Cognac, Fish & Stowaways on the Train to Kazakhstan

I wanted to go to Mongolia. That was always the plan – to take the Trans-Siberian Express all the way to China, across the east of Russia and through the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar. But in Moscow, I found myself in a noisy hostel full of Australians chugging vodka and playing guitars. They had just come from that direction, drinking and strumming their way across Siberia; one of them told me that the train was a non-stop party, with carriages full of like-minded gap year travellers all looking for a good time. It was enough to make me consider another route, and as no one I spoke to had anything to say about Kazakhstan I decided that the Silk Road – rather than the Trans-Siberian – was going to be a better choice for me.

I’ve told this part of the story before: as a preamble to my recent post about getting lost in the forests of Kazakhstan. But what I haven’t yet shared are the details of how I arrived there.

It was the longest overland journey I’d ever made – somewhere in the region of 2,800 km – on a 56-hour train connection from Moscow to the Kazakh capital, Astana; a journey that would prove to be quite an experience in itself.


A billboard featuring President Nursultan Nazarbayev – in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
A billboard featuring President Nursultan Nazarbayev – in Almaty, Kazakhstan.


Kazanskaya Station

My last day in Moscow was depressing. I had made new friends that month, I had fallen in love with the city and I really didn’t want to leave; to make matters worse, I only narrowly missed out on drinking champagne with Mikhail Gorbachev.

My host was a journalist, and on day 29 of my 30-day Russian visa (leaving one last day, saved for the train ride) she was covering an important chess tournament. She invited me along on a free press pass, and I was sorely tempted to join her – but my options were 16 hours of chess or one final wander around the city, dropping in on a few of the monuments and museums I was yet to visit. I chose the latter. Later my friend would tell me how she’d entered the press area to find the former Soviet Premier quaffing glasses of champagne. She sent me a photo of her and Gorbachev arm-in-arm, raising glasses; and a message that read “Misha sends his regards.”


A passenger train pulls into the station, somewhere in rural Russia.
A passenger train pulls into the station, somewhere in rural Russia.

I got to the train station early; my train was there early too, so I climbed onboard. It was a Kazakh train – an ancient thing painted up blue and yellow, the Kazakh colours – and I immediately took the conductor to be a Kazakh: a barrel-chested man with dark skin, a shaved head and distinctively Asian features. He checked my paper ticket as I sat down, and he nodded. It was only later, as the train was beginning to rattle and warm itself into life, that he came back by and took another look. This time he shook his head.

Between my broken Russian and his, I managed to understand that what I was holding was not a ticket after all; it was the receipt for one. I had to go to the main ticket hall at the other end of the station, the man told me, where I could change this for the real ticket itself… and I now had about three minutes before the train left.

It took me a moment to decide whether to take my bags or leave them. I took them, reasoning that I’d rather be stuck in Russia with an out-of-date visa and all my travel gear, than move slightly quicker but risk being stuck here empty-handed. Luckily there was no queue at the kiosk and I made it back – panting, sweating, backpack bouncing on my shoulders – just as the train began to move. The conductor pulled me aboard, laughing all the time.

“David Beckham!” he kept shouting, making some kind of gesture that I took as a vague expression of athleticism. “Very good! David Beckham!”


A First Class cabin on the train from Moscow to Astana.
A First Class cabin on the train from Moscow to Astana.

I dragged my bags back into the carriage – to the wooden bench that would be my home for the next two-and-a-half days – but the conductor took my arm and beckoned slyly towards the corridor. Very bad, he was saying, in Russian. He pointed back to the wooden benches, to the handful of people who sat silently around the cabin, and repeated it; this time holding his nose, as if to suggest a foul smell. Come, he said, and I had a guess where this was going.

In my rush to book the train, I had opted rather hastily for the cheapest ticket going: but my rubles hadn’t bought me a whole lot of comfort. The conductor led me to the first class wagon, waving to the empty compartments like the proud host at a show home. Curtains, cushioned seating, a television and a wash basin. Alright, I said, how much? and the haggling began.

Eventually we settled on the equivalent of 10 euros, which my host folded and tucked straight into his shirt pocket. “Welcome,” he said in English, and left me in my new lodgings; I had a first class compartment to myself, and I’d still paid less than the price of a second class ticket.


A Bear in the City of Beer

The first 15 hours were pleasantly uneventful. I spent a fair while writing, and after that I got stuck into Murakami (I tend to save the challenging books for when I’m trapped somewhere with no distractions; I once read Joyce’s Ulysses on a train across Romania). The hours rolled by, the sun set and it rose again. I slept quite comfortably, though not for long – I woke before dawn to pace up and down the carriage, stopping at different windows to watch the moonlit farms speed by. The dawn was grey with shades of peach, and it was afternoon before we arrived in the city of Samara.

They call this place the ‘Beer Capital’ of Russia. The first Zhigulevskoye brewery was built at Samara in the 1880s, a beverage that would later become the standard-issue beer of the Soviet Union. I watched out the window as we pulled into the station, drinking in the chimneys, towers and domes of Russia’s sixth largest city. Then suddenly the door behind me swung open and my new roommate was shown inside.

The conductor was broad, but this man was massive; sat on the faux-leather couch, looking up at the pair of them in the doorway I felt like a dwarf. “Igor,” the newcomer said, as he crushed my hand; he seemed to be as surprised to meet a foreigner as I was on discovering that I no longer had a private cabin. When the conductor left us, I reached into my bag. I still had two bottles of beer left over from Moscow and I’d been saving them for the evening… but I decided it was a good way to break the ice.


In Astana, Kazakhstan, a camel grazes the carpark outside a shopping centre.
In Astana, Kazakhstan, a camel grazes the carpark outside a shopping centre.

The gift was well received, and when he opened his beer immediately I followed suit. Igor told me that he was going home. He was young despite his size, perhaps only 20 but built like a tractor. I wondered what he’d been doing in Samara. We talked for a while, but it wasn’t easy. Back in the big European cities, in Moscow and St Petersburg, I’d found people usually understood my terrible Russian; they could guess what I wanted to say, at least. Igor didn’t get it though, he just couldn’t decipher it.

Every so often the train picked up passengers at stations along the way; small towns and villages, or sometimes at stops that seemed to be nowhere near anywhere. I would look out the window to see little old women – babushkas in shawls – selling snacks and drinks from baskets along the platform. At one of these stations, my roommate reached over and gave me a nudge.

“Piva?” he asked, stabbing a thumb the size of a carrot towards the platform. I shrugged, nodded, and he disappeared into the corridor. We seemed to have found our common language.

A few minutes later the train started moving, and Igor came back with a plastic, two-litre bottle of beer – Zhigulevskoye, of course – along with two paper cups and a smoked fish dangling on a string tied through its cheek. He shoved the fish into my hand, then started pulling off his shirt.

I don’t know if he did it to keep his shirt from getting greasy… or maybe it was just some kind of ritual. Sat there naked from the waist up, Igor took the fish and tore it in two; he poured two beers, then pushed a portion of each across the counter to me. As I sniffed suspiciously at the sticky brown fish, Igor was already devouring his. His upper body was covered in coarse dark hair, so thick that it was almost like watching a bear eating something it had just pulled out of the river.


An empty platform, at a village somewhere in southwest Siberia.
An empty platform, at a village somewhere in southwest Siberia.

The food had an interesting flavour, slightly bitter and heavy with woodsmoke, but I found it quite palatable in small pieces washed down with beer. My paper cup was slick with oily smears though, and I found myself wishing he’d served the beer before the fish.

When Igor was done he wiped his hands on his jeans, then over his chest. I tried not to watch, tried not to show any sign of my utter bemusement as he rubbed himself in fish oils, using his chest hair like some kind of hand towel. He sat back and flicked on the television; I’d forgotten we had one up until now. Igor settled on a music channel, a concert by some Russian starlet dressed in a glittering gown and impossibly high high-heels.

I shared that cabin with Igor for almost 24 hours. Sometimes we tried to communicate (usually, over beer) but more often we just sat in a comfortable silence. The bad music and bizarre hygiene habits aside, I found he was an easy roommate to get on with. I was almost sad to see him go: we bid farewell the following day, when Igor got off in a village somewhere after Chelyabinsk. He seized my hand again in that bone-breaking grip, grinned to show the shredded fish between his teeth and shouted: “Good life!”


Two Rogues & a Stowaway

We crossed the Kazakh border in the night. I was woken by guards in boots, banging on the cabin door with the back end of a torch. They switched on the lights, and scrutinised the picture in my passport before taking it away with them. The train sat there for a while in the station – yellow sodium light flooding through the curtains, and the constant rocking and racketing of trains going past in the darkness beyond. Somewhere, way off, a dog was barking but I was aware of it only in a dreamlike way, before drifting off back to sleep. The next time I opened my eyes, I saw my passport had been placed beside me on the counter.

Sometime later I was woken by a noise inside my cabin. Muddy-eyed and bleary, I blinked into consciousness to find a stranger hanging over the opposite bunk. There was a space above the corridor, a small shelf stuffed with blanket rolls and storage chests; but now the train conductor was standing with one case in either hand, while another man was squeezing out from the narrow gap where they had been. He dropped down onto the bunk as nimbly as a cat, and that’s when they both saw I was awake.

The stowaway looked nervous; but my friend just smiled, put a finger to his lips and motioned Shhh. They left the cabin, and soon afterwards the train stopped again. Through the curtain, I saw the stranger walk away beneath the yellow glow of the streetlights.

I slept right through till morning. When the woman came by pushing a refreshments cart I bought a polystyrene cup of freeze-dried coffee, and topped it up with water from the boiler in the corridor. At first I wasn’t sure if I had dreamed it: the man in the darkness wriggling out from a tiny storage hatch above my head. Glancing up though, I saw the cases had been rearranged and a nest of unrolled blankets was tucked in behind them. I think he’d been a Kazakh, though I wasn’t sure. How long had he been in there? I counted 40-something hours since his last opportunity to clamber in unseen… back in Moscow, before we’d even left the station. What a way to travel, I thought, and wondered if there were others hiding in storage spaces up and down the train. My friend, the conductor, was apparently running multiple businesses on the side.


A monument in Astana, Kazakhstan.
A monument in Astana, Kazakhstan.

The Kazakh leg of my journey added a further 12 hours; due south across the Western Steppe. Often there’d be nothing but dry grass as far as I could see. It was a gentle landscape, though sparse and with little to offer in the way of distraction. I finished the coffee and went back to my book.

A little later, two men came rushing into my cabin and sat down on either side of me. I glanced up – they were older, one with grey hair, beard and whiskers, the other with close-cropped hair and a deep scar on his temple. Both were drunk… I knew it from the smell of them, the way they moved, even before they’d slammed a bottle of Kazakh cognac onto the table. The scarred man produced a set of plastic cups, and the bearded man poured out three shots.

Barely a word had been spoken, and I didn’t know if I was ready for cognac just yet. While my companions knocked theirs back I swilled mine about, peered into the cup, until a welcome distraction came from the corridor outside. There was shouting, some kind of commotion: and the two drunks suddenly fell into a panic.

The bearded man was pointing at the bottle, then at me, and babbling something incoherent in Russian. The scarred man was peering around the door – then at a signal they fled, leaving me baffled and alone, with a half-empty bottle on the table. A moment later it all made sense. A guard stomped into my cabin, out of breath and apparently furious. He snapped at me when he spotted the cognac.

“Ohhh…” I sighed out loud. That’s what the bearded man had been saying: Tell them it’s yours, or something along those lines. I mimed ignorance, and the guard understood. He asked me Where? and I pointed down the corridor after the two drunks. The man chased after them down the train, red-cheeked and panting, one hand holding his military cap onto his head so it didn’t bounce off… and suddenly I heard the Benny Hill theme playing in my head.


Another staple of Kazakh cuisine: Laghman noodle soup, served here with horse meat and salty doughnuts.
Another staple of Kazakh cuisine: Laghman noodle soup, served here with horse meat and salty doughnuts.

Midday rolled around, and the conductor came to visit me. He brought a metal pot with him, which he placed in the middle of the table. Inside was a heavy stew: rice and beef and peas, what I’d later learn was the Kazakh national favourite, plov. Up here in First Class I was next door to the staff quarters, and it seemed my friend had come to share his leftovers with me.

The food was excellent – stodgy, rich and wholesome – and as I ate, the conductor’s gaze came to rest on the bottle of cognac. He looked at the bottle, looked at me, then smiled a mischievous smile. He held my gaze for just a little bit too long, as if there was something he wanted to say… but really shouldn’t. I made it easy for him, and offered him a drink.

No, no, no, he insisted, waving his hands and pointing at his uniform. He was still grinning at me though so I offered again; this time, with his obligatory indignant refusal out of the way, he gladly accepted the bottle. We took a big swig each, and he slapped me hard on the back in a gesture – I guess – of friendship, before leaving.

Shortly after that I was in Astana: getting lost, making friends, hitching lifts with passing cars and having alcohol forced on me all times of day and night. The train journey had made for an excellent primer though, and in all that month it would remain one of my defining memories of Kazakhstan.

“Welcome home, David Beckham,” the conductor had said, as he helped me down to the platform with my bags.

KZ Train-X

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