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]

Buzkashi – goats and gladiators

Buzkashi

In central Asia, men play a strange game on horseback. Instead of a ball, they use a goat carcass. Instead of goals, they must ride until free of challengers. Instead of minutes, the game can be measured in days. This is Buzkashi – goat grabbing.

Long established as the national sport of Afghanistan, Buzkashi is polo’s drunken uncle. The sport is also played in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan. It is a sport of the Stans – where the masters have ridden for centuries, gloriously along the steppes they call home. The game starts with the placement of a goat carcass in the center of a horse circle, and from there, the riders stare each other down while gripping tightly wound whips in their gleaming teeth.

%Gallery-116382%

During the Taliban reign in Afghanistan, the sport was outlawed, but today it has seen a resurgence as the national pastime. Two variations are played, Tudabarai and Qarajai. In both versions, the field is separated into two teams. Tudabarai is the simpler more traditional form of the game. To win, a lone rider must carry the goat until free and clear of all other riders. The riders use their boots and whips to discourage any sort of advance, though horse tripping is strictly forbidden. Qarajai is the more complex version of the game, and requires players to take the goat around a marker and then place it in the team’s designated scoring circle.

The winning team receives a bevy of prizes, from televisions to fine turbans to camels. GamesBuzkashi have been known to last for days, and it is a rough demanding sport. It is said that only the masters of the sport, called “Chapandaz,” are truly adept at retrieving the carcass and absconding with it to glory. Unlike a running-back in the NFL, these masters do not hit their peak until much later in life. Most are well over 40. They have spent a lifetime training, and their horses are equally prepared. A good Buzkashi horse must train for five to ten years and can fetch over ten-thousand dollars. This amount is 25 times the average laborer’s yearly wage in Afghanistan and would be comparable to paying $1,000,000 in relative terms in the United States.

Since Afghanistan is a war zone, it is best to catch a game of Buzkashi in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan. In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, it is possible to catch games during the late August Independence celebrations. Community Based Tourism arranges a number of tours in the region.

flickr images via U.S Embassy Kabul Afghanistan

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]

Destination on the Edge: Kabul

While the wealthy winter on St. Barth’s and in St. Tropez, the adventurous need something a little different. Instead of settling for the mundane, invest in the time of your life. Go to Afghanistan. For those with an addiction to thrill, the definition of “luxury” is changing. Conspicuous consumption, a taste for exclusivity and bragging rights crystallize when you step onto the dusty Kabul turf. As a traveler, you are among the elite. Now, watch your back.

Let’s be just a tad realistic: Afghanistan can be pretty hairy. While several flights land in Kabul every day, you need to be aware that you are flying into a war zone. There’s no other way to describe it. Bullets are flying, and the government’s control over what happens inside the country’s borders is precarious at best. Pockets of lawlessness could bring your excursion to an unfortunate conclusion. Afghanistan, unsurprisingly, is on the list of countries that the U.S. State Department suggests you avoid-the Defense Department tells a different story, but that’s only for people in uniform.

If you are a true adrenaline junkie, however, who cannot be talked out of doing anything stupid, Kabul should hold the top spot on your list of places to visit. Airline access is uneven. In the past, Air India and Air Arabia have flown into this hot spot, but both have suspended travel to this destination, at least temporarily. For now, your best bet is Ariana Afghan Airlines, which services both Kabul and Kandahar from Moscow, India, Pakistan and much of the Middle East. Fares tend to be below $1,000, but remember that this is on top of another flight to your Ariana connection city. Other alternatives are limited.

%Gallery-9128%

You have a choice. Flights by Air Arabia, Pakistan International Airlines, Indian Airlines and others bring passengers into Kabul regularly. If actually flying into this hot zone makes you a bit skittish, catch a flight to neighboring Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, and hire a driver. You’ll spend a lot more time traveling to your destination, though. From the Pakistan border, Kabul is a six-hour drive. But, you’ll get to see the historic Khyber Pass!

While you’re in country, work with an experienced tour operator for the best results. Afghan Logistics and Tours offers several packages to put your boots on the ground and show you as much of the country as possible. You can even rent a car and a guide/translator through this company. It’s definitely full service. The longest program (which lasts 16 days) takes you all over Afghanistan by car. Mazar-i-Sharif, Bamiyan, Taloqan and other cities you’ve seen mentioned on CNN are on the list. Custom tours are available, as well.

The other major travel provider for Kabul is The Great Game Travel Company Afghanistan. Itineraries range from four days to 15. Prices start at $1,800 for preexisting trips, though the bargain alternatives do not allow for custom itineraries. Of course, you’ll have to pick up the flight on your own. Security is of paramount concern to Great Game, as it is to Afghan Logistics and Tours. Both companies commit to keeping you safe while you explore one of the most remote places on Earth. Kabul Guide has a great page on security, and you’d be an idiot not to read it before booking your travel.

While your travel to and from Afghanistan will be pricey, your time on the ground will be fairly cheap. Kabul is among the most expensive cities in the country, with hotel rooms starting at $100 a night. Among the hotels where reservations can be made (online) are:

When you hunt around for a hotel, take a look at where they are located. The words “diplomatic enclave” and “five minutes from the American Embassy” (such as the Heetal Plaza Hotel) are as important as they sound. Kabul Wazir Akber Khan is where the diplomatic enclave is located. Of course, gettign a room may not be easy. Some formerly open-minded hotels, like the Jamil and Zarnegar, now turn foreigners away. Don’t blame xenophobia, they’re doing this for your (and their) safety.

If cost is a concern (unlike your well-being), dash over to Jalalabad or Kandahar instead. Rooms in the former are only around $25 a night, and you can shack up in the latter for under $20.These deals come and go, as do the websites where you can book them. The smart move is to enter the planning process with a boatload of cash and no expectations. Even smarter: book your travel with an organizer (like those mentioned above); they’ll take care of the hotel.

Get a sense of what Kabul looks like here. Also, take a look at Kabul Guide. Though this site hasn’t been updated in several years, the photos do paint a pretty interesting picture of this unusual destination.

Happy Birthday to Samarkand…Again

Just two decades after celebrating its 2500 year anniversary, the city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan has just celebrated its 2750th birthday. Since the celebrations marking two and a half millenia, archaeologists have now discovered texts which show that the trading city on the Silk Route is actually older than previously thought.

The most recent birthday of the ancient capital of the empire of Tamerlane was celebrated in the imposing but beautiful square called the Registan. Local boy made good, Uzbek President Islam Karimov claimed “This is a city which you see once and dream to see again.”

Maybe that’s the case, but as security police lined the Registan, the good people of Samarkand were largely removed from the events celebrating their historic home.

News and pic via the BBC.