I leapt up the stairs to Platform 6 like a man possessed and saw my train standing idle on the tracks, the steps pulled in and the doors closed, ready to depart. I could hear the thump of the Russian policeman’s boots echoing louder and louder through the tunnel beneath the tracks. I couldn’t believe that he was chasing me; all I was doing was running for a train. I thought I had clearly explained this as I roared past him trying to stop me, spouting phrases in broken Russian; “Excuse me, please! I am a tourist!, Train go! Train go! I go train!’.
The passengers were at the windows exchanging waves with their well wishers on the crumbling concrete platform despite the fact that they weren’t yet moving. I banged hard on the thick green door of the first compartment I came to until my hand was numb. The face of a train attendant appeared through the dirty window above me and I waved my ticket furiously, shouting at her in English and Russian to please open the door.
Promising her dollars and pantyhose and peace on earth; although I think it must have been the desperate look on my face that convinced her to heave the door open with her shoulder. Babbling thank yous I hoisted my bag up and grabbed the handle to lift myself into the car just as the train jerked to life and started to slowly roll away from the platform.
I was barely inside the door when two other people with equally efficient time management skills began throwing their bags into the open doorway as they ran alongside the train. They both had about five bags each and in the time it was taking them to get the bags on board I was sure they would run out of either platform or breath. The wild eyed young man finally climbed on board but the woman of sixty odd years was reaching the end of her endurance.
The man and I each grabbed an arm and tried to lift her up; her feet dragging the ground blurring past beneath her. The train attendant was shouting for us to hurry; she had her hand on the emergency brake but didn’t want to have to use it. When I saw the Russian police officer puffing down the platform towards me I was inspired. Straining considerably we found the strength required in one last burst. Lifting a short, round Russian grandmother wearing a heavy overcoat onto a moving train must surely rank as one of my finer achievements. She landed on the floor with a thump, the scarf that was around her head now covering her face as she laughed and gasped for breath.
I had been travelling by train all over the former Soviet Union for the past four weeks and by a twist of fate this one was the first to depart late; every other one leaving within seconds of the scheduled time. I was more than pleased. Missing this weekly train between Tashkent in Uzbekistan and Urumqui in Western China would create complications with my visa and the mountain pass I needed to cross between China and Pakistan would close for the winter with me on the wrong side of it. The bright lights of Tashkent’s main station shimmered in the warmth of the autumn evening before disappearing from view as we gained speed through the suburbs. Vignettes of life flashing through the lighted doorways and windows of the low houses beside the track; families sitting down for dinner, a couple arguing, a man silhouetted in his door frame with the small orange light of a cigarette glowing where his mouth would have been.
As I wasn’t in the right car I asked the relieved train attendant or provodnika as they are called, which direction my car was in. Her explanation was lost on me and while she started to talk louder, hoping an increase in decibels would suddenly make me understand, a small group of curious passengers congregated to see if they could lend a hand. Soon enough the whole crowd knew where I was from, how old I was and where I was going, and while that was all very sociable, I just wanted to get to my cabin. After some discussion one little Uzbeki man said in English, “One, two.” Motioning in one direction down the train, towards the engine. “Great”, I said in the honoured tradition of Monsieur Marceau, “Now would that be two cars along, or twelve, or what?” This question caused the small crowd of ten people to all start shouting “One, two”; each convinced that the other wasn’t saying it right, and waving in their own special mime styles as to the location. I figured I would find it eventually so I said goodbye to my comrades in tardiness, thanked the crowd for their kind assistance and started walking towards the engine.
Through the third class compartments where there is less room for luggage, I had to step over all manner of produce from the current harvest. Every passenger had at least two or three enormous watermelons with them from the markets of the city. Most of the train was destined for Omsk in Western Siberia where such produce would be rare and expensive. I balanced against the increasing rocking of the train through the aisles of the cars and the narrow walkways in between them, and eventually found my berth. When it dawned on me that what they had all meant was that my car was one of the first two cars after the engine, I inwardly groaned.
I entered the four bed compartment and said hello to the two people who were in there. My most fluent Russian is the opening conversation with fellow passengers, for the questions were always the same. I began with a standard spiel about where I was from, where I was going, and I’m terribly sorry but I don’t speak Russian or, since I was Central Asia, Uzbeki or Kazakh, very well. As I look rather young for my age, one of the first questions is always “Stoodient?” I had given up explaining that I was a writer doing an article on the Soviet rail system. I think I looked too young, despite my claims to being twenty five, for them to believe that I would be doing such a thing. So, for the sake of simplicity I became a stoodient once again.
