A taxi took us from the city center of Aktau to the train station through miles and miles of bleak desert landscape, populated by low shrubs, sparse houses, dusty lanes, and factories, dozens of them, their smoke stacks and conveyor belts still standing, dormant forever. Aktau was a lively industrial center back in the day, when a nuclear power plant was providing ample power for its factories and desalination plants (Aktau’s only source of water); after independence, when Kazakhstan became the first country in the world to voluntarily relinquish nuclear power, most of the industry stood still. Aktau now serves as a base for offshore drilling operations, and the factories sit quietly rusting and disintegrating on its outskirts.
A night train took us to Beyneu, another town smack in the middle of the desert. By the tracks a lively bazaar was taking place. We waited for our next train in the station’s coffee shop, which offers nothing but tea with milk, some packaged snacks and various types of alcohol. Two patrons were already taking advantage of the latter despite the early morning hour; we had a nice little chat in which neither party understood anything the other said, even while speaking the same language. After having our tea we boarded the Uzbekistan-bound train.
Around noon we were at the border. First Kazakhstan, egress, then Uzbekistan, ingress. After the Uzbek border patrol finished its job with the passports, we were treated to another bazaar, this time inside the train itself. Vendors boarded the train with merchandise of every imaginable kind, and started walking the length of the train, from carriage to carriage, back and forth. A very inconclusive list of the stuff on offer: food — bread, dumplings, barbecued meat, smoked fish, sausages, plov, yoghurt, sweets, drinks, tea with milk, beer, vodka; cell phones, SIM cards and accessories, toys, movies, clothes, medicines, perfumes, electrical appliances, even mandolins. The same vendors, and different vendors selling the same things, were passing non-stop until the train arrived at its destination about 7 hours later. It was unbelievable. And people were buying — it’s hard to beat the convenience of the bazaar coming right to you. We took advantage of it too: money changers changed our Kazakh tenge to Uzbek sum (resulting in impressive stacks of money — the highest sum note is 1000, worth a little under $0.50), and we had our first acquaintance with the Uzbek plov.
Also after the border, two uniformed guards on board the train introduced themselves to us; we had a very nice chat and told them about our journey, and they explained that they’re escorting the train, so if we have any trouble, we should let them know. They checked with us a few times again during the journey and were very cordial. People on the train were very amiable too. It’s very refreshing to be among friendly people again.
We arrived by evening in Kungrad, a small town that serves little purpose to travelers beyond being the terminal point for trains coming from Kazakhstan. From there we took a shared taxi, the predominant method of travel here, towards our destination — Khiva, further south. After a little rather fruitless haggling we were on our way, sharing the car with two more people, a father and son, who were going back to their village. It was getting closer to midnight and we still had a long way to go. We were talking a bit with the father, and after hearing our story, he laid out a proposition: why don’t you come stay with me for the night? My wife will prepare plov for you, and tomorrow I’ll put you on a car to Khiva. This sounded like exactly the kind of adventure that we love so much. Of course we’re coming!
And so we ended up in this farmer’s house. Sadulla shares it with his wife, her father, and his young son; the older daughter is already married, but she was there too, to help them with rice planting. He was coming back with his son from a month in Kazakhstan; he is a carpenter, and leaves to Kazakhstan or Russia for a month every time to work and bring back money. He said he made $1000 this month, a very impressive sum, but was coming back with only about $650, because every policeman on his way had to be paid for him to avoid deportation.
Sadulla advised his wife about us on the phone, so when we came, a table was waiting for us, laden with plov, of course, as well as fruits, sweets, and lots and lots of tea. The family was very welcoming; we had been concerned about imposing on them at such a late hour, but they were only too happy to see us. After the late dinner, and a few vodkas to the health of everyone involved and the success of our journey, we went to bed. On the next day Sadulla showed us his house and his field. The village he lives in is an ex-kolkhoz; his address is still listed as “kolkhoz K. Ataniyozov, brigade 2″. When the kolkhoz was privatized, each farmer received, beside his house and the attached yard, a plot of 1200 sq. m. in the fields. In the garden by the house they grow vegetables and keep turkeys; on the plot, they plant wheat in the winter and rice in the summer. It was the rice planting season; while he was away, his family finished the planting, and now he went to check their work and say hello to his neighbors, taking us along. We met his friends, many of them still busy with their own rice planting. It was a unique opportunity to see rural life up close, and we were very glad for it.
We had another tea at noon and said our goodbyes. Sadulla told us that next year he will be marrying off his son, and he would like us to come to the wedding. We promised to try, although it’s hard to imagine this happening; either way, this was really heart-warming. We gave them a small souvenir, and they scrambled to reciprocate. Lacking any souvenir to give back, and despite our protests, they wrote their names on two bills of cash and gave them to us for remembrance. We said our goodbyes, and boarded our ride to Khiva.