Silk Road to Ruin (1997 Essay)

A slightly shorter version of the following piece originally appeared in P.O.V. magazine in 1997:

Madness on the Post-Soviet Silk Road
by Ted Rall

The doors of our cabin flew open after eight hellish hours on the death train. It was the Turkmeni Border Patrol, distinguishable from their Uzbek counterparts only by their green (not red, as in Uzbekistan, or blue, as in Kazakhstan) epaulettes. “Amerikanskis! Passports!” they screamed.

A crazy question coursed through my baked brain synapses: How the hell did I get into such a fucked-up situation?

It started out, as every half-baked scheme from Columbus scamming the Pinta from Istanbul to cold fusion has, over free drinks. Last June I was working a P.O.V. party, trying to convince editor Randall Lane to send me somewhere distant and dangerous at the magazine’s expense.

That’s when I remembered an idea I had discussed with Alan Feuer, an up-and-coming writer for The New York Times. Alan and I proposed that P.O.V. send us on the ultimate road trip—to retrace the old Silk Road, Beijing to Istanbul, by car—or, if that was impossible, in a motorcycle-and-sidecar.

The resulting piece would answer that eternal question: What happens when you send two ordinary guys where they have absolutely no business going? As I explained, it was an open-bar party.

We weren’t the only ones hitting the G-and-Ts. A few e-mails later, Randall gave us the OK. There was just one thing: We’d have to go that summer. The first blizzards would hit Central Asia in late September, and we’d have more than 5,000 miles and seven time zones to cover on dubious roads under uncertain political conditions.

We had less than two months to prepare for Silk Road ‘97.

The Silk Road, Marco Polo Version

The Silk Road isn’t a specific road (although in certain places, it is), and it’s soaked with horrific bloodshed as much as it is with exoticism (although historians dwell on the exotic aspect). In a nutshell, the ancient Chinese began selling their silk to traders traveling west towards the Mediterranean at least 2,300 years ago.

This spurred the development of an overland trade route that ran from Xian in northeastern China to Istanbul in Turkey. It runs through the Central Asian republics that used to belong to the Soviet Union—Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan—and continues to Turkey (via either Iran or Azerbaijan).

No single guy ever made the whole trip. Most traders only traveled short distances from market to market because of robbers and lousy weather. The West paid for its silk, spices and porcelain with gold, ivory and wine, each item becoming more expensive the farther it was found from its point of origin.

As it is for contemporary travelers, geography was a huge problem for those who worked the Silk Road. Not only does the Central Asian climate vary wildly—from fierce blizzards to scorching 125-degree deserts—because nothing grows on the arid steppe, nomadic peoples supported themselves by robbing and killing travelers. To make life even more difficult, wave after wave of military conquest—by Huns, Turks, Muslims, Han Chinese and Mongols—has repeatedly looted and razed the region’s cities after massacring their populations.

Like an immense Belgium, Central Asia was a whole lot of nothing on an army’s way between Europe and Asia. After Genghis Khan’s Mongols sacked Bukhara in 1219, things started to go to shit. Nontheless, Marco Polo’s 13th century account of the collision between Oriental and Occidental cultures fascinated Europeans for centuries, and the Silk Road remains synonymous with romance, mystery and intrigue.

Today’s Soviet-built highways and railways follow the old Silk Road through mountain passes, along a string of oasis cities skirting the deserts. The ancient trading route is characterized by the economic ruin and civil wars that followed the Soviet collapse; nowadays it’s not sumptuous silk but cheaply-made Chinese clothing that makes the trip over treacherous border crossings to thousand-year-old bazaars. The new bandits are border guards and mobsters. And trade involves not silk, but American marines, Kazakh rebels and BP oil fields.

The Road to Ruin

“I can’t believe P.O.V. fell for this,” I gloated as we waited for our 24-hour flight to leave Kennedy Airport. Alan and I were close. We hung out all the time; as an added bonus, my wife and his girlfriend were friends independent of us. Now I was about to spend five weeks with my buddy on the ultimate road trip. I had pulled off some superb scams before, but this one deserved a lifetime-achievement award.

“It is pretty amazing,” Alan agreed.

We had wanted to follow the original Silk Road as faithfully as possible, but modern-day realities forced us to modify our plans. We had originally intended to start in Xian, but our ticket consolidator told us that it would cost $1,400 each to fly there (Beijing was $1,100 each). Worst of all, the Beijing-to-Xian plane only flies once a week, and nobody knows which day it goes. We decided to take a train to Xian to avoid getting trapped in Beijing.

We figured that we’d spend a day or two in Xian, hop a train west towards Kashgar, and from there take a bus to Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. Once in Bishkek, the British-published Cadogan Guide to Central Asia assured us, “asking prices start at about $100 in local currency for motorbikes, $200 for motorbikes with sidecars and $500 for small cars.”

Then our adventure would begin. We’d cruise across the Kyrgyz steppe into the vast Uzbekistan desert at 120 mph, blasting Steppenwolf and tossing empty bottles of Trotsky Beer out the window at Bactrian camels, sucking up dust all the way to Turkey. Anyway, that was the plan.

In an inspired example of business acumen, all three legs of our Asiana Airlines featured gruesome footage of seared body parts being extracted from a recent Korean Airlines crash in Guam. Then we dropped through a mid-morning smog into a maze of housing projects capped with flapping red flags. Two days after we’d left, we arrived in China.

Money Changes Everything

After reading ominous tales of tourists getting strip-searched by rabid commie cops, we almost disappointed to get waved through Beijing airport customs.

Our friends had advised us to bring a pile of one- and five-dollar bills for spending money. Moreover, recent visitors to other third-world countries like Vietnam had told me that the new hundreds are considered counterfeit, so I brought the old ones.

The Chinese cashier looked at me like I had three eyes when I handed her the $100. She held it up the light. Then she handed it to another clerk, who licked her thumb and ran it across Ben Franklin’s face. She frowned, then held it up and flicked the corner with her index finger. Flick! She listened intently. Flick! After a disrespectful pause she shoved it back under the window at me. “No good!” she spat. “Another one!”

