The sunlight pierced through the tall wooden windows with glass panes. As I opened my eyes, I felt the dryness in my mouth, and a slight headache. Probably the few shots of vodka that I consumed before sleeping had dehydrated me. My whole body refused to obey the get-up command. I raised my hand and took a look at my watch. It was already after 8 in the morning.
Slowly, but surly, my brain turned on and the first signal I received was to get up and go down to get some breakfast. As I stretched out myself before getting-up, I made a decision. Remembering the whole ordeal from the day before, I decided not to stay in Tashkent any longer.
As I had plans to move on to Russia after a couple of days, I decided to skip the Uzbekistan part and move right out to the next destination. My decision was based on very simple calculations. If the town, which is supposedly the biggest urban center in the country, closes at 7 in the evening, what was I going to do? I had not come to pass my evenings drinking vodka in that lobby with Aftab. I wanted to make the most of my time and as it turned out time was very much state controlled.
I got-up, changed and went down. Unlike the last evening, there were signs of life in that lobby. It was good to see people roaming around. I noticed that most of the people were heading towards the door, which opened on to the terrace. So I also went that way.
To my great surprise, I saw tables set in that terrace. This meant that I could take breakfast, without leaving the hostel. My brain had refused to function, before I had fed my body.
The terrace was quite nicely set. There were many people sitting at the tables and all of them were either already eating or waiting for their food. This was a pleasing sight. I looked around for a vacant table, but none was to be seen. Then I noticed a lone guy sitting at a table. I recognized him, as he had also arrived the day before on the same flight as I had.
He looked up and said: “Sure!”
I sat down across the table and uttered an ice-breaker: “We came by the same flight from Peshawar yesterday. And then we came here on the same ambulance.”
He replied: “Yes I remember, we arrived at the same time, but what ambulance?”
I said: “The van, in which we came here from the airport, was in fact an ambulance.”
He looked surprised. I continued: “I didn’t know also. One of the passengers told me. He had been here a couple of times before.”
The ambulance did help kick-off the conversation. Very soon we knew each other’s names and it turned out that both of us shared the idea of skipping Uzbekistan and moving on.
My companion’s name was Faisal. He was from Peshawar, and had recently graduated from university. During the breakfast I asked Faisal if he had paid for the extra 4 days or not. He told me that he had not paid, but was supposed to pay first thing in the morning. It turned out that the fat man had held on to Faisal’s passport until the latter would pay for 4 extra days of stay.
Now that I had eaten and my brain functions were restored, I soon came up with a plan to ditch the fat man, just like he tried to ditch us the night before. I discussed the idea with my new travel-mate, and we decided to execute it right after breakfast, provided the fat man was in his office.
Right after breakfast, we went in to the manager’s office, and luckily found him there. We exchanged the usual good mornings and other pleasantries, before I got to the point and asked the manager: “Can you call me a taxi?”
He asked: “Where do you want to go?”
I said: “To Hotel Uzbekistan to cash my travellers’ cheques. I can’t pay you until I cash those cheques.”
The sound of my words lit a sparkle in the fat man’s eyes. He told us that it was not possible to call a taxi, but he could write down the destination address for us, so that we could hail a cab and show the driver, where we wanted to go.
This sounded perfect. As he handed me the piece of paper with the address, I said: “Can you also give me the cheques that I gave you last night, and my friend’s passport?”
He looked at me inquisitively, but before he could say anything I continued: “I need those cheques, because I want to cash out all the cheques at once. And my friend here also has some travellers’ cheques. So we will go together.”
The manager’s face showed signs of contemplation. He probably calculated all possible outcomes, but then with a little reluctance in his voice, he said: “Ok. I will give you the cheques, and you can take the passport from the reception on your way out.”
This was working perfectly. I just asked him the last question: “Will you be here after an hour or so?”
He responded: “No. I have to leave, but I will be back after lunch, at about three.”
Shaking his hand, I said: “Well, then see you in the evening. Have a good day!”
