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Eastbound Trainology

Another train..

KAZAKHSTAN | Monday, 8 September 2008 | Views [740] | Comments [1]

After four days in Almaty, it was time to move on. The train from Almaty to Urumqi is much the same design as the train to Almaty from Russia although this time, we decided to travel a lower class to glean a more accurate idea of travelling by train. Our positive experience with Anatoly made us fearless of who we'd meet. Our new cabin was much the same except for an extra two bunks.

We were to share with two men who claimed to be brothers although there was little family resemblance. One was a Chinese telecommunications engineer from Urumqi and the other, from Uzbekistan, was a "business man" who spoke no English or Chinese. The Chinese brother spoke English, though judging from his vapourous breath, it was an alcoholic friendliness that brought him to speak.

At the start, I thought it would be a more pleasant journey than the previous, if only for the cleaner bathrooms and friendly guard who delighted in saying my name, pronouncing it with a Spanish inflection- the 'x' taking on the throaty iberian rasp. He rush to open the bathroom for me if it had been locked for cleaning and would always say hello which was a pleasant change from the glass eyed stare of the previous guard. He gave me a teapot and bowls for tea which meant I didn't have to resort to theft of crockery this time.

All took a turn for the worse the first morning on the train. In his drunken lucidity, Jongqin had confessed that although Kazakhs don't smile, they're honest about their feelings. He warned that Urumqians and Chinese smile a lot but you shouldn't trust them when they do. Apparently they're always plotting something. How presentient he realised he was being, I will never know. The next morning, the atmosphere had changed considerably. Charlie told me once all other occupants were out of earshot, that the brothers had pressed him to 'pretend' that the $15000 they were carrying was his. Not being a mug and realising this amounted to smuggling, he rightly declined. However, after this the atmosphere was a lot less convivial in cabin III.

Similarly, the limited exchanges with the train guard and other passengers un-used to western faces up close took on a far lewder friendliness with their previous glances turning into more appraising stares. This was only the beginning of the discomfort as the 7 hour customs check at the border was waiting. Bear in mind that over those 7 hours you cannot leave the train, use the toilet or sleep. Once the wheels were changed again and the rigmarole of baggage unpacking started. These guards were thorough, a body pat down, a flick through all my photos on my camera, leafing through all my books, opening toiletries to sniff. All very invasive and unpleasant. Also, a twice repeated procedure, once in Kazakhstan and once in China. Although the Chinese were friendlier about it and quicker. They were confused as to our relationship and were suspicious of us not being married or in any sort of relationship other than coursemate. Also, they couldn't understand why anyone would want to take a train such a long distance when people have planes now. Feeling that the nuance of the idea of transcience would be lost in translation we just laughed about being gluttons for punishment.

After the searches we were both tired, irritable and disappointed. This was a mutual low point for the whole holiday as it all seemed so unecessary, so suspicious and since discovering that we wouldn't be complicit in his crimes, our cabin mate stubbornly refused to help us fill out forms in chinese or translate barked orders.

As it turns out he'd stuffed the lot in his socks and underpants and they weren't caught despite the pat down. WE were glad to finally reach Urumqi the third morning although it became clear, very quickly, how alien the whole place was to me. Maybe I'm naive in placing so much importance on sincere expression but I'll certainly think twice the next time an Urumqian smiles at me outside of a service.

Tags: border, train, urumqi



Social study in human perceptions. More details welcome later! X

  Francine Reddaway Sep 13, 2008 5:55 PM

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