Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Discreet Charm of the Aral Sea

Jonathan Harker wrote in his diverting journal that crossing the Danube gave him the impression he was "leaving the West and entering the East... among the traditions of Turkish rule". As the night train clatters across the frozen sleepers of Ukraine towards Russia, I survey my coupé companions and conclude that live Muscovites travel slow, much like the languorous decline of the Ottoman.

My current husband, No Good Boyo, thinks I should write more about my journey. In retaliation, I shall write about him and the belching branch-line locomotive that is his life.

Boyo's last attempt to persuade a woman to write about trains was directed loosely at a Welsh termagant who shortly thereafter left her husband for another woman. Such is the Allure of Boyo that he can dissuade women not only from further engagement with himself but also with the entire male genus.

Boyo was piqued by her tale of being offered a "beeg feesh" by a Russian naval rating on the Trans-Siberian Express. If they had enjoyed the double delight of being born a woman in the Soviet Union, Boyo and his interlocutrix would have recognised this as a simple proffering of an oversized and undersalted Caspian Perch, not some invitation to tug at his tangy root.

Expecting an anecdote of Celtic length and ambiguity, Boyo set off to relieve himself aforehand. Now, I should add that he was hosting this light supper in a tea garden deep inside Tashkent, the concrete capital of Uzbekistan - itself the East Germany of Central Asia. Uzbek café society has all the sophistication of Welsh café society, and similar comfort facilities, so Boyo stalked off to expel an evening's worth of arak into the nearest patch of twilight shrubbery.

Like Buñuel's eternally frustrated diners, Boyo stumbled into and over one obstacle after another - first a lady walking her dog (not a euphemism, he continues to assure me), then a literal outing of the Tashkent Exhibitionists Society.

As a group of monobrowed lovelies from the Uzbek State Academy of Demure Yet Saucy Librarians approached, Boyo decided on his failure-hallowed technique of understudied nonchalance. He noticed an apparently pointless parapet - Uzbekistan, like most out-takes from the great Soviet blockbuster, is littered with random ramps - glanced over at the reassuring loam on the other side, and strolled alongside it for a few yards before gracefully vaulting into a 15-foot-deep underground car park entrance.

Like the Piedmontese, Boyo is rarely drunk but does work hard at keeping himself "topped up". This ensures that his muscles are as relaxed as his self-awareness, and so he bounced gently from limb to limb rather than shattering on a slab of pebbledash. Seeing an opportunity both to harvest the librarians' sympathy and display his pahlavan resilience, Boyo sprung from the pit and gave them a cheery wave. They naturally fled amid a sea of squeals, thereby attracting the inevitable police patrol. The Jumaboys in Blue caught up with Boyo just as he was at last relieving himself against a tree.

Protests that he had maintained propriety by not first loosening his trousers impressed them less than the long-term loan of his wallet and signed, well-laminated photograph of Jenny Agutter.

A gaggle of Russian border guards puzzle over a ballpoint pen. I peer out into the darkness, and seem to hear in the turbid eddies of the River Shmonchka the gentle squelch of Boyo returning to that distant dinner table so many years ago. I settle back in my furs to sleep.

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