The Night Train to Nukus

by Alex Dutson

While traveling via train across Uzbekistan, a tourist reflects on strange unreality that exists while moving from one place to another. This story was selected as a finalist in the Crossings travel writing competition.

In the narrow single bed, cocooned in the darkness, I struggle to sleep. The train judders under me as it snakes its way through the night. A low rumble, the hiss of metal on metal, noises overly loud in the silence. Peeking under the curtain, I can see nothing but black, but I know the desert is stretching out on all sides, miles of scrubby plants and yellow-red sand. Somewhere ahead, though still hours away, is our destination. On a train packed with passengers, I feel completely alone, a single soul staring out at the sparse landscape. I lie back, letting the rocking of the train finally lull me to sleep.

The night train from Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital city, to Nukus, an architecturally uninspiring city situated in the west of the country, runs every day – leaving just after 2pm and arriving a little after 7am the next morning. A seventeen-hour journey of over 1000km that, for large swathes, follows the old Silk Road, chasing ghostly caravans through ancient cities – Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara. We are heading to Nukus to join a tour to see the environmental disaster that is the Aral Sea, decimated by Soviet irrigation projects in the 1960s and now a shadow of its former self.

At Tashkent South station, we eat a hasty lunch in the upstairs canteen before our train pulls in and we join the general rush to get aboard. The train is a beautiful, old-style locomotive in green and white, with the Uzbekistan crest and its destination emblazoned along it at regular intervals. Each carriage is staffed by a smartly dressed man in uniform, complete with the requisite hat, who checks our tickets and waves us aboard. We have paid extra for a first-class, two-bed compartment, not wanting to risk being stuck with hellish traveling companions for a journey of this length. The compartment has two narrow beds with a table wedged under the window between them. There is padding on the walls to lean against, with tiny (and therefore largely pointless) hidden compartments behind it and tacked-up images of famous Uzbekistan sights in case we get bored of the view out the window. We manage to store our bags without difficulty. Outside, some passengers appear to be traveling with most of their worldly possessions – an endless stream of boxes and suitcases being loaded aboard – that must make for an uncomfortably crowded compartment. Almost exactly on time, the train creaks to life, pulling out of the station with a sudden jerk and a rumble of noise. Our journey has begun.

There is something about a long train journey which seems, in an odd way, to suspend reality. You step on board and for hours, until you finally step back onto solid, unmoving ground, you exist as people apart from the rest of the world. There is life on the train and life outside of it and, other than the briefest of touches at each station, they remain apart. With our private carriage, we can be even further removed – shut the door and shut out the rest of the train as easily as the world rushing by outside.

Instead, we open everything we can, ensuring that, from our premium lounging spots on the narrow beds, we have uninterrupted views out of both sides of the train. It is already hot, with only a tiny breeze from the sole corridor window capable of opening, and this, combined with the soft rocking motion of the train, leaves us in a hazy state of relaxation. For the next 17 hours, there is nothing to do but exist. There is some conversation, some reading, a few crosswords attempted, but for the most part we simply stare out the window and watch Uzbekistan go by.

First, there are just houses and roads. The city center gives way to the outskirts and then further scatterings of dwellings as we rush past smaller towns and unknown cities. There are flashes of mosques and markets, children heading home from school, a man cycling carefully along a backstreet, the ubiquitous white Chevrolets that everyone seems to drive. The absolute flatness of the green-brown landscape gives way to low rolling hills and, eventually, there are hints of mountains on the horizon. They are too far away to see clearly, but they loom, tall and jagged, on the edge of my vision until the train cuts away and the scenery shifts once more. By the time the sun starts to dip downwards, we are staring out at a flat desert that seems to stretch without end.

We are by no means the first to have taken this journey. Long before the first train tracks were laid, thousands had already followed the same route on foot, on camel, on horseback, threading their way along what was later named the Silk Road. We race through the same landscape they trudged across. Perhaps they also felt the same sense that time spent traveling was time apart from the reality of the world. Stepping into the solidity of Bukhara or Samarkand after the perpetual motion of days, or even weeks, on the road must have been a relief even for the hardiest traveler. Many modern-day tourists would balk at this 17-hour journey, but compared to those who came before, it is a blink of the eye. A blink with beds, cooked meals, and surprisingly clean toilet facilities.

As life shifts past outside the window, it also flows along within it. The train has its own rhythm of existence, its own structures, which we are both part of and observers to. Through our open compartment door, the sounds of our fellow travelers come to us in snatches. The drawl of tourists exchanging travel tips in broken English, a baby being entertained by endless repetitions of cheery lullabies, strangers glancing in at us as they stroll along to the toilet. Men wander past trying to sell us drinks or crisps. Conductors hand out bedding, check final destinations, and tell people off for trying to open the windows. Our carriage has a toilet at one end and a hot water urn at the other, and there is a steady stream of people heading to each.

Eventually, the dipping of the sun and the rumbling of our stomachs remind us that the train also has a dining carriage, and we set out to investigate. It is filled with mostly Uzbek diners crammed around neat little tables. For a moment, it looks like we might have to lurk awkwardly in the aisle waiting for someone to finish eating, but a Dutch tourist kindly takes pity on us, waving us over to share his table. Soon, we are tucking into plov and sipping black tea. Conversation with our new companion follows the topics familiar to any traveler – where we’ve been, where we’re going now, where we want to go in the future.

By the time we make it back to our compartment, night has drawn in. The train sits at Bukhara as passengers clamber on and off before it pulls out and away from the city lights into the darkness of the desert. This is where we start to diverge from the old silk routes. While the camels turned their heads towards Khiva or Merv, our journey takes us further into the desert where nomads roamed and ancient forts once stood. The landscape is lost in the darkness and, as I get ready for bed, the feeling of disconnect from the world outside grows stronger. We shut our compartment, cutting out the sounds of the other passengers’ nightly preparations. Only the noise of the train itself is left as it hurtles onwards. I curl up in my bed and try to sleep.

I wake just after dawn. The desert outside the window is flat and barren, looking almost gray in the weak light. We could be a thousand miles from civilization, a thousand years into the past. As we dress and pack our bags, the light slowly grows stronger, brightening the dusty plains into a hazy yellow. Soon, we will be out in that desert, bouncing along poorly maintained roads where water once flowed. But, for a few minutes more, we are between here and there, between Tashkent and Nukus, within the desert and apart from it. Exactly on time, we roll into the station and back into reality.  

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