On my third morning on board an increasingly hellish train ride, I found a fully intact piece of excrement resting on the train’s only toilet seat I could get to. It seemed not to have been an accident; in fact, the feces looked as though it was carefully placed there by some very malicious, or very inaccurate person. I marched down towards car number one to talk to my Western compatriots, Brian and Sherry. Now it was my turn to be outraged. But Brian thought it was hysterical.
“You know they stand on top of the seat,” he said, chuckling. “It’s just not an accurate way to go to the bathroom.”
I had been eating Chips Ahoy, a box of cereal and some noodles I brought on board with me but decided I should probably fast for the rest of the trip to avoid having to move my bowels in the appalling bathroom.
Aside from the fecally ornamented bathroom, the train was becoming even more nasty and unbearable. Ermat, the conductor, dropped by to chat, brandishing a bottle of cheap vodka, around 1 o’clock in the afternoon. He was already piss drunk and sweating profusely. We were passing through the massive Kyzyl Kum Desert and the train was sweltering. He was a diminutive, balding man with too many buttons undone on his short-sleeved uniform shirt.I did a few shots with him and the rest of the gang in my compartment just to be sociable and Ermat began to recall his days as a Russian soldier in Afghanistan in the ’80s.
“He wants to tell you about some battle but I don’t understand him very well because he’s too drunk,” Marina complained.
Undeterred, Ermat took matters into his own hands, drawing a map on the bunk’s tattered blanket with his finger and repeatedly pointing to a spot and emphatically declaring “Jalalabad” over and over again.
Ermat started crying like a baby and half-keeled over onto Aliya’s lap. She looked disgusted initially but eventually took pity on him by stroking his head. I tried to change the subject by asking him when we’d arrive in Bukhara, but he had no clue.
“It could be tomorrow,” he said.
“It could be?” I asked. “But it might not be?”
I never got a straight answer and eventually Ermat left for a nap. The conversation turned to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I opined that the Russians shouldn’t have invaded to begin with and Dima immediately pounced.
“Why did the Americans invade Vietnam?” he said, springing to attention from his top bunk.
“That was different,” was the only response I could muster in my increasingly inebriated state of mind.
Outside the train was an endless vista of flat desert boredom; think of the Indiana toll road without the radar toting Gestapo or unlimited breadsticks at Fazoli’s. After determining that the piece of excrement was still safely perched on the toilet seat, I hopped up onto my bunk and dove back into the book I’d been reading – Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” which seemed to fit the occasion.
Dostoevsky had been forced to endure five years of military service (after five years in a convict prison in Siberia) in Semey, Kazakhstan, for his revolutionary activities and judging from what I could see out the window, his punishment definitely did not fit the crime. It’s fascinating to note the grave frame of mind Dostoevsky was in at the time he wrote what was to become his most acclaimed novel. A lifelong roulette addict, he was always in debt, looking for a way out.
According to Bruce Lincoln’s “Between Heaven and Hell- The Story of a Thousand Years of Artistic Life in Russia,” Dostoyevsky managed to gamble away most of his wife’s jewelry, her fur coat and her wedding ring.
My fortunes didn’t seem to be much brighter. The heat had sapped all my energy; I was starving and was beginning to hate the sound of Aliya’s voice. Just as a cockroach scurried up my thigh and right into my shorts, two hefty women who were perched on sacks of rice on the floor outside knocked and asked to see my passport.
The older of the two women who had a thick moustache and dazzling electric blue eyes took it from me reverentially with two hands as though she were receiving a diploma.
“Day- veed- Sem- ee- Nar- Ah,” she said, reading aloud, and doing a better job of pronouncing my surname than 95% of American telemarketers.
As night fell on the third day aboard the Bedbug-n-Cockroach, Hookers-n-Drunken Afghan War Veteran Conductor Express to Tashkent I asked my compartment neighbors about Uzbekistan’s notoriously corrupt and autocratic leader, Islam Karimov; I was curious to know how three young people felt about him.
Marina was characteristically tight-lipped.
“Karimov is good,” she said.
“Good in what way?” I asked.
“He’s good,” she said. “Will you give me a massage?”
I didn’t want to give her a massage, or succumb to her flirtation, so I asked Dima and Aliya about Karimov but neither was ready to offer an opinion.
“Aliya likes him and Dima says he doesn’t care, his parents live in Tashkent but he’s Russian, so he doesn’t care about Uzbekistan,” Marina said, interpreting for the others.
“Why do you want us to say something bad about him?” Marina asked. “Karimov – he’s a good man.”