I love traveling by train. I mean actually riding a train, not getting on and off it.
While living in Central Asia for eight years, I experienced my share of memorable railroad adventures. I once spent nine hours in a four-person sleeping compartment with five other persons plus a giant screen TV (two passengers didn’t want to buy a ticket, nor pay the freight fee). Another time my wife slept in the conductor’s tiny berth when no tickets were available. I was also nearly “duffilled” (left stranded) at a remote whistle-stop when trying to buy ice cream.
But these antics pale in comparison to my most unusual train adventure in the winter of 2010 when I actually jumped off a moving train. You may have seen this stunt performed in the movies; I can assure you it is best left to professionals.
Snowbound in Karaganda
My wife, daughter Lena and I were planning a day trip to Osakarovka, a small town about halfway between Karaganda and Astana. Arriving at the bus station on a freezing February morning, we learned that all roads outside the city were closed because of heavy snow. Trains, though sometimes delayed by other forces, are rarely canceled by weather. We found one headed to Astana that would stop briefly in Osakarovka. And I mean briefly.
Usually we traveled in a kupe, a four-person sleeping compartment ideal for longer trips, especially if you want to sleep. However, for this short two-hour run, we opted for the cheaper open platzkar, a sort-of rolling bunkhouse that doubles as a card room and community cafe.
Our Stop Comes … and Goes
The trip across the windswept steppe passed normally. I checked the posted timetable and noted our two-minute stop was next. Our party of three ambled toward the end of the wagon to disembark. Surprise! The train stopped, but there was no one to unlock the exit door. Realizing we had no time to spare, I hurried my family back through the car to the other end, where we breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the conductor.
“Open the door, please, this is our stop!” I begged. At that instant, our train began moving forward again. Panic time. “Stop the train, now!” I yelled, pointing at the big red stop lever. Unfazed, the straight-faced conductor casually opened the door and mumbled, “Pozhaluysta (if you please).”
Like nervous paratroopers, we shuffled towards the door where Lena took the first brave step out into the cold. My wife jumped next, snagging her purse strap on a door handle, which thankfully snapped (the strap, not the door handle). Now it was my turn. I hesitated, looking for a soft spot of snow to land in. As I did, the train began picking up speed. It was now or never. I tossed my small pack ahead of me, and like astronaut Neil Armstrong, took one giant leap for mankind.
Splattering on the icy platform like the rest of my family, I crashed hard on my hip. Glancing to my right, it looked like a bowling alley after a scattered spare. Hats, gloves, purses, water bottles and other debris littered the platform. As I wobbled upright, I saw the train drifting away, already quickly shrinking in the hazy distance. Thankfully, the others were okay, though slightly bruised and dazed.
A few minutes later, as we gingerly stepped out of the station, we spotted Lena’s two sisters waving excitedly at us. We couldn’t wait to recount our train-jumping experience. Just like the conductor, though, they simply shrugged it off saying, “Oh, we do that all the time!”
The next day, safely back at the office, I shared our adventure with some colleagues. They wisely counseled me, “Douglas, let that be your first AND LAST time jumping off a train!”
I took their advice.