We finally got around to names and I introduced myself to Ergash Azimov and his mother; Uzbekis from Tashkent who were on their way to Urumqui to visit a brother, although given the amount of luggage that was crammed into every available space it was clear that doing business was a primary goal. With the newly acquired freedom to travel the Uzbekis, like their central Asian counterparts, were rediscovering their roots. For two thousand years they traded along the Silk Road route between China and Europe and business was inherently natural to them.
Ergash was thirty two years old with black curly hair, a chubby face and the kind of dark moist eyes that seemed like they could watch you wherever you were in the room without needing the head to move. He was wearing a wool sweater that was a couple of sizes too small for him and that showed a slightly rounded stomach. He had the typical Turkic looks of the region and spoke a tiny bit of English to match my hopscotch Russian.
His mother was sixty two years old with a web of wrinkles across her face weathered by the sun of the semi arid region she lived in and her black hair was spiced with grey and held in a bun. She was short and stout but with a commanding matriarchal presence. Her eyes made the woman, though. They were small, dark and deep-set but they twinkled like a midnight desert sky. They constantly moved between amusement and some sort of mischievous playfulness. For most of the journey she sat with her legs curled underneath her wearing the floral polyester dress typical of Soviet grandmothers.
Once over the basics, her line of questioning moved onto a tack different than anyone else I had met on trains in the former Soviet Union. Where most people presented either a ‘why on earth would you want to travel so much’ attitude or asked me things with a sour envious tone, she wanted to know about all the places I had been and what I thought about them. She would name a country and I would comment on it. She preferred speaking in her native tongue rather than in Russian so Ergash translated for us. She marvelled that I was going all this way at only twenty five years old; you could feel that she was wise and oozed a real enthusiasm for life.
Once the train felt like it had chosen a speed that was appealing, it settled into the humming, clacking hypnotic pace that only trains excel at. Ergash was in the corridor looking out of the window at the landscape that was barely distinguishable in the black night that had fallen. He motioned for me to join him so that Mama, as he called her, could change.
The Soviets have made a civilized art out of train travel and it has taken me some time to master all of the intricacies. On journeys of twelve hours or more, for example, as soon as the train is underway, one is expected to change into more comfortable clothes and slippers suitable for lounging and to pack their street clothes away. Your cabin mates will all vacate in turn so that each can have privacy to change. Keeping the same clothes on can create more than one form of bad air in the cabin. Once we were all changed we made ourselves comfortable.
One of the provodniks came around with our bedding and we paid the requisite 30 rubles. It was the first time on a Soviet train that my sheets and pillowcase all matched and I was excited at the prospect of sleeping comfortably between uniform layers of blue acorns and red shamrocks. But I had to wait as Mama and Ergash had set out a makeshift supper and invited me down from my top bunk to share it with them. I carry food with me when I ride the trains but usually just snacks in-between visits to the restaurant car. This tends to be a luxury for most people and they equip themselves with copious amounts of food for the entire journey; in this case three days and four nights.
Ergash filled the tea pot with hot water from the tap at the end of the corridor and Mama scooped in tea leaves. It was like a picnic spread out on the small table and we took pieces of each item as we fancied it; roast beef, boiled chicken, boiled potatoes and a loaf of sweet Uzbeki bread baked with chunks of squash inside. Shortbread and fresh cantaloupe with bright orange flesh were for dessert. When the tea was ready Mama filled a teacup and then poured it back into the pot, repeating this process three times in an Uzbeki tradition. And during the trip my teacup would only ever be filled up halfway which was a sign that, as a guest, I was welcome. When the cup was filled to the brim I would know that I had overstayed my welcome or offended someone and ‘gosh, is that the time? I really must be going.’
I stood in the corridor with my head out of the window marvelling at the blackness of the world and the intensity of the stars. It was refreshing to be on a train with windows that opened and it added a whole new dimension to the experience. Normally your only fresh air came at brief ten or fifteen minute stops or from the blast of air into the bathroom when you flushed the toilet. Now I was free to get a closer feel of the train; the smell of the diesel engine was rich and the sound of the clacking sharper and more resonant, making me gain a truer sense that I was travelling. When the train rounded a long, sweeping bend I could see from tip to tail and along it’s length the lights inside splashed out and wobbled on the immediate plain in irregular patterns. In the distance, for a brief moment, a pair of headlights flashed like bright stars and bobbed up and down before disappearing from view down some dark and bumpy road. The flatness of the terrain was discernible only by how far the level of the stars went down on the horizon.
