...THE YEAR IS 1999...



Oct 9, 2010



Railway station at Frunze

This visit to the land of the Stans, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan took place in 1991 not long after Gorbachev’s dismantling of the Berlin wall. 

I had already spent the better part of a sleepless night on Uzbek soil but Frunze, Kyrgyzstan’s capital would be my first official stop over.  The domestic flight had been an education and my new Indian friend Cari an able tutor.  We two as foreigners had been delivered to the aircraft in solitary splendour by a reticulated bus, and shown to our seats in the empty plane by a young hostess.

When the remainder of the passengers arrived, by shanks pony and not by bus, it appeared I was sitting in a seat assigned to a woman who was not at all pleased.  Ever the polite Aussie I jumped to my feet with apologies only to be pulled down by Cari who muttered ‘Stay seated’.

Completely ignored by the cabin crew and everyone else, she ranted and raved for a few minutes and then subsided into another seat.  The aircraft began to taxi down the runway at increasing speed, reached a certain point and careered round in a circle before hurtling back the way we had come,  lifting abruptly and steeply into the sky.

To say it was unnerving is an under-statement.

Cari was enjoying my reaction and leaned across to assure me Russian planes enjoyed a good safety record.

I think he was lying.  

The hostess did the rounds with orange cordial and small games boy type consoles.  It seemed I could, if I wanted, amuse myself for a small hire fee with Mario and Donkey Kong games.

Cari was visiting Frunze on business and was met at the airport by a local Government official.  They offered me a lift into town.  The official was driving a small, very small cluttered sedan.  I couldn’t put my travel bag in the boot because that was already packed tight with fire wood.  I cleared a space on the back seat and fitted in as best I could.

Try as I might I could not see an Australian bureaucrat in similar circumstances.

They dropped me at the Intourist Hotel where Mitzi had not so long ago booked my compulsory first nights accommodation.  By now it was late afternoon and I was a bit nervous to see the vestibule thronged by a shouting, seething mass of men.

Behind the counter a young woman was struggling to be heard.  I stayed to the back wondering what on earth I had let myself in for.  Suddenly she saw me and waved me through to the front of the mob. 

It was a bit like the parting of the sea.  As I took a deep breath and edged forward you could hear a pin drop.  I handed over my passport and in hesitant English the desk clerk booked me in.  I asked could I possibly stay an extra few nights.

She nodded and quoted an amount in American dollars that was less than a third of the money I had handed over to Mitzi back in Singapore for the one night in the same room.  This new figure also included breakfast and dinner.  I was going to enjoy this part of the world.

I would later find out the shouting match at the check in counter was a regular evening affair.  The men were all from outlying districts hoping for work in the town, and without a place to stay any vacant rooms were let on a ‘four or five to a room’ at bargain prices.

The railway station was close by and most of them camped rough in the adjacent park.  Cari would later warn me not to move around the town alone after dark and not even to trust the local cab drivers.

My room on the second floor of Frunze’s Ala Too Hotel was narrow and cramped and included a small bathroom with shower and toilet of a vintage I remember from the forties.  The furniture in the bedroom was old and mismatched, the dressing table had a stained veneer surface and on it was a television set that didn't work. The single bed wasn't made up but bed linen was folded on the mattress.

A glass door with old fashioned lace curtains opened onto a tiny curved balcony that I wasn't game to put my weight on, but when I leaned out gave me a spectacular view over the station to the distant snow peaks of the Tien Shan.

I was looking forward to an evening meal, breakfast in Tashkent and that solitary boiled egg seemed an eternity ago and by the time I settled into the room it was six o'clock and the dining room on the first floor was open.

I walked in hesitantly, most of the tables were already occupied...by men.  The place had the atmosphere Australian public bars used to have when the presence of women were taboo. The noise level dropped and I felt suddenly conspicuous.

Just as I wished I could disappear, a small round sparrow of a waitress with short cropped blonde hair bustled out of the kitchen and made eye contact. She was European, probably early forties and wore a simple white blouse over a dowdy black skirt.
 She didn't speak a word of English but immediately sized up the situation and showed me to a round table large enough to seat eight bringing with her a menu entirely in Russian.  It looked interesting but for all I knew could have been a dishwasher manual. I listened as she went through the menu, but it was no use, chicken Kiev was about my limit when it came to Russian food.  I thrust the menu back and in sign language left the choice to her.

First she brought a sa-lard, as she pronounced it, tomato wedges with cucumber; then a small round loaf of flat bread and butter and a bottle of mineral water.  The main course was delicious, stuffed chicken legs with potato and gravy. My waitress beamed as I mimed the cat’s whiskers in appreciation.