We left his office, and taking my friend’s passport from the reception, we went out. It was not hard to find a taxi in the day time. Soon we were on our way to Hotel Uzbekistan.
Strangely enough, the process of cashing cheques was quite the same as anywhere else. So it just took us a few minutes. After having money in the pocket, we embarked on the execution of the next phase of our clever plan. We went to the reception and asked the receptionist to write “railway station” in Russian on a piece of paper.
It was already around 11 in the morning. To execute our second phase, we needed to get back to the hostel at around 12. So we decided to go to the restaurant in hotel Uzbekistan to have a couple of beers to pass the time.
After consuming flat Soviet beer, we again took a cab and reached our hostel at 12. Since normally people check-out at 12 from hotels, we knew that there would be a few leaving guests, so that our departure would not alarm the receptionist.
We took our bags from our rooms, and met at the reception. The receptionist was busy checking-out other guests. I asked Faisal to go out with the bags, while I went to the reception to hand back the keys.
The receptionist did not even understand that we were leaving. Leaving the keys on the counter, I also headed out of that miserable den of deception.
We hailed a cab and showing the driver the chit with “railway station” written on it, started off on our next adventure.
Soon we were at the railway station. It did not take long to find the ticket counters. But when our turn came, Russian came back to haunt us. The ticket clerk did not speak English. Somehow, we collectively succeeded in making her understand that we wanted tickets to Moscow. She pointed towards the exit from the railway station and tried to explain something.
All that we could gather was that the tickets to Moscow were not sold at that counter. We moved away from the counter to think what we could do. We started asking everyone, passing-by, if they could speak English, but fortune did not favour the brave.
Soon a policeman came up to us, and with a swift salute said something in a language so foreign to us. Understanding our inability to comprehend, he rephrased his query: “Passport!”
This was new and strange, but comprehensive. As we gave him our passports, he signalled us to follow him. With our bags on our shoulders, we obediently followed him to what probably was a police station inside the station.
Once inside, the policeman pointed to the chairs and said something, which we took as a command to sit down. Then he handed over the passports to another officer and explained something. This officer asked: “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
I did know what it meant, so I said: “No.”
He then said something to the policeman, who had brought us in. The first officer then went out, and soon came back with another officer. This one came right at us and asked: “You speak English?”
Finally, they had found someone, who could talk to us. I said: “Yes.”
“Where are you from?”
This was a stupid question, because he had our passports in his hand. But you never tell the law, how stupid it is.
I replied: “We are from Pakistan.”
He then asked: “What are you doing here, at the station?”
I told him that we were trying to know how to go to Moscow, and if possible to buy tickets. He then turned to the other officers and probably explained our predicament.
Then he turned back to us and said: “The train to Moscow leaves at 9 in the evening only. I don’t think that you can buy tickets right now. It is very difficult to buy tickets these days.”
We looked at each other, and Faisal said: “Ask him maybe he can help us in buying tickets.”
This was a good idea. I turned to the policeman and said: “We must go today. Is there any way that we could get tickets for the nine-o-clock train?”
The officer again turned to the other policemen for consultation. After some exchanges of ideas, he turned back to us and said: “There is no way of buying tickets, but if you want we can arrange for you to get on that train tonight.”
What did “arrange for you to get on that train” mean? I enquired: “What do you mean?”
The officer said: “If you want to go to Moscow tonight, just come here to the police room at 8-8:30, and we will put you on that train.”
It seemed like a viable idea. What can a policeman not do in a police state! We discussed the idea and since both of us were ok with it, I asked the next question: “How much is it going to cost us?”
The policeman again consulted his colleagues and said: “For a first class journey it will be 42$ per person.”
“And when do we pay?”
“You can pay in the evening. But you have to pay in dollars.”
“We have already exchanged our money. So we have roubles. Can we pay in roubles?”
The legal consultation started again. Then he turned to us and said: “You can pay 22 dollars in roubles, but 20$ you must pay in dollars.”
