The journey begins
Pudong International Airport
The journey begins
Pudong International Airport
Click on picture to enlarge
Samarkand – Nukus – Beyneu
30 April – 2 May 2019 (Mon–Tue)
I am writing on the train from Nukus to Beyneu and making observations in real time and reflecting on the train from Samarkand to Nukus and my time on Nukus.
Too excited to sleep - the wrapped package of clean sheets offered by the train conductor remains unopened. The 4.12am train from Nukus to Beyneu departed on time. Car 21 is almost completely empty and my second-class sleeper (no first class on this train either), in a set of six beds, is unoccupied except for one Australian. 14 hours and 11 minutes across what I expect is almost unliveable desert. But right now, it is still too dark to see anything except for the glow of the solar light that Miwa wisely advised me to pack.
Have not even begun writing about my experience in Samarkand, but plenty of time to write today and might even get in a nap along the way, as I did not sleep well on the train between Samarkand and Nukus.
The train to Nukus began in Tashkent and was pretty much full when I got on in Samarkand. Escorted to my assigned lower-bunk and set about making my bed with sheets that might have been previously used and then folded. It was an old Russian train in a car with 50+ sleeping passengers arranged in sets of six - four on the left window, an aisle and two on the right window. Lower right side is definitely the preferred sleeper and that is what my helpful Samarkand ticket agent booked.
Occasionally I would see a flurry of sparks fly past my window - especially when the train accelerated. What was the train burning for power? I would have thought oil, but oil would not generate such sparks.
Uneasy sleep - the train was pretty bouncy and there were people moving around and a couple of snorers - I worried I might later join in their song...
The sun finally arrived to a stark desert and eventually the four across the aisle engaged me in conversation (a story I told in my Introduction, but worth repeating). Two 50 year old female doctors who had spent a month in Tashkent training, a male customs officer and a woman that was introduced as a famous free-style wrestler. She looked a bit like Miwa, my spouse, (see picture, far right) and certain just as tough. Only the two doctors knew each other before the journey began. All four were going home to Nukus. I was a curiosity in their world and open to their exploration - with just enough English to produce meaningful understanding.
Briefly back to the present - the train to Beyneu. Just now departing from some unknown stop - still in the dark - and my lower-bunk mate on the other side just arrived. A slender young woman with a beautiful child that cannot be 6-month old. They quickly drifted off to sleep. So, for now it is just the three of us but more will arrive as the day unfolds. And then passengers will come and go - we are on a very long journey.
So, Nukus, I was told, was built by the Russians and it must be true. If any part of the city evolved organically it could not be found. Wide streets, large buildings - no old town here. It appears planned by a Communist Committee a hundred years ago. If you were from Nukus with any aspirations you would want to leave and if you are only visiting you will want to leave. It seemed to have no soul.
The Nukus Jipek Joli Inn - named after the street it is on - came highly recommended in the guidebook and it was very nice as was the Cinnamon Cafe - wonderful chicken fettuccini for lunch. The Savitsky Museum, named after the founder, is historically significant, as Savitsky hid art that had been banned by the Communist Party in this little Uzbekistan backwater. Some highly significant work if you enjoy early 20th century Russian art that does not toe the Communist line.
My solar light - which has served as a fascination for several train officials and passengers - just went out. It lasted for about an hour on full power - don't use full power, I can hear Miwa saying. It’s been in my bag for a couple of days so perhaps it was not fully charged. A sunrise is staring to appear - perhaps smoke from a fire is going to enhance the morning sky. Yes, a magnificent sunrise in the Western Uzbekistan desert.
So, back to the Nukus Jipek Joli Inn. I thought I would go to bed early but then thought again. Once I arrive in Beyneu I have 24 hours to wait for a train that will require 18 hours for a journey that can be driven by car in 6-hours. With this plan I do not arrive in Aquis/Aktau until Saturday noon for a container ship that has already departed with no certain date for the next departure.
But... perhaps I can find a taxi to take me to Beyneu and then I might have a chance at catching the container ship that Shamsiya, the Almaty Backpacker manager that grew-up in Aquis/Aktau, confirmed will depart sometime on Friday.
I turned the bed lamp back on and emailed Shamsiya and she wrote back immediately. We must have exchange 5 or 6 late evening emails, working out the feasibility and cost for this new venture.
There are share-taxis departing from Beyneu train station for Aquis/Aktau for about US$15. Shamsiya estimated that even if I took a taxi on my own it would not cost more than US$50.
So, going to try to make that Friday container ship for Alat (70km south of Baku Azerbaijan). Went onto Bookings.com and cancelled the Victoria seaside hotel in Aktau and then went to sleep.
I think time is on my side if I can secure a taxi, as loading a boat on time is an uncertain business with many delays. Definitely prefer a share-taxi on a 6-hour road trip. We will see...
Yes, we will see. Each train car has a manager and the manager of car 21 befriended me. So, I ask about his home and he says Aktau. So, the obvious question: Where does the Nukus-Beyneu train end: Aktau...
All this by Google translate.
Ok, now it gets complicated. How do I extend my ticket so I can remain on a train going to my final destination?
Not possible. But eventually I learn that it is best if I take my bags off at Beyneu, go buy a ticket at the ticket office and get back on. The car manager recommends that I ask for car 21 and helped me write a message on my smartphone for the ticket office - he believes in my EurAsia quest.
The train will arrive in Aktau at 8.00am Friday and the container ship office opens at 9.00. Pretty close to perfect timing with a planned Friday departure although I hope it is delayed by a day or two, as I would like to check out Shamsiya's hometown.
We just crossed the Uzbekistan - Kazakhstan border so we are on our way. Let's see if I can buy a ticket during my brief stop in Beyneu.
But how did all this transpire? First, lack of a common language is an important factor, but something more sinister is at work here.
My Samarkand ticket agent was very helpful but she said she could not sell me an onward journey in a foreign country. She could only sell me a ticket into that country and not beyond. Her computer system told her that the next train from Beyneu to Aqtau would depart 24 hours later on Friday. It must be the train that departs from Nukus on Friday morning at 4.12am.
Why the national railway does not include the entire train schedule for a train originating in their own country is a curiosity - these countries do not share information when it is in their interest to do so...
Equally curious is the fact that the very helpful English-speaking hotel clerk at the Nukus Jipek Joli Inn could not assist me in making an international call to secure a hotel reservation in Kazakhstan. International calls are very difficult to make between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. How odd…
The Stan countries desperately need a regional association - they probably have one but it is dysfunctional.
Timor organised all these people into a single nation 500 years ago but it dissolved. I wonder if these people were distrustful of one another before the Russians arrived.