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]

Amazing Photos Of Uzbekistan’s Desert Ship Graveyard

A relentless sun bakes down upon the desert sands near the Uzbekistan city of Mo’ynaq, sending shimmering waves of heat and swirling dust clouds floating skywards. As the scarce few travelers who have traversed this most barren and isolated of landscapes will tell you, it’s probably the last place on earth you’d expect to find a flotilla of abandoned ships. Except this isn’t a mirage – you’ve reached the Graveyard Ships of Mo’ynaq, a surreal collection of rusting fishing vessels in Uzbekistan, stranded nearly 100 miles from the nearest shoreline.

How on earth did this strange sight come to pass? The story starts back in the 1980s, when Mo’ynaq was a thriving fishing village situated on an inland lake connected to the Aral Sea. As the USSR diverted the water for use in irrigating massive cotton fields, the lake dried up, leaving Mo’ynaq’s boats high and dry (and the villagers with no way to make a living). The strange collection of boats left behind is both a ghostly beautiful scene and a chilling reminder of the damage too-easily wreaked by careless use of water.

Check out a gallery of photos from the graveyard below to take a closer look.

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[Photos by Flickr user Martijn.Munneke]

Travel then and now: Travel to the USSR and GDR

travel to the USSRThis year is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and 21 years since the reunification of Germany. While citizens of the USSR and GDR were unable to travel abroad and restricted in domestic travel, foreign travelers were permitted under a controlled environment. In the early nineties, if you were a foreigner looking to go abroad to the Eastern Europe or Central Asia, you called your travel agent and hoped to get approved for a visa and an escorted tour. After your trip, you’d brag about the passport stamps and complain about the food. Here’s a look back at travel as it was for foreigners twenty years ago and today visiting the biggies of the former Eastern Bloc: the United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

Soviet Union/USSR (now: independent states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldovia, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.)

Travel then: Before 1992, most tourists were only able to enter the Soviet Union with visas and travel itineraries provided by the state travel agency, Intourist. Intourist was founded by Joseph Stalin and also managed many of the USSR’s accommodations. Like North Korea today, visitors’ experiences were tightly controlled, peppered with propaganda, and anything but independent, with some travelers’ conversations and actions recorded and reported. Read this fascinating trip report from a Fodor’s community member who visited Russia in 1984 and a Chicago Tribune story with an Intourist guide after the glasnost policy was introduced.Travel now: UK travel agency Thomas Cook bought a majority stake in Intourist last year, gaining control of their tourist agencies, and many of the old Intourist hotels can still be booked, though standards may not be a huge improvement over the Soviet era. In general, the former Soviet Union now welcomes foreign and independant visitors with open arms. Even Stalinist Turkmenistan is softer on foreigners since the death of dictator Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006. Russia now receives as many visitors as the United Kingdom, the Baltic and Eastern European states are growing in popularity for nightlife and culture, and Central Asian states have a lot to offer adventurous travelers (including Azerbaijan’s contender for New 7 Wonders, the Mud Volcanoes). This year, Estonia’s Tallinn is one of the European Capitals of Culture. While a few FSU countries are now EU members, several still require advance visas, letters of invitation, or even guides; check the latest rules for Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan before you make plans.

German Democratic Republic/East Germany/DDR (now: unified state of Germany)

Travel then: After 40 years apart, East and West Germany were reunited in 1990. Like the USSR, travelers to the GDR had to deal with visas and an official state travel agency, the Reisebüro. Western tourists in West Germany could apply for day visas to “tour” the Eastern side but were very limited in gifts they could bring or aid they could provide (tipping was considered bourgeois and thus officially discouraged). Read this Spiegel article about the East German adventure travelers who snuck into the USSR to see how travel to inaccessable is often the most exciting, no matter where you are coming from.

Travel now: November 2009 marked the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Berlin is now consistently lauded as one of the world’s hippest and most vibrant cities. The city is full of museums, monuments, and memorials to document the time East Germany was walled off from the rest of the world, from the sobering Berlin Wall Memorial to the tongue-in-cheek DDR Hotel. Outside of Berlin, Leipzig’s Stasi Museum documents the gadgets and horrors of the Stasi, the GDR’s secret police. For more on life in the GDR, Michael Mirolla’s novel Berlin deals with cross-border Germany travel and the fall of the republic, and film Goodbye Lenin! is a bittersweet look at life just before and after the fall of the wall.

Gadling readers: have you traveled to the USSR or GDR? Have you been recently? Leave us your comments and experiences below.

