Tuesday, 18 August 2009
Adventures in Uzbekistan Part 4
Our second day in Uzbekistan saw us embark on my favourite part of our trip: the express train journey from Tashkent to Samarkand.
I find train travel especially relaxing. We have lived in all sorts of wacky places and travelled as extensively as time and money has allowed. All of us, including the children, have made our journeys in some extremely dodgy vehicles, with or without seat belts, some I suspect without even a working fan belt, probably just some auntie's old stockings. I remember a driver doing an spectacular, controlled 75 meter skid while we were travelling at speed, and in the dark, back to Delhi from the Taj Mahal, our first born child asleep in the most flimsy, ineffective Indian car seat that I have ever seen, because there was a large concrete block in the middle lane of the motorway. In the middle lane! How can that not get moved out of the way?? And another time as we bounced along the wooden tracks of rural Cambodia, seeing my second daughter lolling asleep in her car seat (we had taken our own, the Indian lesson being well-learnt) with the car seat rolling according to the lurching of the minibus in an almost impossible, gravity-defying arc for every pothole that we crossed since the seat belt was basically a piece of farming twine to tie around the waist of the passenger.
So we are used to long car journeys in very old cars on roads where most drivers have bought their licenses, and there is no knowing when you will meet a cow, donkey, crashed fruit van, or just a great, big, car-sized hole. It is never very relaxing.
Trains, on the other hand, hardly ever crash. OK, when they do it is pretty awful, but the stats definitely stack up in favour of rail over road, and so I was really looking forward to experiencing rail Uzbek-style.
We made our way to the impressive central train station in Tashkent and found our platform where the train (called the "Sharq") was already waiting. We had some reserved seats, found our carriage and bundled ourselves on. Where train journeys can take up to a week as they can in this part of the world (from Tashkent to Moscow is several days long), you are given heaps of room on your seat. The trains have a real old world charm about them, given that they feature their original fittings and were obviously made in the days before quick fit plastic seating and easy-replace modern trappings were invented. Every carriage has leather seats, wooden tables and the carriage sides are panelled in wood. Even the toilets were no worse than I have seen on some South West train services out of London Waterloo.
Not that the trains are immaculate, Orient Express-style bastions of comfort and style. Many of the windows are permanently misted up with condensation between the double glazing, some even slosh an inch of water between the panes; the television sets (yes, television sets - the Uzbeks were obviously streets ahead of Mr Branson in their understanding of in-flight entertainment) are about 80% functional, although the whole train compartment must listen to the sound track to the film showing, usually the tale of a pair of Central Asian young lovers caught in the middle of some terrible strife between rival families... very dramatic stuff! But overall, the experience is very comfortable.
The train chugs along at about 40mph, the perfect speed to view the passing countryside and within about four hours you arrive in the wonderful station at Samarkand, the ancient town that was a major centre on the Silk Route and which is such a relatively remote place that arriving here gives a real frisson of travel excitement. Even the name, Samarkand, I think, sounds like some ancient wizard, or a mystical land of dragons.