On the Train to Samarkand September 2000

Each year I make a trip to Central Asia buying horsehair, which will be processed into bundles and hanks (see page 62) for violin, cello and bass bows. This year I took a side trip through the southern Kyzyl Kum Desert in Uzbekistan, stopping in Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Following is a report of one segment of that journey. Travel in Central Asia is usually not as sweet as the poet would have us believe. Having spent half of the previous day securing place clearance and a train ticket, I boarded the 3’ o’Clock train at the Tashkent Station bound for Samarkand. Temperatures in Uzbekistan had been in the high 90 degrees but as I stumbled down the narrow aisle with my backpack, the temperature outside was a scorching 104 degrees. Inside the train felt 5-10 degree warmer.

I quickly discovered that my limitations in both the Uzbek and Russian languages had rewarded me with a reservation in a “hard-seat” compartment. Designed during the glory days of socialism when “all pigs were created equal”, the hard-seat served those who were created… well, not quite so equal. In each compartment there were four shelves where you could sit or attempt to lie down and sleep. Sharing my cubicle was an Uzbek soldier who had already taken off his shirt and was sprawling on one bench moaning. As I entered, he immediately removed a bandage on his leg and showed me a severe wound, as if to verify that present (and presumably future!) groans were justified. There was no air conditioning or mechanical ventilation in the hard-seat carriages. I expected neither but was very disappointed to discover that the window in the compartment was sealed, effectively turning my cell into a convection oven. I was trapped, but only for an instant! As the train jolted off down the Golden Road to Samarkand I left from my seat, got out of the compartment was staggered down the passageway, drenched in sweat, toward the small area where the cars were linked to each other. Certainly I would find moving air there, and I did.

But … I was in car number 2 just behind the engine, which was belching beautiful clouds of spent oil directly into my newly found heaven. After a few minutes of relatively cool but nauseous air, I decided to go back to the ‘sauna”. While I was gone, four very fat and very cheerful Uzbek women had moved in it. When the conductor arrived he discovered that the ladies were not seated in the correct area. When police attempts to move them failed, he decided that he was outnumbered and outweighed and moved along. So there were six people in a compartment designed for four and the temperature was of the scale. Excusing themselves, the women asked the soldier and I leave the compartment. I was not ready to argue with them either and was we left, the soldier explained that they had decided to change clothes and needed privacy. I was thankful for that but suddenly realized that I had left my bag containing money, passport, etc. in the now-locked compartment. For an instant I wanted to bang on the door but the thought of the four women in various stages of undress held me back.

As the door opened, I saw the ladies giddily stuffing piles of money (mine, I thought) into large bags. The largest denomination in Uzbeck currency is roughly equivalent to fifty cents, so it really is necessary to carry it in a bag. These ladies were vendors returning from a successful session at the Tashkent Market. I was happy to learn later that my own possessions were still intact. Soon the sons and daughters of the Uzbekistan discovered that a foreigner was on the train and I was besieged by an army of children, eager to meet and play with a guy from half-way around the world. By this time all thoughts of rest or sleep had passed and so I joined the fun.

Richard Keldsen
Khiva, Uzbekistan
September 1998