Teatime stories – A train across the steppe
Rosa’s daydreams fly out of the window as she travels contemplating the colours of the steppe. The semi-desert thirsty shrubs give place to green pastures, to creeks and tiny lakes with a crown of canes and then back to a sea of dust. It will take her two days to come home and another two to get back to work. Thirty days cooking for the oil company workers and 30 days of rest – weekends are a foreign concept for many in Kazakhstan. Her home is her holidays place, her son grows up far away. Happily divorced, she finds charm in this roving life, or at least she endures it with a smile.
Gulya is her friend, they’ve travelled miles together. The conductor’s assistant works five days and rests for three – a more human schedule we think – until she explains that a day means 24 hours on the train. She pours tea into our cups with the same easiness as she smiles and shuffles a bunch of free-loaders around the cabins, making sure that everyone gets some hours of rest. It seems pretty common to hop into the train “ticket-less ” since there are often none to be bought at the stations. It is a pure post-Soviet railway logic – the fact that there are no seats does not imply that there is no room. The price of the unregistered virtual ticket varies according to the chief conductor’s mood, personal connections, financial resources and a pinch of luck. All the rest lies upon Gulya’s skillful management of square meters and sleeping schedules. In the morning shift, after a long crouch in the conductors chair, we get four hours on a shared upper berth. And she tells us her train story sweetened with compot and chocolates.
Litres of hot water boil in a giant kettle in the corridor – an old Russian samovar with complex instructions and several rusty taps. Every few minutes somebody fills a cup of black tea with powder milk. At each station, forgotten and partially consumed by the steppe, a number of passengers descends the cracking stairs of the whale on rails, rushing to get horse, camel or mutton meat in tiny plastic bags. Lunch is served by local ladies behind improvised stalls that work in turns in between one train and the next. Timetables take on a curious meaning around here. Smily, grumpy, absent-minded or chatting Kazakhs come down and up at each station, filling the time with a smoke, soda drinks and little bags of meat. One hundred Rosas, one hundred workers, families heading on a holiday to the East, busy conductors and several free-loaders slide on two metal rails through a flat void. The train patiently crosses the steppe, from the Caspian Sea to Tian Shan. Two days, forty-eight hours of life in a travelling neighbourhood that touches desolate landscapes with a noisy buzz. In between the idle runs of Asian kids clumsily chasing each other around the wagons, others laughing at the warm wind through the large open windows, cups of tea and cigarettes measure the minutes to the final destination.
8 a.m. The cafeteria is a joy for the senses. It’s got everything one could wish for. Yellow drapped curtains, fake red flowers, Russian estrada and 80’s pop, somebody drunk snoring in the last table. We order a cup of tea, after carefully examining the menu (As if we could eat anything in there! As if we could afford anything else!). Sipping from the mugs in the rhythm of the train, the tracks disappear at a pleasant speed. Hitchhiking is great, but trains are a traveller’s dream. And the cafeteria smells of toasted bread. “Hello! Where do you come from? Where do you head to?” – kicks us out of a trance the pretty good English of an approaching young guy. Alikhan or Nurislam or Becksultan is in the service of the oil and gas companies too. Summers in the States, a Uni degree, an engineering job in a privatized company with a salary that explains the price of tomatoes – at least this is the story he tells. He chats casually while beer jars appear unannounced before our eyes.”Drink, please, for respect” – he and his friends keep on repeating without us really getting what they mean. Marta remains faithful to her favourite tea, Boris happily drinks for respect. Conversations come and go while several police officers ask for our passports and visas. Everything in order – they hand them back. Welcome to Kazakhstan – they hand them back. All is good – they hand them back. And the train goes on with its sleepy dance…toasts and “cheers” (or ‘for health’ in Russian) animate the sleepy morning air…..stories, the usual travel questions and a vague hint that something is quite queer drawn in the amber sea of ‘Beliy Medved’. The tea gets cold, the new train halts at another station, Marta goes to take a nap, Boris makes new friends…..A scream, louder than the accelerating train, pierce the cafeteria. Barefoot and panting Marta whispers out of breath: “Our passports….our passports are gone….I don’t have them”. Silence. Our travel finishes here. As far from India as from Sofia. Alikhan, pretendigly confused repeats : “Oh! It’s not possible. Remember, the police handed them to you and I saw you putting them in place”. The passport bag is empty and only crumbles lie underneath the table. Round and round, Marta points at the waiters, the guys, the vanished policemen and the passer-by. A last desperate check and…neatly organizes, two passports stand on the radiator in between the ground and the window. Disaster averted, Alikhan and his friends smile awkwardly. We head to Rosa’s compartment, the scammers pay the bill, while the red-faced guy in the corner keeps on snoring in dreams.
This post is part of the series “Teatime Stories”. Tales of everyday life, of travelling encounters and sometimes even of tea. They won’t tell what to visit, what to do, how to travel or where to go. They are the windows through which we peep into the mundane realities of those we meet. They are the untold stories of normal people, of their worries and wonders, of their homes and kitchens. To read more of them, click here.