Riding the Rails

Turkmenabat to Mary
August 5, 2019

Surprisingly painless to buy a train ticket, I wondered at the lack of rudeness on the part of the ticket agent. They must have not got the memo that all ticket agents in ex-Soviet countries received. The lack of internet and wifi to blame perhaps?

Waiting in the cavernous hall, I am stared at but instead of interacting, they look away. Are Turkmens so used to foreigners? After the boisterous interaction in the bazar at Turkmenabat, I am not quite sure what to make of it. I scribble in my journal, do my own share of staring and take some photos.

The women here are dressed in figure-hugging long dresses and most wear a scarf wrapped around their head. But they wear some sort of a hat underneath. The result is cross between a top hat and a turban. Some of them look quite regal. Bundles and bags sit on the floor. There aren’t enough seats for everyone and the steps leading up to the platform fill up as the afternoon wears on. The air-conditioner can’t cope with the heat and we all slowly melt into puddles. But nobody complains; they seem to expect nothing else. The single screen mounted on the wall shows a staticky image of musicians. National music, a woman tells me when I ask; nobody pays any attention to it. There are no announcements but well before the train comes in, groups head out onto the wide platform. They make their way to assigned carriages and I find mine as well.

My cabin mates are three women, part of a large group scattered among a couple of carriages. They are in high spirits, on their way to Turkey, via Ashgabat. We talk in a mix of deplorable Turkish on my part and Turkmen on theirs. One of them is the undisputed queen of charades and we laugh as much as we talk. There is no Google here so no translation can help us out. It is wonderful! We pool our dinners and jabber stiltedly. I decline the game of cards in the corridor and try to nap a bit. I will get off in Mary around midnight while they continue to Ashgabat.

The scenery is mostly desert as we chug our way south. But I see a few scattered villages along the way. Not all in this country are well-heeled, it seems. The brick buildings with corrugated tin roofs that are most common, are sometimes interspersed by old dilapidated timber buildings. Some are shacks put together with leftover bits of metal and timber.

Mary to Ashgabat
August 6, 2019

This time I boarded the train after ten at night and found it full. My cabin-mates were a couple headed to Ashgabat for work along with three young boys heading to Turkemenbashi for a week of sea-side fun. One of the boys spoke some English as did the man. Soon we had others from neighboring cabins come join our chatter and the evening flew by in a wink. I had been itching to find out the secret of the top-hat-cum-turban that the women wear and now got a chance to try it on. A foam band is wrapped around a bun atop the head and then wrapped with a scarf. There is even a way for it to work with those who wear their hair short. A puffy silk piece with a clip masquerades as a bun and voila, you build the tophat around it. I can testify that even vigorous head-shaking does not dislodge it.

Ashgabat to Turkmenbashi
August 8, 2019

Leaving Ashgabat at seven-thirty, I met my two cabin-mates. From Balkanabat, the woman was friendly, open and voluble. I understood only a fraction of the reams that she said but we shared my pack of sunflower seeds companionably. The man was going to Turkmenbashi for work and just as eager to talk. Diligent use of Google translate on his phone, and I had perhaps the most incisive conversation so far. He talked about Turkmenistan and his view of the country. Suffice it to say, little was complimentary. It is just as well that the blog updates are done once I have left. It would not do for the powers-that-be to read my unvarnished version!

Regimental rows of buildings in the Soviet style march into the horizon. Beyond are vast tracts that grow cabbages, corn and fodder for animals. Watered via a system of canals, these green areas are in stark contrast to the rest. It is desert for unending miles.

But I see tell-tale mounds of dirt that stretch for miles in arrow-straight rows. They must be qanats I think. It is an ingenious and very old system of creating underground channels to transport water over vast lengths of desert. I remember seeing them in Iran and some dismantled ones in Xinjiang many years ago.

The next morning, I see the shore of the Caspian. My five days are over today and I need to get stamped out before midnight.

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