Thursday, August 21, 2008

Aug 18-19 The Train to Urgench (Rev)

We left the hotel on foot about 6:15 pm. It is a 10 min walk to the tram, when loaded down with packs. The tram was there, as we crossed the street, and we arrived at the train station at 6:45 for the 7:15 departure.

We were in car 5 of the train, in compartment 1. It had been a long exhausting day and Carol wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and go to sleep. This was first class, for which we had paid 38800 sum apiece (apx $29 US). The soft sleeping compartment contained two lower beds and two upper beds. There were already two Uzbek matrons on one half of the compartment, and stuff everywhere on our side also. We threw our backpacks on to the upper bed on our side, and sat down to figure out how this would all work out.

(Mike) Froman's Second Rule of Travel now comes into play. The First Rule is that if you are negotiating prices, you write down the price before you engage the service. (Oh, how many times we have violated that rule.) The Second Rule is that if both sides to a transaction must resolve the situation, it will be resolved, and you need only wait.

In this situation, there was so much stuff in the compartment, that no-one was going to sleep unless some of it were removed. Not us, not the Uzbeks. Every inch, save the lower bed on our side was stuffed. The pull out dining pad was full of their food, and the area underneath was full of their carry-ons, making it impossible to sit near the window.

It turned out that you lifted the bottom seat to reveal space into which both of our backpacks fit. Our compartment mates showed us how to take our packs and store them under the seat. The upper bed was now mostly vacant, but still harbored two large baggage rolls.

Within the first hour, the conductor reached into our compartment and pulled down first one and then a second large burlap sack. After the seals were broken, we saw that these contained the linen for the whole car, which he then removed, to hand out. We now had linen, and some breathing room.

The second older woman turned out to be a friend or relative, traveling in another compartment. Our two mates for the journey were the alpha Uzbek woman and her slim teenage daughter. Several compartments were filled with friends and relatives in this section of car 5. Lots of pre-school-age children in this family group completed the picture.

The Uzbek mother and daughter showed us how to take the baggage rolls, open them up as bed rolls, take the linen, put it on the rolls, take the pillows, which had been somewhere in the compartment, and put on the pillow covers. The daughter in fact made our beds for us. We even had clean towels.

Suddenly, there was more space in the compartment, and all could bed down. By 8:45 or so, our compartment was dark, although there was much noise elsewhere on the train.

In an act of bravery, Carol opted for the upper berth.

We left the Samarkand-Bukhara line at 4 am and turned north. The sun rose at 6 am across the Uzbek desert. The Uzbek word for sand is qum, and this region is called the Kyzylqum Desert. Without water, there is nothing but sand and occasional scrub. Seeing a cow or a truck from the train window becomes exciting.

The posted schedule inside our car gave times and names for the scheduled stops. At a nothing town called Uchquruq (3 wells) we spent approximately 20 minutes around 9:30 am. The train stopped a number of times in the desert, including a spot that seemed to be called Nobygdil.

We had 8 hours of this daytime delight before getting to Urgench. During this time, we tried to make peace with our berthmates, and achieved a sort of glaznost, sharing apricots and cashews. Our feeble attempts at Russian and Uzbek did not get very far.

By 1 pm or so, we were in the Amu Darya valley. Suddenly, everything became green and fertile. Now there were villages, houses, and fields. At a pause in an intermediate station for ten minutes or so, we watched two women producing one loaf of nan after another from their tandur, deftly pulling out the baked loaves with a gloved hand.

The Amu Darya (darya means river) comes down from the Afghan-Tajik border, through Uzbekistan, into Turkmenistan, and then becomes the border between the two countries for a while before running firmly through Uzbekistan, and (1) emptying into the Aral Sea, or (2) drying up before emptying into the Aral Sea. Because of the intensive use of the Amu Darya all along its length, especially for the growing of cotton, this part of the world has become one of the great environmental disasters. The Aral Sea borders are now 50 -100 miles smaller than they were 100 years ago, and this great body of non-salty water is slowly disappearing.

The train arrived in Urgench about 2:20 pm.

1 comment:

Timothy said...

Sounds lovely, but what a commentary on the voracious appetite of humanity. Is there anyone concerned about the Aral Sea?

Also just realized, to the average Uzbeks you two must seem like extraordinarily wealthy Americans.