[Photo credit: USSR flags and GDR ferry postcards from Flickr user sludgeulper, Berlin Wall by Meg Nesterov]

Ten most corrupt countries of the world

You spend every holiday weekend annoyed that you can’t talk your way out of a speeding ticket. If only there were some way out of that predicament … aside from taking your lead foot off the gas, right? You may be out of luck on the New Jersey Turnpike, but there are plenty of places in the world where money talks, according to a new study by Transparency International. So, if you tend to disregard local laws and customs, you may want to pick one of the 10 countries below for your next vacation.

WARNING: You may need to bring a bit of fire power for some of these destinations.

1. Somalia:
Is this even a country? It has no real government to speak of, not to mention a history of piracy, mob violence, warlord brutality and kidnapping. So, chew a little khat to take the edge off.

The Good News: You can’t really break any laws where there aren’t any.

2. Myanmar: Okay, the human rights issue here is pretty severe, and the military regime is known for being among the most repressive and abusive in the world. So, don’t complain about the thread-count in your hotel.

The Good News: There’s plenty of wildlife to enjoy as a result of slow economic growth. A bleak financial outlook is good for the environment!

%Gallery-106020%3. Afghanistan: Ummmm, there’s a war going on there – you may remember that. So, you’re dealing more with warlords than conventional law enforcement officials. This takes some of the predictability out of your mischief, and it does amp the risk up a bit.

The Good News: There are several options for civilian flights. Also, fishing is fine, but you can’t use hand grenades.

4. Iraq: Again with the war … The easiest way to get there is to wear a uniform, but that will make bribing your way out of trouble far more difficult.

The Good News: Prostitutes may not be in abundance, but if you have an itch in Baghdad, you’ll probably find someone to help you scratch it.

5. Uzbekistan: The CIA describes the government as “authoritarian presidential rule.” Is there really anything else you need to know? Yes, there is: Uzbekistan has a nasty human trafficking problem.

The Good News: Uzbekistan’s currency is the Ubekistani soum – that’s what you’ll use to bribe your way out of trouble.

6. Turkmenistan: Uzbekistan’s neighbor is no prize, either. Instead of trading in skin, though, Turkmenistan prefers drugs. It’s described in the CIA World Factbook as a “transit country for Afghan narcotics bound for Russia and Western European markets.”

The Good News: If you’re in the heroin business, this is a crucial stop in your supply chain. If you’re not, well, there isn’t a whole lot of reason to care about the place.

7. Sudan: The global financial crisis of 2008 actually affected this country. Until then, money was flowing in just as fast as oil could flow out. Then, economies crumbled around the world, which dealt a nasty blow to the country.

The Good News: There’s at least one form of equal rights in Sudan: both men and women can be drafted into military service.

8. Chad: Why is Chad so corrupt? Well, this may have something to do with the human trafficking problem, which the country “is not making any significant efforts” to address. Rebel groups in the country add to the likelihood for mayhem.

The Good News: Chad ranks 190 worldwide in terms of GDP, which means your bribe dollars will go much further than in more developed nations.

9. Burundi: A dispute with Rwanda over sections of the border they share has resulted in various conflicts and a spirit of lawlessness that will make your own nefarious plans pale in comparison.

The Good News: Though landlocked, there is probably some great real estate alongside Lake Tanganyika.

10. Equatorial Guinea: Any country that has failed to try to combat human trafficking is probably a top spot for corruption, so it isn’t surprising that Equatorial Guinea made the top 10.

The Good News: Government officials and their families own most of the businesses in the country, so any broad complaints can be addressed by a handful of people.

[photo by The U.S. Army via Flickr]

AirBaltic expands, spruces up

Yesterday, Latvian airline AirBaltic launched two new routes: Riga-Madrid and Riga-Beirut.

Riga-based AirBaltic is an airline to watch. Little known in North America, the airline is notable for its low starting fares and the inclusion of most of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations on its route map. But what really sets the airline apart from the pack is its range of underserved destinations across Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and the Nordic countries.

These less well-served destinations include Baku, Tbilisi, and Yerevan in the Caucasus; Almaty, Dushanbe, and Tashkent in Central Asia; Amman, Beirut, Dubai, and Tel Aviv in the Middle East; and destinations like Kuopio, Tromsø, and Visby across Nordic Europe.

The catch is that most routes fly in and out of Riga, a beautiful city that is sadly not exactly top-of-mind among most visitors to Europe. While AirBaltic’s fabulous range of destinations can best be accessed from a starting-point in the Baltics or the Nordic countries, the airline’s fares for connecting flights from cities across Western Europe can also be quite competitive.

In anticipation, no doubt, of the summer traffic to come, AirBaltic also upgraded its site yesterday. The visual changes are minimal, but they go some way toward making the site more streamlined and enjoyable to peruse.

(Image: Flickr/Londo_Mollari)