After a bit too much partying the previous night at Sabit’s house (our taxi driver form Kungrad to Moynaq), we get to the train station two minutes before my train takes off, talk about cutting it close.
I have a ten hour train trip, and have run out of cym, and as such am faced with a long day with no lunch. My plan is to walk down the carriage until I find a group of people to befriend and hope their natural Uzbek hospitality kicks in when it comes to lunch time and they notice I’m not eating anything.
I find a good group, a couple, a mother and daughter, and a husband and wife and spend the first few hours showing them photos and telling them about my trip. They reward me with tea, lunch and a bunk bed to sleep on.
I decide to wander up and down the train to see if I can find some foreigners to travel with. Big mistake. As I reach the guard for the next carriage, he asks me where I’m going, I give him some story about looking for my friends and do this for the next few guards also. Coming back, I stumble upon some of Uzbekistan’s finest (most crooked) cops (менты – slang term, pronounced Mentee).
Me: *Giving them passport* Here you go.
Cops: Where are you sitting?
Me: The fifth carriage.
Cops: What, you think you can just wander around the train, where’s your registration?
Me: Here it is for the last night, the rest are in my bag. – Foreigners are supposed to have an OVIR registration slip from their hotel for every night they’re in Uzbekistan. I start to get the feeling that the rules are different for Russians and former USSR republics, similar to how it was in Kazakhstan, and start to think I could be in some trouble.
Cops: This isn’t the registration, you’re going to have problems at the border, the fine at the border is 1.5million cym ($1000AUD), you should come with us and answer some questions *cough* bribe us *cough*, and we’ll take care of the registration for you.
At this point their boss shows up:
Head cop: Ivan Alexandrovich ey, where’s your registration?
Me: I have all of the registration slips from my hotels in my bag, I can show them now. – I’m lying, I’ve gone close to five days unregistered.
Head cop: Where’s your OVIR registration that all former USSR citizens need to have?
Me: No one mentioned that to me, they just said hotel registration will be fine.
Head cop: Your Russian is strongly accented, where are you from?
Head cop *cracking a smile*: Get out of here son. *to the other cops* his registration is fine.
I head back to my seat and spend the rest of the trip to the border thinking about how to talk my way out of this fine.
We reach the Uzbekistan side of the border and everyone’s passports are collected. After an hour or so of waiting, we’re allowed to go outside for a smoke/stretch. After a few minutes, I hear my name called, turn to find a couple of border police, the guards from my carriage and a couple of other guys. I start to recite my story, I was told that a registration from hotel would do… BLAH BLAH.
Immigration Officer: It says in your passport that you’re from Australia, is that right?
Immigration Officer: You live there?
Me: No, I’m homeless.
Everyone laughs, I notice that they’re all a tad drunk. We talk about seeing the world, and they keep telling me how cool I am. Happy to have befriended the Immigration Officers, I now stop worrying about the fine and as we chat, I don’t notice that everyone from the other carriages has hopped back onto our train. Our guards don’t notice it either.
The whistle blows and the train starts to leave, the guard realises and swears, back on the train he shouts and runs in front of the other passengers to get back on the train. We run alongside the train jumping on the train before it takes off, thankfully leaving no-one behind.
As I walk past the guards cabin, the guard comes out, Ivan, we need to talk. You will sit with us and eat melon and tell us about your trip. I sit down with them as they cut up a melon and the guard leaves presumably to do work. When he comes back, one of his friends turns to me.
Friend: Have you ever tried heroin?
Friend: Why not?
Me: It can do some scary things to you.
I shoot at a glance at the guard who’s just returned, eyes wide open, with an expression as if he’s not altogether with us. He doesn’t react. We go back to eating melon and chatting, when the friend excuses himself to the bathroom.
A minute later, the guard excuses himself and the friend returns, syringe visible in his shirt pocket, same expression as the guard. He pulls out a small bag with a couple of grams of heroin.
Friend: Man you want to try some of this heroin, it’s unreal.
Me: No thanks, but you might want to put away the syringe in your pocket before we reach the Kazak border.
Friend: Oh f*ck man I can’t believe I forgot about it.
He puts the syringe into his jeans pocket and thanks me for telling him, offering to give me the heroin as a present. I politely decline, thinking there’s no way I want to be accepting drugs as I’m crossing borders between two of the countries with the most corrupt police forces and worst laws against drug crimes. He tries to insist by putting it into my pants pocket. I firmly grab his hand before he’s able to put it in my pocket and shake it and sternly tell him that I don’t want any now, maybe later.
Shortly after, I find an excuse to leave the group and return to my seat, where the other passengers thought I’d been arrested and taken off at the Uzbek border. The friend walks past me, clearly high, winks to me and goes to his carriage.
An hour later, after we’ve passed through the Kazakh border, a group of soldiers come onto the train and make their way for me ignoring the other passengers. They look through my passport, and tell me to open my bag. They search through my bag and have me empty my pockets. I look to the end of the carriage to see the train guard talking with the head of the soldiers. I realise that he’d purposely had his friend offer me narcotics in order to be caught by the military, presumably to get a portion of the very big bribe they’d demand. Convinced that I’m not carrying any heroin, they let me pack my bags, and to show that they weren’t targeting me, they casually look into the bags of two other passengers nearby.
The soldiers leave the train shortly after and a few hours later we arrive in Beyneu with no further dramas.