I handed her twenty fives. The examination process was repeated with every bill—stare, rub, flick, flick, flick—every fourth one failed the test. “Look, lady,” I explained, “I’m American. They’re American dollars. I’m from New York. That’s where they make them!” She yelled at me in Chinese. I gathered my “money” and left.

Ultimately I succumbed to the madness—the same thing happened all over town—and got a dollar credit card advance at Bank of China. Armed with crisp new hundreds, we set out to buy train tickets.

“Welcome! You come at very bad time,” said the wife of the proprietor of our hotel’s travel agency. The TV was showing a game show in which the contestants attempt to knock each other off of various farm animals. “Last two weeks of August, no train tickets, impossible! Maybe September, maybe not, you know?”

Huge double-sized beers only cost the yuan equivalent of 12 cents each, and I had been sucking down one an hour since we’d arrived, so I was fine with this.

A bellhop told us that only the government-run CITS agency would sell train tickets to foreigners. At CITS a crisply-dressed grey-haired woman peered at us as we dripped sweat on her desk blotter. “Train tickets very difficult…still, I know someone, maybe he can talk to someone else, maybe arrange for Wednesday or Thursday, but who knows…probably not.” Inexplicably, travelers must buy their tickets for each leg of their journey at the point of origin; there’s no way to book ahead.

“Forget Xian,” I suggested, “let’s go straight to Kashgar.” Kashgar, in extreme western China, is the first important Silk Road city along the way.

“No, no, no, Kashgar train not finished yet until 1996. Take sleeper train to Urumqi,” she said, “then bus to Kashgar. Train is 80 hours. Then bus is 80 hours. So, 160 hours.” China is 20 percent larger than the continental U.S., but it seems even bigger because everything runs slower. She advised us to check back with her Tuesday to see whether her hombre had scored us tickets.

We spent the next four days visiting such tourist spots as the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the emperor’s Summer Palace, a cool complex of Buddhist temples straddling a picturesque hill. After a hard day of touristing in dank 90-degree soot, we hung out out at the ludicrously expensive Hard Rock Beijing watching ex-pat corporate lawyers play the angles with stunning Mongolian hookers. The $5 beers were wreaking havoc on our budget, so it was a relief when CITS called us. We had tickets for Tuesday night’s train to Urumqi.

Although everyone has assigned seats, the Chinese rush for trains like embassy staffers catching the last copter out of a war zone. 2,000 people jammed through a single turnstile in a slo-mo riot; we only survived by using our backpacks as bludgeons. Once on board, though, the 20-car train was modern and fully air-conditioned—a vast improvement over the trains I’d ridden in Thailand—and we had clean bunk “soft sleeper” beds in a four-bunk compartment adjacent to the dining car. Surprisingly, it moved at a respectable 50 or 60 mph the whole time.

We passed the next four days watching China go by our window.

We all have gifts—Alan’s is his stunning ability to absorb foreign languages. He only has to hear a word once to know it forever. Whereas most Westerners who study Chinese have trouble making themselves understood by native speakers, Alan carried on amazingly detailed conversations with our cabin mates, a Muslim Uyghur woman and her snotty 15-year-old daughter. I relied on drawings and hand signals. Alan soon became our interpreter—a role that he found increasingly irritating as time passed. “Can’t you ask for it yourself?” he’d grouse after handling my fifth request for a Coke in one morning. I hoped that I’d eventually make myself more useful.

Farms and trees and nuke plants disappeared the first day. Then came the parched dirt and hilly sculptured mud I’d longed to see since I’d first seen photos of Central Asia in National Geographic. It’s the most pristine place on earth, unspoiled because there’s no point building 7-Elevens or strip malls where no one has any money, beautiful the way Nevada’s U.S. Route 50 is, bleak and awesome. “This is what I came for!” I yelped.

“Whatever,” Alan growled, writing in his journal.

On our second afternoon—the unwashed passengers got scuzzier by the minute—there was a tiny commotion as the train breached a gap in the Great Wall. This far west it was only about six feet high, but for thousands of years this thing had delineated the outer limits of the civilized world. Leave the confines of this wall, and neither God nor emperor could save your ass.

We rolled west through the Turpan Depression (China’s version of Death Valley and the second-lowest place on the planet) past countless penal colonies, each full of skeletal inmates watching our train disappear as they leaned over the razor wire. On the third day, even the May 4th farms were gone—only dark-brown dirt stretching out to the Tian Shan mountain range remained.

Finally, on Friday morning, we arrived in Urumqi, the dusty, squalid capital of the predominantly-Muslim Xinjiang Autonomous Zone. We raced to the Stalinist-style Hongshan Hotel (you have to get a “floor lady” to open your door) to drop off our stuff, take cold-water showers and plan our next move at the CITS office.

At first I thought that there was a line, but the two dozen people milling around the room all turned out to be CITS employees respecting the Chinese penchant for overemployment. “The bus to Kashgar left thirty minutes ago,” a skinny guy told us, lighting up a butt while he was still working the last one. “How about next week?”

We had seven more countries to hit with a little over four weeks left before Alan had to be back at work; we couldn’t afford to waste any more time in China. The bus from Urumqi to Kashgar would have taken four days, plus another four for the bus to Bishkek in Kyrgystan. Instead we bought “hard sleeper” bus seats for Almaty; the train was out of the question because Kazakh border officials are notorious train robbers.

We had a weekend to kill in Urumqi—a city not unlike Akron, but with worse air and better food.

It doesn’t take long to get a handle on Urumqi and the million losers forced to live there. During the day you visit the mosque and the bazaar in the Uyghur slums, where you buy Mao pins and lamb kebabs. I also picked up a stiletto (with “NATO Military” written on the handle) in case the Kazakh border guards got out of control. At night you follow the Lonely Planet Guide’s advice and check out the Holiday Inn Urumqi’s “great coffee and the wildest disco in Central Asia.” You discover that in fact the coffee tastes like the smell of the diarrhea you’re starting to experience and that the disco contains exactly you and D.J. Marvin’s customized trip-hop mixes. And D.J. Marvin wears a bowtie, as you’d expect. Then you’re done with Urumqi.

