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Overland through Central Asia

“Bad news.  It’s impossible.”  They’re the words every traveler dreads—yet loves—to hear.  Turn around.  Go back.  You can’t get there from here.   The road’s out, the train’s cancelled, there be dragons.  All those carefully-laid plans up in smoke—or are they?  Intended as an earnest warning, they also constitute a powerful goad to plunge forward, to see for one’s self; especially in these days of prepackaged travel, rampaging globalization, and Lonely Planet as company wherever you go, the challenge of brushing aside the well-meant caution and risking…well, risking minor discomfort and inconvenience…for the sake of a little suspense, adventure, and spontaneity during a six-week vacation in the summer of 2001 proved completely irresistible.
 In this case, the grim tidings that threatened to discombobulate our plans had come from our host at the university in Saratov, Russia, a medium-sized city along the Volga River about 450 miles southeast of Moscow.  Along with a bunch of American and Russian colleagues, and accompanied by my wife, Annie, I was there, in early July, to participate in a summer school for Russian professors on the history of the cold war.  But far more grandiose travel visions had danced before my eyes from the moment, after receiving my invitation, that I located Saratov on a map: A professionally-justifiable trip to this backwater, tantalizingly close to the Kazak border, could also serve as a pretext to fulfill a dream to visit the exotic oases of the Silk Road: Khiva, Bokhara, Samarkand, even Kashgar, now accessible from Kyrgyzstan over the long-closed Torugart Pass. (It was of course clear that summers in Central Asia were known to be broilingly hot and therefore just about the worst time of year to travel there, but as Annie and I are both teachers bound to academic schedules, we didn’t have much choice: It seemed like now or possibly never!)  And once in Xinjiang, in western China, the only sensible road home would be the Karakoram Highway to northern Pakistan—the tallest in the world, through some of the globe’s most spectacular mountain scenery—before flying back to Washington.
 As some quick guidebook-flipping established, the notion of going overland from Moscow to Islamabad in little more than a month seemed eminently plausible—and the only clearly dubious leg of the trip, from a purely logistical standpoint (not counting the more mundane dangers of unforeseen outbreaks of civil war, landslides, border closings, rapacious border guards, etc.), concerned the transition from southern Russia to Central Asia.  Unlike most visitors to Uzbekistan’s major attractions, who began by flying to Tashkent and then heading west, our goal would be to travel overland (once the summer school ended) from Saratov, Russia, to Urgench, Uzbekistan (the nearest transit hub for the ancient city of Khiva), via the desert lying between the Caspian and Aral Seas, now belonging to the post-Soviet republic of Kazakstan.
  Guidebooks showed a rail line crossing the otherwise barren trans-Caspain desert, but they were years out of date and all included the warning that transportation links in Central Asia were notoriously fickle, unpredictable, and unreliable in any case.  So, while making the rounds of embassies collecting visas before our departure in late June, I e-mailed our host in Saratov to try to determine if we could really travel by train from there on to Uzbekistan.  No problem, came the eventual response—simply take the overnight train further down the Volga to Volgograd (the former Stalingrad of World War II fame), where one could connect with a 9 am through train to Central Asia that would stop in Urgench on the way to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, another former Soviet republic.  Thus assured, we went ahead with our plans, including buying a return air ticket from Pakistan and using the internet to arrange with a travel agent in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to spend several nights in yurts en route to the Torugart pass and Kashgar.<!–page–>
 It all seemed rather straightforward, albeit no less enticing, as we flew to Moscow and hopped a midnight train to Saratov, where we settled into our quarters at the slightly seedy but perfectly comfortable “Sokol” sanitarium cum hotel (not an uncommon set-up in the former USSR), site of the daily cold war history presentations and discussions.  In the evenings, we explored downtown Saratov, a curious blend of residual Soviet-era paraphernalia and newfangled protocapitalism.  Unblemished statues of Lenin and his secret police chief, Felix Dzherzhinsky, still towered (and glowered) over squares in front of city hall and the railroad stations, respectively, fresh bouquets adorned a still-flickering eternal flame monument to the advent of communist rule during the Bolshevik revolution, and a gaggle of live if elderly communists assembled to protest angrily a new law allowing the sale of land as private property.  