Traveling Ukraine by Train
One feature of moving to a foreign country is that there is very little ground for neutral reactions to things. I’m also a very emotional person—an acquaintance recently told me I have a “Slavic soul that reacts to things nonrationally,” which I chose to interpret as a compliment. So I tend to either love things or hate things here in Ukraine—or, more often, both at once, with a generous dose of tolerant bemusement and/or dry dark Russian humor thrown in. Train rides are very much a part of this general reactive phenomenon.
Since coming to Ukraine seven weeks ago, I’ve taken no fewer than seven train rides – four of which were all-night trains. Based on this exhaustive research, I’ve decided there are three ways that Ukrainian trains differ from American ones, in terms of their place in the culture as well as their physical appearance: (1) Most Americans take trains fairly rarely, here they are the default mode of intercity transportation; (2) In America, trains tend to be more expensive than other modes of travel [here’s looking at you, Boston-NYC Amtrak, 5x more expensive than the bus]; here, they are usually cheaper than the gas would be; (3) In America, trains are valued because they are generally faster than a drive of the same distance; here, the train usually takes 2-3 hours longer than driving would, thanks to a combination of shitty Soviet trains and their propensity to stop in every freakin’ town along the way.
In America, trains are valued because they are generally faster than a drive of the same distance; here, the train usually takes 2-3 hours longer than driving would
Also, the ubiquity of all-night trains is pretty remarkable. The default way to get between major cities in Ukraine – Odessa and Kiev, Kiev and Lviv, etc – is to take a 12-hour train ride, sleeping in a little cot along the way. There are three classes: persha (first class), with two bunks in a closed compartment, kupe (second class – four bunks to a closed compartment), and plotskart – third class, in which all the bunks in a train car are open to each others’ view, organized in little half-closed cubicles of four. Plus you have to pay extra for sheets/pillow/blanket in plotskart.
I’ve never traveled first class, but plan to soon, if I can scrape together the cash. Regardless of which class you’re traveling in, you have the option to buy a little glass of tea, and sit on your bunk glued to the window, listening to the blaring classical music they play for departing trains at each station.
I usually travel kupe, because plotskart is a little bit overwhelming – and they sometimes randomly forget to turn the lights off. Plus, traveling in the same compartment as strangers is always a crap shoot (you might get a babushka that snores like a mule, or a baby, or a bunch of drunken revelers who would rather take shots than sleep), and it’s best to minimize the amount of strangers you’re rubbing elbows with.
The people make train rides here exhilarating, at times maddening, sometimes great; once I rode in a kupe with just one guy, a businessman, who took off his shirt immediately (but then just went to sleep, so, crisis averted).
Dozens of people are sleeping in the train station waiting room, and outside, the city is waking up.
Once, I stumbled into the dining car of the Moscow – St. Petersburg train and got spontaneously treated to a steak dinner and six vodka shots by a really nice couple. Also once, I listened with increasing frustration to a “homeopathic doctor” advising a babushka that eating lots of horseradish would help her heart murmur. Eventually, though, we switch out the lights and try to get comfortable on our little rented mattress pads, swaying above the rails in the darkened compartment. I am a serious insomniac, so most of the time I just stay up all bleary and cranky, watching the nighttime Ukrainian landscape thrum by, stopping in provincial stations along the line.
I’ve watched trains roll through dark trees more times than I can count, this year and in other summers, but the excitement of steaming into a new city at daybreak never quite goes away; dawn is happening over new spires and rooftops, everyone is bundling up in their overcoats and stepping out sleepy-eyed for their day’s first cigarette, carrying suitcases, bundles of firewood, children.
Dozens of people are sleeping in the train station waiting room, and outside, the city is waking up. The taxi men sidle up to you, slyly suggesting inflated prices to the city center, and you are totally exhausted and carrying everything you own, but flush with this thrill of travel. Your feet feel good on new cobbles, the cold air leaves its red handprints on your cheeks – a new day, a new place, another train ride in a foreign country.
Traveling Ukraine by Train photo credit by Unsplash.