Tulkabas or bust!
Almaty to Tulkabas, Southern Kazakhstan
Train journeys in Kazakhstan can be a long drawn out affair, mainly because of the distances involved. The trip I was now about to embark upon with my two traveling companions was to Tulkabas, a small run down town in southern Kazakhstan of little importance other than it is the ‘get off’ point for Aksu Jabagly National Park.
As there were three of us, I had been careful to reserve a standard four-berth kupe so we could stay together during the journey. This meant that there was an extra bed that would be taken by another passenger, who I was beginning to hope, would be a middle-aged woman who didn’t mind sharing with three foreigners.
Fortunately, this proved to be the case as our companion for the next twelve hours was already sitting on her bed by the window. The layout in a kupe is quite simple as two leather-bound bunk beds attached to either wall, separated by a small table and a small standing area, doesn’t leave too much room for anything other than sitting and getting in and out of bed. David, because of his dodgy ankle immediately took the other lower bunk, so Ken and I were thus left with the two upper berths. This actually suited me fine, as I liked to have a bolthole should I want to read quietly. Though I was always slightly nervous about sleeping high up as I could never guarantee, once the lights were out at night, that I wouldn’t wake up and imagine I was still in my bed in Almaty, rolling over to spread myself out and then straight onto the floor. I’d developed a strange habit of sleeping like a starfish, which might prove a tad dangerous on a thin shelf bed, five feet up above the floor.
We introduced ourselves to our fellow passenger as the train suddenly lurched into movement, but from then on she hardly spoke to us, preferring instead to make her bed and then wrap herself up in her blanket reading a steamy Russian romance novel. I thought at first that she might be worried that we were three vodka swilling maniacs so I tried to make some small talk with her, which on reflection is probably exactly what a vodka swilling maniac would do, so I gave up and sat next to David.
Outside the kupe, along the corridor of our carriage we could hear various hawkers, knocking on each of the doors to try and sell something or other. Mainly there were food items, but also a selection of drinks, alcoholic and otherwise; magazines and books and small gifts for that all important last minute purchase when you’ve suddenly realized you didn’t buy anything for the person you were going to stay with. Birthstone key rings seemed to be a particular favorite. These door-to-door salesmen made their living traveling between stations selling their goods.
The only people who seemed to be selling anything though were the beer seller (not just to us), and the smoked fish seller, fuelling the notion that in Kazakhstan, the only things to do on long train journeys are to eat, drink and sleep. Smoked fish is seen in Central Asia as ‘beer food’ and comes in its whole state, guts often included. I bought a couple to go with our recently purchased beer and I spread them out on the small table for David and Ken to try. They looked at them doubtfully; David particularly unsure as he had only just got over his dodgy stomach and didn’t think ‘train food’ was a particularly good idea. They both tried some, tearing a small portion of skin to get to the smoked, dried flesh underneath. It didn’t prove a great success and no matter how much I enjoyed the taste, or indeed encouraged them to enjoy it as well, I still found myself saddled with one and a half torn apart fishes. It was still warm outside and I could also sense the smoky smell increase within the cabin, so it was not long before I was dispatched to dispose of the remains in the corridor bin, muttering comments about trying new things.
I took the opportunity of this enforced trip, to have a smoke at the end of the carriage. Smoking is strictly forbidden in the kupe and indeed the corridor, however, at the far end, just before the joining door between the carriages, a small, cold, grimy area is cordoned off just for smokers. In fact you don’t even have to take any cigarettes as someone there will always give you one and indeed the room is so smoke filled, you could just get your nicotine fix from just standing there inhaling. I enjoyed this sort of social smoking as you got to meet all sorts of people from all walks of life and no one has the faintest idea apparently, that smoking does you any harm. There are no warnings on packets, no hint that they will give you lung cancer or lower your sperm count or anything negative at all. On the contrary, you get to look rugged, sexy and from a distance a bit like the Marlboro man. It must be a cigarette marketing man’s dream, so it is no coincidence that Phillip Morris and Gallagher, two huge tobacco manufacturers, both do impressive amounts of business in Central Asia and why the cigarette girls are popular distractions wherever you go.
On my return to the cabin, I arrived to discover that David and Ken had started on the food we had brought with us from Almaty. Obviously the taste of smoked fish had made them hungry as well as thirsty as they dug into the supply of unleavened bread, cheese and smelly local sausage (kalbasa) we planned would last the entire twelve hour journey.
