Train In Vain: Four Days With A Pair of Uzbek Prostitutes, Part Three

nasty dirty toilet on a trainRead part one and two of this story.

Day Three

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.

soldier in afghanistan“He says that out of 500 men at this place, over 300 were lost and for nothing,” Marina said, grudgingly playing the role of interpreter.

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.

camels in the desertAs 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.”

This is a five part series that will run in installments this week.
Read part one here. Read part two here.
Click here for part four of this story.

[Photos by Dave Seminara, Steve Phillips, and the US Army on Flickr]

Train In Vain: Four Days With A Pair Of Uzbek Prostitutes, Part Two

pretty girl on a trainRead Part One of this story here.

Day Two

We reached the Kazakh border before lunchtime and there was an unbelievable commotion as scores of merchants boarded the train while others threw big boxes through open windows. Two men barged into our compartment carrying boxes of produce and a vicious argument ensued as my travel companions tried to prevent the men from stacking their crates in our compartment.

Ultimately, my companions succeeded, but the corridors became impassable as wild looking women with entire rows of stainless steel teeth began to set up makeshift beds on top of the piles of luggage and cargo. Feeling trapped, I stepped over all the bodies and cargo en route to see my friends, Brian and Sherry. I bumped into them in between cars, nearly tripping over a gaggle of pitiful looking women who had laid claim to a cold, grimy little bit of floor space.

Brian had clearly lost his composure.

“The Kazakh border guards are right outside and Natasha is screwing some guy in the room!” he exclaimed.”What guy?” I asked.

“Some skinny guy; she invited him in for a drink then the next thing we know she’s running her hand up his leg and resting it on his knee,” Sherry said. “We were up on our top bunks but she must have known we would be able to see.”

babushka “She didn’t care, cause they just started going at it,” Brian said. “Maybe they thought we were asleep up top, but we weren’t.”

“At least she has a guy now,” Sherry said. “Before she kept flirting with Brian. She flashed her boobs at him once and motioned for him to like, you know, pull his pants down.”

“Where is she going?” I asked.

“She said she was going home to Turkmenistan,” Brian said.

Turkmenistan? Prior to the trip, I attempted to ascertain what countries I’d need a transit visa for while in Moscow and had been told I only needed a Kazakh transit visa, so the news that we were going to pass through Turkmenistan was an unwelcome development to say the least. Only a decade had passed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the train routes dipped in and out of newly independent countries that some Muscovites barely acknowledged.

Brian and Sherry were paranoid that Kazakh border police would bounce them off the train, as they had no Kazakh transit visas, but the police took one look at the impassable train corridor and decided not to bother boarding the train, rendering my Kazakh transit visa an expensive passport decoration that took me half a day to get.

As we entered Kazakhstan, we left the greenery of Russia behind and entered a more or less barren landscape. Marina and Aliya brought nothing to read save a single celebrity gossip magazine, which featured an article on Britney Spears’ alleged nail-biting addiction, and Dima brought nothing at all.

We passed the time with small talk, card games and gawking at the occasional camel out the window. Before retreating to my top bunk for some rest, I popped into Brian and Sherry’s compartment to meet Natasha, their randy middle-aged drunken neighbor. She had the physique of a middle linebacker and dwarfed the skinny little man she’d been fooling around with. He still had a big smile plastered on his face and he asked to see my passport, claiming he’d never met an American before.

I handed it over and he and the others began to study each page carefully. I turned away to talk to Brian and before I knew it, my passport was being passed around amongst the gold-toothed women huddled in the corridor. On a four-day train ride, any form of entertainment will do in a pinch.

This is a five part series that will run in installments this week. Click here for part three of this story.

Read part one here.

[Photos by Illusive Photography and Adam Baker on Flickr]

Train In Vain: Four Days With A Pair Of Uzbek Prostitutes, Part One

moscow train stationRead parts 2, 3, 4 and 5 of this story.

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.

cute girl on a trainThe 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.

This is a five part series. Read parts 2, 3, 4 and 5 of this story.

