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

bukharaRead parts one, two, three and four of this story.

I said a tentative goodbye to Marina, not knowing whether she wanted to lose me or not. I didn’t have the mental capacity to deal with the chaos and uncertainty of a new place, so I was pleased when Marina said we should share a taxi into town. But before we could leave the station, two soldiers at the exit tried to shake me down.

Marina managed to shake them off and we hopped into a taxi that, although nameless, looked like a vintage ’57 Chevy. We headed out of the station at an absurdly cautious speed and began rolling through deserted vacant fields when an argument broke out between the driver and Marina. I had no idea what was going on, but Marina said it was just a disagreement over what route we’d take.

I couldn’t help but fear that perhaps they were planning to rob me and were having a spat over who would get what. I had expected an ancient Silk Road city like Bukhara to have a small city plan, with an old center right near the train station. Yet either I had thought wrong or I was being taken to a field to be slaughtered.soviet apartment blockAfter about 15 minutes of driving through a barren wasteland, we pulled up in front of a dismal, Soviet era housing project that arose almost out of nowhere amidst a backdrop of vacant lots. Malnourished looking children were playing with sticks in front of one of the buildings and a few mangy looking stray dogs were picking through an overflowing trash bin.

I didn’t need to enter Marina’s building for everything to suddenly make perfect sense. I had judged her harshly for prostituting herself in the Middle East but I hadn’t considered the fact that she had grown up in grinding poverty and had no other way to improve her lot in life. Who was I to judge her and the decisions she made? I was also pretty certain that her argument with the taxi driver was over who would get dropped off first. She probably didn’t want me to see where she lived.

Marina got out of the car, and I asked if we could meet up so she could show me around town.

“That probably isn’t a good idea,” she said, much to my chagrin. “But here’s my address, send me a letter, OK?”

And with that she leaned into the cab and gave me a quick, surprising kiss before retreating into her apartment building. I planned to write, but I lost the scrap of paper and couldn’t. As we made our way towards the B & B I had picked in the old town, we passed an inconspicuous looking restaurant called “Italian Pizzeria.”

“Stop the car, STOP please!” I called out.

I paid my fare, grabbed my bag and walked in as images of hulking slices of gooey New York style slices danced in my addled brain. The “Italian Pizzeria” had a ’70s décor complete with swiveling chairs, drawn flowery curtains and a room temperature of about 90. I was the only diner.

“Hello!” called out my young waiter in English.

“You speak English?” I asked, pleasantly surprised.

“Of course!” he replied.

“What kind of pizza is best here?” I asked.

horsemeat“It’s likeabobolihorsemeatpizza,” he said, so fast that I couldn’t understand him.

“Can you repeat that, please?” I asked.

“You know Boboli?” he asked.

“Boboli pizza crust?” I asked, feeling very much like I’d entered the Uzbek Twilight Zone.

“Yes,” he said.

“Wait, how do you know Boboli?” I asked.

“I was an exchange student in North Carolina,” he said.

“I see, well, what did you say was on this Boboli-like pizza?” I asked.

“Horse meat,” he said, smiling broadly.

I’d been warned that horsemeat was considered a staple in Central Asia, yet after a grueling 75-hour death ride with very little food, a Bobolihorsemeatpizza was not precisely what I had in mind.

“I’ll take the Boboli horse meat pizza without the horse meat, OK?”

“You are American?” he asked.

“That’s right,” I admitted.

“I think Americans don’t like horse meat,” he said, smiling.

“I think you’re right,” I conceded.

“But how do they know, you never have eat it I think,” he said.

I was in no mood for a discussion on the merits of horsemeat, I just wanted a goddamn pizza and eventually I got one, for 600 som, or less than $1. I paid for the pizza with a U.S. dollar and wondered if any pizzerias in the U.S. would accept Uzbek som.

Feeling much better with some food in my belly, I set off towards the old town, looking for a place called Sasha’s B & B. It turned out to be an ornately decorated old place with two levels looking onto a serene courtyard. (see photo of the author at Sasha’s below) I had decided sometime shortly after I’d discovered the turd on the toilet back on the Exile Express that I would splurge on accommodation when and if I reached Bukhara.

sasha's bukharaI hadn’t defined what “splurge” meant, but since I was spending only about $3-$10 per night on accommodation, I envisioned forking out something more than that. I was shown a room that looked fit for Genghis Khan himself. It was ornately decked out with fabulous Bukhara rugs, a big bed with a hand-caved headboard that would have sold for $8,000 in a SoHo furniture shop and a fancy TV set.

“How much?” I asked, fully expecting the woman to say something like “4 billion som.”

“Twenty dollars” she said.

It was a bargain, but in three months on the road, I’d never spent more than $15 per night, so I hesitated. The woman saw me vacillating and added, “If that’s too much we have basic rooms across the street for $10.”

I didn’t want a basic room; I wanted the kind of room a sultan who travels with a harem would occupy if he were in town. Yet, for some odd reason I couldn’t permit myself this little luxury. It seemed extravagant, gluttonous, and unnecessary.

“I’ll take the more basic room for ten,” I said.

In speaking those words, I felt like a reluctant groom at a shotgun wedding grudgingly saying, “I do.” And as I headed off to my “basic” room I felt like I’d changed. I’d become a man of simple taste.

[Photos by Dave Seminara, sly06, Sarah Lafleur-Vetter, and Adam Baker on Flickr]

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 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]

Word for the Travel Wise (12/10/06)

Just about anywhere you go in Central Asia to eat you’re bound to come across this slightly greasy, yet appetizing and filling meal of rice, chick peas, and sometimes meat. I ate it plenty of times in Tajikistan and once you get past the greasiness of all the food this is one you can enjoy easily.

Today’s word is a Uzbek word used in Uzbekistan:

osh – food, rice pilaf

Uzbek is spoken by 18.5 million in Uzbekistan and across Central Asia. It is the official language of Uzbekistan and classified as an Eastern Turkic language in the Qarluq. Wiki has great background on the lang as usual where as you can find an incredible list of the most common Uzbek words at this Introduction to Uzbek Language site. In addition to the wordlist there is also a small section for pronunciation and grammar.

Past Uzbek words: arzimaydi, hojathona

Word for the Travel Wise (09/03/06)

Uzbek FlagJust came across the tourism.uz site which I don’t recall seeing in the past and there is a bundle of useful information for travelers planning Central Asian Uzbek travel. This tip should be almost a no-brainer, but under their general info page they say not expect much of restroom facilities outside of major hotels and modern apartment buildings. So there you have it – don’t say I didn’t try to tell you so if you go looking for high-class potties.

Today’s word is a Uzbek word used in Uzbekistan:

hojathona – bathroom

Uzbek is spoken by 18.5 million in Uzbekistan and across Central Asia. It is the official language of Uzbekistan and classified as an Eastern Turkic language in the Qarluq. Wiki has great background on the lang as usual where as you can find an incredible list of the most common Uzbek words at this Introduction to Uzbek Language site. In addition to the wordlist there is also a small section for pronunciation and grammar.

Past Uzbek words: arzimaydi