Death Bus to Kazakhstan

Our “hard sleeper” to Almaty were broken bus seats made of decomposing foam—cramped for anyone over 5’6” and encrusted with an inch of dust clinging to an layer of primeval sweat. Our dozen fellow travelers were fiftysomething Uyghurs and Kazaks—no cute German backpacking college students out here—all of whom had paid a tenth of our fare for the same miserable 40-hour ride. The back third of the bus was piled floor to ceiling with huge bundles of unlabelled goods.

Our only comfort was that we would only have to spend one night on this beast.

As we inched up the dusty two-lane 312 highway towards the Borohoro Shan mountains, I considered sinking my brand-new stiletto into the driver’s neck. The little weasel would speed up to about 60 mph, then he’d cut the ignition and coast in neutral until we dropped to 20. Then he’d start the engine again and start accelerating. We drove in this obtuse attempt to save fuel for hundreds of miles.

Because the human spirit dares to hope, Alan and I put our confidence in the back-up driver, a stocky Chinese man with the face of a bulldog who slept on the bus’ only bed. Even asleep, his calm, sturdy face commanded authority and respect—and his straw World Cup fedora never budged from his perfectly bald head. “Look at him,” Alan remarked admiringly. “He’s the fucking king!”

We hit the construction zone just before sunset. The road was closed, but no one had bothered to create a detour. Our wanker driver stopped, paralyzed by potholes, boulders and indecision. As if on cue, the King stirred, lit a cigarette and tapped the first driver on the shoulder to dismiss him. Within minutes we were navigating roads worse than anything I had seen in Burma or Belize. The bus dipped and scraped against rocks, squeezing through ridiculously tight spaces between thirty feet above rushing mountain streams on the left and overturned tractor-trailers and passenger cars on the right.

Like a moron I had brought only one pair of shoes—new Nike high-tops—but until the death bus to Kazakhstan the collection of blisters and open sores afflicting my feet had been my only health problem. Explosive diarrhea hit a few hours out of Urumqi. I’d clench my ass cheeks together as hard as possible with each crater, uncertain whether it was feces or butt sweat I was leaking into my BVDs. Chinese diarrhea pills, which normally get your shit together in 15 minutes, had no effect—and our diet wasn’t helping either.

In China proper we’d relied on noodle soup, bean cakes and vegetables (they don’t grow rice in northern China) for sustenance. Western Xinjiang, however, marked the beginning of the dreaded shashlyk zone: From then on, and throughout the CIS (former members of the USSR formed the Commonwealth of Independent States), the only food would be lamb kebabs. Shashlyks aren’t made of FDA-approved meat—they’re served on a metal skewer, from which hang a half-dozen chunks of undercooked lamb gristle, sliding off a slice of bone and doused in spices to disguise incipient rot. From Xinjiang to Turkmenistan, shashlyk means food and food means shashlyk—morning, noon and night. Because they’re prepared in contaminated water, they’re 100 percent certain to give you the intestinal parasite called giardia. I’m still fighting the bastards off.

Maddeningly, Alan’s turds remained, as he said proudly, “as hard as a rock!”

Our bus would enjoy a straight-away for a few hundred feet, then more window-rattling Mad Max madness would ensue. We dodged oncoming trucks on a dirt bypass barely wide enough for the goats that competed with us for space. After a few hours of feats of automotive precision impossible to imagine in the United States, we had promoted our driver to the rank of Emperor.

We made a midnight stop at a surreal roadside restaurant in Manas—featuring videos of rape scenes from banned Hong Kong movies and buzzing neon signs that alternated between Chinese and Uyghur, not to mention the Trainspotting-esque Worst Restroom in Central Asia. Then we hit the top of the pass at Sayram Hu lake around 2 in the morning. After hours of creeping along at 1 or 2 mph, it was difficult to see why this high-altitude frontier between the former Soviet Union and China had been one of the tensest of the Cold War. Neither nation ever needed to worry about getting invaded; no tank would ever have made it through the 312.

Finally traffic came to a dead stop. Everyone ahead of us had given up and gone to sleep along with the goat-herding nomads who lived alongside the lunacy of the Chinese construction zone. The drivers curled up together under a pile of blankets while us passengers, all of us dressed in T-shirts for 110-degree heat, nearly froze to death. There was still snow on the ground in August 12,000 feet up. Numbness eventually turned painful, but all we could do was endure until morning.

I awoke the Emperor at 8 with a few “accidental” kicks in the side as I stretched my long American legs across the aisle. Ultimately we came across the cause of the previous night’s traffic jam: A double oil truck had slid off the work site, twisted and overturned, spilling fuel all over the treacherous side road. Typically, there were no police or emergency workers; the driver of the disabled truck sat smoking with the construction workers a few feet from the spill. The Emperor grimaced while he worked the bus past the oil truck an inch at a time, barely scraping against it to avoid toppling into the stream at our left. The passengers all moved over to the right side of the bus.

I was too sick to care.

The construction lasted 50 more miles and 8 more exhausting hours. Then we emerged into a wholly different, temperate terrain, with trees and fields of sunflowers as far as the eye could see—here, it was already early fall. We pulled into the border town of Korgas in late afternoon; this should have put us in Almaty by 11 pm. I raced to the side of the road to release my latest intestinal explosion.

The insanely-fortified border crossing, complete with minefields and several kilometers of no-man’s land, was just ahead when the Emperor pulled off down a side street, parked the bus and ran into a nondescript white building. Two hours later, he emerged carrying a shopping bag full of bundles of Chinese currency, which he and his partner stashed behind loose panels and under a stack of greasy tools.

Despite our fears of anal probes, we crossed the border without getting roughed up. The Chinese Red Guards searched our bags for books. My edition of W. Somerset Maughm’s Of Human Bondage was held up because of the weird German Expressionist painting on its cover. On the Kazakh side we got through the Stalinist passport check fairly quickly, but a chunky female Russian officer spotted me from her watch tower and took me aside. She kept asking me if I was CIA.

“Tourista,” I insisted, marveling at the hammer-and-sickle insignia all over her tightly-packed uniform. Her breasts were like enormous cones, tapering to a perfect point. I tried hard not to stare.

