Monday, June 24, 2013

June 14, 2013

I managed to sleep until 5:30 and then got up to find out why the printer wasn’t working. I tinkered with it, even downloading the drivers from the Hewlett Packard website, but it just wouldn’t respond. I packed a few pieces of clothing in my backpack, a towel and my toiletries bag.

I had to go the Beta stores in order to buy staples I could eat on the train as we weren’t sure what kind of meals would be available for purchase. I bought some jam for Irina, baked goods and cheese and lots of 3-in-1 coffee for the journey along with almonds and raisins. It was only 8:30 when I got there and they had no freshly baked bread or samsis yet.

Willoughby had given me some money to exchange it for rubles as she had been tied up with the seminar and unable to run these errands herself. She showed up at eleven and tried to get the printer to work as well to no avail. I email myself the information on how to get to Irina’s place and we left my flat to board the 113 marshrutka heading to the train station.

I could barely manage to get into the minivan with my backpack on. There were no seats for me, so I rode standing all the way. The train station appeared to be rather new and was graced by a plaza with the ubiquitous statue of some hero and many flower beds. Once inside, we had plenty of time to relax before the 2:45 departure time.

I was able to find a vendor of flat bread who also had chocolate bars and dried apricots for Irina. The train arrived on time and we found our berth in car #2 with no problems at all. I tried to use the bathroom only to be told it was closed when the train came to a stop. The person in charge of the car signaled I had enough time to go back to the station and use the bathroom there.

Without given it another thought, I ran back to the station and went to the basement to use the toilet. There was a small table at the entrance with a sign indicating a payment of five soms was expected. No one was there and I thanked my lucky stars for I had taken no money with me.

When I came out of the stall, a stout woman was positioned in front of the staircase demanding payment. I tried to tell her that I had forgotten my handbag and had no money on me, but she’d probably heard that excuse a thousand times and would not budge from the staircase.

I tried to dodge under her arms, but she pinned me down and screamed at me that I owned her five soms. In desperation, I showed her my watch and tried to tell her my train was about to depart and I had no time to go back and bring her the miserly sum of money she was demanding. Someone had been listening to the commotion and apparently had the power to tell this bear of a woman to let me go.

People were staring at me while I made my way back to the train. At least I was able to laugh my head off when I recounted the story for Willoughby’s benefit. Lesson learned: don’t try to cheat a bathroom attendant of five soms for she will put you into a headlock and embarrassed the hell out of you.

The train left on time and we had great weather. I had reserved the window seats and the lower berths for us and had no one at first sharing the space which was capable of holding six passengers. The attendant came by and gave us a package in a sealed plastic bag containing  a duvet, two bed sheets, a pillowcase and a towel so small and thin that we would have call it a dish towel.

The mattresses, with a square pillow rolled inside, had been placed on the upper berth. The train rolled through the outskirts of the city where previous farming land was now being turned into houses while the future owners lived in makeshift structures. Most of the houses were of similar size and color, a dirt brown one, and no signs of color could be seen anywhere.

We came upon our first border crossing around five and the attendant collected our passports. Willoughby had two with her: her Peace Corps’ one with the Kazak visa and her personal one with the Russian one as there hadn’t been enough time to get both visas into the same one.

The attendant said one of us should follow him and I did so. He walked into a squat building while ordering me to wait outside with another passenger, a woman from Uzbekistan, who appeared rather nervous. We had to wait for two whole hours before our passports were returned and not before I had gone to great lengths to explain why Willoughby was carrying two of them.

While waiting, I noticed that the dining car was located in car #8, quite a distance from our own. I could see the plastic flowers on the tables and some women moving around, so once back on the train, I made my way there feeling like I was an actress on some film trying to escape a killer by moving from car to car as swiftly as possible.

The dining car couldn’t have been a more depressing place. Plastic tables covered with an oilcloth, lots of groceries strewn about and other furniture in a helter skelter arrangement. I asked if anyone spoke English and I was directed to Elvira who said they weren’t ready to cook dinner, but would be offering breakfast around 8:30. She asked for my car number and said she’d come by to get our order.

There was no ceiling fan to cool our compartment or overheard lighting for reading. The window was a small square space high up most likely intended to provide ventilation for those occupying the upper berths. I had to use my fan to cool myself off until the sun went down.

There was nothing to look at once we got into Kazakhstan, not even green farms or small villages. Damira had told me that much when trying to dissuade me from traveling by train.

Willoughby had some cheese and an apple for dinner and I had my flat bread and cheese along with the leftover baklava. We congratulated each other on having managed to make it so far into our journey and then read for a while before going to sleep. 

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