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The Migrant Experience: Aboard The 'Eastern Express'

  • Mumin Shakirov

ABOARD THE 'EASTERN EXPRESS' -- With its clay houses, makeshift kiosks, and roads dotted with potholes, Katagan is a typical Tajik village.

A large group of local residents has gathered in the Rakhimovs' shady yard teeming with plants, flowers, and fruit trees.

They are bidding farewell to Umed Rakhimov, who is heading Russia to work on a construction site.

It's not the first time the 28-year-old is leaving Katagan. Like an estimated 1 million Tajiks, he has been forced by rampant poverty and unemployment to seek better fortunes in Russia.

It is with a heavy heart that Umed leaves his family behind, especially his wife and 1-year-old daughter.

His mother, Firuza, is in a somber mood as well.

"I will be sad. We've just married him off," she says. "I don't know what awaits him there, and his wife is also worried whether he'll find a job. That's the way things are here, we live and worry."

At around midnight, Umed and hundreds of other Tajik migrant workers flock at the train station in the nearby capital of Dushanbe to board the Moscow-bound train, also known as the "Eastern Express."

The Shakedown

Those traveling all the way to the Russian capital face a four-day journey that will take them more than 4,000 kilometers across Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and southern Russia.

Within two hours, the train has reached the border with Uzbekistan, which lies just 70 kilometers from Dushanbe.

Suddenly, the train swarms with Uzbek border guards, police, and customs officials.

Tajikistan lies on the main drug-trafficking route between Afghanistan and Russia, and for border officials, every passenger on the Dushanbe-Moscow train is a potential smuggler.

All too often, however, their search for "drugs and weapons" is simply an excuse to harass passengers and extort money from them.

Larisa Sharipova, one of the train's carriage supervisors, says passengers can be expelled for the slightest trifle.

"Let's say the ticket vendor, for example, misspelled the traveler's surname by writing 'a' instead of 'o' -- that's enough to pull the passenger off the train," Sharipova says. "Sometimes the plastic film that covers the passport's page has peeled off a little at the corner -- that's another reason to get a passenger off the train. It's such a pity for those poor people who buy such expensive tickets and are forced to get off in Uzbekistan because of some obscure mistake."

The train's inspection lasts two hours, during which passengers are not permitted to leave their seats. The strict visa regime between Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan also means Tajik citizens cannot even set foot on a platform while the train crosses Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Confined to their carriages for almost two days, passengers rely on traveling vendors for fresh beverages, food, and cigarettes. There are so many vendors on this section of the journey, with their bulky bags, that passengers must literally elbow their way down the carriages' narrow corridors.

Battling Boredom

It's now midday. The train has left the southern Uzbek border town of Termez and is approaching Turkmenistan.

Still unable to alight, passengers admire the sandy landscape through the window, peppered with small villages and camels. The train rides slowly along the Afghan border, marked by an endless barbed wire that cuts through the dunes.

Rules for train passengers in Turkmenistan are even stricter than in Uzbekistan.

The new carriage supervisor, Khusnya, instructs passengers on how to behave while on Turkmen territory.

"Don't go to other carriages. Don't smoke," she enjoins. "For eight hours, you are not even allowed to go to the restaurant carriage."

The route to Moscow is not a straight one. After traveling some 200 kilometers across Turkmenistan, the train meanders back into Uzbekistan, where travelers must once again endure lengthy passport controls and searches for "drugs and weapons."

To kill time during the long journey, many passengers stage improvised concerts.

Muhammed Ali is always ready to show off his musical talents.

The 57-year-old former judo trainer is traveling all the way to Moscow, where he started working 15 years ago at the huge Cherkizovsky food market, which was shut down last month amid allegations of health and safety violations.

A born optimist, Muhammed has long come to terms with being separated from his family for months, sleeping on cardboard boxes at Moscow markets, and working seven days a week. Even constant harassment by Russian police has not succeeded in dampening his spirits.

Unique Challenges

Only one thing enrages Muhammed -- racist attacks against migrant workers like him, which have soared in recent years.

"My father was wounded seven times during World War II battles near Moscow. Why can't I, the son of a frontline soldier, walk freely in this city?" Muhammed asks. "Who allowed these extremist bastards to impose their rules in Moscow? Is there any justice? I can't walk freely in Moscow, and they can!"

The train enters Kazakhstan at night.

The bulk of traveling vendors are gone, and the stifling heat has eased a little.

No transit visa is required to cross Kazakhstan. At the first Kazakh stop, in the town of Atyrai, passengers are finally allowed to take a walk on the platform and do a bit of shopping.

Vendors mass around the train, peddling pickled cucumbers, boiled eggs, beer, toilet paper, and local SIM-cards for mobile phones.

This is Gulya Vakhitova's tenth trip on the "Eastern Express." The 35-year-old widow speaks enthusiastically about her job as a chef in a restaurant in a small town outside Moscow.

Unlike most Central Asian migrant workers, she earns enough to support her family at home in Tajikistan -- including her four children -- while living comfortably in Russia, where she rents her own flat.

In her case, Russia's mounting xenophobia has not been an obstacle to building a successful career.

"It all depends on you, on the way you behave," Gulya says. "In all the years I've worked at the restaurant, I've never heard an offensive word, although my colleagues admitted they initially had prejudices about my nation. They said their opinion changed when they got to know me. This happened more than once."

Final Stretch

From Kazakhstan, the train finally enters Russia, where border officials scour passports and luggage for another two hours.

Groups of passengers get off soon after the border to reach big southern Russian cities like Astrakhan and Sochi.

Umed, too, was planning to work on one of the huge construction sites in Sochi, which is preparing to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. But his Tajik friends there called to tell him that his job had fallen through.

He quickly decides to try his luck in Moscow. He has been working in Russia since he was 12, and he is confident that he will find a job despite the economic crisis, which has dealt a severe blow to Russia's economy.

Umed has already overcome his sadness at leaving Tajikistan. He says he's grateful to Russia for enabling him to provide for his loved ones.

"Russia is everything to me! Russia gave me a wife," Umed says. "If I had stayed and worked in Tajikistan, I would never have found a wife, built a house, and bought a car."

He says that "now I have two dreams: to give my younger sister a nice wedding and to send my mother on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. After that, Russia is over for me."

The "Eastern Express" finally reaches Moscow in the early hours of the fifth day. The 300 or so passengers noisily pour off the train onto the empty platform, bringing the sleepy station to life.

They make their way to the metro in small groups before going their own way -- the boisterous Muhammed Ali, the virtuoso cook Gulya, the hopelessly optimistic Umed.

Some of them will board the train back to Tajikistan in three or four months. Others who find a stable job may stay longer.

Many of them have tied a "tumar," a Central Asian lucky amulet, around their wrists to see them through the hardships of life as a migrant worker in Russia.

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