The Train Ride Home
By Robin Solomon - Peace Corps Volunteer: Kazakhstan (2001-2003)
As my taxi slows to approach the train station, it attracts a crowd of young men who begin to run swiftly behind the car. Even before the taxi stops, they are opening the doors and the trunk to grab my bags. Traveling light, there aren't enough of my bags to satisfy the small crowd around the car. They begin to argue in sharp bursts of Kazakh as to who will carry my bags to the train. Hastily paying the cab driver, I jump from the car and wrench my bags free from the anxious porters. "Ni nada!" I repeat, over and over, "I don't need your help!" in answer to their insistent pleas, "Devushka, two-hundred tenge, girl, let me carry your bags!" In the end I resort to silence and take my bags myself into the train station. The frenzy of a Kazakhstani train trip has begun, and as I cross through the station doors and free myself from the porters, I have taken only the first small step in the 30-hour journey ahead of me.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I'm supposed to travel as the locals do, and in this country four times the size of Texas, the locals go by train, and so must I. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fairly well-developed air-travel industry also collapsed, and nothing has come about to replace it. So when the need to travel is upon me, I grin and bear it for days at a time riding the rails.
It's really a lucky opportunity, I think to myself, as I weave my way through the crowds in the station—the grandmothers in their shawls and valinki (winter boots), the young merchants with their enormous suitcases strapped to the backs of sweating porters, the teams of football players in matching jogging suits, and everyone bundled up in layers topped with fur coats and hats. Traveling by train lets me see a great deal of this huge country, sparsely populated and filled with seemingly endless expanses of barren landscape. It's a wonder to behold, and a three-hour flight covering the same distance could never impress on me the vastness of Kazakhstan's uninhabited steppe.
Once past the customs officer who wanted to weigh my pack, I'm onto the platform, filled to capacity with train passengers buying last-minute supplies, families and friends waving tearful farewells to their relations sitting behind the windows of the train cars, merchants with their hobbled porters hefting unreal-sized suitcases onto the trains, and people selling fruit, ice cream, beer, water, bread, fish, and anything else you can think of. My journey to my train car is delayed by people jumping in front of me, insisting I buy their apples or milk.
Having succumbed to the vendors, I arrive at my car with a bag of famous Almaty apples, two lepyoshka (flat bread), a bottle of water, and some juicy southern tomatoes. Assuredly handing my ticket to the conductor, I climb onto the train, and I'm immediately greeted by a wall of thick, hot humidity that results from 65 people in an airless rail car for long periods of time. I gasp one last breath of fresh air and push my way into the sweltering car to find my bench. I travel in sleeper cars, as I need to lie down for such a long journey, but I don't go first class, where the sleepers are separated into compartments of four. Instead, I ride in the rail car that has the beds stacked on the sides of the car, and along dividers in the middle. I usually choose an upper berth, as the lower sleepers are usually taken over by the people without tickets, who opt to sit on the feet of the ticketed passengers who unfortunately chose the lower berth. On the upper, I don't have to share my space with anybody, but it's pretty cramped.
Shortly after getting on the train, we pull out from the station. The families and friends are still on the platform waving, but the vendors have already moved on to the next departing train. We roll out of Almaty and I settle into my bed for the journey. Outside the window, the city ends and the steppe stretches out on both sides. The stops along the way are few, but all as interesting as Almaty, filled with activity and bustle and, most important, fresh air.
Some small villages we roar through without stopping, and I can't help but wonder what life is like there, in a place with five buildings and nothing else for miles. I am reading a book by a Kyrgyz writer, Chingis Aitmatov, who writes of the Kazakh steppe: "The steppe is vast and man is small. The steppe takes no sides; it doesn't care if you are in trouble or if all is well with you; you have to take the steppe as it is…. Passengers look out from passing trains, shake their heads, and ask: 'God, how can people live here? Nothing but steppe and camels!'"* As we pass the rolling hills around Chu, the red, rocky landscape around Lake Balkhash, the stretches of uninhabited plains before and after Karaganda, and the birch forests north of Astana, I wonder about life here, and the sedentary Russian settlers who established many of these cities along the train lines they built. The Kazakhs were nomads before the Russians established towns. Sometimes I think that the Kazakhs lived the way this land intended them to: It feels too harsh for permanent settlement. But modernity means staying in one place, even in the frightening emptiness of Kazakhstan's steppe.
On the train, apart from my own thoughts, I climb down from my bunk to squeeze onto the lower berths to drink tea, eat fish and meat, and share conversation with my traveling companions. They are always interested in my accent, and upon learning that I am far from home, they instinctively reach out to me with their Kazakhstani hospitality and offer me a boiled egg, a piece of candy, or some horse sausage. An old Kazakh grandmother hobbles to the wagon conductor to obtain a blanket for me, concerned that I will catch a cold, although I hardly think that's possible on the sweltering train. A funny Kyrgyz man practices his English that he learned in school 30 years before. Two young Russian women traveling back home with cheap Central Asian goods tell me why I should come to Russia as soon as possible. After almost two years here, I've learned to enjoy this journey home to my site. The train, with all of its sweaty, noisy, and frustrating inconveniences, gives me an uninterrupted 30-hour reminder of the vastness of this land and the diversity of its people. The train reminds me why I want to be in Kazakhstan.
After 30 hours of traveling, the train pulls into Kokshetau. I know we're coming close because the birch trees line the tracks and there are still traces of snow on the ground. I see the hill that stands above my town, and I know that I'm home. Inevitably, some of my friends are at the station to greet me. They pull me out from among the bustle and crowd and hug me and welcome me back. They buzz with news of the town since I've been away, while I try to take a breath from them to tell about my journey. However, traveling in the train is something they know; it's an old story for them. For me, it's an experience limited to these two years. As I approach the end of my service, I know that there are only one or two more such trips ahead of me, and I can imagine that the train rides that I do a fair share of complaining about will be an aspect of life in Kazakhstan I miss the most.
*The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, translated by John French
About the author
Robin Solomon served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan from 2001 to 2003. Her primary assignments focused on teaching English as a foreign language and training Kazakhstani teachers in new teaching methods. While in Kazakhstan, Solomon participated in the Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools program. As part of this program, she wrote letters about her life in Kazakhstan, which were then posted on the Web and read by interested individuals and classrooms participating in the program in the United States.