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Riding Kazakh Rails

November 26, 2010

We were barreling across the heart of Eurasia in a hunk of blue Soviet steel, riding tracks through barren steppe. The destination was Karaganda, a city so remote and unappealing that it was the butt of jokes throughout the USSR. It was known for gulags and coal mines, but we were interested in something much intriguing. I had read about a female eagle hunter who lived in a village outside of town, the only woman berkutchi in the whole of Kazakhstan. Her name was Makpal Abdrazakova. When my Kyrgyz teacher learned I liked eagle hunters, she brought in a clipping of Makpal and I learned how to say “beautiful girl.” She was stunning in braids and a fur hat, strong with an eagle on her arm. I had to find her. She was hundreds of miles away, but I could use a train trip.


Our coupemates were sleeping in the bunks below. Talgat was a Kazakh businessman who had shaken our hands, taken his pants off, and immediately laid down to nap. Pavel was one of those too-Russian Russians, with a manly moustache and an army tattoo. He was reading a science fiction book and talking to Talgat, who was asleep and certainly not listening.   Abay and I lay on our stomachs and gazed out the window, watching the mountains of Almaty recede into the horizon. The clickclick of the tracks and Talgat’s snores mixed with the calls of ice cream ladies in the hallway. I found train life strangely serene. I could stay on here for days, I thought.

Walking from traincar to traincar, I passed deaf girls selling pens and large men in undershirts standing in line to get boiling water for their tea. Pastoral landscapes flashed on the windowpanes as shepherds pushed their flocks up hills. In between cars I watched the track blur by beneath my feet, and took a picture with my camera. A roving train cop took it for certain espionage and asked me a million questions, unamused. I showed him some pictures of eagles and got away with a fingerwag.

As the sun was setting, we had a communal meal with the coupemates. Teabowls were borrowed from the train attendants and apples were sliced up for sharing. Pavel had a Tupperware of kholodets, or pork jelly. It looked as appetizing as it sounds, but with a dash of ogonyok, some kind of spicy tomato elixir, it transformed into something edible. There were a couple of small dead fish in newspaper, which Talgat set about deboning. It tasted fine once the spine was removed with fine-fingered expertise – I’m offered fish here often and usually end up munching on some bones, lacking the dexterity to pick out every last thread.   This was a culture of sharing. I cut up a little cake and passed a piece to Talgat, he took a candy and put it in my hand. We were strangers, but there was none of the enforced distance that we put between ourselves in the west. We were crammed together in a corner of a train and we might as well be kind to one another.

The night was spent playing Gin Rummy, cards passed from bed to bed. We kept the door of the coupe open to scout for a cute Kazakh girl who kept passing our way. Every time she smiled at us and we smiled back. Abay and I conspired like schoolgirls, “Let’s ask her if she wants to play cards!” At the next stop she left holding hands with her boyfriend. We cursed women and closed the door. A little while later there was a knock and Sandugash the stewardess peeked her head in. She had been happy to see an American aboard and had promised us ‘maximum service.’ Now, she asked me excitedly if I knew about Kazakh marijuana. “The best weed in Central Asia grows right near this train stop. It’s a tradition to buy some, put it in your baggage, and smuggle it to Russia.” I wasn’t sure if that was a suggestion or a warning. I gave a boyish smile and insisted on my innocence.

It was warm on the train and warmer where I slept, hovering in the air where the heat could not flee. I nodded off a few times, unsatisfied. At one stop, Pavel came in with a fish two feet long, bright pink and freshly flayed. He smiled and pushed my nose into its stink. To the timeless sound of clacking tracks I fell back into a delirious sleep, punctured by shouts and calls from stops in the night.  Karaganda lay ahead, pulling us forward, ever forward.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2011 11:30 am

    Great story, I have to admit I’ve never thought of Krgystan as a place to visit to ride trains but now I want to go!


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