It was our first, but not last, encounter with visible signs of the so-called “Red Belt” of southern Russia which has voted heavily for communist candidates in post-Soviet elections.  Most residents, however, seemed far more interested in strolling the central Kirovaya pedestrian mall, watching each other and stopping to shop or sip Coke or Pepsi (or play video games or connect to the internet) at one of the many similar-looking cafes, or to inspect the fresh produce—especially raspberries, grapes, and other fruit—sold by lines of old women along the curb.  In the evenings, the local opera house, freshly decorated with non-ideological ceiling paintings, hosted respectable showings for provincial productions, and a visiting Moscow comedy troupe (who had acquired VIP-status at our sanatorium/hotel) drew several nights of full houses.  And on the same central plaza where a few dozen communists had shouted slogans a few days earlier, hundreds of kids gathered to hear rock music and play soccer in front of a giant inflated classic Coke bottle in a festival sponsored by the American soft drink giant in yet another minor skirmish of its eternal cold drink war with its superpower rival.  To beat the heat, residents (and the odd hookey-playing cold war scholar) could find refreshment in the cool Volga by escaping to a nearby beach or boating to one of many deserted islands.
 All seemed well until, one morning, our host, who had kindly volunteered to buy our train tickets to Urgench, approached me with a somber expression. According to the train station officials, he said, no onward travel through Kazakstan to Urgench was possible.  In his view, we had best return to Moscow and fly to Tashkent if we wanted to visit Central Asia.  Taken aback, I pressed for details.  Surely, even if the through-trains were cancelled, it should at least be possible to take local trains from Astrakhan across the Kazak border to the next major town—which a quick glance at a guidebook map indicated was the Caspian port of Atyrau (formerly known, in Soviet days, by the Russian name of Gorey)—and continue onwards by local transport.  After grudgingly agreeing to check into that option, he returned the next day with the vague admission that yes, there might be a train between Astrakhan and Atyrau, but if so, he emphasized, it was an “ochen plocha”—very bad—train, filled with refugees, drug smugglers, and other, unspecified dangers.<!–page–>
 Disconcerted, but not yet dissuaded, we went to the train station ourselves, along with Svetlana, Russian colleague and friend who promised to help ascertain the situation in view of our rudimentary, if gawkishly enthusiastic, language skills.  In the venerable Soviet tradition we were shunted from one ticket line to the next, finally ending up in a rather ritzy upstairs service bureau which seemed primed to double as an after-hours entertainment bureau once night fell.  Finally, we reached the head of the final queue, and the glow of a computer screen raised our flickering hopes that the woman behind the counter might actually be able to provide some hard information.
 “Urgench?  No problem,” she said, to our amazement, explaining that a quite comfortable train could be easily taken.  In fact, it originated in Sofia, she added brightly, which seemed a bit odd given the geography involved.  Further questioning clarified that she had confused our Uzbek destination for a town in Romania.  Oh, well—but this was not entirely surprising. On our previous visit to Russia, a few years earlier, we had tried to buy train tickets from Moscow to the city of Chisinau (pronounced Chish-in-au); the request elicited horrified looks from the ticket-seller, who begged us to reconsider; considerable mutual confusion gradually yielded to the realization that we wanted to travel to the capital of Moldova rather than the violent breakaway province of Chechnya, and the sale went forward.
 This time, however, improved understanding lessened rather than increased our odds of a successful transaction.  No, she confirmed finally—after much brow-furrowing, keyboard-punching, and unfurling of Soviet-vintage route maps—we could not get by train to Urgench, Uzbekistan.  In desperate, broken, pigeony Russian I tried to suggest outlandish alternatives, all to no avail—Svetlana later described the seller’s expression as one of pity rather than exasperation.  Seeking to end my inquisition, the rail employee made eye contact with her countrywoman, and just shook her head sadly.  The most she would admit was that she could not completely discount the potential existence of a, sniff, Kazak—not Russian—train heading eastward from Astrakhan along the Caspian into Central Asia.  But, she added firmly, to take such a “plocha” train would be foolish even if it did exist.
