I can't remember exactly when it was that the idea of travelling by train across central Asia from Tashkent to Moscow first occurred to me. But having occurred, it quickly took hold. When I discovered the train had a first-class sleeper, that was it - hooked.
I last travelled on a sleeper 10 or more years ago from Berlin to Freiburg in south-west Germany and found It a very pleasant experience. Even a shower cubicle within the cabin I think and certainly coffee and croissants served in-cabin for breakfast. By a very comely attendant.
So, early Saturday evening, full of expectation, I boarded the train at the shiny new Tashkent main station. Visions of a Captain Cook 5☆ Tour type train are immediately dispelled. This is an older style Soviet sleeper.
My fellow passengers crowd on too. A couple of families each with 2 young children and a few middle-age couples.. Barely a word of English between them (excuse my Western arrogance), not that I have any of either Uzbek or Russian.
In the space of the next 10 minutes I discover that the air con does not work, the power point does not work, there is no restaurant car, no supplies are available onboard and there is no shower. For a 66 hour journey to Moscow this is going to be ugly.
I arrange my luggage. My tablet is my only source of distraction with a long list of podcasts to get through but it is nearly out of battery. It's very hot and airless. I am soon down to my undies with the other chaps standing around in the corridor. We exchange nods and amid much smiling make futile attempts at conversation. The kids are running up and down having a great time.
The train sets off on time. After travelling a short distance we stop for border formalities - Tashkent is very close to the Kazakhstan border. Customs and Immigration come through and individually check each passenger. The formalities take about 2 hours during which the train is stopped and hot, getting hotter. Formalities completed, the train rumbles along for another short distance and stops again. We have entered Kazakhstan. The whole Customs and Immigration process starts again, this time with sniffer dogs looking for narcotics. Helpfully a money changer comes through and I offload my Uzbek som for Russian roubles. It is midnight, 5 hours since leaving Tashkent, before the train is cleared to leave. We are still in our undies when, thankfully, the air con and power point come to life.
Waking up the next morning, we are in the desert. The route is more or less a straight line north west through western Kazakhstan from Tashkent to Moscow skirting the north east area of what was the Aral Sea. There are Bactrian camels, cattle, horses, sheep and, surprisingly to me, only a few goats. The Bactrian camels are to be distinguished from those with a single hump which are more accurately referred to as dromedaries.
It is a big beautiful desert. Much of the area through which the train travels is irrigated to some degree - hence the disappearance of the Aral Sea. There are small towns and villages and the train is doing a milk run - stopping at many of them. They are grim places, understandably - the climate is grim. I quickly learned to take advantage of these stops to get supplies from the platform vendors. Even though this is a big desert there are people here. There is quite a lot of rail traffic with freight trains carting goodness knows what and passenger trains going goodness knows where. Rail is a high maintenance business and I expect the villages house, amongst others, maintenance workers. Same for the extensive power grid. And roads. And workers in the livestock trade. So there would be plenty to do out here.
There are cemeteries where miniature buildings in Islamic style ensure the dead feel at home. They are usually a few hundred metres outside each village but some appear to be in the middle nowhere. This must be a Kazakh thing as I saw nothing like them in Uzbekistan.
All of a sudden, a few hundred kilometres south of the Russian border, quite abruptly, there are trees. Pines of some sort. From no trees to trees just like that.
First thing Monday morning we arrive at the Russian border about 150k southeast of Orenburg. Russian customs and immigration come through with their dogs too. Now the landscape and vegetation is conventional temperate as throughout most of lowland northern Europe. Another 30 hours through forests of birch and farmland to finally arrive at Moscow's Kazansky Station. I preferred the desert. But now to find the hotel and have a shower!
Notwithstanding deprivation of the luxury accoutrements, I have considerably enjoyed the trip. Watching the desert go by is a hypnotic meditative experience. The desert is both always and never changing. The rhythm of the train adds to the sensory experience and is made up of combinations of different vibrations and different sounds. There can be clackety clack, clickety click or clunkedy clunk as well as many others. There are various motions - shocks, rattling, vibration, swaying, jolting, shaking - all varying from gentle through to abrupt. And the train's horn, liberally used, sounds like a long hard blow on a deep one-note bagpipe.
A rail trip well worth doing ..... once!