This post dates from over a year ago. It wasn’t meant for publication on this blog; a book was going to be its destiny, a book on travels in Central Asia. Alas, this wasn’t to be; yet, I liked this chapter too much, my first foray in some sort of fiction, or into some kind of writing where the lines between what happened, what could’ve happened and what I imagined are purposely blurred. So here it goes.
To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches and rivers – In fact, to see life.
Unnoticed by most, a watershed moment took place, in Western Europe, sometime in the 1980s. Depending on which side of it you sat, you either had experience of black-and-white television, having your passport stamped when travelling, say, from France to Germany or, simply, you didn’t. I belonged to the latter group: I grew with arcade games, ditched music cassettes for CDs before I had money to buy my own records and, crucially, never really got the hang of overnight trains.
In fact, my only experience of such method of travelling was a journey to Frankfurt, Germany, which I took at the tender – at least in those days – age of 15, which left me, well, intimidated. The journey didn’t go too bad, but the pre-dawn arrival into Frankfurt, parading beneath a forest of skyscrapers, towering factory chimneys and high-rises dispelled whatever cockiness I might’ve had. I stood silently, looking at those enormous structures and their red anti-collision lights blinking in unison. I’d never seen anything so big before and if it didn’t feel like Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City, then I didn’t know what did. Later, in the cavernous hall of Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, I stood petrified in a corner, waiting for my connection as the station’s security and punks in leather jackets fought pitched battles on the platforms and tracks, their shouts echoing across the vaulted roof.
Some 15 years later, with only that precious experience, I approached Kyzyl-Orda station, on my way to Aralsk, somehow gingerly and decided to do what I always did whenever I wasn’t sure of my actions: I sat down and looked at everyone else. So it was that, by sitting and observing, a well-rehearsed ecosystem came into focus.
A train would pull up at the platform, not before a copious amount of announcements in Kazakh and Russian were made; steps would be deployed and an army of surly attendants would descend on them, one per car and none of them smiling. An elaborate charade would then ensue: those alighting would toss their wares down the steps and then follow them, jumping into the embrace of loving ones picking them up, or simply shouldered their packs and legged it out if no-one had bothered coming to see them. Travellers in jocks and sandals would erupt out, puffing fags as if it was going out of fashion – trains were ferociously no-smoking – and went on to buy food at the omnipresent stalls, where small ladies with hankies in lieu of headscarves would happily sell them tomatoes, whole watermelons, bottles of juice or kompot, as well as round bread and bricks of cheese. In the meantime those who were joining had started climbing aboard, something easier said than done, for it seemed that they’d all decided to relocate and had chosen the train as the mean to do precisely that. The most incredible supply of things went up the steps, bundled into carry-ons, fake Louis Vuitton handbags, cardboard boxes, jute sacks, crates, nets and supermarket carrier bags. If there wasn’t the proverbial kitchen sink it was because I hadn’t been looking on long enough.
In the undergrowth of the station, individuals whose role wasn’t immediately understandable moved around with a sense of purpose. Men in blue overalls and high-vis jackets, plugged in radio sets cackling unintelligible Kazakh, performed obscure tasks between the cars. A woman dressed in exactly the same garb walked the length of the train, hitting with a 2-pound mallet specific points of each wheelset. She listened to the echo and then, visibly satisfied, moved on to do it again on another car. It was also security central: station staff checked my baggage through an X-ray machine and opened the pack on the lookout for scissors and vodka; on the platform, police officers mingled with the railway company security staff and men in fatigues who I assumed being other cops, or perhaps soldiers. Yet, shady deals seemed to happen everywhere I looked, chiefly under the form of a flourishing secondary market for tickets peddled by a small but admirably keen gang of touts.
Armed with this wealth of knowledge and the experience of another train ride, I entered Aralsk station at 5AM of a Sunday. I rightfully expected to be alone, but it turned out that silly o’clock was a good time as any for Aralsk, with women sleeping in the waiting room under Lenin’s beady eye and quite a lot of people milling about. There was a surprising amount of chatting, giggling, coughing and retching. Outside on the platform, at regular intervals somebody fired a glob of phlegm into the dark tracks, evidently the station’s spittoon, where it landed with ballistic accuracy. Bats pirouetted in the air, chasing the flying cockroaches which, in a bid to save their shells, would dive for the ground where they’d land with a chitinous clunk. Freight trains, gigantic behemoths carrying gas and mineral ore, came and went at walking pace.
Aralskoye more had two platforms, linked with wooden walkways strewn across the tracks. Following an exhortation from the lady on the tannoy, a brief speech that anyone but me could understand, everyone stood up, gathered their things and charged for the second platform. I followed sheepishly. The Aktobe express popped out of the night as if it’d emerged from an invisible tunnel, announcing its arrival with enthusiastic blasts of its foghorn, coming to rest two sets of tracks away from the second platform.