“Ah, tourisma, da—why no Kazakh visa?” Ilsa, She-Wolf of the Kazakh Border Patrol, asked.

I pointed to my Kyrgyz and Uzbek visas, explaining that I only intended to stay 72 hours in Kazakhstan. A visa to any single of the former Soviet republics allows you to spend no more than three days in any CIS state—you say you’re “in transit.”

I started wondering whether I would have to fuck Ilsa to cross the border. It was an simultaneously frightening and titillating possibility.

She smiled and stamped my visa.

Our bus crossed a series of seven internal checkpoints, each a few miles apart. At each stop the Emperor handed a pre-counted stack of Kazakh tengge wrapped in a rubber band to commanding soldier, who waved us through without checking our cargo. At one checkpoint the soldier examined all of the passengers’ documents. He got off the bus, said something to another cop, who came on board and asked to see Alan’s and my documents. These guys had never seen an American passport before.

The first town in Kazakhstan was Zharkent, a pleasant tree-lined burg with European-style houses surrounded by white-picket fences and children playing ball in the streets. At the outskirts of town, we stopped. The Emperor got out, shook hands with three middle-aged hoodlums, handed them the bag of Chinese renminbi and sat down for a smoke as they sat down to count it at the rate of a note a minute. After three hours, I went up to the Emperor, gesturing and dropping in random Russian words to make him understand that we’d better get moving if we were going to make it to Almaty before the hotels closed for the night.

“Oh, nyet,” he said, finally understanding. He shot me a big shit-eating grin. “Nyeto gastinitsa cyevodnya”—no hotel tonight. I looked around at my comrades for support—transportation victims of the world, arise!—but they all wore the same deer-in-the-headlight stares. Decades of living under authoritarian rule—and now the anarchy of mafia thuggery—had broken their spirits. No one out there stands up for himself, much less for someone else. More disturbingly, Alan seemed to have bought into the wimp paradigm. “Whatcha gonna do?” he shrugged.

I went back up to the driver.

“What?” I cocked my head in the universal expression of confusion.

He pointed to the bus, then made the sleepy-head sign with his hands.

“Almaty zavtra (tomorrow)!” he said triumphantly, cracking open a plastic bottle of vodka. Thanks to his shady mafioso smuggling operations, we had been condemned to another night on the bus from hell.

He exchanged three hours of pleasantries with his pals, who handed him ten cases of vodka before we took off at 10. The Emperor pulled off the road at midnight and crashed next to the wimp. I woke up at 3, freezing and past my limit of endurance. I couldn’t take it anymore. I started coughing—a wheezing, phlegm-filled extravaganza of hacking that just wouldn’t stop. It took a half-hour to roust Pussy Man and get him behind the wheel.

A giant statue of Lenin greeted us as we entered the suburbs of the Kazakh capital. Then we turned off the main road, wound through a series of streets and stopped in front of a nondescript house to unload all the crap clogging up the back third of the bus.

We passengers milled about for hours as the home’s occupants, a Russian version of Harvey Keitel and his hung-over twentysomething sons arranged boxes of smuggled goods (Chinese-made clothing, we theorized) in their garage with a forklift. When it became clear that we wouldn’t see the Almaty bus terminal until nightfall, we hailed a “taxi”—in Central Asia everyone who owns a car picks up passengers for extra cash—to take us downtown. Seventy hours after leaving Urumqi, our forty-hour bus ride was over.

You, Me, Sex—No Problem!

Almaty turned out to be shockingly beautiful, a graceful Swiss-style city of ivy-covered apartment houses, chalk-colored Soviet-era government buildings and tree-lined streets sloping gradually up to the Zailiysky Alatau mountains in the south. Because of the elevation autumn occurs in August; half the leaves were on already on the ground. The women of Almaty are stunning—tall, thin, curvy, everything. “It’s the babe basket of Central Asia,” Alan kept marveling as another girl strolled by lugging boxes of detergent. (Almatians are strangely obsessed with laundry. There are boutiques devoted exclusively to detergent all over town; women wear T-shirts with the logos of their favorite brands.) Our guidebooks recommended the budget-priced Hotel Turkistan, conveniently located near the central market.

“Oh, no,” the manager laughed when we asked her for a double. “Hotel closed due to economic collapse.” I looked around nervously at two wild dogs and a posse of young thugs checking us out from their lair in an abandoned cafe in the lobby. “But no problem! We have room.”

Alan wanted to stay in the abandoned hotel, but the absence of hot water clinched the deal for me—I refused to continue abusing my body after our ordeal on the bus. At the $100-a-night Hotel Otrar we treated our slimy carcasses to repeated showers and endless viewings of the new Backstreet Boys video on satellite Indian MTV.

Later that Friday afternoon we explored town, putting out the word to our hotel staff and everyone we ran across that we were in the market for a car or motorcycle. We kept hearing the same story: Everyone who owned a vehicle had had to sell it in order to eat after the economic collapse of the early ‘90s; anyone who still owned their car after that used it as a taxi. Still, we had Sunday’s autoplatz and the used-car market in Bishkek as back-ups.

We spent the evening dodging roving gangs of inept muggers in the city’s pitch-black streets (the government doesn’t operate street lights or traffic signals owing to lack of funds) and trying to avoid the open sewers (someone stole all the manhole covers for scrap metal) in search of nightlife. We returned to the Otrar to find that the jam-packed nightclub in the basement of the hotel’s Mexican restaurant was the hottest night spot in town. The American DJ spun techno while shilling for Marlboro—”This next song is sponsored by Marlboro, the WORLD’S BEST CIGARETTES, that’s right, MARLBORO—THEY TASTE GREAT!”

I fended off the locals, most notably an elegant pianist named Médor who wanted me to marry her and help her raise her six-year-old son after we kidnapped him from his father, a rich asshole lawyer who paid off the judge to get custody. Meanwhile, Alan found himself deluged with rabid hookers. “Sex, you, me no problem!” a Tajik babe of the night kept yelling at him over the Marlboro DJ.