 Well, that was good enough for us!  On that shred of hope, we could head further down the Volga to find out for ourselves. Besides, the unexpected suspense seemed not only apropos but de rigeur. While in Saratov I relished the tales of 19th-century British travelers to Central Asia in Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game, which made clear that no trip worth its salt (or a book contract back in London) was complete without sinister bureaucrats and well-intentioned friends advising the headstrong adventurer—questing after those same exotic Silk Road destinations, some along the same route—to give up, turn back, desist, before being swallowed up by the desert, stranded by unreliable transport, robbed, sold into slavery, or murdered by barbarian bandits waiting to pounce on unsuspecting caravans along the way.  The warnings about dangerous people and dirty trains also reminded us of other tales we had heard, borne largely of ignorance or suspicion, especially in southeastern Europe.  Going in both directions between Hungary and Romania, for instance, people in each country told us that the train was fine until it reached the border, but after that, Watch Out!—for thieves, murderers, or just…different sorts of people.
<!–page–>Our state of mind, in sum, resembled that of the far more intrepid English traveler Peter Fleming, who, recounting a mid-1930s voyage towards the same ultimate Silk Road destination (Kashgar) from the opposite direction (albeit in far more perilous circumstances), and after receiving comparable warnings about the execrable transport services and nefarious inhabitants of the regions through which he intended to travel, observed (in News From Tartary):
 We often used to talk about luck.…I have no great faith in elaborate plans, scrupulous preparations in advance (though it is true that the margin by which they miss fulfilment often provides the best joke of the journey); particularly for travellers as ignorant and inexperienced as we were, the only possible answer to the question ‘What shall we do when we get there?’ was ‘Get there, and see what turns up.’
 So, on the afternoon of July 8, as our friends bid us a somewhat doubtful farewell, we steamed south from Saratov on the Kapitan Richnov (named after a Soviet military hero), a sparsely populated passenger liner that had left Moscow more than a week earlier.  Despite (or because of) the uncertainty, our spirits were high as we cruised down the great river—cool breezes, rolling green hills, tea to sip and refill from a huge keg of boiling water, and a Nobokov novel to dig into while sitting on the shady deck—the serenity, as the sun sank into the clouds beyond the western embankments, broken only by the periodic bursts of loud and derivatively ugly pop music that blared from loudspeakers until an annoyed passenger (me) located, and used, an off switch.
 We reached Volgograd, refreshed, the next morning, but what turned up when we went to the train station to see what turned up was simply more uncertainty—the rail employees there had no better idea than their Saratov colleagues whether trains existed to continue on to Uzbekistan. So, tossing in some more chips, we bought tickets on the overnight train to Astrakhan, figuring that only there could we really find out.  In the meantime, we spent the day touring the city which, like Saratov, still bore numerous signs of its Soviet past, including signs, banners, statues, red stars, and symbols of Lenin, hammers-and-sickles, etc., that could easily have been removed had the desire were there.  Of course, the main sights and monuments memorialized the incredibly bloody World War II battle (shown recently in the film Enemy at the Gates) in which Soviet forces held off the Nazi onslaught in the winter of 1942-43.
