The trip here was very smooth, other than the first fifteen minutes of the train ride from Arkalyk to Astana. I wrote this a few hours later during the train ride although it’s taken me a few days to post it…
The train care has compartments along most of one side of the car and a long corridor down the other side, with windows all along the corridor with a railing to stand at for some fresh air (until you start to smoke, if you’re from Kazakhstan. I was standing at a window a few doors down from the door to my compartment as the train pulled out of Arkalyk, watching the town fade in the distance. I should explain that the compartment has four long seats, two on either side as you enter, one about five feet above the other. These seats double as beds to sleep on and are intended to be used by four people, although it seems that some a couple of compartments had 8 or 10 people in them.
As I was about to go back to my compartment and get settled in I saw a man go into my compartment and sit down. Older guy, salt and pepper moustache. He looks at me, points around the cabin and says cheteeree? (four?) [ed. note: I’m using transliterations throughout this entry, apologies to the Russian language]. I say "da, cheteeree" (yes, four). He says "cheteree?” again. I say "da, cheteree billets" (yes, I have four tickets). All friendly but it's clear he wants to sit in my car, which I might have been OK with in the States for a while but I lack the Russian skills to tell him that’s it’s only temporary until I want to go to sleep. He starts talking, fast and I break into a good couple of "ya ne pineemiyus" (I don’t understand) and he gets it and leaves.
Then, not two minutes later the conductor comes around to collect tickets and she says "cheteeree?" Here we go again with the four thing. I say "da" (yes) and she says "da" but resignedly but gives me my four ticket stubs and then five seconds later she comes around with the sheets to use when it’s bedtime in bags and wants to give me 4. Here’s where it all goes wrong. I put up one finger and say "adin" (one). She says "cheteree, nyet?" (four, no?) with the raised eyebrows and everything. I say, "ok, dva" (ok, two) thinking maybe I want an extra blanket. But she says "cheteeree" very definitively” and I say "ok" like maybe I'm supposed to just take the four to avoid it becoming an issue but then she takes two back and leaves.
Two minutes later I hear her speaking with another conductor as I was about to open the door to get some fresh air. She's talking to the older, beefy male conductor whose got the starched uniform with the stars on his epaulets. I say, really friendly in English "OK, I'll take cheteeree if it’s easier" and she hands the two extra sets of bedding to me and closes the door. Two minutes later big cheese conductor is back knocking on the door to the compartment. He enters and puts his hand out to shake mine, which I do, and he says "kahk dee la?" (how’s it going?) I blank for a second then say "karashow, spahseeba" (fine, thanks) and he says "da." Then he points to the stars on the epaulets and says something I don't understand but I presume he's telling me he's the big cheese conductor because he points to either end of the train a couple of times. Then he says "cheteeree?" “Again with the Cheteeree” I thought and couldn’t help smiling.
[As they say in Kazakhstan, I shall explain to you. This whole thing brought to mind a very funny Saturday Night Live skit from many years ago. Don Rickles was the host and in a skit very early on in the program in which he and Dan Ackroyd were supposed to play slap each other a couple of times but I think that Rickles hit Ackroyd a little too hard on the last one because Dan looked like he was about to get mad and then blew it off. It turns out that they were both in another skit later in the program and in a middle of the dialogue out of nowhere Ackroyd reaches out and slaps Rickles really hard. It was a complete non-equator but Rickles tried to be a real pro, he never blinked, looked right at Ackroyd and said “Again with the slaps? You didn’t learn your lesson the first time? At which point they both lost it and the director cut to a commercial. Now, every time something comes back around that I thought was concluded I think to myself “Again with the slaps?” and try not to laugh.]
Anyway, he says “cheteeree” again and I laugh and pantomime that I'm going to sleep with one arm on each top bunk and one foot on each bottom bunk. He laughs and points to the epaulets with the stars again. I'm thinking, does he want a little extra something "for some chocolate"? But I give him the "I'm just a dumb foreigner look" and he looks down and sees that I have my camera in my hands so he points to himself and says "photo, da?". And I say "da" and then he buttons his top button and I take his picture and then he points to the two extra sets of bedding and then to the blue denim bag the other conductor had been pulling the sets from earlier and he looks up and down the corridor and points to the bag and now I'm really confused. Does this mean that I'm supposed to put the extra sets in the bag now? Later after the corridor is clear so no one knows I don’t have four people in here? Have I disturbed the order of the universe? Anyway, he sweeps his arm across the window opposite my compartment door and says, proudly- "Kazakhstan". I say "da" he says "devai" (cheers) and pantomimes that I should take pictures and walks away. I saw the most amazing sunset as I wrote this and thankfully didn’t hear the word “cheteeree” for the rest of the night.
On a final note, I just wanted to send my wife a shout out in Arkalyk, it’s a huge day for our family and I’m really proud of her and of Aidan for being such a good, happy girl while we’re gone. It’s impossible to say thank you too many times to our family and friends for all the help love and support you’ve all shown to get us to this day. We’re almost home.