On Saturday we asked everyone we met about buying a car. An unemployed member of the Soviet Special Forces gave us the lowdown on Ladas, Moskvichs and Volga sedans as he drove us cross-town to the Arasan Baths for $4 massages.

First, nothing has been produced since the Soviet era, so all cars are all at least six years old. Ladas run from $500 to $1,000, but their gas tanks are too small for long-distance driving. All the Moskvichs have broken down. For $2,000, you can score a Volga, the preferred choice of former commissars and apparatchiks because they easily digest the low-quality fuel sold there. Since we didn’t have $2,000 and up, we decided to focus on Ladas and motorcycles, which run around $500.

We got up early the next morning to hit the autoplatz’s busy day, but all we found was an empty lot containing one guy selling bolts and carburetor parts on a skanky red blanket. En route back to the hotel, we got stuck in Kazakhstan Independence Day traffic. Still, I wasn’t worried; the car market in Bishkek was supposed to be better.

What If They Gave An Economy And Nobody Came?

We arrived in Bishkek after a relatively pleasant six-hour bus featuring the usual shashlyk-and-liquid-shit stop at the halfway point on the M39 highway.

We hadn’t eaten all day, so after checking into the Soviet-era marble finery of the Hotel Bishkek we headed out for food. Bishkek is Almaty Light—another Russified tree-lined city framed by the snow-capped Kyrgyz Alatau mountains in the distance—but with far fewer attractive women, detergent boutiques or anything else aside from poorly-maintained monuments and government ministries.

At a streetside stand we found the usual cheap beers and lamb souvlaki—a rare, if similar, alternative to shashlyk.

Suddenly Alan blanched. “I don’t feel good,” he said. Then his eyes went blank and he crumbled unconscious into my arms. He wasn’t breathing.

“Great, he’s fucking dead,” my mind raced randomly. I felt disconnected, like I was like watching a film. “His girlfriend’s going to be seriously pissed off.”

I counted off ten seconds. Alan still wasn’t breathing. Remembering the Pulp Fiction OD scene, I gave him a whack on the chest. His eyes flew open. He tried to get up, but collapsed.

A crowd of people gathered around. An old woman massaged Alan’s back and tried to stuff his mouth with berries and prescription medicines—they sell all sorts of pharmaceuticals labeled in Cyrillic on the street—that I kept brushing away. A few young guys lurked around, waiting for an opportunity to steal our wallets.

I asked Alan if he knew what was wrong with him.

“This has happened to me before,” he said. “It happens when I’m under stress, when I haven’t eaten. It’s normal.”

“You might have told me about this before we left,” I snapped.

“Why should I? It’s not your business.” Then he faded back into unconsciousness.

Just then someone nudged Alan’s side with his foot. “Get that piece of shit off the sidewalk!” he barked. Actually, it was in Russian, so I don’t know that he said that at all, but that’s the way I interpreted his attitude.

“You want to be killed, asshole?” I yelled, waving my stiletto. The guy split just as an ambulance load of gold-toothed female paramedics and policemen arrived. “Where’s the dead American? Which one got shot?” the doctor kept asking. We had awoken a very sleepy capital.

Alan refused treatment—he was worried about catching AIDS from a dirty needle—so the ambulance dropped us off at our hotel with strict orders to keep him awake with coffee lest his next snooze become a dirt nap.

It was an incredible turn of events. Alan was 26, eight years younger than me, apparently in perfect physical condition. Wherever we were, he’d work out furiously, jumping rope and doing stomach crunches while I slept or wrote in my notebook. I’d worried that I wouldn’t be able to endure the exhaustion, lousy diet and psychological isolation we’d encounter. Now I’d have to cover Alan as well, never knowing if and when he would keel over from whatever was ailing him. He made me promise not to take him to a hospital, no matter what.

I realized at that moment why we hadn’t seen anyone over 45 years old since we’d entered the CIS.

Trains, Planes, But No Automobiles

Six hours after dying, Alan insisted that we hit the Hotel Dostuk’s outdoor disco. There wasn’t any point arguing; I was beginning to suspect that my traveling companion wasn’t human.

Aside from the fact that the women were all dancing with each other and the huge statue of Soviet soldiers fighting off Nazis across the street, we could have been at any cheesy nightspot in the United States. Cops moonlighted as bouncers and pathetic guys hung out alongside the dance floor, trying in vain to catch the eye of women who were either lesbians or devout Muslims or both.

The next morning was Sunday, autoplatz day. On our way out of our hotel, we spotted a bulbous cream-colored 1966 Gaz sedan—think of an early Checker cab or ‘54 Chevy—parked on the street. We were ogling its perfect detailing when someone yelled at us from a first-floor apartment. “Hey! You like my car? You want buy?”

The owner, a powerful sixtysomething dynamo with a perfect set of gold teeth, fired up his proud product of Soviet industry and took us on a test ride. Everything looked great inside—although getting used to a perpendicular standard transmission changer on the steering wheel would be a significant challenge—but he wanted $2,000. We were prepared to offer $1,500 until we saw four measly cylinders lurking under the hood. We’d never make it across the mountains of Iran or Turkey in that sucker. Also, Gazes are pretty rare in the former USSR now, and parts would be impossible to come by in the middle of the Karakum Desert.

The Bishkek autoplatz is in the northwest part of town where the vegetation allowed by the cooling influence of the mountains ends and the brutal emptiness of the Asian steppe begins. We didn’t even bother to get out of our taxi. No one was there.

“Where is everyone?” I asked our driver.

“Today big celebration—Kyrgyz Independence Day!”

We were already running a few days behind schedule; if we waited another week we’d never make it Istanbul in time to catch our flight back to New York. It sucked, but we had to abandon the idea of traveling by car. There simply weren’t any that could do the job.

Your Money’s No Good Here

With flagging spirits we caught a smoke-clogged 4 pm bus to Samarkand from Bishkek. As much as we had learned to loath the buses, they were the only option since the CIS train system only departs and arrives in the middle of the night, costs three times more and takes three times longer. Because of the confluence of the Talas and Kyrgyz Alatau mountains, the M39 runs mostly through southern Kazakhstan. We arrived in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, at 3 in the morning.

