Aboard a Train in Uzbekistan

From Tashkent to Urgench, Uzbekistan

May 28, 2015

Arriving at the station with barely ten minutes to spare, I found my way to my berth, helped along by the wagon attendants. In my wisdom, which sometimes takes startling dives into depths of stupidity, I had booked an upper berth in the plaskart class.

Similar to the three tier trains in India and China, this too had a third level but this was designed to be a shelf,not a sleeping berth. The vertical space of some three feet necessitated bodily contortions worthy of Houdini and the neck brace meant several poses not usually seen. I had an appeciative audience. The 40 C plus temparature and no air-condition meant sweltering conditions and drowning in the aroma of assorted sweat-soaked bodies was an imminent possibility. I could only hope that there would be some breeze once we picked up speed.

P1010207In the berth across from me was a young woman, Ruxora – a teacher from Urgench, who had been in Tashkent to sit an exam for proficiency in English. Unable to string a sentence together, she was nonetheless eager to chat and armed with her two dictionaries, we started a halting conversation.  At Syrdariya, a couple of older women came on board. They were retired dentists and on their way for week’s vacation to Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkhand. It soon became apparent that many of the others in the carriage belonged to the same tour. Mostly women, many of them ex colleagues, they were in high spirits that was infectious.

The ticket had included a meal. Over Styrofoam boxes of some rice, unidentifiable pieces of meat and soggy french fries we exchanged names and the usual questions of nationality, professions, families. By the time bedtime came, we had bonded. The chatting was aided by frequent flipping of the pages of Ruxora’s Uzbek-Russian and Russian-English dictionaries. Not the most effective means of communication, but aided by vigorous miming, we did fine. I was promised lessons in Uzbek the next day.

P1010210We had travelled past Tashkent and its suburbs and were trundling through the countryside and soon it was too dark to see much. The next morning, as they pressed bread and cheese and tomatoes on me, my Uzbek lessons began in earnest. Like a good student I took notes, listened and attempted to converse in Uzbek. Delving into my newfound stash of words, I was using atrocious grammar, non-existent sentence construction and wrong accents. As always though my expertise in miming helped.

By the time we reached Urgench, we had exchanged contact information. I have an invitation to Mrs. Hurtamov’s house when I am back in Tashkent. Sahiba, one of my more outspoken and excitable co-passengers insists that I call her when I reach Khokand. I am to wait at the tourist information and she will come to take me to her home. I have yet another invitation from someone from Margilon. Given the restrictions with regards to registration, I am not sure if I can accept their generous offers but I mean to try provided it does not bring them trouble.

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Do You Want to Stay in Our Sanatorium?

Shymkent, Kazakhstan

May 24, 2015

From Almaty I decided to take the overnight train into Shymkent. I hoped to see something of the Aksu Zhabagaly national park if I  could manage it. I had booked a berth in a four- berth compartment. Not only do they provide freshly laundered bedding and a towel, they even provide a small toiletery bag with overnight essentials. This was like flying first class! There was also a paper cup with sachets of tea and coffee.

Starting at 7:30 pm meant a couple of hours of daylight to see the land we were passing through. Outside the window lay vast stretches of rolling green grasslands, occasionallydotted with a few horses. There were hardly any buildings, let alone  villages or towns. I asked the locals – my cabin mates, why the landwas not farmed. The soil is too poor they told me and there is too much salt. And indeed, thye pointed out large white patches of salt. This must explain why the price forof vegetables was twice that of meat in the restaurants and markets of Almaty.

P1010059My cabinmates were two women and a gentleman. Gauhar had been visiting a friend in Almaty and wason her way home to Shymkent. The older gentleman had been on work and he too was on his way home. Sonia, the third person had been to her nephew’s wedding and was returning home to a village a couple of hours out of Shymkent. Sonia is one of those people with an exuberant personality. Loud, outspoken, with a great sense of humour, she was cracking jokes  fromthe minute she stepped in and had us in stitches. I was laughing as hard even before they could explain in a mix of Russian, Turkish and Kazakh. Where wonrds failed, miming worked quite a charm. The provodnik,or the wagon attendantcame by to check our tickets and stayed to join in the banter.

Both he and Sonia are great fans of Bollywood films and he started chiming in with snippets of songs – he had them memorized without understanding a word! Quite a ham, he was playing up to Sonia in the best love-lorn hero fashion. The rest of us cracked up until we had tears in our eyes and were spluttering over our food and drink.

P1010055We had all taken out our bundles of food and shared. The little table bore a motely assortment – meat patties and greens,courtesy of Sonia, some  slices of pizza contributed by Gauhar along with some bread, cheese and salad that was my  contribution. All of polished off with cups of green tea that came with our paper cups.

The evening passed quickly as did the night, albeit with a symphony of snores. Sonia got off around six in the morning, yelling her goodbyes. The clear morning light showed stretches of rolling green fields with a few farmhouses. Large stretches were tilled and some planted, I did not know with what. In the distance loomed the Alatau mountains, their upper reaches still with a mantle of snow and their lower slopes green.

