After spending four sweltering, monotonous days on a dirty, cargo-laden train from Moscow to Bukhara, sharing a compartment with two Uzbek prostitutes, a Russian soldier and a capricious, alcoholic conductor prone to flashbacks from his days as a soldier in Afghanistan, I was more than ready to get off the damn train.
But there was no timetable and no one on board seemed to have a clue when we’d arrive in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, one of the Silk Road’s most evocative outposts. Some said it would be a matter of hours, but one man – a trader who sat on top of crates of fruit he was transporting – claimed we wouldn’t arrive for yet another day.
As I sulked in the crowded train corridor, gasping for the breeze next to a windowpane the drunken conductor punched out the night before, Aliya, one of the Uzbek prostitutes in my compartment, hustled up to me in a panic.
“David, it’s your stop, it’s Bukhara, quick, come get your suitcase!” she screamed.
I dashed back to the corridor, stepping over Tajik and Uzbek women in neon colored floral print dresses, and jumped up onto the top bunk to gather my belongings, when all of the sudden, Aliya, her friend Marina, and Dima, a Russian solider who had been traveling in the compartment with us, burst out laughing.
It was a joke. We weren’t in Bukhara, but rather some nondescript town in the middle of nowhere, an undetermined, unknowable distance from my destination. I had no map, no Internet access, and no clue. Why the hell hadn’t I booked a flight to Bukhara?
Twelve years ago, I took an epic, budget overland trip from Cairo to Shanghai that inspired me to join the Foreign Service, the only gainful employment I could think of that wouldn’t view such an experience as an unsightly gap on my resume. All these years later, I still think about that trip – the border shakedowns in Moldova, Georgia, and Armenia; having my passport seized by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang Province; and nearly losing the woman who would later become my wife – and recall how, in spite of the hardships, quitting my job to take that trip was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.But the trip seemed more like a tribulation than a vacation when I boarded a dilapidated, Uzbekistan-bound train in Moscow one brisk Monday morning in May, in the year 2000. There were massive women with gold teeth and blindingly colorful flowery dresses, hungry looking unshaven men who seemed to be in need of a drink, and scores of traders with cargo.
My compartment was equipped with four bunks, each replete with a set of mildewy sheets and stained pillows that clearly had not been replaced since the end of the Soviet era. Already settled into the compartment were three passengers including a non-uniformed Russian soldier named Dima along with two pretty young women, a brunette named Marina and a heavily made up blonde named Aliya. All three were in their 20s and heading home to Uzbekistan the long, cheap way.
Just as our ragged train pulled out, the provodnik (conductor) came in to check tickets; he paused for an eternity staring alternately at my ticket and me. Marina spoke English and interpreted for us.
“He wants to know why you not fly to Bukhara?” she said.
“Tell him I like taking the train,” I replied. “And besides, the 4,000-kilometer trip only costs $75. Who knows how much a flight is?”
After conferring with the provodnik, who introduced himself as Ermat, she interpreted his concerns.
“He thinks that this train maybe is not so good for you,” she said.
Within an hour of departure, I was beginning to think Ermat was right, as scores more traders boarded the train, stacking crates of cargo in every conceivable crevice of space. The pungent stench of body odor and rancid, decaying produce seemed to have seeped into my pores. I felt like a prisoner confined to a filthy sty for an unknowable period of time.
Once our battered old Soviet cast-off train was a few hours outside of Moscow’s grimly polluted outskirts, the lush greenery of the Russian countryside began to make a pleasant backdrop for the mob scene inside our train car.
Near the end of the first day, I bumped into a married couple in the jam-packed corridor that I’d shared a dormitory room with at a Moscow hostel over the weekend. Brian met his bride Sherry while teaching English in Taipei, and they were the only other Westerners on the train.
“A babushka in our compartment pissed herself!” he exclaimed, as a sort of greeting. “She’d been going at a big bottle of vodka and now she’s passed out, and has a big wet spot on her pants. Our whole compartment smells like piss.”
“So does mine,” I replied. “And we aren’t even drinking yet.”
The two young women in my four-bunk compartment were friends; Marina was heading home to Bukhara and Aliya back to Tashkent. Marina had large round chestnut colored eyes set against a beautiful dark olive complexion. Her eyelashes were about a foot long and were enhanced with lines of makeup pointing out towards her temples, giving her an exotic Asiatic beauty that seemed at odds with her full lips.
Aliya was also attractive, if a bit trashy. She had on a pair of tight black “Al Pacino Couture” Jeans and a halter-top that exposed a pasty white stomach. She spoke some English yet carried herself as though she were fluent. I was curious what the girls’ stories were; yet they gave me few clues.
“Were you two traveling together?” I asked.
“We were in the Middle East for two months,” Marina replied vaguely.
“Where? I asked.
“Bahrain,” she said.
“Two months in Bahrain? For work or vacation?” I asked.
The girls answered simultaneously yet with different replies; Marina said, “work,” while Aliya chirped “vacation.” But they were as curious about me as I was about them and they couldn’t understand why an American would take the train to Uzbekistan. For them, Americans were rich, and rich people could afford to fly.
The women were flirtatious, especially Aliya, and became more so after Dima, the Russian solider, showed them a photo album from a recent tour of duty in Chechnya. For some reason, seeing him and his buddies in uniform really impressed them and, before I knew it, Aliya and Dima were up on his top bunk together, whispering and giggling.
“Dima’s got a big one,” she squealed, in English at one point, laughing hysterically.
I took that comment as a cue to go for a walk, but later that evening my suspicion regarding their occupation was confirmed when Marina, her hands full, asked me to grab a lighter out of her purse. I couldn’t help but notice that there were several condoms and a massive wad of U.S. dollars in there. I went to sleep wondering how my girlfriend back in Chicago would feel knowing I was sharing a sleeping compartment with a pair of flirtatious Uzbek hookers.