“Maybe we should get off here,” I suggested. “We could get Turkmeni visas here to avoid any trouble at the border and keep going tomorrow.”

“But everyone says Tashkent sucks,” Alan pointed out. “And what if we can’t get train tickets?” A giant earthquake killed more than 300,000 people there in April 1966, and the place has never really recovered. We’d rely on the CIS transit rule to enter Turkmenistan as we had for Kazakhstan. Five hours later, we arrived in the fountain-drenched oasis of Samarkand, the jewel of the Silk Road and the only truly spectacular city we saw the whole time.

After checking into the Intourist-operated $30-a-day Hotel Zerafshon, we each exchanged $50 for Uzbek currency with a shifty loiterer in the lobby at the rate of 140 som to the dollar (the bank only gives you 79) and walked to the Registan, a stunning complex of robin’s-egg-blue mosaics capping onion-domed mosques and perfectly-scaled public plazas. The Islamic warlord Timur had the place built as the town’s commercial center in the late 14th century.

There we discovered that we had just stumbled into the 6th annual Uzbek Independence Day (what are the chances of hitting three independence days in a row?). The streets were filled with women wearing traditional Uzbek silk robes and acrobats performing terrifying tightrope walks on frayed lines. Still, the city’s Siab Market bazaar, ancient mausoleums and mosques justified the continuous diarrhea, atrocious shashlyks and blistering feet that I’d suffered so far. (Alan appeared perfectly healthy, though I expected him to croak any minute.)

The problem with Samarkand is that there’s nothing to do at night. After a nasty meal of chicken-fried beef-pod with gruel at the aptly-named Restaurant Dilshod, we watched obese mafiosos negotiate deals in the Hotel Afrosiab’s disco-restaurant. That was the extent of the city’s after-dark pleasures. No matter how hard I tried—and I was desperate to find souvenirs for my friends back home—there was no way to spend the wad of som clogging my pockets. Even the markets were closed due to the independence festivities, so there was nothing to do other than go back to the hotel. I spent five hours on the bowl, crapping so hard that my ass blood splattered all over the bathroom wall.

I didn’t eat again for more than a week.

Night Train to Turkmenistan

We spent two more nights in beautifully dull, brilliantly-hot Samarkand, drinking countless Cokes to stave off mind-numbing boredom. We never had to piss. Finally we got wind through a helpful clerk at the telephone office that the Transcaspian Railway train makes scheduled stops twice a week at 11 pm en route to Charjou, the first border town in Turkmenistan, and that it eventually continues to Ashghabat, the capital and jumping-off point to Iran. This would mean skipping the carpet-trading mecca of Bukhara, but by then we knew that any notion we’d originally had of skipping from one Silk Road tourist attraction to the next was totally impossible—mainly because the Silk Road is dead. We had to keep moving.

Buying tickets proved unusually difficult, even for a country famous for its bureaucratic intransigence. The regular ticket window clerk referred us to the Interior Ministry’s OVIR (Office of Visas and Registration, another Soviet relic) office on the station’s second floor. Naturally, OVIR remained closed throughout the evening. We kept explaining this to the desk crone, who shooed us away with a maddening wave. Ultimately, Alan attracted the attention of an Uzbek railway policeman by kicking his backpack around the floor and waving locally-acquired obscenities. Since Alan seemed to have the shit-fit situation well under control, I refused to get involved. The cop ordered the agent to sell us two tickets just as the Tashkent-Volgograd Express rumbled in outside.

What followed cannot be adequately explained in words. A thermometer in the kitschy station, a weird mix of Socialist Realist geometry and Uzbek tribal wall hangings, read 50ßC (124ßF). It certainly felt hotter than anything I had previously experienced. We ran for the train, found an unshaved refugee from the hard-sleeper section sleeping in the lower of our matching bunks and split up to stash our bags. We met in the hallway, forced the attendant to extract the vagrant from our bed and waited for the train to begin moving.

It was at least 20 degrees warmer in the train than it was outside—everyone was stripped down to their underwear, drenched in a thick sheen of grimy sweat. “Look! The windows are the kind that don’t open,” I said optimistically. “Obviously, there must be air-conditioning once the train starts moving.” There were A/C ducts all along the aisle and in each of the cabins. Alan’s skin was turning greenish-beige.

We pulled out of the station. No air.

We spent the next few hours out in the hallway along with hundreds of other victims of the socioeconomic breakdown of the Soviet empire, propping ourselves on our forearms so that we could stick our lips through an inch-wide vent running along the top of the sealed windows about six feet off the floor. There we sucked in the cool 120-degree air from the Kyzylkum desert barrens. Every now and then a burning piece of ash would land on my tongue; we were three cars behind the coal-burning engine. I remember that night as a fever dream. It was also the night that finished off our Silk Road dreams.

Prickly sweats gave way to achy sweats and eventually to an incredible heavy sensation—we emptied our pair of two-liter water bottles in 15 minutes—then I started feeling lightheaded. Way beyond mere dehydration, I turned to Alan and gasped, “It’s fucking incredible. The assholes who run this thing ought to be strung up. Why does anybody take this thing? Why do people put up with this shit?” Alan gave me a desperate look, and we both stumbled off to our respective bunks to wait for death or Charjou, whichever came first.

The doors of our cabin flew open after eight hellish hours on the death train. It was the Turkmeni Border Patrol, distinguishable from their Uzbek counterparts only by their green (not red, as in Uzbekistan, or blue, as in Kazakhstan) epaulettes. “Amerikanskis! Passports!” they screamed, and I knew right away that we were exquisitely fucked.

The two border cops quickly flipped through our passports. “Nyeto Turkmeni visa…plakhoy problema,” the shorter one smirked.

“Nyet problema,” I smiled thinlly, pointing at my passport and reminding him of the three-day CIS transit rule. “Kyrgyz visa, da. Uzbek visa, da. Kazakh visa—in transit, da! Nyet problema!” I gave him the thumbs-up sign, trying hard not to release a watery turd into my pants.

