Traveling on a Train Cross-Country in Ukraine
By Elise Morton
My first Ukrainian train was on my 19th birthday. A group of five bright-eyed first-year Russian students, we had flown into a snowy Kyiv* and were heading to Odesa on the Black Sea for a hopefully grade-saving language course. Our naive enthusiasm had yet to be trampled by long, cold year abroad months.
Our bright coats and hopeful smiles stick out in a sea of grey at Kyiv train station. The queue for tickets is so long that we have what we are sure is a flawless Russian request formulated by the time we get to the counter; our train station linguistic debut lasts only as long as the time it takes to shut the ticket window in our faces.
‘Lunch break. Go to counter no.5.’
Counter no.5 is also not for us. We are in the wrong building. An hour later, having unsuccessfully tried to get tickets from the window (strictly) reserved for war veterans, we have five tickets to Odesa, kupé class.
We have chosen to skip the infamous platzkart train experience on this occasion. The main difference between the two is that the kupé carriage is divided into separate compartments of four ‘beds’, whereas in platzkart the line of bed after bed seems endless.
If alone, your choice is therefore to share with three strangers or 43, depending on how big you like your audience.
We have another ticket for a bunk somewhere down the corridor, but decide that being all together wins out over space.
Every bed is provided with a pillow and linen, but we put them to use instead to make a makeshift den for our selfless friend who has elected herself as the one who will ‘take one for the team’ and sleep on the very tiny floor. Cozy.
A man pokes his head around our door, saying one of the very few words we are certain of.
A request we understand and can reply to? Fantastic. Soothing sweet tea for less than 10p? Even better. It comes in glasses in ornate metal holders which I determine to steal at some point on this or a future train journey. Three of us disappear to get the second round and return to a birthday cake, complete with candles. We eat one of the most memorable midnight feasts of my existence, and I try to take a mental snapshot of this strangest of birthdays.
Four hours later it is 5 am and we are trundling (this is no bullet train) through the Ukrainian countryside. Trying to sleep is getting me nowhere so I decided to stand in the little corridor outside the compartment and look out of the window. Snow is thick on the ground, providing a kind of hazy illusion of light, confusing further my sense of time.
We slow as we pass through a village, where I watch a group of people throwing things on a fire: chairs, bits of fence, shovels, a fridge. I look down the long corridor either side of me and see no one. I feel a long way from home.
Fast forward two years and I’m trundling in the opposite direction, north towards Minsk in Belarus, on my first solo overnight train journey. I’ve been in Ukraine for the last two months and my friends are scattered across the continent in their various Year Abroad destinations.
Sadly my fresh chance to steal the tea holders has been scuppered by my new Belarusian friends, who have not stopped talking to me (and therefore not stopped looking at me) for the journey so far.
Eight-year-old Misha in the bunk above has been made by his mother to practice his five phrases of English (“No Russian, English now! Misha, English!”), and I have been force fed about a million mini croissants at the hands of the same woman.
We observe a strict etiquette, waiting outside the cabin so we can one by one have enough room to make our beds and enough privacy to get changed. Pajamas have been a big issue for me on trains in the past, as the train temperature gauges seem to have two settings: arctic or fireplace.
You are never sure whether it’s a night for your thermal leggings or your bra and pants. Modesty never lasts long in these situations. I laugh in the face of my previous ignorance, for my now plentiful experience has taught me well; tonight I have devised the perfect layered outfit. As we roll ever closer to the border of what is often called the ‘last dictatorship in Europe’, I pull my sheet up over my head and start to doze, content and somewhat smug that I am now train-savvy.
My coolness disappears as I am woken by a towering man in a magnificent fur hat.
Elise Morton has been an exchange student living in Ukraine, now she is living in London. Visit her blog, The Long Way Home.
*The author has chosen to use the Ukrainian spellings of the cities mentioned (Kyiv and Odesa rather than Kiev and Odessa) out of respect for Ukrainian as the official language of Ukraine and for Ukraine as a sovereign country not to be seen through the prism of Moscow.
She appreciates that it is not unusual to use commonly understood English names for cities (e.g. Rome rather than Roma), but feels, given that ‘Kiev’ is a direct transliteration from Russian and arguably somewhat a relic of Soviet domination, and especially given the current situation, that it is more appropriate to use the Ukrainian spellings.