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October 2, 2002

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Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, the size of Western Europe, but most of the land is empty desert and arid steppe. Any train ride in Kazakhstan is long, at least day. The weather swings from one extreme (40 Celsius) to the other (-40 Celsius) from summer to winter. We're here during autumn's downward swing; it's 18 Celsius during the day. From Atyrau on the Caspian we ride a train for 36 hours across West Kazakkhstan. The route skirts the top of the Aral Sea before descending south to Turkistan. Our train runs over a plain of rough grass and sand. The sun has bleached the landscape into an empty, dull yellow. Every few hours our train pulls into a small village that lies out here like a forgotten postage stamp stuck on the swathe of beige. Each village is a copy of its neighbor, spread at intervals of sixty kilometers down the tracks. Tin and brick hovels lay scattered around the railroad ties. A kilometer beyond the last house stands a small cemetery. No roads find there way here, only the railway and hoof prints from camels, horses, and goats. The villagers eke out an existence from their small livestock herds and subsistence farming. The train provides a welcome diversion for them but no comfort for us. Each cabin is a sauna where mosquitoes make a living off our sweating flesh. Squatters sit in our cabin and fill the luggage bins with lettuce, potatoes, and knock-off Reebok or Nike shoes. They trade and barter these goods at each village. Every stop is a frenzied show. The traders hop from the train, spread their stuff on blankets and shout their prices while dusty villagers jostle past. Some villagers sell home cooked meals to the passengers, handing over noodle soup or chicken and potatoes in plastic bags. After five minutes the whistle sounds, deals rush to a close, and the traders haul their things back onto the train.
For the villagers who live life along this lonely track in the desert, the train is a shopping mall on wheels.
Surprisingly good meals in the middle of nowhere: spicy chicken, potatoes, and laghman (noodles, mutton, potato soup)
Scenery viewed all the way from Atyrau to Turkestan