I was evidently the only one who’d stopped to wonder what had led a train, pulling up at a station with no other traffic and two available platforms, to stop exactly in the middle of the railyard, for soon I was the only one not scampering above the tracks and between the sleepers. Everyone else – students heading to university, families, pensioners carrying bagfuls of watermelons – legged it on the clinker. I followed suit, tripping into the flip-flops I was wearing, backpack bouncing madly on my shoulders, frantically looking for the sign heralding car no. 15.
Kazakh trains have three classes; VIP, kupe and platzkart, the main differential being the number of berths crammed in each cabin: two in VIP, four in kupe and six in platzkart. Considering that everything else – bedding, toilets, the berths themselves – was exactly the same, I was booked in platzkart for my twelve-hour journey to Aktobe and, as the matron in charge of car 15 pointed out before tossing me a fresh set of bed sheets wrapped in plastic, I had berth 2 in the first compartment.
Feeling, rather than seeing, my way around the compartment I realised I was late to my own party, for all spots seemed taken. At the top, berths 3 and 6 were occupied by the most monumental case of excess baggage that any airline had ever had to see, including what looked like a hay bale rolled up in shrink-film. Down below, in berths 1 and 4 lied two figures, their features blurred like Pompeii mummies but undeniably human and unequivocally asleep. Finally, in the berths at eye level – 2 and 5 – were a strange chimera with a head full of black hair and two small feet, a woman and a child and, on the other side, where I was supposed to sleep, a man.
I sat in the penumbra on the corridor swivel seat, bed linen pack on my knees, the train swaying and rocking, looking suitably perplexed. I must’ve been doing a good job of it, for the matron came in from the bright vestibule, looked at me and then proceeded to toss the occupant of berth 2 awake with the same urgency I’d have used in the event of an impending shipwreck. Feeling rather embarrassed for the how the poor chap had been handled I mounted what I hoped looked like a morally reprobate attempt at letting him enjoy the berth whilst I settled on the – slightly sagging, I had to admit – corridor swivel seat. The matron had none of it: she swatted away my lamentations like a particularly slow fly and gave another healthy ruffling to the guy who, by then, had had enough of being used like a human tumble dryer and descended from the berth clutching a Coke bottle like a teddy bear.
Feeling like a real estate developer ought to after he’d kicked orphans out of a shelter to build a luxury condo, I didn’t dare looking at the guy. He, however, didn’t seem to be holding any particular grudge against me; he gulped half the bottle’s contents down the gullet, shot a burp loud enough to wake camels outside, pounded his chest and said “Stasyon”. I had simply witnessed the wake-up call service, complimentary on all Kazakh railway sleeper trains. I replaced his bedsheets with mine, found a spot at the bottom of my couch for my backpack, climbed clumsily aboard and was asleep before the sun had the time to rise above the steppe.
Kazakh trains are constitutionally self-catering but for an endless supply of boiling water at the end of each car, and there are plenty of advices, online and in guides, to bring one’s own food onboard. As I woke up and went for a wander around the car it was obvious that my fellow travel companions had taken the suggestions to heart. Compared with my supply of three bottles of water, two rounds of bread and a bag of Veggie Pigs I’d flown in from London, every man woman and child had brought enough calories to give a stadiumload of Texans an almighty sugar rush. Tea appliances populated every compartment, together with melons, watermelons, gherkins, bread, boxes of plov, vegetables of all kinds and cookies of the most repellent colours imaginable.
Car 15 came to life as I did, queueing up to the samovar and toilet; having had my caffeine fix I retreated to my cubbyhole from where I could be a privileged observer of delicate balances at play between the other occupants of compartment 1. Flat steppe rolled outside the grimy window, so remarkably homogeneous that, if it was a looping video projected on a tarpaulin held just outside the train, I wouldn’t have noticed it. The human landscape, instead, was a lot more compelling.
I believed my compartment mates were a family and an interesting one at that. The berth opposite to mine was occupied by a young mother and her 4-year-old son; below resided a man in his 40s and, directly under my berth, a teenage girl. They made for a puzzling family scene, a lot more Westernised than the ones I was accustomed to in this corner of the world, for they seemed a lot more like an archipelago of islands adrift in an ocean of silence than the bustling ensemble ubiquitous in the ‘Stans. To see this was sad and interesting at the same time, and I was keen to understand more.
Mother and son were undoubtedly affectionate and inseparable. She was lean, dapper in a bright-green two-piece house dress, even though the pink half-socks decorate with rabbits were, frankly, the stuff of nightmares. She had a sharp yet beautiful face and stern looks enhanced by the severe make up she wore: two lines above the eyes and dark lipstick. Her jet-black hair was accurately combed and knotted in a ponytail. Her son was strikingly beautiful and incredibly well-behaved: he lived through the whole journey, an experience who’d have brought me apoplectic with boredom had I been him, with Olympic calm, either playing with his mother or keeping himself company with a tiny action figure of a mermaid or a small sketchbook on which he drew the Simpson’s characters printed on his own tank top.
