Tashkent, here I come! *THWACK*
March 19, 2008 4:22 AM   Subscribe

Traveling CIS / Central Asia via train: romantic silk route journey or hell on an iron horse?

I'm planning a trip to Uzbekistan in late May / early June for a friend's wedding. However, due to my high level of wanderlust, I'm looking to take a train instead of flying over the beautiful landscape I see on flickr. I'll be starting from Vienna, Austria -- I'll be there in mid-late May, and it's a good enough starting point, provided I get my transit visas worked out.

However, the worrying part in all this for me is that my friend and another coworker have promised me that said train trip will be an Inferno-style hell. Apparently, at some unknown time during my trip, I'll be cast down to the Eighth Circle, 11th Bolgia, where Foolish Travelers are tormented by GHB-laced tea, pernicious passport-pilfering porters and corrupt border guards salivating at the thought of full American wallets. To be topped off, of course, with slavery on a cotton farm, forced sodomy and, after a decade of hard labor, sweet and final death, which I will welcome.

I get the feeling they don't like trains.

Are their warnings, or general intent, accurate? Should I be worried? I tend to travel a bit and know how to keep myself safe; however, sincere warnings like those tend to set off warning bells. How safe are the CIS states and rail travel between them and the Federation?

Also, for super-good brownie points: what's the best way to find out about applying for all the transit visas between Vienna and Tashkent? I think there's at least 2, being Russia and Kazakhstan.
posted by electronslave to Travel & Transportation (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You probably already know this, by try look on the forums thorntree and bootsnall.
posted by iamck at 4:24 AM on March 19, 2008

Apparently, at some unknown time during my trip, I'll be cast down to the Eighth Circle, 11th Bolgia

It's not Amtrak.

Seat 61 is pretty much the online bible of train journeys. Here's the page for the Silk Route.

Have a great time!
posted by mdonley at 4:28 AM on March 19, 2008

I have not done Europe to Uzbekistan, but I have done the other direction by train. You could fly into Beijing and take a very safe, acceptably clean, livably comfortable and endlessly interesting journey West. The Iron Rooster is facinating, and a Chinese "hard sleeper" is actually passable, the "soft sleeper" is definitely not roughing it. The only drawback is the whole bathing issue, you'd have to stop occasionally and check into a hotel for a shower, but thankfully the Eastern end of the Silk Road gives you plenty of reasons to stop.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:39 AM on March 19, 2008

Take the train - it'll be the experience of a lifetime and memories you'll never forget.

And you have to read Murder in Samarkand and Samarkand prior to arriving. Lucky you, it'll be an amazing journey!
posted by dmt at 7:52 AM on March 19, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses, everyone. I'm feeling a lot more confident now.

iamck: Excellent links, both. I'm happily reading up right now. Lots of transit / tourist visa pointers in there.

Pollomacho: Eponysterical! I may/may not be traveling on after the whole Uzbekistan visit. I must admit I've wanted to do tourist stuff in China since I was really little. It mainly depends upon funds.

dmt: Yeah, it's definitely a strange place for politics and history. Based on my friend's stories, I keep anxiously comparing it in my mind to Ingmar Bergman's The Silence. (Well, okay, at least the part with the kid and the old man.) I'm not that much of a reader, but I'll check out Samarkand for a bit of flavour.
posted by electronslave at 11:10 AM on March 19, 2008

I don't have knowledge of your specific route, but I can add further emotional reassurance: in my experience, everyone is all-too-willing to tell you that on a post-Soviet journey, especially a train journey, you will be forced to consume spiked vodka, dosed with sleeping gas, robbed, groped, insulted, and possibly sexually assaulted. Everyone. I traveled a fair amount within and around Russia (albeit not to Central Asia) a few years ago, and the worst thing that ever happened to me on a train was when I stayed up all night talking to a Lithuanian construction engineer who forced me to eat open-faced sandwiches composed entirely of bread, thick slices of pig, and butter for breakfast, because I was "too thin" and he felt responsible for my well-being. Oh, and once I shared a compartment with a woman who I'm pretty sure was a prostitute, but she was definitely a higher-class prostitute and we didn't talk. Oh, and the time I spent five hours in a compartment with crazy American missionaries. That was interesting. My only real advice is (1) do it and (2) travel second-class through Russia, the cheapest class really sucks. (You're in an open compartment with about forty other people, draw your own conclusions.)
posted by posadnitsa at 4:08 PM on March 19, 2008

Response by poster: As a follow-up, I didn't die. The trip was good, and I definitely ate way the hell too much fried food. Vodka was consumed by the bowl. Two brands stand out, both of them Kyrgyz: Devo and Parliament. They taste like air, drink like water and you won't remember a damn thing about 30 minutes after your second bottle. I lost about two days that way.

A very warm spasiba to everyone who posted!
posted by electronslave at 4:33 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

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