After the Azimovs had gone to sleep I sat in my bunk and caught up on my notes by the dim glow of a small wall light. It was quiet in the compartment; only deep Azimov breathing complemented the soothing percussion of the train. When the door slid open a blast of light from the corridor leapt in and a weedy looking character came in reeking of alcohol. This was our other cabin mate. He spent most of his time with ‘the boys’ next door in a smoke filled cabin drinking and playing cards and would use his berth only for sleep. The fact that he hadn’t made his bed yet was at best irritating, but when he decided to try and engage me in a lively conversation during the process, it made me slightly temperamental. He was a short and skinny Uzbeki with a wispy moustache and an incredibly bad haircut. I’m sure he told me his name but I didn’t retain it and began referring to him as Vinny: I have never known anyone called Vinny, but if I had I was sure they would have looked like him. His tiny black eyes were cold and lifeless even when one of his slimy smiles creased his face.
He was the kind of person who had convinced themselves that they can speak a foreign language, in this case English, and he rattled on at length even though it bore no resemblance to the English that I speak. And while I admit I wasn’t really paying attention to him, I still only caught a handful of words; ‘dollars, you like?, okay’, and one annoying and oft repeated phrase, ‘you are my friend’ which sounded rather like ‘yo ah my fen’. I kept shushing him, already protective of Mama and Ergash, and when he started to slap my thigh and laugh at something he had said in his imaginary tongue, I turned out my light and rolled over to sleep.
Ergash woke me up early for food and when I looked down at the picnic spread out once again Mama waved me down saying, as she did every meal, “Kushat, Mikael”; kushat being the Russian word for eat. She often looked at me, shook her head smiling and called me Michael Jackson; always before breaking into hearty giggles. They talked in Uzbeki during the meal about, I think, remodelling their house. I enjoyed listening to the smooth measured tempo of their words as I do with all Turkic languages.
After we had satisfied our hunger Ergash and I put the food away; wrapping each dish up in it’s individual piece of plastic or wax paper. We settled back with a final cup of tea and Mama said in Russian, “Talk, Mikael” and we chatted about other countries and politics since the break-up of the Soviet Union. I loved her approach when she invited me to talk or eat, feeling in a way that I was perhaps in the presence of a great Empress who had granted me, the explorer, an audience to talk of wonderful new places I had seen but I was wary of what was next; maybe “Dance, Mikael” or “Sing, Mikael”. Instead we slipped into a comfortable silence looking out the window before newspapers and books came out and I retired to my bunk to write and fell asleep.
The Asimov’s opinions about the recent break-up of the USSR highlighted the fears of my friends in the Russian republic. Uzbekistan would no longer have to serve the interests of Moscow; instead, religious and cultural loyalties with their Muslim neighbours to the south that were severed in the early part of the century would be rekindled. They would turn their eyes and hearts to the south; to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey and the interests of Uzbekis would take precedence. The production of the famous cotton of the region that successive Soviet leaders had pushed to unattainable limits would be controlled and the profits would remain in the republic. Trains and trucks would be loaded up to head south instead. While travelling in the region I read of a satellite sent up by Turkey to broadcast Turkish and Egyptian programming to most of central Asia to replace the sterile Soviet channels and to educate the masses with the language and culture closer to their rich history.
It was touching the way that Ergash catered to Mama’s every need, adding to my image of an Empress. Respect for one’s elders is something sacred in many cultures and mothers and grandmothers in particular, strike a figure to be respected. Certainly in China you feel an automatic level of respect for the finely cut wrinkles and calm inwardly looking eyes of the old that seem to represent wisdom and subtle authority even in the most diminutive, stooped figures. In the republics of the former USSR you perhaps regard size, stern faces and calloused hands as worthy of deference in the elderly. This respect of and devotion to one’s parents and grandparents is certainly a concept that is long forgotten in North America. If the RV parks of America are any indication, your level of esteem in the eyes of others is directly related to the length of your motor home or your career winnings at bingo.
I relaxed through the afternoon writing and reading and gorging myself on the most appealing fruit I know; the pomegranate. I bought a dozen in Tashkent for the trip and once into one I found it difficult to stop for a simple reason; they are damn fun to eat. Break open the red leathery rind and you find hundreds of bright red beads of juicy flesh. Shove oodles of them into your mouth to chew and suck the somewhat sour flesh away until you are left with a mouthful of seeds. Dispose of seeds and repeat process until bloated and sick. During an afternoon nap I dreamed I was one of those seeds inside a liquid capsule swallowed by an animal and taken far into the desert and deposited in their dung to grow into a mountain. Okay, actually the dream was a bitter and twisted tale of life in a Provence mansion with a harem of naked French starlets, but you get the idea.
I awoke in the afternoon to see the steppes once again, this time under a clear light blue sky. The haze of the morning had lifted, except for a ridge barely concealing the horizon, and the land was bright. I caught glimpses of the famous cotton of the region as little puffs of white on dusty plants and sped past fields of swaying grain. In the hills off to the far right which marked the border of Kirghizstan, green fields stood out bold in the almost overwhelming brownness of the scene. I decided that the only proper way to see this land would be in the spirit of all the great Silk Road adventurers; by horseback, and I marked it down on my list of things to do, however unlikely the eventuality was.
The train slowed slightly to a different pitched hum as we began to enter the outskirts of Alma Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan. According to my information we were early and I scrambled to pull out my map to ponder our position. I always kept track of the trains progress on the massive cartographical projection of the nation that filled up my entire bunk when unfolded completely, as a way to pass the time. But, as my information came from a man I met outside of the bathroom, it could hardly be considered accurate.
We were shunted around the rail yard as the train was divided up for different destinations and each segment was joined with other segments from different places in what looked to me to be one giant puzzle. My interest in trains developed late; there was no childhood fascination to speak of, indeed the first train I remember getting on was an Amtrak service between Seattle and Los Angeles when I was twenty one. Growing up on the Canadian prairies, the long low whistle of the freight trains echoing through the air of dreamy summer evenings was aesthetic and memorable but only a novelty in an automobile society. I journeyed through China and on the Trans Siberian Railway a few years before and became hooked on the romance, the atmosphere, the ability to travel and see the world float past at a reasonable rate. The dark green snakes of the Soviet system exude a charm all their own that few other railway nations can match. They possess a distinct smell and feel and the passengers, over time, have created a unique civilized air to the process.
Ergash had left to make a phone call in the station when the train started to move. We had been shuffling back and forth for almost two hours and it took a moment to realize that we were now moving out of the station and down the line. I didn’t click that he wasn’t on board until Mama mumbled some worried words and gave me a little shrug. I told her I would go and tell the provodnik but she had already done that and he wasn’t very helpful. She was calm and holding her own but managed to let a few soft, quiet tears slip from her beautiful black eyes. She shrugged at me again and went to the bathroom to gain her composure, coming back with a little laugh.
After a short time we ended up in a rail yard to shudder and jolt through another series of shunts before moving further down the track to arrive and sit idle at another station; still within the urban sprawl of the city and with the original name; Alma Ata 2. Mama and I didn’t say much to each other; we just sat on the edge of opposite bunks and waited. I envisioned myself having to unload their vast amount of luggage at the end of the line and pouring her tea as a poor substitute for her son, worried that I was forgetting the traditions. And what was she thinking? “Great, Ergash misses the train and now I’m stuck with this foreign tourist all the way to Urumqui. Nice kid, but he can barely speak Russian let alone Uzbeki. Poor thing with his smelly feet; he can’t pour tea without spilling it and what if he forgets the traditions? All he does is sit up there on his bunk for hours on end, writing, or standing with his head out the window like a dog in a car.”
Two and a half hours later my tea pouring discrepancies were forgotten as Ergash bounded into the compartment, out of breath, sweating and smiling wide after making his way across Alma Ata by taxi. I saw him running out of the station to hail a yellow Lada, leap in the back seat and say “Alma Ata 2, buddy, and step on it, I gotta a train to catch. The driver replying, “Whaddeva ya say, mac” spinning his Yankees baseball cap around backwards, hitting the meter, and squealing his tires as he shoots out into traffic. Swerving around corners with Ergash perched urgently on the edge of the back seat until they screeched to a halt at the station. Ergash chucking him a fiver and sprinting to catch the train. Needless to say, long train journeys jumpstart even the most vacant imaginations.
