There’s nothing more romantic than train travel. I couldn’t wait to jump into the wagon that’d take me across the Kazakh steppe. This was a vision I’d dreamed and longed for, for so long. The vast steppe tells stories of nomads, gallant horsemen, steppe eagles, Baikonur and space debris over a chai and sunset. It’s nothing short of hypnotic, stark and evocative as this expanse.
Well, my bunk was in a wagon full of crazy, friendly Kazakhs. There were no separate compartments, just one big happy wagon with what should have been enough beds. One thing I will learn is to say in Russian is “I want a bed on the bottom NOT THE TOP” (for my Trans Siberian adventure). Every sleeper train I took, I ended up on a flimsy top bunk, barely wide enough to lie in. Simply dreadful. A bottom bunk with a table is all one needs! Anyhoo, trying to blend in and look like I knew what I was doing, I feathered my nest and pulled out my billet, double checked the arrival time and shuddered at having to wake up at 5ish the next morning. The family next to me all stared with interest until I was invited over for some chai, chai, chai and dinner. Then a teenage boy emerged from the bed above and after some polite introductions, he launched a hundred questions at me in quite good English mind you. I was welcomed warmly, there were “oos and aahhs” about my trip and the astounded shaking of heads in disbelief that I was from AAAfrika and single with no children at 24.
There was a sudden commotion as two creatures appeared and made a beeline for me. They tried to tell me that we were double booked, and showed me their matching billets. Heart-sinking stuff that, I didn’t quite know what to do and I sure as hell wasn’t budging. These hefty fellows ranted and raved until the conductor was summoned for. The big oaf laughed and was delighted as he suggested his solution that we “share the bed”. I didn’t see the funny side to this at all, I’d rather have slept on the pee-stained bathroom floor… The conductor eventually came along after quite a crowd had formed around us quarreling. Everyone seemed to be awkwardly laughing at my expense. It turns out, these fellows had “bought” tickets that were a scheduled for a week ahead and thus confused the dates. Judging by the vodka fumes they were emitting this didn’t surprise me. These were counterfeit billets if there ever were any. They used them to try their luck and therefore scored a free trip and bed (there is a strong possibly this method is used every time these weasels take a train).
Oh well, despite this mishap they proved fantastic amusement all evening. After some vacent beds were found, they returned to me and apologised profusely. We ended up drinking vodka and making merry with my adoptive family and friends arround us. Big oaf started getting out of hand as he kept on buying more vodka at every stop and bought all sorts of fruit for us to feast on. He told me that because he was a Mussulman, he could have more than 1 wife and thus proposed on the spot. I’ve never been proposed to before! I actually had to stop my imagination from creating images of me being a modern-day cinderella Kazakh bride, ‘cept no riches here…only rags. Oh goodness laughs were had. He then decided to give me a massage…
They then told me that they were in fact involved in “контрабанда” (contraband) :O After playing charades, I guessed they were involved in drug smuggling-most likely heroin as they kept on showing gestures of shooting up. Yikes. They then asked me if I liked контрабанда ? Agape and horrified,” нет плохой” (no it’s bad) was all I could muster. They finally decided to bugger off around midnight as it was lights out. I couldn’t sleep as I was having nightmares of these men kidnapping me or worse bridenapping me (which does still happen in these parts). I was also scared of not waking up in time for my stop because my alarm was faulty and when I know I have less than 6 hours of sleep-I don’t bother.
This little cutie, chatted to me all night about his “sweatheart” he was going to meet near Baikonur ❤ He reassured me he’d wake me up in the morning and see me off, which he did bless him. Time for a quick snap before the train left. I kinda fell in love with Kazakhstan and her people on this little train trip.
Well after arriving early bells in Turkistan, I didn’t have to wait long as there were a couple of taxis skulking about. The usual creepy talk lasted most of the ride, my driver asked “муж?” a lot, hmm “da, look at my fake wedding ring,” was my well rehearsed reply. I asked taxi dude to fetch me that evening in order to take back to the station, I showed him my billet and wrote down the time. Well he didn’t end up doing any of what he promised of course and I never saw him again.
Well, I had the luxury of having all day to explore Turkistan mostly to myself. I was finally going to catch my first glimpse of Timurid architecture. In the middle of nowhere on the remote dusty Kazakh steppe in the Syr-Darya valley lies the treasure of Turkistan and what a gem. I spent all day wandering the Yasaui Mausoleum (built for the great Kozha Akhmed Yasaui by Timur in the 14th century.) It’s front facade was left unfinished as Timur had died before it could be completed. However, the rest of the building is adorned with the most precious display of tile work. I circled it until I got dizzy. Each time I completed a circuit around the mausoleum, I found myself saying “I’ve just got to do it again.” I love mosaics, tiles, and blue domes and I was utterly astounded by the intricate detail and devastating beauty of this architecture.
You can view Yasaui’s tomb with fellow pilgrims as well as the Friday mosque, Hilvet semi-underground mosque and the Mausoleum of Rabiga-Sultan Begum. All this splendour lies in close proximity and each place deserves ample time for reflection and appreciation. I went to the rose garden and found a bench for breakfast. Dates, nuts, halva and apricots on the steppe with the view of the Yasaui Mausoleum is one of the most breathtaking breakfasts I’ve ever enjoyed. I had a moment of silent happy tears there.
I went up to the defence wall and walked about. Gaining new perspectives from above led to another level of awe and appreciation for this architecture altogether. I saved the stunning Archaeology and Ethnography Museum for the afternoon. A gorgeous curator seemed perplexed that I’d wanted to visit Turkistan and we got chatting. As I left, he said he’d wait for me in Turkistan and should I ever want to return, he’d be there. How romantic is that! Part of me wanted to stay, another part wants me to return.
I walked about the back streets leading out of Turkistan looking for lunch and found an internet cafe. Little children in the streets followed me about town and laughed and giggled as I took photos and attempted to communicate. Sunset was due and I decided to view the mausoleums in the afternoon sun. Golden tears to match mine flowed from the blue domes, it was really quite spectacular to behold. A young schoolboy took it upon himself to be my protector and guide. He showed me his school, showed me off to his mates, took me to dinner (sounds a bit creepy of me to entertain this in retrospect). He paid for my dinner, bless him. I like how most people I met in Kazakhstan seemed gentle, kind and friendly. In contrast, I started panicking as we waited for mr taxi friend to come and fetch me. A guard saw us lingering in the parking lot where I was supposed to meet the taxi. He phoned the number and I couldn’t make sense of the reply, or what plan B that was proposed could be. So I hot footed it and found a taxi on the road to the station. Saying a sad farewell to my little friend who wanted to see me off, I set off to the station. I got my baggage and decided to draw some money…the machine almost swallowed my card! That was the first and last time I used my card to draw money from Central Asia.
All sorts littered the platform as we awaited our train that evening. The sky was indigo and the stars were alight. A dear man could see I was uneasy and bought me a coke and whatever else I wanted to eat…I chose chocolate of course. He was a father like figure who wanted to fuss about and look after this crazy tourista. We boarded the train, someone started chatting me up and wanted to reurn to South Africa with me. I told him no but I’d send him a postcard. Taraz here we come, this time it seemed like I’d arrive at some godawful time like 4 in the morning…so another night tossing and turning on the top bunk hoping I wouldn’t fall off.