He shook his head and pointed at the exit—”bagazh” (bring your baggage). We got off the train at sunrise in the middle of the center of nowhere. An endless expanse of desert stretched west towards the Oxus River, where Charjou’s oil refineries burned Iranian crude a mere mile away and covered the city with a thick haze. As the taller cop held the train, our fellow passengers gathered at the windows to watch the ritual shakedown of the Western tourists.

His partner dragged us into a tiny abandoned building along the tracks. He wrote “$100” on a piece of paper. “Sto dollars—no vidyot.” (Pay me $100, and I didn’t see you.)

“Fuck him,” I told Alan in rapid-fire English. “That’s outrageous! These guys earn $18 a month! $100 is insane!”

“Just pay him whatever he wants,” Alan whispered, adjusting to the air outside the train. I remembered reading somewhere that the sand is 40 degrees hotter than the air in the desert. “I’ve got to get to Charjou.” He did look a lot worse than I felt, and I couldn’t recall ever feeling this badly.

“No way!” I was furious. “If we pay this asshole, he can’t even issue us a visa—what’s the point? We’ll just have to keep paying off every other other shithead cop we encounter on the way to Ashghabat. The worst he can do is put us on a train back to Tashkent.”

“I don’t think I could do another 16 hours on that train,” Alan said softly. I didn’t think I could either, but I thought this asshole could be bargained down to five bucks.

“But he can’t give us a visa—there’s no reason to pay him off!”

“Just pay him,” Alan pleaded. I looked at the border guard, to whom I was about to hand over the equivalent of two thousand American dollars. The guard, sensing that Alan was our weak link, stared at him like a shark and fingered his revolver. What could I do? I contemplated deploying the NATO military switchblade option, but we might die of prison shashlyk poisoning before the Americans—who are in cahoots with all these petty dictatorships—ever got wind of our story. “They were going to gang-rape us,” I could see myself testifying. “I had no choice but to gut the bastard like a muskie.” It sounded no lamer than the O.J. defense.

Alan wanted to pay, the cop wanted to get paid, and then there was me. It was two-to-one. I peeled a crisp, new $100 (unfortunately I had passed off all my grubby “no good” currency by then) and handed it to him. I hated myself.

We had barely gotten back on the dark-green train when the tall cop stopped us outside our berth. “Problema,” he intoned gravely, and pulled us into the conductor’s booth. He carefully wrote both “$50” and “$100” on the back of Alan’s note pad and looked at us quizzically. “Oh, shit,” Alan said. “Don’t tell me he wants another payoff! Fuck him!”

“No, no—I think he wants to know how much we paid his partner,” I said. I bet his partner is trying to stiff him out of his cut.”

Alan and I looked at each other and smirked. Alan crossed out both figures and wrote “$200” on the pad. The cops’ eyes literally bulged. He pointed at the larger figure and cocked his head questioningly. “Bolshoi dyengi,” Alan shouted—that’s big money. The cop shook both our hands with several spasibas (thank yous) and went out to the hallway where his pal was waiting for him. He dragged him off the train and started kicking his confused ass, shouting so loudly that we could still hear him as our train hit the bridge spanning the Uzbek-Turkmeni border.

Our Troubles Begin

I was rip-shit when we got off the train at Charjou—at the cops, for blatantly violating an international visa treaty, at the railway fuckers for running non-air conditioned trains through the hottest territory on earth without the decency to install windows that open, at the Uzbek and Turkmeni citizenry for failing to break those windows and at Alan for failing to grasp that the militsia wasn’t likely to kill us. The shakedown, I felt certain, had been about intimidation, not violence.

While waiting in the train station to buy tickets to Ashghabat, an off-duty cop waiting behind in line us tapped us on the shoulders and demanded to see our passports. We hadn’t been in Charjou five minutes.

“Turkmeni visa—nyet? Problema,” he grinned inanely.

“This is exactly what I was saying before,” I groaned to Alan. “This shit is never going to end.”

Our new tormentor took our passports, led us out to the platform and sat us down. His strategy differed from his comrades’ down the tracks; he was waiting for us to offer him a bribe. Alan and I quickly agreed that we would wait him out, no matter what.

“Tri kilometros—?” the guard asked at one point, stroking his hammer-and-sickle badge, and pointed towards the border. He cocked his head and rubbed his right thumb against his left palm in the local signal for money.

“Oh, nyet!” I replied brightly. I put my thumb up to indicate that the guards at the railroad bridge had been nothing but cooperative. “He said, ‘O.K.!’”

“O.K.?!” he looked at me suspiciously, as if honest border guards risked destroying his nation’s reputation.

Then he grinned at Alan. Alan grinned back like a loon, and cackled loudly right in his face. Then he suddenly shut up and frowned. The guard, taken aback, scooted away a little.

Leaving my bags and Alan as collateral, I went to buy Cokes and cigarettes. Upon my return, Alan lit up a sub-standard Hollywood cigarette (a Central Asian product by the fine folks at Brown & Williamson) and opened one of the Cokes. I had gotten three, so I popped one open and extended the third towards the cop. Brightening up, he reached for it, but before he could get it I flung it towards the track, where it rolled off the platform where our train was sitting. “Problema problema problema!” I laughed wildly, imitating Alan. The cop shook his head, and stared forward nervously as our train pulled out of the station without us. Not to worry—another one would come in two or three days.

We waited there for four hours. Alan smoked, I read Keegan’s Fields of Battle and the cop greeted his colleagues, who passed our passports around in joyful anticipation of the cash they were plotting to extract from our ample American asses.

Eight cops had gathered by the time their boss, a sharply-starched man with four stars on his epaulettes, arrived. His underlings explained the situation. The boss pulled out the press cards in our passports, shouting “journalistas! New York Times! New York Rangers!” while he waved them in each policeman’s face. Then, in impeccable English, he apologized for any inconvenience we might have suffered.

“As you know, you’ve already missed the train,” he said, “but you can still take the bus to Ashghabat. Please follow me to the parking lot.”

He negotiated a discounted fare for us and put us on the bus. “Stay right here. You can pick up your transit visas tomorrow morning at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Enjoy your stay in Turkmenistan.”

