Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Travelogue Uzbekistan: The Long Train Ride to Urgench

Amu Darya River. The origin is the high mountain of Pamir. By the time it arrived in Uzbekistan, it has transformed into a wide, lazy river.

I entered the compartment with a slight hesitation, masked with a huge smile. Four sets of eyes, belonging to complete strangers, stared at me. I’d never felt so odd and awkward.

After a quick salam, I dumped my bags on the top bunk where I was assigned, and sat down on the bed/seater below. I kept smiling till my jaw hurt.

I was boarding the train at Tashkent, heading to Urgench. Though I was travelling with two other friends, by sheer lack of luck, the two of them were assigned the same sleeper compartment, and I was bumped to next door, sharing with total strangers.

I love train ride more than anything. Except for the disgusting toilet (which seems to be a pre-requisite for any train, no matter how old or modern it is), there are some romantic notions attached to train rides. Lulled to sleep to the sound of the train slowly chugging forward, stopping in between stations, the contractors coming and going checking the tickets and announcing stops, food vendors selling simple dish, and travelling through an unfamiliar landscape - it was much different than car or plane travel.

My bunk bed.

However, my trepidation came due to how small the compartment was, and the fact that it was going to be a thirteen-hours ride. The compartment consisted of two sets of bunk sleepers (two on top, two at the bottom), with an aisle so narrow that two persons sitting across each other will be touching knees. There was no privacy at all. You either struck a conversation with your fellow compartment-mates, or become a total recluse by pretending as if you are invisible, which was very hard to do when everyone's aware of every single move you make - even the sound of opening a candy bar seemed to multiply ten-fold. It was too early to sleep too - we had at least three more hours before sunset.

Anvar Beyg

Bibi Sulfiya

I smiled at the little boy next to me, who peeked shyly at me from her mom’s lap. His name was Anvar Beyg, I later discovered, about 4-5 years old. His sister, Bibi Sulfiya, a year or two older than him, was seating next to their dad on the seater across us. Besides them was a lanky and tall middle-aged man. When he smiled, I spotted two golden teeth.

“Too-rist?”, the dad asked. “Ha”, I replied. Yes, in Uzbek.

I thought that was the end of our conversation. I didn’t speak Russian or Uzbek, and they did not appear to be conversant in English. Little that I know I was about to receive a lesson in Uzbekistan hospitality.

The moment the train moved, the mother brought out a heap of bread, fresh vegetables, cheese and meat. The father brought in hot water and prepared some chai, or tea. They offered me a chunk of bread, sliced tomatoes and cheese, and then offered me more and more and more - I felt so stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey. (Later I found out that my friends were deeply worried that I went to bed without anything to eat, since the food that we bought earlier was all with them. Little that they know I was having a feast next door!)

Fast forward two hours later, I was declining for the fifth time an offer for a glass of vodka. Out of hospitality, every time the men poured a drink, they offered a glass to me (though I noticed never once did they offer to the wife, nor did she pour one herself. I did read that in some countries drinking in public is a very male thing). I politely declined every time, saying that I am a Muslim but this is a country where even the Muslims drink alcohol freely, so my effort went nowhere. They would cheekily offer it again, winking as if to say ‘No one will know’. I responded by signaling that someone above – God – will be angry with me.

Ah, signaling, and a lot of weird hand gesture. It always fascinated me how two people can converse without a common language. It was trying, having to make conversation without knowing any single word, but somehow we made it work. What started with the usual – name, place of origin, my next destination – steadily progressed into our worklife, the childrens’ name, our family, our hometown and one topic that never failed to crop up no matter how many thousands miles away from home I was travelling - my marriage status. Part of the conversation went like this:

He touched his two index fingers together, then pointed at me.
Translation: Are you married?
I showed him my ring finger. No ring.
Translation: Nope, still single.
He pointed to next door, my friends’ compartment, and again touched his two index fingers together.
Translation: They are not your husband?
I just laughed, which means “What nonsense” and shook my head, while putting my right palm on the left one, and wrapped the fingers around, much like a nasyid singer did.
That gesture translated to: Just friends.
He then said “Urgench” which was our destination and his hometown, pointed at me, put his index fingers together and said “Husband”. “You should find a husband in Urgench”. The he laughed really loud, perhaps from the alcohol, or from the sheer hilarity of his idea.

(I find it hilarious, because I was the one teaching the word ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ to them barely a few minutes earlier, along with ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘daughter’ and ‘son’, by pointing to each of his family members. See how useful our little English lesson was?)

Good Morning!

I did not get to read the book I brought as planned, because every waking moment was spent eating, drinking tea and ‘conversing’ with my super-friendly compartment-mates. I felt tired eventually and longingly thought of laying on my bunk bed above with my iPod on, but was too polite to ditch the party. So I stayed on until everyone decided to go to bed, only to wake up the next day and started the festivity all over again. This was seriously my most jovial train ride ever. Even Anvar and Sulfiya overcame their shyness and posed for my camera, and allowed me to play with them at the corridor.


  1. A nice story. I seldom travelled for the people, honestly; just for the places. However, I always ended up being fascinated by the people most of the time. And, being in a train is surely a great way to make new friends (the way I found out in one of my long train adventures).

  2. Just reading and looking at your pictures make me reminisce about my train rides to site during my Sakhalin days. Exactly the same train - size wise (agree about the gap between bunk bed), double bunk beds, colours! Makes me want to share my pictures of my experience pulak ;)