The Shu Vokzal
Many Kazakhstanis have set foot in Shu, though few have ventured more than a few feet. Their interaction with Shu usually takes place on the station platform near their train. Shu’s raison detre is the junction of the main rail lines between Almaty-Astana and Almaty-Shymkent and points farther west, so all trains stop at the Shu station (vokzal in Russian) to refill on water, to switch electric engines, and to give passengers a twenty-minute break for stretching their legs, smoking a cigarette, and buying food. The railroads transport goods and people and are crucial for the country’s everyday functions as Kazakhstan is a landlocked country, ruling out ship transport, and the great distances between cities make riding the train the cheaper, preferred mode of transportation.
The arrival of a passenger train in Shu is a twenty-minute dance of hundreds of people that begins with the announcement, first in Kazakh then in Russian, of the arriving train on either track one, two, or three. Following the announcement, people begin to move towards the edge of the platform to meet the train on the first track or step off the platform and hobble over two tracks to the second platform to meet trains on tracks two and three. If a train is already standing on the first platform, people often just crawl underneath instead of walking around.
This movement en masse is not just outgoing passengers but tired women pushing dilapidated baby carriages filled with homemade bliny, baked chicken, manti and plov, and cigarettes, beer, and vodka, scrappy men wielding improvised metal wheelbarrows laden with locally grown melons, and fast-talking middlemen eager to wrangle passengers into taxis to the next destination.
As the jostling for position at the edge of the platform intensifies, a tall, usually sky-blue, Soviet-built electric engine glides past with an occasional screech from its informal whistle to clear any last people crossing the tracks, followed by around 15 to 20 blue cars that with a slow whoosh, gradually come to a stop.
After the whoosh comes the clank of the conductor opening the door and raising the plate covering the stairs leading into his car. It is now a melee with outgoing passengers competing with incoming passengers for rights to the car’s stairs and baby carriages competing with wheelbarrows for the prime space nearest to the car door in which to display their goods, all accompanied by the cacophony of shouts like “Bishkek”, “Bliny”, “Taraz”, “Cold Beer” as babushkas and middlemen hawk what they are offering. Pools of people form around the stairways to the open car doors. The struggle to exit or board the train is further complicated by a second fleet of men with wheelbarrows who cart overstuffed plastic bags the size of hay bales towards the car’s stairs with the goal of bribing the conductor to transport the goods in any spare space in the passenger car.
Depending on the season and time of the day, this performance lasts anywhere from 10 minutes to the entire 20 that the train stands at the station. During hot, late afternoons in August when local vegetables and melons are in season, passengers and merchants even haggle and exchange right until the train reaches a speed too fast for running alongside and pushing a sack of melons onto the landing of the train car.
The whir and grind of the electric engine coming to life, followed by one long, cold whistle brings the frantic activity to a close as the train imperceptibly begins its slide out of the station. Any outstanding transactions are hurriedly concluded, with a run if necessary, and straggling passengers flick their cigarettes and scamper up the moving stairs into their car. The conductors man their posts in their open car doors with one rigid, extended hand holding a canary yellow flag until their car has cleared the platform.
The hustle then continues at the other waiting train or else the thinned crowd retreats to sit and wait until the next train’s arrival. On any given day this happens over twenty times when trains arrive from all parts of Kazakhstan day and night. But yet, like other towns on the railroad in Kazakhstan where passengers have stretched and refreshed countless times, Shu remains a large town known to many yet left unexplored.