Moving once again we ended up at the main platform of the station and took on passengers into the empty cars that had been added for the trip across the border into China. The air of expectancy and excitement at the prospect of travel that normally exists around Soviet train stations was intensified here, possibly because the next step was an international border crossing; a rare experience for former Soviets. Announcements were made in three languages over nasal crackling loudspeakers in the twilight; the voices carrying on a cool wind slipping down from the Tian Shan range in nearby Kirghizstan. Hearing Kazakh and Russian was not unusual but I was surprised to hear them followed by English. It had been almost a month since I had heard a full English sentence and it startled me, just before it amused me.
“Attention please. Be careful! Passengers for the International Express from Alma Ata from Urumqui kindly requested to assembled for the train on Foyer 1. Good luck to you! Good luck to you!”
And since I was the only foreigner on that train and no doubt in that station it felt like the announcement was personally directed to me the lonely voyager in a strange land; like the Vikings discovering America and finding a sign strung between two trees in Newfoundland that read “Welcome Mr. Eriksen!”
In the fluorescent light, rows of old women bundled in overcoats each stood in front of their own crate of fresh apples for sale, lending credence to a city with a name meaning Father of Apples. A few of the people from our car loaded up with the fruit to complement their supply of produce. We had been in Alma Ata for close to seven hours when I again felt the first familiar yank of the train. Night had fallen and, consistent with every other city I set out from on a Soviet train, we rolled away in the dark.
My sleep that night was typical of every sleep and every nap whenever I travel on trains anywhere in the world. My mind finds the rhythm of train travel sufficiently pleasing to weave the most fantastic fabric of dreams and always only moments after I slip away. Never, in any other situation I have experienced have my dreams been so vivid and clear and exotic. It is crazy that I can travel through amazing lands that leap out of my imagination and then I sleep and visit places and times of far more unbelievable richness and diversity. Colours sharper than those visible to any human eye. Details fine and precise. Quite often on train trips I look forward to putting my head down and wandering into a wonderful world.
In the earliest dawn moments I saw that the land had flattened out and was dotted with low, ash coloured scrub that looked like it would crumble to dust if I touched it. It drifted into desert in places; the sand caked and dry and then loose and wrinkled. Often behind a bush there was a tail of rippled sand that indicated in which direction the strong winds blew last. The whole way on the route two lines, either power or telephone, paced the train parallel to us like outriders to a lonely wagon train.
Perhaps they breathe civilization into the tiny settlements that occasionally appear out of the window and provide homes for the herdsmen who can be seen sitting solitary on their horses watching the train on the outskirts of a wandering herd of sheep. In one instance, on a road invisible to me from the train, I saw a black car speeding along and shining in the sun. It looked fantastically out of place like a creature from another time. I thought of the famous red sports car that sticks out like a sore thumb in that one scene in Ben Hur.
Mama remembered an English phrase from somewhere in her past and it was a toy to her. “Michael Jackson, I love you!” she would squeal before her body shook with regal giggles. At one meal I introduced a fine delicacy from home that I had in the bottom of my pack. I explained at length that it was beef and tomato soup and it was quite good. Mama took the small white packet of instant soup from my hand when I opened it. She looked inside at the dubious orange powder and after giving me a look, licked and dipped her finger and raised it to her mouth. I tried to stop her but she was determined and she sucked the powder off her finger. I think she almost threw up. She didn’t want to be too obvious but her face quivered between trying to keep a polite composure and complete and utter repulsion. It squeezed up into a complicated map of wrinkles and looked like that of someone with a sour mouthful of lemon who had simultaneously downed a glass of scotch. The look remained locked on her face until she ate a mouthful of bread.
Ergash wasn’t looking too confident at the prospect of having some after Mama’s reaction but he knew he had to. She was intently watching his darkened face as he dipped a piece of bread into the soup now properly prepared with hot water and with a surprised and relieved look declared it okay. Mama didn’t believe him and asked him in Uzbeki something akin to, “Are you serious? You’re not being polite? You like it?” It took a lot of persuasion to get her to try it and even then she only took a tiny dip with some bread, expecting the worst. After that she wouldn’t touch the stuff.