If the similarities between him and his mother were evident, I could see a lot of the man who I took to be his father in him too. They both had regular features, the same we appreciate in actors and models, with sharp cheekbones, strong jaw, straight and well-sized nose. Their almond eyes were intelligent and inscrutable. The boy was still some 15 years away from it, and his father perhaps 10 years after his prime, but both wouldn’t have gone unnoticed in a city bar.
The man was a bit weather-worn, with wrinkles around the eyes and hair going snow-white above the temples, and a smattering of gold teeth every time he smiled, but I could clearly see his lineage in the young kid. But even if their looks gave a hint of relation, the same couldn’t be surmised just by looking at their interaction, or lack thereof. Fact was, the boy never spoke, or dared approaching, the man and the man never made any gesture towards his progenies or consort; he just sat on his bed, plugged into a smartphone linked to a device with blinking lights, router or power bank or perhaps both. In the ten hours we were to pass together, he spoke only with the teenager girl sitting opposite him, and no more than three times.
She was, perhaps, the most multifaceted character of this rather bi-dimensional cast. She was twelve or thirteen, at that point when teenagers are neither here nor there, children or adults, clumsily out of place. Tall for her age, with long black hair, intelligent eyes and a flourishing of acne she didn’t seem to mind. She wore a black top that read, in loud white letters, Carpe that fucking diem and I found myself hoping she’d chosen it knowingly.
Were they together and, if so, why? The woman couldn’t possibly be the mother of the girl as well as of the child, for she looked barely ten or twelve years her senior, and they didn’t look like sisters either. Slowly, out of boredom, I began putting together a story. I build it over mugs of coffee drank standing up on platforms of stations whose names I couldn’t read, joining the ranks of nicotine addicts; I honed it whilst waiting for my turn for another withdrawal from the samovar bank. Finally, after a while, it was ready. Or as ready as I was willing it to be.
They really were husband and wife. She was his second wife, the first having flown the nest. Where had she gone? It didn’t really matter, what matter was that she’d gone, leaving a daughter in her wake. He remarried to get his long-awaited male heir, and the younger wife had given him that. Heir to what I didn’t know – something for the second draft, perhaps – but whatever the inheritance here was the designated successor, stomping around adorably in a sweatshirt proclaiming Good idea in capital letters. Long-awaited or not it was clear that the man’s idea of parenting drew a lot from Victorian Britain, in the sense that his offspring weren’t to be seen or heard of unless specifically told so.
But what about the relationship between the wife and the girl that, I decided, was her stepdaughter? Ah, that was a tough one. I mulled options for a while, savouring on the tip of my tongue like aged whisky as I watched young conscripts returning from leave queueing to the loo, entering with long hair and returning with drill sergeant-proof crew cuts. Eventually I settled for armed truce. Daughter accused stepmom of having driven her biological mother out of the house, an accusation I deemed unjust – fade to flashback when dad obtains a divorce as mum is unable to give him a male son. Besides, as I looked at the young mother’s attempts at keeping a neat figure in the dingy platzkart, I had an inkling that, whichever hopes and dreams she harboured for her life, they didn’t include this third-class compartment. Still, the dam held, but when it breached… boy, that would’ve been an afternoon worth of a Greek tragedy.
Pretty satisfied with the story I’d so far put together I decided to listen to some music – Rodriguez always went well with long journeys – and promptly fell into a deep slumber. I surfaced again only when the teenage girl gently shook my arm, saying in a good English that were only one hour out of Aktobe and that the attendant needed my bedsheets back. I nodded and groggily rolled out to comply; that’s when I noticed that the bottom bunk where the man – my appointed pater familias – was empty. Was he gone? I asked the girl, and she nodded. He’d alighted earlier in some place I didn’t know and couldn’t locate, a toponym filled with Ks and aspired consonants.
We pulled up in Aktobe shortly thereafter, again far away from the nearest platform. I bode farewell to the girl, and walked along the tracks, witnessing the dissolution of my hastily assembled cast; the soldiers, the mother and child, the girl, all heading their separate ways in the epic exodus from train 33 Almaty-Aktobe. I imagined a small boutique family drama of the kind that yield passionate standing ovations at Cannes, but this looked a lot more like the closing scene of some biblical blockbuster. Imagining an appropriate shot – the camera, perched on a crane or hanging from a drone, rising slowly over the train and the station bathed in the golden sunlight of the afternoon – I shouldered my pack and walked out of the station. Somewhere near, according to the map I scribbled on my notebook, there was my hotel.