[Photos by Vokabre and www.courtneycarmody.com on Flickr]

Space Tourists: a cinematic journey to the ISS (w/ Audio Interview)

Space Tourists airs tonight on the Documentary Channel at 8pm & 11pm


When Anousheh Ansari boarded the International Space Station on September 20th, 2006, she became the first self-funded female, the first Iranian citizen, and the fourth human overall to enter the Earth’s orbit as a coveted ‘space tourist’.

After building and selling a large telecom business, Ansari had decided that she would pay over $20 million USD to take a ride on the Russian Soyuz TMA-9 and orbit Earth as a crew member of the International Space Station for 8 days. While training as a backup for Daisuke Enomoto, who failed to meet the required medical qualifications, Ansari was notified that her lifelong dream would be fulfilled – with only one month remaining before liftoff.

Meanwhile, without Ansari’s knowledge, a charismatic Swiss filmmaker had begun to collect material for a documentary that explored the peculiar circumstances of the Russian space tourism industry. Gathering footage at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia and at the Baikonur Cosmodrome (the Soyuz’s launch facility), filmmaker Christian Frei began to lay the foundation for what would become the first documentary to uncover a highly exclusive and secretive world.

The finished product, Space Tourists, debuted in the US at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Thought it never had an overwhelming reception in North America, it is arguably one of the most fascinating travel-themed documentaries to have been produced in recent years and a must-see for anyone with a sense of adventure or a distant dream of venturing to space.

Frei’s film uncovers many facets of the Russian space tourism program that are especially compelling to watch unfold on the big screen.

From the pre-launch rituals at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, to the group of men that make a living by hunting down and recovering the enormous scrap metal that falls to Earth from every Soyuz launch; Frei’s film captures an incredible spectrum of physical environments, people/cultures, and brilliantly contrasts the magnificence of spaceflight in direct contrast with the trivial hardships of life on Earth.

It’s a film that’s both visually arresting and offers to bring the viewer on a journey with each of the characters that it follows – from training to touchdown and everywhere in between.

Space Tourists is currently being featured on the Documentary Channel airing tonight at 8pm and 11pm, or available on DVD via the Documentary Channel online store.

Click below for an exclusive, uncut interview with Anousheh Ansari & filmmaker Christian Frei:

Introducing Far Europe and Beyond

far europe and beyond

Far Europe and Beyond, a Gadling series in partnership with bmi (British Midland International) launches today.

Europe’s eastern borders cannot be defined simply. The western, northern, and southern perimeters are easy: The Atlantic, the Arctic, and the Mediterranean provide those boundaries, respectively. It’s the eastern border that is more difficult to pinpoint. There are two basic definitions of the eastern border of Europe: the Bosphorus, which divides Istanbul; and the Ural Mountains. The problem here is that there is a gap of around 1200 miles between the point where the Ural River hits the Caspian Sea and Istanbul.

The former definition leaves most of Turkey outside of Europe and makes it difficult to draw a continental border from the Bosphorus northward. If one assumes the latter definition, then a piece of western Kazakhstan is in Europe, but the continent’s Eastern flank fails to have a fixed boundary once the Ural river empties into the Caspian Sea. Does Europe’s border then get drawn along Russia’s southern edge or does it include the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, along the Iranian border? Increasingly, this is the working definition of Europe, with inclusion of the Caucasian trio; it is the definition, more or less, that the BBC and the Economist endorse.However we define Europe’s eastern borders, there are a number of national capitals that are clearly in the farthest reaches of Europe or just beyond them, all of which are included on bmi’s route map: Tbilisi, Georgia; Yerevan, Armenia; Baku, Azerbaijan; Beirut, Lebanon; Almaty, Kazakhstan (not the capital, admittedly, but the country’s most important city); and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. These capital cities are naturally very interesting to veteran travelers for whom Europe is old hat, but they’re also fascinating places for less seasoned travelers. For the most part, they’re off the beaten path, teeming with local culture and opportunities for many different types of tourism.

This week and next, I’ll write a series of posts on the first two cities on the above list: Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia; and Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. I’ll look at some of these cities’ most captivating characteristics, some culinary highlights, interesting quirks, and the best easy day trips beyond city limits.

[Image: Flickr | sara~]