I tried to track our movements with geographical clues along the way but after Alma Ata it became difficult. The thin black line that led into China did so through the foothills of the Tian Shan range and with my crude computations I figured that we should have been there already. Out of the window the desert stretched on and on and gave no clues. Ergash had a history of giving definite, confident answers but he was always wrong. I trudged down to the provodniks office but after much discussion they couldn’t find us on the map either which was only slightly worrying. It would became a guessing game which was both interesting and irritating for a guy who doesn’t usually care where he is as long as he knows exactly where he is. For the first two days I studied the landscape looking for the slightest hint of an incline or any potential change to the landscape without any luck at all.
That morning after the cup-a-soup taste challenge I fell asleep again at 0930 only to wake up two hours later to spy a vast lake to the left. Murphy’s law strikes hard even in the nether regions of the world. A whippy wind was stirring up the surface into white flecks of foam and the shore was guarded by the twisted shapes of wind formed trees. A small, dusty settlement looking deserted lay on the near shore. The far shore was pure speculation. It was a brilliant blast of colour to my eyes and the window filled up with the yellow grassland in the foreground, the steely blue water of the lake and the palest blue sky above. Around the lake a hundred metre strip of grass was a finer shade of gold and gave off a halo effect.
I climbed down from my bunk with the recently acquired dexterity of a mountain goat and into my shoes on the floor. From the corridor window I saw mountains in the distance thrusting up without the bothersome formality of foothills save a few knobbly lumps at their feet. They were snow covered and were all the more awesome because of their sudden appearance. The ground had gained some solidity and now consisted of a thin layer of grey pebbles in patches between the scrub; leftover from the glacial age. Referring to my map I couldn’t find any lakes where we should have been but since I had confirmed with the provodniks that yes, we were going to Urumqui I just left it alone.
A tiny blob of houses appeared as I was looking out of the window with the cold air reddening my face and making my nose run. It sat on a small hill that made the doorways level with the window of the train. Even in this vast wide open expanse the citizens still cordon off a garden area with rickety fences that betray their nomadic roots.
Sitting against a fence nearest the track was a small boy of perhaps twelve years of age with a fine looking dog sitting erect between his legs. He was wearing a blue woollen hat and quilted red jacket and both he and the dog were watching the train with interest. It was an event, this weekly passing of the train, and he was there watching every moment of it. As I passed him I waved from the freedom of the open window; it was a spontaneous gesture. He saw my hand suddenly and his face lit up in an impossible smile as he shot up his arm enthusiastically in response; holding it there with palm outstretched, as did I, until we both were out of sight. That simple wave and the shared smile remains one of my fondest, enduring snapshots of all my travels. In that exchange between two people in the world who could not be more different there was an overwhelming feeling of hope and confidence that everything in the world would be okay. I can still see his face like I have known him all my life and the mere recollection of the event moves me like few things do. I will always wonder if he will also remember the moment as he follows the course of his life in that faraway place.
A high chain link fence swept across the plains from the north and looked imposing as it seemed to intercept the train and run alongside it. Every few kilometres a watchtower rose metallic and bright in the sun; in each one stood a figure barely discernible though the glass. This was obviously the border and it was heartening to see that the ever vigilant Chinese enlisted men to protect their land from the wind and a few wild horses, for with the fall of the Soviet Union, that was all that was left out there.
From the spare earth on the edge of a lost empire sprang the Soviet railhead of Druhzba. With that name as a reference I finally found where on earth, literally, I was and saw that it was a good three inches to the north from where I was looking. Our one lonely track branched out into scores all laid out parallel and hosting a large variety of boxcars and flat cars. A weary looking army official came aboard and took our passports. We spent the next few hours having the train transferred to the Chinese gauge. Hydraulic jacks groaned as they lifted three cars at a time into the air to have the wheels rolled out and replaced with others. This was interesting to many of the passengers and I and we hung out of the windows in the bright sun and cold air watching the proceedings.
In the compartment Mama and Ergash spoke in Uzbeki and kept nodding in my direction. Like a cat who knows an earthquake is approaching, I sensed something was up. Ergash asked to see my Russian-English phrasebook and looked up a couple of words before forming his thoughts into sentences. So. They wanted me to take a big box of ‘plastic souvenirs’ across the border for them. They had so many boxes of every size and shape that I didn’t see why one box should make a difference. They had been so kind to let me share their food and we had become friends but this was a compromising position for me. I knew I would say no but I wondered how they would take it. Was I obliged to do it? Was there some grey area in their traditions that I would upset? I politely explained that my first rule of travel is not to carry things over borders for other people and I could not do it for them. In a word, “nyet”. Ergash repeated this in a high pitched voice, “Nyet? Okay.” He chucked my phrase book across the tiny compartment onto his bed in disgust. Mama watched it all with her amused face on; the wrinkles around her eyes deeper and darker than normal.
