Friday, February 03, 2012

riding the rails turkmen style

I had to be in Ashgabat the last few days and was supposed to catch yesterday's flight back to Balkanabat. It was not to be as some serious weather swept in from the Caspian canceling both the flight to Balkanabat and all flights to Turkmenbashy which is also in the western half of the country. Several other domestic flights were canceled but most international flights appeared to be operating based on what I saw while at the airport. And yes, even though we all knew the flight would be canceled, we still had to go to the airport and wait until it was officially canceled in case by some miracle they were able to clear the runway in Balkanabat. After the cancellation we went back to the office but Ashgabat traffic was a mess. What normally takes less than 30 minutes took more than an hour as we trundled through the traffic created by the snow and ice and malfunctioning stoplights. People in Ashgabat were saying that they had not seen this much snow in 20 years. Perhaps there is some hyperbole baked in to statements like that, but Ashgabat was ill-equipped to handle the weather. Despite the wide boulevards and fancy looking intersections, the ill-designed roundabouts and lack of protected left-turns manage to exacerbate even moderate traffic. Combined with the weather and Ashgabat traffic was slowed to a crawl.

It is fortunate we were even able to get train tickets because with all domestic flights to the west canceled, many more people than normal were trying to take the train, mainly to Balkanabat and Turkmenbashy. It was also good that there were four of us. (Actually, there were eight of us, four expats and four local employees on the train, but I mean four of us in the cabin together.) It did mean all four beds were taken and there was not much room for maneuvering, but it also meant that when people walked by and opened the door looking for an empty bunk to sleep on, they would see the room was full and keep on moving. And yes, not everyone has a cabin. In fact, not everyone has much of a seat. There are some cars with seats more akin to what you would see on a bus and no beds. Then, in the hallways, there are little fold-out seats that just have a place to sit. Imagine a little jump-seat that flight attendants sometimes use on smaller planes. Now imagine that it is even smaller than that with no back other than the wall. People in seats like that are always looking for a place to lie down and sleep. Anyway, though it was rather crowded with four of us in the cabin, it was good to not have an empty bed. Also, there's not much need for lots of room because after eating and using the restroom, I stayed in my bed the rest of the trip. With the nighttime travel, there's not much to see and all four of us slept almost the entire trip. I woke up a few times, usually from an unusually graceless stop. And though the heater seemed to struggle to keep up with the cold outside, it was a pretty restive journey.

There is a sort of secondary bonus that comes from being a night trip. There is no food or drink service available on the train. You can bring your own food and drink, but if you forget then you're just going to have to deal with not having food for the next 11 hours. And while we brought a bit to eat, I consider it a benefit to not have to pack a bunch of food (since we'd be sleeping most of the time) along for the ride.

In fact, we all slept so well we almost slept past our stop. I woke up around 0615 and the train was stopped and since in theory the train arrives to Balkanabat at 0600, I thought it was our stop. It was not. We had stopped, though I am not sure why, at the edge of town. Then the train inspector came to knock on our door anyway to let us know our stop was coming so it would have been unlikely to actually miss our stop. Still, if we had somehow missed our stop, we'd end up being stuck in Turkmenbashy for an unknown length of time. With a room only about 7 feet deep and six feet wide, it took some shuffling to get all our stuff and bodies out of the room. It is fortunate that the base is close to the train station. We had been told the night before as we were departing from Ashgabat that the roads were so bad that they could not send a driver to pick us up at the station and that we would have to walk. Now, it's less than a 10-minute walk normally, but if the roads are bad enough that they cannot send a driver, then it's also going to be a difficult walk for anyone with luggage. I only had my backpack but the two guys with suitcases definitely struggled through the snow.

It was by no means glamorous, but the train cabin had the beds stacked like bunk beds with two on each side, blankets, lights, and heat. It was a nice and cozy box. And cheap too, at least compared to train tickets in Europe. Each individual ticket only cost about 3 USD. Seriously, for 12 USD, we can send four people from Ashgabat to Balkanabat. Still, despite that great value, it is not the best place for couch surfers, backpackers, and anyone seeking a cheap no-frills vacation.

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