 Above all, of course, was the huge (72 meters tall) socialist realist sculpture of Mother Russia brandishing a sword atop the Mamaev Kurgan hill north of the city center, site of ferocious fighting and taken several times by both sides.  It was a clear sunny day (much as it had been on an earlier visit to Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camp in southern Poland at the same time of year), the beautiful weather, squawking kids, and relaxed atmosphere clashing with the intellectual realization that the green grass concealed the bones, bodies, hopes and dreams of uncounted dead.  Climbing the long staircase from the nearby tram station, past brick ruins on which battle scenes and slogans were carved, and past a striking memorial flame held aloft by a giant hand that rose spookily from the ground, we were struck by the eerie presence of the man whose name the city bore after the war until 1961.  The recorded voice of the vozhd (boss), amidst the sound of machine-gun fire, exhorted the troops to victory, and at several points on the hill remained the white painted battle cry that so many thousands shouted on the way to their deaths: “ZA RODINA!  ZA STALINA!”  FOR THE MOTHERLAND!  FOR STALIN!<!–page–>
 That night we headed further south, sharing a sweaty second-class sleeping compartment on the 10 p.m. train to Astrakhan with two elderly Russians, Semyon from Sochi and Anatoly from Astrakhan.  Even before the grimy green cars left the station, they broke out bottles of vodka and another, home-brewed rotgut, as well as some smelly smoked fish, to which we added a few edible oddities brought from America.  From the jumble of Russian, English, German, Hebrew, and hand-gestures that followed, it appeared that Semyon was a trader and Anatoly a retired KGB officer and World War II veteran (which prompted the inevitable round of toasts to the Grand Alliance).  The conversation lagged and faded out after a while, but between the burning sensations in my stomach, the fishy stench, and the fetid air in the closed compartment, I didn’t get much sleep.
 In Astrakhan the plot merely thickened.  When we awoke, the train was passing through the lush green marshes of the Volga delta, and our companions were conscientiously applying themselves to finishing the bottles they had brought with them. At the station, we inquired about trains to Uzbekistan, acutely aware that we had only a three-day window, beginning the next morning, during which we could cross Kazakstan according to the terms of the 72-hour transit visa we had obtained in Washington.  (Those transit visas, incidentally, cost $60 each, per person, for each three-day period; as we also had to pass through Kazakstan later in the trip, on a bus ride from hell between Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, that meant shelling out a total of $240 for the privilege of passing through the country, which apparently considers transit visas a major export.)
 The ticket-seller confirmed that, due to a suspension of service, no through-trains to Uzbekistan existed.  But the Cyrillic schedule hanging in the hall indicated, and she acknowledged, that once each day in the late afternoon a Kazak train headed for Atyrau; moreover, she added after some checking, it would continue further down the line toward Urgench, to a place called Beyneu, located (as a hasty inspection of a guidebook map disclosed) squarely in the middle of nowhere—the heart of the trans-Caspian desert.  Yet, Beyneu also appeared tantalizingly close to where we needed to go, for if one find a train (but only a train; there seemed to be no roads, and alas, we didn’t have time on our visas to go by camel) there that would cross the last stretch of desert, a few hundred miles, the next dot on the map, a place called Qongirat in the Karakalpakstan region of northwest Uzbekistan, seemed to be connected to asphalt that linked up to the rest of the country; surely it would be possible to find a ride to Urgench and Khiva.  But she had no idea whether trains were running between Beyneu  and Qongirat (or Qonghyrat, or Kongrat, depending on where one looked).
 Well, what the hell.  We had come this far, we might as well play out the string.  Two tickets for Beyneu, leaving tomorrow, please!  First, however, some exploring of Astrakhan, and though passing up the city’s specialty and cause for fame—as the historic center of Russia’s caviar industry (now endangered by over-fishing of Caspian sturgeon)—we walked the sleepy streets, clambered over the whitewashed 16th-century Kremlin (fortress) built by Ivan the Terrible’s troops, and sampled the popular cafes and restaurants (some of them floating) along the river embankment.  As the historic juncture of ancient Silk Road and Volga trade routes, as well as a recent resurgence in Caspian commerce, Astrakhan had a more cosmopolitan feel than the other Russian cities we’d visited.  More non-Slavs, with Central Asian and Middle Eastern features, walked the streets, which featured some handsome pre-revolutionary architecture from more prosperous days and, instead of garish monuments to the KGB, a memorial for victims of political repression.  An even more impressive sign of sophistication—and unique on our entire six-week trip through Central Asia—was that the Astrakhan taxi drivers (or at least some of them) actually wore seatbelts, instead of considering them as a useless, tonsil-like appendage or ornament, and taking grave offense if a passenger dared to buckle them, an act that drivers elsewhere seemed to view as an insult (“I am safe driver! Really!”), an act of perversion, or both.