An uneasy silence hung like fog over our heads so I scaled higher into it and up onto my bunk. I felt bad but that was that. They talked in Uzbeki and my imagination felt like it wanted to translate for me. “Boy, would you look at that. We gave him all that food and showed an interest in him and he can’t even take a dinky box over the border”. I thought for sure I would be wandering down to the restaurant to eat for the duration but in an hour or so I heard the familiar “kushat Mikael” and I descended to eat. As the tea was being prepared I feared the worst possible thing would happen; my teacup would be filled to the brim. I tried not to watch as Mama poured the tea but to my relief the level of the brown liquid stopped at halfway.
Darkness had fallen; the sun spinning to earth at the tail end of the train and leaving a soft yellow glow over the scene for almost an hour. The time came for the parade of officials that signals the commencement of border formalities. When I had travelled by train in and out of the Soviet Union three years before I was impressed and a bit alarmed at the rigid humourless border soldiers and their crisp efficiency serving the forces of a then feared nation.
Wearing a lovely emerald silk dress, an Asian lady waltzed in and sat down on the bunk offering polite salutations with the sunny disposition of a vacuum cleaner salesperson. “Hi, my name is Susan and I’d just like to take a moment of your time to introduce our top of the line Aral Sea model. Sucks up water quicker than you can redirect a river.”
Her job was to collect stamped bits of paper that proved you had been to a doctor and received AIDS information. I didn’t have one but assured her that living in England I had received the necessary information. After a few moments of resistance she sighed and left. Following her was a nifty chap wearing an argyle sweater and pressed trousers to collect foreign currency forms and he was tagged along by an attractive blonde in a dark green winter coat that matched admirably with her white silk blouse and pleated slacks. Her colourful, carefully trowelled on makeup gave her face a rainbow appearance and she wanted money for some declaration fee. These are the border guards of the new Commonwealth, dressing casual and walking with a groovy swing in their hips. No longer invoking fear; more like visions of a good game of bridge. I had the distinct feeling that they were all heading out to the local Frontier Town Restaurant and Nightclub as soon as they knocked off work.
Our whole car had the feel of a small town in the American Midwest. The provodniks were the combination sheriff/sanitation department patrolling and cleaning up after the populace. The mayor was surely the loveable, bumbling, roly poly passenger who was everywhere at once like it was his undying desire to make sure everything ran smoothly. In a typical act he collected everyone’s passports, hoping to speed things up for the officials but was chastised severely. He had a bushy moustache, wore a fur hat of the typical Russian design and a sweater that barely covered his considerable gut.
The rough side of town was in the compartment next to us where Vinny disappeared to. At all hours there seemed to be a card game or a chess match in progress and empty bottles of beer and vodka littered the table and the floor. The air was thick with smoke and I was always invited in to play chess and always beaten soundly. Downing glasses full of spirits certainly didn’t assist my concentration.
The rest of the town lived in the farther compartments near the provodniks office. Whenever any of them walked past; child, man or woman, they always took surreptitious glances into our compartment. I was like the exchange student in town and my movements through the car were watched and speculated on. Through the bush telegraph system typical of small communities everyone knew where I was from and my age even though I had only told a couple of people. My little pink Russian notebook in which I constantly wrote was a source of fascination to them. All except Mama who asked me as the train lay idle “What are you writing now?” I told her, “Words; many, many words”, only to have her reply with a hint of annoyance and gesture to the scene outside the window, “What words? Nothing is happening!”
We moved in the dark from one puddle of bright light to another, twelve kilometres down the track; at some point in the inky night passing into China. There rose a brand new railhead and behind the smart, painted buildings you thought you would still find the packing crates. Patriotic slogans on cloth banners lined the fences on our approach to the well constructed platform. Here it was evident who thought rather highly of themselves as a superpower. The officials who came onto the train looked like they should star in a 1930’s Nazi propaganda film. One should assume that wearing long overcoats with fur lined collars draped cockily over the shoulders, the hat jauntily sitting to one side on the head, jackboots crunching along the ground with arrogance and, of course, the cigarette held in the fingers with the palm facing upwards are the pillar of fashion in town.
