A Central Asian Hangover


I've always felt there’s something wrong with vodka. It takes a sick mind to look at a sack of wheat, or a potato, and declare: “From this, I shall make alcohol.”
And let’s be honest: It’s not healthy to drink a liquid that is flammable. Vodka is a prime example. It's better suited to arson than human consumption.

But the night before we left Tashkent, consume it we did.

Josh and I had ended up staggering into a cafe at dawn, ordering bowls of greasy meat and rice, and chatting with a group of Uzbek builders who were having their breakfast. We played them some music on our phones. In return, they showed us their porn.

A few hours later, the two of us were on a shared taxi trundling towards the border with Kazakhstan. We were aiming to catch the overnight train from Shymkent to Almaty.

Josh was his usual bouncy self, but I felt violently sick. My eyeballs were sucking in pain, distilling it from the sunlight and pumping it into my head until I thought my cranium would explode and spill my brains across the aisle.

The minibus dropped us in a small town a few miles out of Tashkent. From there we could take a taxi to the border. But the driver had no idea where the crossing was. For over an hour, he drove us around the countryside, growing ever more irate, speeding around corners and demanding extra cash. I watched the clock through bleary eyes and popped aspirin pills.

Finally we arrived at the crossing, a big warehouse next to a carpark, surrounded by fields. When we reached the front of the queue, a guard in a starched uniform and an enormous wide-brimmed Soviet hat demanded my tax form. I had, of course, lost it.

This was pretty serious. Without that form, the Uzbek authorities would not let me leave the country. I fumbled like a halfwit in my enormous backpack as the guard looked on sternly.

Josh watched with open contempt.

“You muppet,” he said.

Josh is a great travel companion and I love him as a brother. Until now, I’ve never told him how close I came to punching him in the face.

Fortunately, the guards were more forgiving. I think they saw my bloodshot eyes and felt sorry for me. Clearly I was too dumb to be a spy or a drug trafficker. Soon, we were aboard another minibus rocketing north through the broad pastures and sparse villages of southern Kazakhstan.

We rolled into Shymkent at 5.18pm. The clock was ticking, and my head throbbed with post-alcoholic pain. The train would leave at 6.

A smiley middle-aged couple we'd met offered to take us to the station, and we all piled on a local bus together.

Shymkent was a sprawling mass of wide roads and dull buildings. We crawled through the rush hour traffic as the couple gently smiled and nodded at us.

“Da, stansiya,” said the man. Station. He was right. At 5.45, we arrived. At the bus station.

We leapt into the nearest taxi, shouting “VAGZAL stansiya!" TRAIN station! Quick!” We left Mr and Mrs Smiley standing bemused in a cloud of dust.

Minutes later, we were at the train station. The train was at the platform. We ran up to the guard and asked where to get tickets. He pointed to the long queue outside a distant ticket booth.

“When does the train leave?”

“Seechas.” Now.

Things looked bleak. But this was Kazakhstan. We slipped the guard a few dollars and climbed aboard.

We collapsed in the restaurant car just as the train started to move. As the train rattled past the suburbs of Shymkent and into the wide valleys beyond, I started thinking about finding a bunk where I could sleep. It would be 12 hours from here to Almaty, and I needed sleep. The Aspirin was wearing off.

Just then, in came a group of bored Kazakh oil workers and sat at the table next to us. They were on a 72-hour journey from Aktau, on the Caspian Sea, to Almaty, at the edge of the Tien Shan mountains. They wanted to talk to us. They were friendly and hospitable. Indeed, there was no escape from their welcome.

We had no choice. It was time get stuck into the vodka again.



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