Relieved and aware that our bus wouldn’t leave until it was full, I purchased a few bottles of 80-cent vodka to pass around the bus. We had almost filled the bus when two of the militsia scum from the train platform poked their head in the bus. Now free of their boss’ civilizing presence, they demanded our passports and gave us the “Nyet Turkmeni visa—bolshoi problema” routine.

“We’ve already been through this,” I said. “Your boss”—I pointed to my shoulders to indicate epaulettes with stars—”said to stay here.” I pointed down.

“Do you have problem with Turkmenistan?” one asked inanely.

“No problem! We love Turkmenistan!” Alan grinned. We had agreed that morning to lose any semblance of Russian vocabulary whenever we encountered the authorities, but Alan was playing good-cop to my bad-cop to their really-bad-cops.

“Alan, Alan, Alan,” the same one said, noting my intransigence. “I am your friend. Come talk to me. Get off the bus.”

“Don’t get off the fucking bus,” I warned. “We can do all this right here in front of these nice people.”

The cops got on the bus with us—though they were obviously accustomed to doing their dirty business in private—and demanded to see our cameras. “You no declare at customs, da?”

“There is no customs here, but then, you know that, since you’re a customs officer,” I said icily. “Good point,” he said, smiling. I wanted to smash his face, but instead I offered to take his picture. He declined.

Then he made us open our packs. “Perhaps you carry narcotics?” he said, trying yet another tack. I presented each item to the whole bus with a flourish and appropriate sound effect; for example, as I held up my diarrhea pills I made a loud farting noise. Everyone on the bus laughed.

Giving up on us, the cops decided to fuck with the bus driver. “Inspection!” they announced, demanding that he open the baggage compartment—usually an uncomfortable request since all buses carry smuggled goods. The driver motioned that they should wait by the side of the bus for the door to open as he pulled the release under the dash. As soon as the cops stepped off the bus, our driver slammed the doors and floored the gas. The militsia ran after us, and we gave them the Central Asian finger out the window (they use the pinkie instead) as he headed off into the desert.

Our Only Friend, The End

We arrived in Ashghabat exhausted and disgusted, the reservoir of adrenaline that had sustained us so long depleted. What our inability to stick to the original plan and the constant battle to get from Point A to Point B hadn’t done to our morale, the eternal vigilance against voracious policemen and thieving citizenry did. The shitty food, miserable weather and shortage of clean clothes (we thought nothing of wearing the same stinking socks and skid-marked underwear for a week at a time) finished us off. To make matters worse, the camel-pocked terrain jacked up Turkmenistan’s desolation quotient even higher than Uzbekistan’s; we had passed from the ends of the earth to beyond the valley of the dead. Alan had held up well physically if not emotionally—probably because I kept insisting that he eat regularly to avoid any more fainting spells—but the long-awaited diarrhea finally struck him as well. My giardia stomach cramps struck me with paralyzing intensity every few minutes for days at a time, reducing me to tears as I tried to sleep.

The first thing we did after checking in to the cold-water (and then, only for two hours a day) Hotel Dayhan was to hit the Iranian embassy; naturally, the Iranian official who had promised us in New York that our visas would be waiting for us in Ashghabat had flaked out. Still, it should only take three or four days for approval to come in from Tehran by fax, the desk clerk said. With so little time to cross the hundreds of miles that remained, we only had two options left: overland through Iran (which would take about four days, or by air to Istanbul.

We killed the next few days bugging the Iranians about our visas—which never came through due to one Islamic holiday or another—and sightseeing around Ashghabat. We trekked out to the sulfurous hot springs inside the Bakharden caves and to the ancient Parthian capital of Nisa, now a pile of vague imprints in a crater of mud. We marveled at Turkmeni President Saparmurad Niyazov’s cult of personality—the whole country is blanketed with his Caecescu-like portraits and six-foot solid bronze depictions of his bad hair and cheap suit.

One evening we were watching TV at the bizarre Florida casino-disco-burger joint-English pub complex when the lead story came on: A civil war over oil had broken out. 2,000 American troops had been deployed to defend a British Petroleum oil field in northwest Kazakhstan from anti-government forces. A camera panned down a street—”Holy shit! That’s our café in Almaty!” I yelled to Alan—and settled on a soldier firing a machine gun from behind an overturned table. Almaty had become a lot more interesting since we’d left a few weeks earlier.

Alan and I were hardly talking. We weren’t angry at each other, really; we just didn’t have the energy to make conversation any more, or, for that matter, to be angry. I had lost two loops on my belt. On the day before our Turkmeni transit visa was due to expire, we went to the Iranian embassy one last time. They told us to come back the next day, but we no longer had enough time to make it to Istanbul by land. We taxied to the Turkmenistan Airways office at the defunct city airport (a new Saparmurad Niyazov International Airport has replaced it), and bought two tickets for Istanbul for $330 each. We handed the clerk my Visa and Alan’s Mastercard. “Mastercard no good!” the woman barked.

I pointed at the big “Mastercard Happily Accepted Here” sign behind her desk. “That was before,” she snapped.

“Before what?” I asked.

“Before-before-before!” she scowled. “Do I call militsia?”

It was the perfect ending to a trip that didn’t turn out the way it should have. We had missed Xian, Kashgar, Lake Issyk-Kul and Bukhara. We’d cruised across the desert in scuzzy buses instead of all-terrain vehicles, eaten rancid lamb rather than sweet oasis fruits and shat our guts out instead of picking up an awesome tan. We escaped vicious Kazakhs and paid off wimpy Turkmen—and in the process, we had seen each other at our worst. Far from pulling off the ultimate vacation scam, we had been consistently ripped off, disrespected and subjected to endless petty abuse. Perhaps we had been wrong about the Silk Road’s demise. The locals had been ripping off travelers there for thousands of years—why should we have been any different?

Now we faced the grim prospect of finishing the voyage by plane, ignominiously defeated by the byzantine bureaucracy of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“Put both tickets on my Visa,” I told the airline clerk, smiling sweetly, fantasizing about sex, food that isn’t shashlyk, ‘70s TV, hot showers that run 24 hours a day, and clothes shopping for the new thinner me.

Alan and I haven’t hung out together since.

© 1997 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved