Stowaway Aboard a Central Asian Train

NOTE – This story details a rail experience my wife had in Kazakhstan; it is retold here from my perspective after a recent detailed interview.

Faded curtains halfheartedly concealed the worried lines across her face. Crammed inside a cramped conductor’s compartment, Shelly nervously sweated out the minutes before the train began its long overnight crawl to Karaganda.

My wife was traveling back from Almaty to her home in northern Kazakhstan, a route she’d taken several times previously, but never before without a ticket! Trying to return sooner than scheduled, she’d gone to the railway station a day earlier, paper ticket in hand, and found the Karaganda train was completely sold out.

“No problem,” that ubiquitous phrase seemingly heard in every language around the world, said a nearby ticket tout to her local friend, who began zigzagging them through a maze of kiosks and piles of apples scattered along the platform away from the main station building. They came to a small carnival-like booth that looked like something from which you might buy tickets for the merry-go-round. More shady-looking characters idled about. The woman behind the window refunded tomorrow’s ticket, handing back 4700 tenge in cash (about $26 USD), but nothing else for that evening’s train. She was assured that this was “normal.”

“Come with me,” said the tout, winding his way toward the back of a parked train. He chatted back and forth with another idler, who seemed to be somehow related to the others. This man then climbed aboard, and soon returned holding up eight fingers. That meant 8000 tenge, almost double the normal price, but hey, the train WAS sold out! Money changed hands, and then the friend helped load the luggage aboard. He showed Shelly to the boss of the car, a large stern-looking woman known as the providnitza (conductor).

I had once been stuck in four-person train compartment with five other passengers and a giant-screen TV. While I had a valid ticket, two others certainly did not, nor did the television, which was taking up more than half my upper bunk. My fellow passengers and the transport police eventually sorted it out, but I was continuing to learn that an informal railroad network exists of paperless tickets and undocumented freight.

I had also heard the term “rabbit” before, a local colloquialism describing a person riding a bus without paying the fare. This can happen accidentally, when a wallet or small change is misplaced, but every once in awhile is actually intentional. Small boys on local buses in Karaganda sometimes rode along for free, begging for coins as they sang Russian songs like “Takaya Zhenshina.” I’m somewhat ashamed to admit I once paid a kid to stop singing so I could have some peace and quiet after a long day.

Before we were married, my wife had once traveled without a ticket from Germany to the Czech Republic. However, that was an innocent case of misplacing an actual purchased reserved seat. “I don’t have my ticket! I have lost my ticket! I don’t know what you are going to do with me!” she had repeated long ago to the serious-looking German conductor. Thankfully, he had reached into his coat and pulled out her ticket that had fallen into the corridor (insider tip: it sometimes pays off to pay extra for an assigned seat!).

But back aboard the Karaganda train, things were quite different. This was no trivial trip. Ahead was a 17-hour overnight run. My wife peered around her spartan accommodations, realizing that it was the shared conductors’ workspace. A few moments later, the conductor appeared. Indicating the upper shelf-like berth, she said, “You sleep here.”

Various vendors tramped through the train, displaying their wares ranging from homemade pastries to cheap Chinese clothing. The conductor, no doubt spurred on by her fresh flush of cash, purchased a new outfit from one of them.

The worries continued. A foreigner on a Central Asian train without a ticket? What if the police come aboard? Where is the receipt for my 8000 tenge “ticket?” What about that large cash withdrawal receipt I have in my purse? These kinds of thoughts trundled through her head. Finally, there was nothing left to do but eat a little something and try to get some sleep. Maybe no one will come into this cabin, since it’s used by the staff, she thought to herself while dozing off to the rocking rhythm of the rails.

At one point, she awoke and needed to use the toilet. Thankfully, it was right next door. Stepping gingerly down from her upper perch, she noticed the big conductor sprawled out on the floor fast asleep. Another conductor, also a woman, was asleep on the lower berth. “Now I get it!” she realized. The conductor had sold her spot on an otherwise full train. No doubt the characters herding her toward that train had taken their cut of the 8000 tenge! The conductor would at least get a new outfit from it.

The next morning, as it usually does, the sun came up across the steppe. While most people see a lifeless landscape, my wife is an optimist and always sees beauty where others don’t. She gazed out the window seeking to spot birds or perhaps an antelope (though she still hasn’t seen one yet). As her destination was less than two hours away, she now felt home free after the restless night’s sleep.

Now the story gets good.

The dawn light had brought a fresh stir of life inside the train car. The steaming samovar, a hot water container for passenger use, brought people steadily streaming down to that end to fill their tea cups. Unfortunately, the teakettle was right beside the crew compartment where my wife had slept. Other passengers began noticing and pointing out a non-uniformed foreigner relaxing there.

Before long, a uniformed transport policeman appeared at the door of the little cabin.

“Ticket, please,” he said to my wife, who was now sitting alone.

“I don’t have a ticket,” Shelly replied, remembering to herself the train tale from Germany that ended well.

“Documents, please.” She handed her American passport over, his eyes lighting up as he saw a foreign travel ID.

Producing a sheet of blank paper and pen, the officer entered the cabin and began issuing instructions to write what was basically a confession of guilt. As calmly as possible, my wife said she wanted to make a phone call to her lawyer.

“No need! No need for a lawyer!” said the officer.

“Well, maybe you don’t need one, but I do!” Shelly said while dialing her cell phone. And as Murphy’s Law would have it, she was passing through a barren area of countryside with spotty mobile phone coverage. The signal promptly went blank. Panic time.

Thankfully, though, this little exercise bought enough time for the conductor to return to her cabin. Seeing the scene playing out before her, she kindly asked Shelly if she wouldn’t mind “taking a short stroll, please.”

“With pleasure!” came the reply.

Thinking quickly, my wife grabbed her purse and headed for the bathroom. Promptly ripping up the bank machine receipt, she flushed it down the toilet and onto the tracks below. Now there would be less evidence that she had been carrying any significant sum of cash. That is, unless someone wanted to crawl along the tracks among the dust and debris from a moving train to piece the clues together!

After what seemed like enough time, she shyly stepped back towards the cabin where everything seemed to be back in order. No doubt that 8000 tenge had been reduced by yet another portion.

Back in the office the next day, the lawyer advised her not to travel again without a ticket.

“But they said it was normal, and even you do it!” replied Shelly.

“Normal for us, but not for you.”

And at least there were no borders to cross.

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