 That didn’t mean the taxi drivers didn’t know how to speed if the situation demanded it.  One of them saved our butts just as we were about to leave, racing from the railroad station to a cybercafe (where I’d forgotten my guidebook after sending some e-mails to friends with our travel plans in case we disappeared) and back in time for us to catch our blue Kazak train.  This, finally, was the dangerous, “ochen plocha” ride about which we had been warned, but it seemed entirely comfortable to us, still more so as we got to know our compartment companion. Eldar, a friendly Kazak in his twenties who bore a resemblance to a young Muhammed Ali, had trained to be a veterinarian, but the poor economy had driven him to labor on one of the international projects prospecting for petroleum or natural gas that had sprung up along the Caspian since the Soviet break-up.  He was on his way home to visit family in Aktau, a Kazak port near the massive Tenghiz oil fields under development by Western multinationals, and due west from the Beyneu junction.<!–page–>
Speeding east through the darkness, we could see out the windows a dramatic reminder of the industry that had come to dominate the region’s economy—dozens of red flames blazing from natural gas towers.  In a couple of hours we reached the border, and while waiting on the platform during a passport check, we had, literally, our first taste of Central Asia.  Making guidebook conversation with Eldar, we had expressed interest in trying a Kazak specialty, shubat, a drink made from fermented camel’s milk.  Showing a hospitality we would encounter frequently in the next few weeks, he had asked around until he discovered a fellow passenger carrying a bottle of the stuff, and to much collective amusement, my wife and I gulped down some of the fizzy, pleasingly chilled, slightly yogurt-like liquid.  (It didn’t taste bad, and was less, uh, camelly than feared.)
As we pulled away from the station, the young woman who had provided the shubat, Alyssa, a design student in Russia returning to visit her family in Aktau, joined us in our compartment, and soon the two Kazaks, understandably enough, began to find flirting with each other more interesting than trying to communicate with the tired Americans, who were happy to read and then fall asleep to the sound of the rocking carriage. The next morning the blossoming potential romance still seemed alive, and Eldar and Alyssa volunteered to watch our bags when the train stopped in Atyrau for seven hours and we wanted to take a look around.
 Other than the novelty of straddling the Europe-Asia border along the Ural River, however, Atyrau didn’t seem to have much to offer.  Dusty and dilapidated, the former Russian trading post looked stuck in post-Soviet doldrums.  A quest for some sort of edible breakfast took us from one closed café to another, until we finally ended up on the outskirts of town at the Hotel Chagala, an upscale lodging for international executives working on the oil and natural gas fields.  There we found a restaurant that, bizarrely, resembled a London pub that, with its chalkboard menu with fish-and-chips, ploughman’s pie, and other staples, and CNBC and BBC on the tube, had fallen to the Kazak desert from the cargo hold of a passing British Airways jet.  With the broiling desert outside, and after two overnight trains in three nights, it felt positively decadent to eat an omelet, sip real coffee (instead of Nescafe!), and drink ice water (without worrying about the ice).  To give us just a glimpse of the boomtown atmosphere, some Canadian and Dutch oil and gas execs in business suits sidled up to the bar near and radiated optimism that their enterprises, and all Kazakstan for that matter, were on the upswing.
 Back in our train, we soon turned south and spent the rest of the hot day chugging through the barren, mustard-colored desert, the expanse of sand broken only occasionally by tufts of grass, brown rocks, a few rusting huts, and even—our first glimpses of camels and yurts!  As the sun set and we neared Beyneu, our new Kazak friends, horrified when they heard of our plans to spend the night in Beyneu waiting for the morning train, added their voices to the chorus urging us to reconsider our plans.  Beyneu, Eldar said, was “like Bombay,” and the people there were “exotic”; once he had had to wait three days to catch a train out.  Better, they agreed, if we came with them to Aktau (to which the train would continue), stay with them and their families, and then fly to Almaty, the Kazak capital, more than a thousand miles to the east.