P1010061We arrived in Almaty at 9 am and my queries about taxis were waved aside by Gauhar. Her son was going to meet her at the station and they would give me a ride. Gauhar’s son.was accompanied by an older gentleman, the director of a clinic and attached sanatorium. I was expecting tobe dropped off in the center of town but having ascertained that I had no hotel booked, they held a quick conversation in rapid-fire Russian. Before I knew it, we were pulling up inside  gated compound and Gauhar’s son turned to me and asked

“Do you want to stay at our Sanatorium?”

Completely at sea, I mumbled “What?”

“The director says”, he said “you can stay here for free and you will be given three meals as well. Why don’t you take a look?”

It was not just a room but a suite!  The lobby was peppered with patients and theair had that distinct antiseptic smell peculiar  to hospitals. I have no doubt that with my neck brace I would have fit in perfectly. Much as I appreciated their generosity, I declined and was dropped off at a hotel instead.

All About Almaty

Almaty, Kazakhstan

May 22, 2015

P1010042I am in a mild state of shock. I am not quite sure what I expected of Almaty, but it is not these wide boulevards, tall chrome and glass skyscrapers, swanky cars and glitzy shopping arcades with smatterings of posh cafes, bars and restaurants. Perhaps most of all, I had not expected law abiding traffic. Nor had I expected it to be quite so green. The streets are lined with trees full of foliage and traffic circles sport well tended flower beds. 

The Green Market is slightly more in keeping with my pre-conceived notion of Kazakhstan but not by much. its organzed layout smacks of Russia. It is not called “green market” because it sells greenery, but likely because the cavernous building it is housed in is painted a bilious green.

P1010014Inside are two floors, with each floor divided regimentally into subsections. There are arrays of dried fruits and nuts, some from Uzbekistan, some from Tajikistan and some from Kazakhstan. The stall owners beckon, calling out and gesturing. They hold out samples, urging potential customers in the time- honored tradition of old bazaars. And delicious they are too!

Past the dried fruits are herbs and spices but this is not the chatic sprawl or colorful pyramids seen in souks of Morocco or markets of Asia. These are arranged in neat piles instead. There are stalls of fresh baked bread – flat round loafs, some plain, some with a hint of cheese, some spiced with scallions.

P1010022By far, the largest section is for meat. There is a mind boggling array of varieties – pig, cow, duck, chicken and horse meat. Huge haunches hang from the hooks alongside sausages and a nauseating varietyof innards, stomachs and other unidentifiable parts.

There are dairy products-  milk cheese, butter and fermented mare’s milk that is drunk in these parts. In Mongolia it is called Airak but here the same goes by the name of kimiz. Definitely an acquired taste and one that I am fairly certain I never will acquire.

P1010024There are stalls with clothing and shoes in the floor above, just about all stalls carrying the same varieties and quantities. And in the floor below are the fresh produce. Small piles of peppers, tomatoes, scallions and some greens. But what is startling is the price. Vegetables are easily twice or thrice the price of meat – the reverse of most other countries. But perhaps not so surprising given that this is a country with a large animal husbandry industry and little or no farms.

P1010021There are some fish as well – whole ones as well as fillets. And there are the cans, jars, entire tubs of caviar, both red and black. As expected, it is expensive but still a lot more affordable than at home. I have been in hog heaven! I was surprised to see an entire section of assorted kimchi and sushi. There are more varities if kimchi than I can find at home and the large roll of sushi tasted as good as it looked.

There are stalls selling seedlings and seeds – both for flowers as well as vegetables. Women inspect the produce and negotiate prices but there is none of the vigorous haggling of other bazaars that I am used to seeing. It is all very tame and low key.P1010032

Off to Central Asia

May 19, 2015

I was wearing a neck brace (thanks to a recently acquired herniated disc), baggy clothes several sizes too large (erring on the side of caution in Islamic countries) and carrying an arsenal of pain medications including prescription narcotics. I could have made a healthy living peddling medicines in any part of the world. Unable to carry it, I had strapped my backpack to a luggage cart. I was no doubt the envy of any self-respecting baglady as I arrived at the airport. I fully expected the TSA to chime in with a “Step this way please ma’am”. But all went well. There is a fine line between appearing disreputable enough to raise suspicion and looking odd enough to elicit pity. ‘Tis is a delicate balance usually requiring years of practice.

My usual bad plane karma held up in the first leg and predictably I had squalling, screaming children within two feet of me in every direction. It was a long flight from JFK to Cairo. But this was offset by the next two legs. From Cairo to Istanbul, I sat next to a man who was on his way to visit family in Istanbul. We had a pleasant time chatting about his job at the UN and if I were to visit Cairo again, he insists that I stay with his family. The leg from Istanbul to Almaty was just as pleasant. I met a young man, a part of the group of Turkish architects on their way to Almaty for a project. In true turkish tradition, he extended an invitation to his the next timeI visit Istanbul. What a great start for this trip!