The Joys of Ukrainian Train Travel

*I just want to preface this, and to ward off angry comments, by saying that I love Ukraine and I love trains. Just not those two things put together.*

There is being uncomfortable, and then there is taking the night train to Kiev. Is it possible to get used to shuttling between the Ukrainian capital and its second largest city in a third-class compartment? Sure. It’s reportedly also possible for the body and mind to get used to various other tortures. It’s just a question of time.

Time is something I have way too much of.

I’m lying on the upper bunk in the open compartment typical of the third class, “platzkart”, wagons- the preference of the proletariat- desperately attempting to ignore the rattling of whatever that couple is doing in the bunk across from mine…

It’s past 2 am.

…and desperately wishing I hadn’t chosen the previous morning to sleep in.

Who am I kidding. We know full well what they are doing, don’t we? It’s common knowledge really. Couples only “do” one thing in bed. Unless they’re sleeping because they boarded the train exhausted. Because that’s common knowledge as well.

Common knowledge I had tossed aside in favor of a pillow eighteen hours before.

That’s the only way you board these trains. Exhausted. On the verge of passing out if at all possible, which should bring the news that a bottle of vodka accompanies many passengers as no surprise.

I have neither alcohol nor need to sleep, merely the staccato breathing of a shirtless old man on the bunk below me to pave the way for my lubricated dreams.

Lying here for hours with nothing to do but worry about the cleanliness of the sheets and whether your pillow is infested with bed bugs is a sleep preventative in itself. Feeling like you need to pee but are afraid of climbing down the bunks beneath yours is another.

Once down, plunging forward in the direction of the bathroom through a narrow slit congested with overlapping appendages and dangling limbs makes for a fun time only if you’re a fetishist, a peculiarity nevertheless cured by the smell emanating from most of these unshod feet. “This little piggy” is a horrifying option when dealing with such amphibian toddle toes.

Once through and able to breath again, I sling the little bathroom door shut behind me, a move which ripples through the unidentified liquid sloshing about on the floor. Not a good time to have forgotten my shoes.

Back on the hard board that doubles as a bed, my own feet now sprouting forth into the aisle, I try and regain a less painful position. Laying on my side seems the best variant, though with my nose pressed up against the pillow it may also open up my sinuses to an insect invasion overnight.

I realize I’ve fallen asleep when I’m jolted awake by someone’s hands pressing tightly against my feet. Though I had presumably left plenty of room, hands are gripping my soles and pushing them up towards me, as if they might simply fold nicely in place alongside my chest, or perhaps just break off. Worst of all, the train is stopped and I am now awake again.

Oh yes, trains (and sleep) require near constant movement. If for no other reason than the grating sound of the train wheels against the track blot out the cacophony of sounds coming from within.

In addition to the old man’s struggled breathing on the bunk below- the furtive movements of the couple on the bunk across long since elapsed- from somewhere seemingly above is a sound truly like a creature grasping for life. Sometimes growling, sometimes gasping for breath through untold layers of mucus, it’s enough to haunt any dreams that were thinking of granting me reprieve and send them instead hurtling in the other direction.

From somewhere deeper within the train a baby cries and the sound of a man biting his nails echoes.

You finally drift off to a claustrophobic sleep only to awake again to an intense spasm of groaning from somewhere nearby.

Readers aware of these trains will wag their finger at my complaining over a ticket that cost me all of six dollars, and they’d be right, only I’d be willing to cough up a whole lot more than that now just in order to get the wheezer across from me to stop flinging wet dollops of his nasal batter at the open window next to my head.

The sheets feel moist, and the sound of the man biting his nails is only growing louder, until I think the one thing might have caused the other, and only when the train starts moving again, nearly throwing me off my bunk, do I snap out of it.

It’s after half an eternity- the broken, antique serpent slithering once more across the bleeding Ukrainian landscape- that the venom of sleep finally takes hold.

Next stop: the dining car.

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7 comments

  1. It’s close to impossible to sleep in “platzkart”, especially if someone is snoring…but it’s cheap…How about using indian railways?)

  2. We traveled plazcart once in the sticky hot summertime, overnight, with all windows sealed shut… for the first and last time, haha! But yes, nothing beats that ticket price.

    I like getting to meet fellow travelers in a smaller setting like kupe, where it’s not so overwhelming with everyone listening in. Do you ever travel kupe?

    1. I think I might have traveled kupe once and you’re right, undoubtedly a much better experience! On this occasion however kupe was sold out so I had to rough it 😉

  3. Haha. Well written, and I would think quite an eye opener for the yet uninitiated.

    I’ve traveled the trains there quite a bit, the most recent being Rivne to Kharkiv – an overnight journey – I chose ‘Lux’.

    My most memorable, however, was Lutsk to Odessa. I declined an offer of sex, from the attendant. You can read about it if you like, here…

    http://www.talesfromukraine.eu/2014/10/travel-to-ukraine.html

    Kind regards,

    Danny.

    1. Danny, what a story!! It certainly sounds like you had an unforgettable, and very Ukrainian, journey! And I certainly don’t fault you for your reluctance to return the dear lady’s affections… Can’t say I would have either. Guess neither of us is a real man 😉

      Many thanks for your kind comments and best of luck to you in your train travels! Keep the rest of us updated!

      Cheers!

      Brendan

      1. Thanks, Brendan, for the read and kind comments.

        I have often thought back to that night and wondered did I miss out by not accompanying the lady to her cabin; now that I know you wouldn’t have done, I don’t feel too bad about it 🙂

        Just read your ‘Letters from Ukraine’ post. Another well written and interesting piece. And my Lord, you do get around – London (my hood) – Paris – Kharkiv.

        Thank you once again.

        ps – and isn’t Katherine over at ‘8 Months In Ukraine’ wonderful?!

        Danny.

      2. Thanks for the kind comments, Danny! And yes, Katherine is absolutely wonderful! And absolutely as nice in person as she comes off in her writing!

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