I looked at Faisal and getting a nod of approval from him, I accepted the conditions. The policeman told us to come to the station no later than 8:30 if we wanted to get good seats. With this he gave us back our passports and told us that we could go.
It was about 1 in the afternoon. We had many hours on our hands, before departure, but we could not have much fun carrying our bags on our shoulders. Just before going out I asked the policeman: “Is there any place where we can leave our bags till the evening?”
He nodded positively and led us out of that police room to the left baggage counter. We deposited our bags, took our receipts and once again assuring the policeman that we would be back in the evening, we headed out of the railway station.
In the next few hours, we visited the Ali Sher Navoi national park, had a nice Uzbek meal comprising of Uzbek plov (pilaf), mutton barbeque and the same flat Soviet beer.
While roaming around town, we decided that we should buy something for the train journey. Since we did not know what kind of service to expect in the train, we thought it best to have something in our bags, in case there would be no food available on the way.
We went into a store and bought a few packets of cookies. It was quite difficult to buy anything else, because all the markings were in Russian, and we could not find anyone in the store, who could tell us what was what.
Passing by the dairy products counter, we saw bottles of milk and bottles of something that looked like yogurt (curd). We thought that buying milk would be senseless, because bottled milk normally could not be kept for long without a refrigerator. On the other hand yogurt could be kept in our bags for a day or even more.
So we bought 4 bottles of yogurt, which had no label on them. The glass bottles had foil lids and the curd looked very fresh. This completed our emergency rations list. Now we had cookies and yogurt. So in case we would not find anything, we could survive for two days easily. Anyway the policeman had said that we would be travelling in a first class car, so we did not have to anticipate any shortages of service.
A little after 8, with a bag full of groceries, we got back to the railway station. Taking our bags from the storage, we stuffed two bottles each of the yogurt in our bags and similarly split the packets of cookies.
When we got to the police room, the scene was quite different from the one we encountered in the day. The police room was crowded. There were bags inside and outside the police post. A lot of people were busy talking and negotiating with the policemen.
We spotted the English speaking officer and told him that we were there already. He took us out of the police post, and asked: “The train will be coming soon. Can you pay now for the tickets?”
So we took out our wallets. Each of us paid 20$ in US currency and then we asked the policeman about the remaining 22$. He told us the amount of thousands of roubles, which would make 22$. We paid that also, and he went back in.
Some 5 minutes later he came out and said: “Everything has been arranged. You must remain close by, because we will take you to the train as soon as it arrives here.”
With this he turned to go back in. We looked at each other with surprise, because we thought that he would bring us some tickets for the journey. But all he brought were instructions to “stay in close proximity.”
Our options were limited. All we could do was to wait till nine and hope that by that time we would be on the train. Otherwise, we could have a sorrow story of getting conned by policemen in Tashkent.
At around 8:45 the English speaking policeman came out of the police room in a hurry and asked us to follow him. We took our bags and followed him over the tracks to a train parked some 7 platforms away.
As we got to the train the policeman made his way through the crowd to the door and got on asking us to follow him. Once inside the car, he went up to a uniformed man, who probably was the conductor, said something to him and pointed towards the two of us.
The presumably conductor led our way through the crowded aisle of what hardly looked like a first class car. In the middle of the car he stopped and pointed to two berths. We understood that those were our seats.
The car had four berths on one side of the aisle and two seats on the other side. There were about 6 rows of such setup all through the car. The car was very dimly lit and very stuffy. Some of the windows were ajar, but most were closed tight.
On the other side of our section, we were greeted by a man, with his wife and a young child. As we were looking for the place to stow away our bags, the woman asked us: “Do you speak English?”
That was a pleasant surprise, but a good one. After knowing that we could only speak English, she showed us how to raise the lower seat and stow away the bags. Getting rid of the bags, we settled on the lower berth for now, and waited for the train to start moving.
A little after nine the train started off with a jerk. With this we started on our way out of Tashkent, with lots of strange feelings, many unpleasant memories, and packets of cookies and bottles of yogurt in our bags, towards the, hopefully, more civilized capital of Russia.
To be continued…