[apologies in advance for the Sunday supplement travel section vibe that has taken over below- trains do that to me]
I can think of few things I’d rather deal with on a loooong ride through the desert on a train with *basic* bathroom facilities than an enormous melon quite frankly (ok! I can think of *several* things but I won’t mention them!). But everyone on this train is buying them – at each station (melons are always available) it seems that wheelbarrows full of melons are loaded on. One of my bay companions wants in on the melon action (I’m in the cheap seats-platzkart- with 6 bunks to a bay but the whole carriage is open rather than the cosy/claustrophobic compartments of kupe). So the inevitable melon-centred carnage unfolds, with some sweetish bread rolls suffering collateral damage. With typical generosity (typical of central asia, and of these train rides) I’m of course offered some melon, and by the time I’ve managed to cover my hands, face and clothes with it, I’m offered another huge slice and refusal is not an option. Other bay companion suggests to me that I should really try some of the bread too – it goes particularly well with melon! She seems to be saying to me. Or maybe she’s saying – it’ll certainly keep you out of these hideous train toilets for the next 3 days!
Other communication highlights include when number 2 lady asks me if I’m going to Aktau for work – no, tourism! I’m clearly insane. One? She asks me. One what? Five, I say (I’m planning on staying 5ish days, plus I learnt the word for five a few days ago). She seems happy with that, then later I realize she probably thought I meant ‘there’ll be 5 of us’. There’s also some bemusement when I’m offered black or white tea, say ‘black’ apparently (as I don’t immediately recognise the word for white), then ask for milk when she produces some. And a card game I’m invited to play with her, her husband, and one of our other bay-mates. I don’t get the rules despite assistance and am out after one round. But this isn’t due to my inability to speak Russian or Kazakh, it’s just because I’m crap at all card games in any language.
The sounds and motion of the train are pretty soporific and it’s a surprisingly relaxing 3 days – in fact it’s when we clank and sigh to a halt at some station in the middle of nowhere, and the rhythm and rattle evaporates into the vast emptiness of the Kazakh night, that I’m woken by the absence of anything – by the dog that isn’t barking (actually, a dog usually *is* barking at most stations)…
There’s a restaurant car on board (PECTOPAH!) but most people have brought piles of laden Tupperware, about a million teabags and their own teapots – amazingly the Kazakhs drink more tea than the Brits! At every station there are kiosks and vendors selling food and drinks (I’m indecisive at one stop over a shashlik and then curse myself for missing out as the rest of the day’s stops are at apparently the only shashlik-free stations in the entire country). But women (always women) also get on board to sell things which are mainly: smoked fish (oh good! have some with the melon why don’t you!), socks, hard cheese balls and camel milk. While these would be a bit odd for the east coast mainline, thinking about it they’re probably just what you need round these parts.
As we’d headed out of Almaty, we had followed fairly close to the Kyrgyz border and so after the first night, the views were still of the gorgeous mountains not far away. Later these became the unrelenting steppe – the colours of Kazakhstan: blue sky, yellow land.And on Wednesday morning as we neared the end point, there were hints of the more intriguing landscapes of Mangyshlak [which you’ll have to imagine as I’ve got no pics!], the region in which Aktau is situated, which was reassuring: 60 hours in platzkart, this had better be good…
Just about smiling after arriving in Aktau (& aged 20 years)!