professional background throughout the journey. He did assign me another seat than the one that I booked. I figured, that some seat shuffling had already happened before I boarded the train. I decided not to fight and complied. Mischa slept on the hard bench on top of the two bunk beds. So did I. That is kind of 3rd floor and usually this space is used for the luggage. Despite being afraid of falling deep in case of a sudden stop, I figured out that being “up there” was also the quietest area at night. Later, I learned, that the whole seat shuffling was done to help a young pregnant women. So people took care of the woman and me – who unknowingly gave my space for her. Throughout the ride, Mischa looked after me and helped to facilitate many things.

Uzbek hospitality extends to the point where people will follow you to the toilet just to make sure you don’t get mugged or police-checked on the way. This was already the case back in Bukhara, where I was so annoyed being constantly followed by one of my “bodyguards” while taking a leak, that I decided trying to sneak to the toilet on my own as soon as my Usbek friends were out of sight. It felt like a six year old boy trying to discover the shopping mall without his mum. However, each time they would find out and run after. Upon leaving the toilet, I would find one of my “bodyguards” patiently waiting to make sure that I would get back to the restaurant or club unharmed.

On the train to Almaty, this was exactly the same case. Mischa seemed to be the “bodyguard” assigned to me. But this time around, I was quite thankful to have such a person. On the first day, Mischa went into great “hello” and loud chats with the border guards – both the Uzbek and Kazakh ones – and they were equally pleased to see him. He usually would leave the train, have a smoke and chat with his buddies, while the rest of the passengers were under the scrutiny of border control. Being under Mischa’s wings, I made the smoothest transit into another country so far – although it still was very lengthy one (three hours in total).

On the second morning of this train journey, I got bugged by some older guys coming over to our car. They spotted me and decided that I should go and watch some porn movies on their laptop, have vodka and smoke pot with them. The oldest of them made sure that I understood how many wars he had fought in Afghanistan, Iran, Irak and Vietnam and he was clearly drunk. After a while, when I politely refused the invitation – I decided to go back to my seat. The drunks followed me and this is when I figured out that Mischa must be some kind of police man or militsia guy travelling on a private journey. He asked me twice whether I wanted to drink vodka with the other guys or not. I firmly said no. He then stood up and ordered – quite loudly – all the drunks out of our car. All of them, including the old war hero, left without arguing and never came back again to our carriage.

On a much quieter note, my trusty phone, the Nokia E61 does facilitate a lot of conversations on this train. It is still loaded with the Russian video clips from my Moscow – Tashkent trip, plus lots of my own music. One of the strange things here in Central Asia are the people who make me listen to “Modern Talking” as soon as they learn that I am from Schwitsarya (Switzerland). I guess they assume them being a Swiss group. What is more annoying, is the fact that really everyone has that song on their phones. It is as if mobile phones come pre-loaded with the song “You’re my heart, you’re my soul”. Other famous (mobile phone) music here is “50 Cent”, “Eminem” and the various Doctors and DJ’s. My music taste (alternative & mainstream rock) is not really compatible with the locals. Although everybody knows “Linkin Park”, they do look puzzled when they hear “Foo Fighters”, “Radiohead”, “Seether” or “Atreyu” for their first time. Well, I decided to go with the sound of the locals and look pleased (with some effort) when they make me listen to “Madonna”, “Enrique”, “50 Cent” or “Eminem”. Where smiling becomes really hard, is when they start playing “Modern Talking” at full volume from a (fake) Nokia mobile phone speaker. Talking about fake phones: Fake Nokia’s are a bargain here (the “N95” costs about $10). And people here love to walk in the street using their cellphone as a ghettoblaster (err… ghettophone). Enough of all these rants:

I made it to Almaty. This is a very beautiful, but also very expensive town. The setting with a 5’000 m mountain range in the backdrop is awesome. In contrast to Uzbek cities, this is a very modern, cosmopolitan city. No more searching for money in Almaty: ATM’s are everywhere. Internet is fast. Streets, buildings and supermarkets are modern. But all that comes at a price. Staying at a dormitory for over $40 a night will break my budget. I can’t afford more than one night. I might come back one day when I earn some money. But for now, I will have to buy the next possible train ticket to leave tomorrow for Siberia.

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