Now came the hard part.  I had arrived too late to change dollars into roubles.  The bill for the meal came to 13 something or other which I took to be roubles.  I brought out some dollars explaining that was the only currency I had. At sight of the dollars she looked concerned and motioned to me to quickly put them away, out of sight.

‘Nyet, nyet,’..... she pointed to the bill made out in roubles.

I showed her my airline ticket and the date, and then indicated the time and finally the dollars.  She understood, wrote my hotel room on the bill and waved me away.

Next morning my first chore was to change dollars into roubles.  In the hotel vestibule I knocked on a door with a sign that read Intourist in several languages.  It was opened by a tall, elegantly dressed woman with soft brown almond shaped eyes. She welcomed me with a smile and spoke in slightly accented English.

‘You must be the Australian.  I was about to leave a message with your floor lady.’

Mina wouldn't have been out of place in the society pages of Rome or Madrid, she could have passed as a native of either of those countries.  Her makeup was flawless; her long thick dark hair was swept up in a fashionable knot.  I warmed to her immediately.
To queries about roubles and brochures on Frunze she replied, ‘I will try to find some roubles for you in town. Usually the hotel desk would change some for you but they are short of money...’ she raised her shoulders expressively ...’staff have yet to be paid wages, even for last month.’

I gathered this wasn't a rare state of affairs.

We discussed how many roubles I would need.  I had no idea and said so. 

 She suggested twenty dollars worth which didn't seem enough to me and I replied $50 would do for a start.  I gave her the money and she wrote out a receipt.

 ’I will try to have the money here for you around ten o'clock...as for the little papers about Frunze...what did you call them?’


‘I am sorry,’ she reproached herself, ‘my English is so poor. The brochures...we have none in English...but if you would permit me I could accompany you around the city.’

I thought that a marvellous idea but insisted I pay the cost of the tour, she was adamant she wanted no money.

‘You would be helping with my English; we meet so few tourists here.  I want to learn more modern words, what you call the slang?’

That was alright by me and we arranged to meet at ten.

A train had pulled into the railway station across the square and I hurried over to a solid double storey stone building dominated by a bare flag pole that I guess had once flown the red hammer and sickle.  The station was open to the platform and the square, with no ticket barriers or staff checking on passenger’s movements.

Inside I saw people crowding around the two ticket counters that were manned.  A young mother and two children huddled on long wooden benches, asleep, their belongings wrapped in cloth bundles around them.  Down a hallway a familiar stench and a queue indicated the toilets here were no better than the ones at Tashkent airport.

Giant size pictures of Lenin hung on the high walls beside stirring murals of peasants struggling to overcome whatever it was they were facing with such grim determination.

I wandered out onto the platform.  It wasn't built up but flat to the ground so that the train and carriages appeared gigantic.  It was a long train with some twenty or more carriages painted a dark green with yellow and red motifs now smeared and grubby.  Some of the double glazed windows were either cracked or broken and had been patched with cardboard or draped with blankets to keep out the weather.

Policemen mingling with passengers cast long shadows in the morning sun as they strolled along the platform or stood about in pairs.  There seemed to be a great deal of coming and going from the train.  Kyrgyz women, small and dark, not unlike Mongolians, wearing colourful scarves over their hair and short winter coats over full, braided skirts and high leather boots carried shopping bags bulging with potatoes and other produce.

I took photographs of two old men with short grey beards.  They had thermos flasks in their carry alls, wore brown suits over check shirts and on their heads the typical Kyrgyz hats...a sort of soft white and black velour homburg with a peak. They wandered the length of the train looking like a pair of bewildered country bumpkins, until the policemen pointed them in the right direction.

 The train stopped at the station for some time and I climbed up into a carriage where an attendant was filling a huge samovar beside a pile of at least twenty or thirty folded blankets.  Inside a compartment the sleeping berths that doubled as seats were strewn with belongings.  Hanging over all this was a musty unwashed smell and the lingering odour of stale tobacco.

 Up until now I had been looking forward to doing part of the coming journey by train....maybe I still would...or maybe not.

It was then as I wandered along the platform, the sun so early in the morning still sending out long shadowy silhouettes, the air crisp and fresh, that I noticed in the park adjacent, amidst the shrubs and trees,  various men attending to their morning ablutions.

These were the unlucky ones who didn’t find shelter at the inn.  How many I wonder would my tiny little room have accommodated had I not shown up?


EPISODE 6   Women of Centra Asia

©2010 Robyn Mortimer

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