October 2006 TRAINS

I'm down in Almaty for the Conference for new Peace Corps Volunteers. Eighty new Volunteers just arrived so it is nice not to be the newest kid on the block anymore. Now I'm the one with experience! Imagine that. Due to a silly email glitch, Jack actually got left off the list of current volunteers coming to training, so he is back in Bayanaul continuing the saga of getting our house in order.

Concerning our house, we have finally received a refrigerator! Unfortunately the freezer part is really, really small, so we will end up putting our frozen goods in the corridor after all once it gets a little colder. So I will no longer be doing my laundry in the refrigerator but the freezer. Actually, it has been too cold to sit in the corridor any longer (it snowed September 9th) and we have taken to sitting in front of the coal furnace with our two buckets to do laundry. It is fun. No really. So fun in fact that Jack has decided he can probably get away with wearing only two outfits all winter. He's just going to walk slower to school so that he won't sweat. I think it's a great plan.

We also finally found someone to jump down in our well and clean it for us. We had been afraid to do it ourselves because we didn't know if we could get out again. This man just hoisted himself right up on about 2 inches of ledge. So we finally filled the well with nice, clean water, and only had to go 5 feet from our door to get water instead of down the block. However, like most sagas here, this one is far from over. The morning after watching all that beautiful water flow into our well, we opened it to find, well, nothing. There must be a hole because all the water drained out. Meanwhile our landlady had a baby and is in Pavlodar for months recovering. Wish us luck on this one.

So anyway, I thought I would take this opportunity to tell you a little about train trips here. First, you board the train with all your bags, and the tiny hallway is completely filled with people saying good-bye to loved ones. And they won't move. For some reason it is rude to say "excuse me" here, so you just have to push right on through. The people of course get shoved up against the walls by your bags, but are less annoyed than if you ask them politely to move.

I usually get a "coupe" ticket which means I am in a compartment with 3 other people. There are two upper and two lower bunks. The bunks are more like ledges, but there is room under the bottom bunks and above the top bunks to store luggage. They actually provide you with a mattress to go on the ledge, which is pretty comfortable. They also provide you with a pillow and blanket, and sheets for about $1 extra.

We have had all kinds of people in our coupes from students who want to practice English during the whole trip to burly old men who want to tell you what is wrong with America. Thus far we've been really lucky and this trip was no exception. I was a little nervous being on the train by myself for the first time, but I had three champion sleepers who were quiet the whole time. The only noise came from one woman's cell phone game that when she lost played the music from "Psycho." Luckily she got bored with it quickly.

My companions seemed to agree that I didn't speak Russian, which was fine by me because I love the time on the train. While it is a good opportunity to speak Russian and meet locals, it is also wonderful solitude. It is the only time in your life when there really isn't anything else you "should" be doing. So I have free reign to sit and read and sleep and just relax. It's wonderful. I read two books on the 28 hours down here and loved it.

There are lights in the coupes, but my group this time opted to keep them off and everyone just used their individual book lights located near each ledge. Most people bring their own food, but at every stop there are women selling manti (like dumplings), fried bread with various meats, bread, and I even saw a cow's tongue this time. If you travel anywhere near a lake (like the huge Lake Balakash near Almaty) there are tons of people selling fish. They carry around these 3 foot long smoked fish slung over their shoulders. Everyone calls out what they are selling (including magazines and sheep slippers for the train) in the same monotone voice. I wonder sometimes if I shouldn't tell them about venders at ball games. "Beer here!" might get people's attention quicker than, "beer...beer...beer...beer..." I usually eat raman noodles on the train since you can buy them in prepackaged bowls and there is always hot water on the train (after all, how could you possibly go a whole day without tea). But I did treat myself to an ice cream en route as well. (I think the woman in my coupe was appalled at my food choices because she kept giving me fruit the rest of the trip.)

At each stop the conductors get out with two different types of mallets. They hit parts of the undercarriage of the train with these mallets and you hear two different noises, a "thwack" and a "ting." I assume those are the noises they are looking for, because they never do anything, but I'm not sure what they would do if they suddenly heard a different noise.

The coupe is almost always too hot or two cold. In summer there is occasionally air conditioning, which is new, but it turns off at every stop (which can last up to 40 minutes) and takes a while to get going again. Also, if there are any kids in your wagon they won't turn it on because they are worried the kids will get sick. Last winter it was -35 C when we took the train and the conductor had trouble getting the furnace going so it was about -30 in the coupe for the first 6 hours and then +35 after that. That's about 90 F. Being fall, the coupe was a pretty good temperature this time, though a little hot during the day with the sun shining in.

So all in all I really like the train, all the 28-38 hours I usually have to spend on it to get to Almaty. The worst part this time was getting off since all the people who had come to visit relatives were crowding around the entrance to the train and instead of moving when I went to hop the gap to get off they just grabbed my arms and lurched me forward. But I made it safe and sound.

Oh, and by the way, its October, which means only 8 months to go!
Miss you all!