. The rather long stops in the infrequent towns enable passengers to get off and buy provisions from vendors on the platforms.
After a quite shrot but seemingly very long hot night on the train I awakened to a full day of crossing the western Kazakh steppe, what must be one of the world's largest expanses of open grassland. There were only three of us in my compartment, so we were joined through the day by a few locals for shorter rides told by the conductor to sit in our compartment. There was enough activity on the train for 20 fearless foreigners create some chaos and certainly enough drunks about to keep things entertaining for the boys and uncomfortable for the girls. I suddenly became an instant husband to several women on the tour, protecting them from the lecherous slobs. "Nyet, Moy Zhihna!" (No, My Wife!), I yelled each time one tried to grope or otherwise pester one of my new wives.
Most of these adventures took place later in the day in the dining car. Young Ben, still attracting attention with his new Mohawk, shared a fun 19th birthday vodka drinking session with a particularly wasted burly young Kazakh whose name sounded something like "Odd Job". As Odd Job got ever drunker he became more aggressive in trying to grope the exotic foreign women and yelling, "I Ruv Roooo!" at them
. When he began to pester Virginia, one of my new wives I was sitting with in the dining car, I had to rise up and protect the fair maiden from the savage beast. "Nyet Trogat Moy Zhihna!" (No touch my wife!). I'm large enough to be fairly intimidating but have no desire to get into a fight with anyone even if I know I'll come out of it entirely unscathed. Fortunately, just as I feared Odd Jobs lustful intentions might turn into anger at me as I kept him from the an object of his affection, young Ben darted past him at full speed in the direction of the bathroom to be ill, deflecting Odd Job's attention. Odd Job followed him, while Virginia, Stuart, Jane, and I found it best to return to our car via the platform at the next stop rather than via the train corridor. Odd Job eventually became even more aggressive, getting locked by the conductor into a compartment. Meanwhile, young Ben was eventually located in a bathroom, arms around the toilet, staring directly down at the train tracks.
I stood in the train corridor for a while watching Kazakhstan go by, an immense underpopulated grassland with a few tiny infrequent settlements and lots of free range livestock grazing away, especially two-humped Bactrian camels. I found some hot water at the samovar at one end of the car and made dinner out of a small box of ramen noodles I bought at one of the stops.
The conductor had seated a Kazakh father and son duo in our compartment
. The first syllables of their names sounded something like Jim and Ed, so that's what we called them. When I returned to the compartment I found Stuart, John, Jane, and Roberta drinking beers and having a singalong with them, alternating between Kazakh, English, Scottish, and Australian songs - Wild Irish Rover, Lights of Aberdeen, Molly Malone, Danny Boy, Land of Hope and Glory, Waltzing Matilda. Oh no, it's my turn to sing and I don't know all the words to any American songs! At least in Karaoke they give you the words to sing and some music, but here I have nothing. After giving it some thought, I eventually came up with God Bless America, Home on the Range, and She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain. Jim and Ed got off in Dzhambul, the stop before ours, and gave us all big hugs as they left.
A second-class "soft-sleeper" on a Russian train isn't the most uncomfortable mode of transport in the world but is hardly luxurious with four people in bunks in each compartment. Like almost every enclosed space in Russia, the compartments are very hot and poorly ventilated, with each car having only one window in the hall passage that can be opened. The single bathroom in each car quickly gets very dirty and has a toilet that empties directly onto the tracks; it usually gets locked by the conductor during the rather long station stops. There is one dining car, perhaps more accurately called "drinking car" on the train. Meanwhile, the corridor gets very crowded with people standing and seeking air, vendors moving back and forth selling beer and other drinks, and smelly people moving back and forth between cars or on their way to the bathroom. The ride from Moscow to Almaty is five days and many of the passengers seemed to be going the whole way, some of the bunks filled with obese babushkas barely able to get up from their beds, others filled with very drunk men playing cards and swilling vodka all day long