Extreme attitude aside, the formalities on the Chinese side passed smoothly. Mama astounded both me and the border guards when she started speaking fluent Mandarin to them. Each one who came in did a double take and sat down for a chat in a sociable manner unbecoming of the Chinese soldier. In the corridor scores of people in uniform flowed past shouting at each other and trying to look important. What all their job descriptions were was beyond me; perhaps it was all just a show of force. Outside the train, under the floodlights, we were surrounded by soldiers spaced about ten metres apart and armed with shiny black machine guns; presumably guarding against that likely eventuality that someone may try to escape into China. After the casual display on the Soviet side, all the pomp and circumstance of the Chinese was laughable. Perhaps witnessing firsthand the decline that has hunted down every powerful nation and society in history makes one sceptical about the future of a nation that still pretends.
Once we were ready to get underway an announcement blared over the public address system in Mandarin and Russian. The tension that hung in the air like the smoke of a rancid Chinese cigarette had faded and the passengers were in high spirits; I think everyone had felt the same way about all the nonsense. For some reason the female announcer’s Russian pronunciation of goodbye caused almost everyone in the car, and no doubt the train, to explode into fits of laughter. Down the car people repeated it in unflattering imitations and that set everyone off again; hooting wildly. It was the most impressive bout of public laughter I have enjoyed. The loudspeakers were turned up high to blare twanging Chinese patriotic songs that filled the cold air as the train pulled away from the station and soon we were in the black once again.
China lay awake outside the window when I cracked open my eyes and squinted out into the bright morning. Although the land was of the same description as on the Russian side, here it was developed and farmed. Ice had formed in the night over the water in the cemented irrigation canals running under the train at frequent intervals to feed the fields that stretched away to the distant mountains. Wheat was fastened into what I would call old fashioned bushels; the kind shaped like an hourglass and not the swiss roll shape familiar to me. Some corn stood in strips still waiting to be harvested; in the stubbled areas, shepherds grazed their motley flocks of sheep. Mud huts without roofs dotted the fields, deserted by the farmers who inhabit them in the summer.
We began to roll into the outskirts of Urumqui. Twenty years before the region was deserted and virtually unknown. But a constantly growing China needs space and now a city of close to one million people stands stinking and unwelcome on the landscape; the populace arriving in droves after the railroad was extended west from Beijing. It is a place of little charm and the recent addition of a Holiday Inn will ensure it maintains that lack of appeal. The train moved into the hills around Urumqui and cut through crowded villages that had an almost shantytown appearance. Shepherds struck impressive silhouettes standing on top of some of the brown, bald hills. The people on the side of the road were mostly the indigenous Uighurs who are very similar to the Uzbekis in history and culture. It felt like we may have been on a train through Sicily with the sparse dusty landscape and the Southern European appearance of the locals.
We stole glimpses at the concrete high rises of the city between the rounded peaks and soon we ground to a halt at the station. I asked Mama and Ergash what they were going to do and they mentioned a taxi. Ergash and I carried most of their luggage through the station in spurts as there was an incredible amount to carry. Taxis were lined up waiting for customers and many drivers approached us as we came out of the station, but Mama said no to every one. We came to rest in the middle of the concrete square that spread out in front of the station on a hill overlooking the city. I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t want to get a taxi and they weren’t offering any clues. Their things were piled into a tidy mound and we just sort of stood there for a moment. Gradually people started to gather around the curious pile of goods and began asking questions, presumably about the contents of the boxes. Mama began to play the game that has been played along the Silk Road for thousands of years and started to casually present her wares and subtly began to mention prices.
Slowly, the bartering began and the people rose to Mama’s challenge. Ergash stood by her side and, as she directed, he began to unpack other goods and soon people passed around boots, spoons, sweaters, and hairbrushes; discussing their quality and value. The circle grew larger and soon I was squeezed out by the pressing crowd curious to look at the Soviet goods. I watched the scene for a while before trying to catch their eye to wave goodbye, but the Asimovs were the hub in the centre of their own burgeoning open market; moving both into the future and into their past with one purposeful leap. I caught a last glimpse of Mama; her face was wrinkled happily, her eyes glimmering and in her leathery fist she held a growing wad of money. I walked away across the square and down the steps towards the heart of the city.
Originally written in 1992.