June 07, 2014

Another journey by train. Samarkand to Bukhara

I have always enjoyed traveling by train. It probably dates back to my childhood. We did not have much money when I was growing up, and yet almost every weekend my father took myself and my brother on a train trip to see every corner, every museum, every historical building, and every bloody railway station in the UK. It was a great education which left me with an abiding love of history, and travel.

It also led to an intense dislike of Kellogg's Cornflakes. You see, Kellogg's ran this great promotion. If you bought their cornflakes you could exchange the token on the packet for a free rail ticket anywhere in the UK. I ate cornflakes every day for three years, with the result that now I cannot even look at a box with that evil green grinning cockerel on the front of it without feeling queasy. But, give me a chance to travel long distance by train, or go on a short journey by plane, I will always travel on the train.

You can see so much more of a country from the window of a train. The regular motion, and comforting noises of traveling on rails will always eventually push me into the arms of Morpheus. I once spent a small fortune on riding the Japanese bullet train, the Shinkansen, only to fall asleep almost immediately on the trains departure from Tokyo Shinagawa station, to be gently woken by the guard as we arrived at the end of the journey in Osaka. At least it shows how comfortable Japanese trains are. Yet it is the the people I meet on the train, if I can stay awake, that really make the journey, and give me the stories to write about.

And so it was in Uzbekistan. I could fly from Samarkand to Bukhara in a little over an hour, or travel eight hours on the express train linking the two cities. I got to the station early and passed through the Airport-like security (due to the fear of suicide bombers who have wreaked havoc on several Russian railways stations and trains). The carriage was old, with peeling wooden veneer walls, and had a six seat compartment with a sliding door which brought back memories of the trains I had grown up with in my childhood adventures. I was traveling second class, but it felt much more exclusive that that. Particularly when we left Samarkand at 08:05 and I was the only one in the compartment, stretching out, making myself very comfortable as I dipped into a book by Jared Diamond on the collapse of Civilizations, and the grey urban city outskirts gave way to the brown sun burnt countryside.

I dozed, until the door was flung open. I reached for my ticket, expecting the guard, as a family of five piled silently into the compartment. Nods and raised eyebrows were the only forms of greeting between us. And then an outpouring of Russian words of which I understood nothing. I smiled politely and uttered my few words of Russian, and then explained in English I was from Australia, which was met with equally blank looks. The next twenty minutes were a period of awkwardness as the family; a mother, a father, a grandmother (dressed in mourning black) and two young children, settled into their seats and tried to get the radio to work. Each compartment had a very old Soviet style radio built into the carriage wall. I had immediately muted it when I entered as it was disturbingly blaring out what I took to be the Tashkent version of a shock jock radio show.

They thankfully failed to find the only dial that mattered, the volume control. The grandmother then reached into her bag, producing a clean white tablecloth and then neatly laid out six varieties of cake, while the father opened his briefcase producing an unopened bottle of Vodka. I was entranced. It was now 8:45. In the morning. Vodka and sweet sugary cakes, what a breakfast. The grandmother, who was by far the most extrovert of the family,  forced a cake upon me. It was delicious, a pastry full of red fruits, maybe plums, I was not sure. Luckily I had bought a huge fresh Non bread for the journey at the station. I produced this to much appreciation, and it was carefully broken and shared between the whole family and myself.

I never got to read any more of my book as we sped through the featureless Kyzyl Kum desert. Despite our lack of a common language we learnt about each other. The family was returning from a holiday in Moscow to Navoi, an industrial city near Bukhara, which had now fallen on hard times, Most Russians had long since departed to their homeland, but this family still loved the city and had many friends there. Ninety percent of their apartment block was now empty, and work was hard to find, but they refused to move, preferring the life in Uzbekistan to that of Russia.

After we had finished the first bottle of Vodka, the father opened his case, laughing manically, to show me that he had another twelve bottles to go, Russian Vodka, he said, was so much better than the Uzbek variety. We had gone through another bottle by the time we arrived in Navoi, and we said tearful goodbyes as though we had been lifelong friends. The grandmother insisted on leaving me her entire supply of Russian cakes (so many I had to share with friends in Bukhara) and hugged me as if I were her son.

This is why I travel by train.

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