 Having come this far, we turned down their kind offer, but our first glimpses of Beyneu, which we reached about 10 pm, suggested that Eldar hadn’t been kidding—in the ill-lit darkness, hundreds of people were roaming over the tracks, milling about in a vast, noisy hubbub, and we could make out scores of women in traditional clothes in front of piles of foods and other supplies.  Amid the chaos, it was hard to tell which of the little shacks housed anything resembling a waiting room or ticket office, but finally a policeman guided us to a small concrete building filled with stale humid air and sweaty, exhausted Russians and Central Asians, many clustered around a single ticket window.  As Annie staked a spot to sit with our bags, I joined the ticket scrum, and an hour of waiting naturally ended, shortly before midnight, with the window closing shut just as I reached the front of the line.  Still, finally, we had some hard information: According to the hand-lettered sign, while the through-trains to Dushanbe and Tashkent were indeed out, there did seem to be, each morning, a 7:30 a.m. train to Qonghrat.  And, as best I could tell, the ticket window was due to re-open sometime before 5, some six hours away.
 That left the rest of the night—our ninth anniversary—to stay awake; missing the next morning’s train would mean not only being marooned in the dead center of nowhere for another 24 hours, but overstaying our transit visa, which expired the next day, and being subject to the whims of Kazak border guards, known to charge “fines” of hundreds of dollars for the slightest infraction.  We were unable to get to sleep, or even to take more than brief strolls in the cool air outside, because there was no place to leave our bags and because even though the ticket window had closed, lights remained on behind the curtain, and the slightest rustle of activity would provoke a sudden clamor among those who, like us, were desperate to assure their places on the morning train.  As the hours passed, new people kept trickling in and gathering around the window, heightening the paranoia, and crowds at the ticket window formed and dissipated repeatedly.
 To keep from nodding off, I wrote in my journal, tried to focus on Philip Glazebrook’s Journey to Khiva, and people-watched; of the 20 or 30 tired souls in the room, we were the only Westerners, the rest a mix of Russians and Central Asians, ranging from whole families to traders carrying wares, some snoozing, others, like us, bleary-eyed but conscious.  It wasn’t the most comfortable place to spend the night.  Perhaps, with the desert outside considered a human litter box, a toilet was considered superfluous.  In a stirring display of gender solidarity, the female members of a large Russian family (from babushka to grandchildren) sitting near us, on their way to visit relatives in Uzbekistan, sensed Annie’s discomfort and lead her through the darkness outside to a suitable location to do her business.
 Live human and animal dramas punctuated the long hours.  A doctor came to examine a man who had collapsed, and administered a syringe.  A scruffy white cat provided considerable entertainment and amusement, and garnered affectionate pets, until it began to stalk a tiny mouse who squealed in terror as it ran behind the seats.  Several people, including Annie, tried to shoo the pursuer away, but it eventually caught and killed its prey, and seemed confused when its erstwhile human friends, including the babushka, now shunned its entreaties for further caresses.
 At about 4 in the morning I made my move.  Returning from a walk outside for some cool air, I casually sidled up to the vacant ticket window, opened Journey to Khiva, and steeled myself to wait as long as it took for the window to open.  Miraculously, about a half hour later, the curtains suddenly parted, and an expectant face peered out as a throng noisily clustered around me. I uttered the Russian sentence I had begin practicing most of the night, politely requesting two tickets to Qonghrat, and victoriously emerged from the scrum carrying two scraps of paper entitling me to same.  To celebrate, Annie and I went outside to the moonlit platform and bought our first Central Asian melon—its succulence, a harbinger of the wonderful fruit we would encounter throughout our trip, enhanced by our sense of triumph, our nearly delirious belief that we might actually escape Beyneu within a few hours, and eventually get some sleep.  Sitting on the ground, we sliced off hunks with a Swiss army knife, delivered some to our friends in the waiting room, and savored the taste and the moment.<!–page–>
 Of course, it turned out that our tickets were practically worthless, at least in the quaint sense of assuring a seat.  When the train pulled into the station around seven, under a baking sun, it was immediately stormed by hundreds of waiting passengers, including large families, fighting their way through the rusty doors, dragging and hurling sacks and bags and suitcases and boxes, and then cramming themselves and their luggage into every empty seat, bed, rack, and even bit of floor. Pushed back and forth through several cars, we finally wedged ourselves and our backpacks into some unclaimed nooks and crannies—or, to be more accurate, we persuaded others who had already staked their claim to pack themselves in a bit more tightly in order to make room—Annie joining a large family, but on a seat, me bent fetal-like into an unpadded wooden upper berth that resembled an overhead luggage compartment.