As our traveling companion was now asleep and making gentle humming noises through her nose, we decided that it was best to quieten it down a little. David lay back on his bunk swigging at a beer, while reading the Lonely Planet Guide to Central Asia. Occasionally he’d call out a name of a place he’d hope to visit, but invariably they were obscure places the other side of the country, which were often at least three day journeys to get to. Ken and I stood in the corridor outside the kupe looking through the window, watching the countryside roll by and eventually the sun drop in an orange ball over the horizon.
As we returned to our kupe, we realized that David was also asleep, so we climbed up onto our bunks and also switched the light out. The guard would come and wake us about thirty minutes before we arrived in Tulkabas. Surprisingly, for such a lazy day, I fell straight asleep, feeling the gentle rocking of the carriage as we slowly rolled on and listening to the clickety clack of the train and the soft humming noise of the woman’s throat on the bunk below Ken.
We were woken up by a knocking on our kupe door as the guard moved along the carriage corridor attempting to alert those who wished to alight at Tulkabas. My sleep had been fitful and judging from the look on the others faces, it appeared as if they had not received their full quota of sleep hours either. Ken’s hair was standing at a right angle and the creases on the pillow had left an array of red lines, which resembled a map of the London Underground system across one side of his face.
“Have we got time for tea?” he asked, I think momentarily disorientated, believing we were still in my apartment and I could just ‘pop’ the kettle on.
“Doubtful, Ken” I answered while drawing the curtain slightly and seeing familiar looking countryside pass by outside, as the light of a new day grew brighter. “I think we’re nearly there.”
David was having trouble getting up and looked as if he had been wresting with his bed linen all night as he’d wrapped his blanket around himself about three times so only his head appeared visible and that was still buried deep in his pillow.
I grabbed my toothbrush and my Kazakh railway provided towel, which was the size and consistency of a dishcloth, and made my way in a sleep-induced stagger out of the kupe and down the corridor to the toilets. There was already a queue outside. The train toilets are not places you really want to hang around in for too long. Made up of a western style toilet, which when flushed deposits whatever you may have left in the bowl, down onto the track below; and a tiny, tiny sink with a faucet tap you need a degree in astro-physics to figure out how to use, everything in the room has a dank, damp, smelly feel to it. One woman traveler once told me that she had developed strong leg muscles from stooping over the toilet, so her buttocks never actually came into contact with the seat and whatever disease happened to be residing there at the time.
I found this kind of stance nearly impossibley to hold for any length of time, so had to bite the bullet so to speak, but always wondered how exactly, given the tight space and the constant jolts of the train, she managed this or indeed why she even bothered. This morning, it appeared that most men trying to wee had also been affected by the jolting train and that my predecessor had left something for me in the toilet as a welcome, which I quickly flushed away onto the track before setting about my business. As I left the restroom I was almost pushed over by the next person in line who obviously felt that I had been spending too much time preening myself. Ken was about fourth in the queue, his hair still at a jaunty angle, though the red marks on his face were receding fast.
David was at least sat up by the time I returned to the kupe and asked how much longer we had to go until we reached Tulkabas. I asked the woman who had been sharing our kupe if she knew the answer and she said she thought about five minutes. This alarmed David somewhat and he started to scurry around trying to get himself ready. The woman was going on to the next destination and I can only assume that we had woken her up as she seemed distinctly unamused by our clambering around as I quickly gathered up our bed linen to hand back to the guard. As I left, it must have appeared to her not unlike a French farce, because Ken then arrived, hair now firmly wetted down back into place, while David hopped around on one foot (his good one presumably) trying to get his other into his trouser leg.
Naturally enough, the five minutes, turned into ten and we had plenty of time as the train slowly rolled in to Tulkabas station. Considering it was only about six something in the morning, there seemed to be quite a few people around, mostly traders I guess, as they swarmed towards the train exits as the hulking Soviet piece of engineering, squealed to a halt.
As we disembarked onto the platform, I turned to look on the Russian built train that had been our home for the last twelve hours. It looked old and tired, yet retained a strong personality and a great deal of character. Built like a tank, the engine at the front was painted green with a bright red star to show that this vehicle had once belonged to an all-powerful empire not so long ago. Now, as that empire had crumbled, the train had taken on a slightly scruffy look, in need of care. However, just like an old Soviet soldier, he retained a fine sense of duty and would continue to see his work through to the end, wheezing slightly but not ready for retirement yet.
We pushed our way gradually through the crowd, ignoring calls for us to buy fruit, newspapers or beer and made our way to the end of the platform where we could pick up a taxi to take us onward on our journey.