 Then the real fun started.  Kazakh customs and border guards walked through the trains to check documents, fairly half-heartedly until they came to us and noted our grimy blue American passports.  Clearly amused, they turned them over, flipped through, compared pictures and stamps, and passed them amongst themselves, apparently to a superior in another car.  They claimed, falsely, that our transit visa was not good for overland entry, that the dates were wrong, etc.  Then they started to walk off the train, carrying the passports, and waving to us to come with them, saying, “Pashli, pashli,” Russian for “let’s go.” 
This set off some serious internal panic.  There was absolutely no way, I felt, we were going to remove the luggage from the places where they were so tightly wedged and abandon the spaces we had won at such cost, especially with the train—our only escape until the next day—on the verge (theoretically, anyway) of departure.  On the other hand, our passports were disappearing…I ran after them, off the train, with several nightmare scenarios bouncing through my head—the train leaving without us, us leaving without our passports, Annie without her passport still on the train as it chugged off into the desert while I remained stuck in Beyneu—and grabbed the guards by their uniform, frantically indicating the correct dates on our transit visa.  Somehow my broken Russian, desperation, or whatever broke through, and they let me grab the precious documents and run back to the train just before it left the station.
So much for Kazakh bureaucracy.  We settled into our sweaty spaces and tried to sleep, but our presence proved ineluctably fascinating to many of the passengers, both adults and children, and we ended up spending much of the next ten hours in desultory, if animated, conversation as we sustained ourselves with bottled water and fast warming fruits, tomatoes, bread, salami, and plastic bags of manti (dumplings) in sauce and caught glimpses of the dun-colored wasteland outside. 
However, by early afternoon a new element of suspense had arisen—now the Uzbek border/customs guards, already on the train, began to display their own acute fascination and doubt over our passports.  For more private and intense consultations, I was ushered into a private compartment to chat with a husky, mustachioed fellow who appeared to be the one in charge.  Once again, I was told that our transit visas weren’t valid for this method of entry, that we must first fly to Tashkent, etc., etc.  Much more or less friendly banter and conversation ensued, but no resolution.  Perhaps he was fishing for a bribe, but I didn’t offer one.  Finally, he told me that our case would be decided by proper authorities once we reached Qonghrat.
At dusk we heaved and groaned and pulled into the first stop in Uzbekistan (actually its semi-autonomous northwestern province of Karakalpakstan).  Escorted by the border guards off the train and onto the platform, I could see, a few dilapidated concrete shacks that served as the station, and behind them, a lot filled with vans, trucks, cars, signifying the road to the southeast, and on to Khiva and the rest of the Silk Road.  We were told to wait, under guard, and a few minutes later, a man who was clearly the head honcho, big enchilada, etc., arrived—we knew he was important because of the deference the others showed and because, unlike them, he didn’t wear a uniform.
“Salaam aleikum,” I said cheerfully, lapsing into that manner, on the blurry borderlands of bonhomie and ingratiation, familiar to any traveler at the mercy of some local potentate.  We shook hands, I explained our purpose and destination in semi-coherent Russian, pointed confidently to our visas, hoped to the best—and to our relieved delight (though of course we affected nonchalance), heard him order the officers at our sides to put us on a van to Urgench.  Victory!
Now under command to escort us towards our destination rather than barring our entry, the guards guided us to a white Daihatsu mini-van already crammed with passengers, and gestured to us to scrunch ourselves and our bags into the back.  Four bouncy and bleary hours later, we reached Urgench, where we were dumped onto a darkened plaza in front of the train station that probably once featured revolutionary parades but now lacked even a working street light.  A rather skeezy taxi driver insisted on bringing us to Soviet style monstrosity of a hotel rather than the one we asked to be taken to (we never did find out whether it really closed, or burned down, or flooded, or whatever he claimed had caused it to lapse into oblivion), but we were in no mood or condition to argue.  Sure enough, it was a seedy rip-off at $32 per person—but at least the air-con worked, the bar produced an ice-cold Coke for a tattered American dollar, and we were able to sleep for the first time in almost sixty hours.
The next morning, refreshed, triumphal, and expectant, we hitched a ride to Khiva from two Uzbek teenagers.  When we told them how we had come from southern Russia, they burst out with exclamations that we imagined were admiration but may just as well have been disbelief that Americans would choose such an idiotic method to reach their city.  In a half hour the sandy stone walls and minarets of Khiva’s old town, the Ichon-Qala, came into view, and while some jaded travelers like Glazebrook deride the carefully preserved and prettified and partially restored former capital of the slave-trading khanate conquered by Russia in 1873 as a soulless Sovietized museum, we gloried in having made it to the Silk Road.  Just inside the west gate we encountered the massive tapered stump of the never-completed Kalta Minor Minaret, covered in turquoise and blue glazed tiles, and checked into the adjacent hotel in the erstwhile Mohammed Admin Khan Medresa, taking a room once reserved for religious students.  Sure it was touristy, the stone streets mostly emptied of the throngs of peddlers and townspeople described by 19th-centuy travellers.  But nothing could detract from the incredible beauty of the architecture, the intricately-tiled palaces, mosques, and minarets, or from our keen satisfaction (and relief!) at proving that you can get here from there.
The rest of the trip was, comparatively, fairly straightforward.  Taxis to Bokhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent, an overnight bus ride from hell between Tashkent and Bishkek, a three-night yurt adventure through Kyrgyzstan to the Torugart Pass and on to Kashgar.  Then, after the de rigeur tromping through the Sunday animal market, the two-day Chinese bus (whose whuuup-whuuup horn evoked a Three Stooges sound effect and never failed to crack us up) along the Karakoram Highway to Tashkurgan and over the Khunjerab Pass into Pakistan; and then a succession of buses, mini-vans, and jeeps along the KKH through awe-inspiring, heart-stopping scenery through the mountains and along the Hunza and Indus River gorges, past snow-capped Rakaposhi and Nangar Parbat, and then down into the sweltering plains, through Pathan towns filled with turbaned men and invisible women (indoors and/or veiled), turning east at the Grand Trunk Road toward Rawalpindi (instead of west towards Peshawar and Kabul), pausing briefly to inspect the ancient ruins at Taxila before, finally, pulling up to the ultimate destination, our splurge and reward for having made it overland all the way from Moscow—the deliciously chilled lobby of the Islamabad Holiday Inn, in Pakistan’s sleepy capital.  After a day of meeting colleagues and raiding the English-language bookstores, we flew off to London, and on to the United States.  Exactly one month later, the terrorist attacks of September 11 jerked Pakistan into the center of a new world crisis—journalists and diplomats suddenly invaded the Holiday Inn and far more expensive Marriott Hotel, and pro-Taliban militants blocked the KKH, occupying the Indus town of Besham where we had spent the night—and, in a bizarre juxtaposition of the horrific and the joyful, Annie became pregnant with our first child.  I write these words shortly after our son, Gabriel William Hershberg, was born, on May 16, 2002.  We’ll take him traveling and hope he’ll hunger for adventure as we do.  But, with that part of the world festering with anger, wandering through Central Asia with a kid seems not only impractical but irresponsible, for a long time to come.  It really had been now or never.

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