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I am calling them night trains on purpose, not sleeper trains, because when I booked the tickets, I couldn’t discern if there would be a bed, maybe even a shower, or with how many people I would share the dormitory on wheels. Actually, I can’t even read my own ticket.
Flights from Nuremberg to Kyiv start at less than 50 €, but then you have to pay extra for the backpack, the Coca Cola at the airport costs 3 €, and it’s stressful and poisonous for the planet.
“There has to be a train,” I am thinking, because there is a train to everywhere in Europe. Around 200 €, says Deutsche Bahn, the German railway website, and I realize that it can be quite expensive to travel with an environmental conscience. But I have experience with Eastern Europe and I know that there, train tickets are as cheap as if the countries were governed by green Gretas.
Therefore, in Amberg I only purchased the ticket to Prague. I used the Czech Railway for the ticket from Prague to Krakow, the Polish Railway for the one from Krakow to Przemyśl, and the Ukrainian Railway for the ticket from the border to Kyiv. That’s a bit complicated, but I saved so much money that I can easily extend the holiday by a week. And it allowed me to include time buffers of several hours in case a train will be cancelled or hijacked. I also timed the night trains in a way that they will reach Krakow and Kyiv in the early morning respectively, in line with my biorhythm.
But now, I am boarding the first train in Amberg. The hope for interesting conversations, without which this article won’t work, is brutally smashed. The 20 minutes on the regional train to Schwandorf are as silent as if the train had been chartered for a day trip by the deaf-mute association. Well, if you had to commute to school or the courthouse every day, you would be depressed too. Especially now, in grey December, when everyone is already dreading Christmas.
On the train from Schwandorf to Prague, I share the compartment with an elderly couple who is only going to Furth im Wald, but keeps looking nervously into the timetable. “You know, I wouldn’t even dare to make such a trip alone,” the wife confides in her husband. When I tell them that I have another two days on the train ahead of me, she almost faints with fear.
I am settling into the compartment, taking off the heavy winter boots and putting on the slippers. Ahh, that makes all the difference. Now, I feel like in a cozy chair next to the fireplace. And the other passengers as well as the conductor can easily spot the professional traveler. Although, instead of saluting, he inspects my ticket extra carefully.
At the train station in Furth in Wald, a surveillance camera is being installed. It will probably die from boredom after a few months. I am threatened by the same fate, because now I am alone in one of those old six-seat compartments with low chairs, that remind me of the time I was commuting to university in Regensburg, back when you almost suffocated from cigarette smoke on trains and were fighting for permission to open the window.
Taking no notice of the border, the train scurries into the Czech Republic. “Be careful in the East, it’s dangerous there,” West Germans had told me. West Germans who had never been to the East, had no idea of it, and didn’t want to go there, for fear of having their prejudices, based on a long tradition of dividing people into Germanic super-humans and Slavic sub-humans, questioned. I, on the other hand, am looking forward to the East. Four different countries, four different languages, all in one short train ride.
From the neighboring compartment, heavy noise conveys what the problem is with train journeys to Prague: the people from Bavaria who are well aware that Prague is a wonderful city worth a visit, but much less aware of how to behave accordingly. Four boys are getting drunk, shouting obscenely and in an ugly dialect. I wonder if those are the same people who would generalize any misbehavior by a foreigner in Germany and attribute it to the whole population of that country?
In Domažlice, a lady opens the door and asks in Czech whether she may take a seat. I reply affirmatively in my limited Czech, but she notices immediately: “Oh, I better speak German here,” which she does fluently. She shakes my hand, introduces herself as Branka and explains her formal approach: “I am so nervous, because I am taking the railway for the first time in 30 years! When I was a little girl, I often used to take this exact train to go from Prague to our weekend home near Domažlice. I still know the names of all the stops”. Except that the train no longer stops at every milk jug. Everything has become quicker in the last 30 years.
She is trying the train now, because driving has become too stressful for her. “Whenever I sit in a car, I push the pedal to the metal. I just cannot drive serenely, maybe because I used to drive races when I was young. In a Mini Cooper.” She was also the Czechoslovak student champion in slalom and a long-distance cyclist, it will turn out.
“When I was young,” she will say again and again that evening, but she is brim-full with energy, curiosity and drive, more so than many 40-year olds.
She shares apples from her garden, tangerines, travel stories, book tips (I should take a look at Karel Čapek) and her wisdom with me, and time flies.
“When is your birthday?” she asks.
“July 6th, the day when Jan Hus died,” I reply, thankful for the opportunity to finally apply this bit of useless knowledge.
“Oh, that was really mean how he was lured to the council and then murdered,” she is getting all agitated, as if it happened recently, not 600 years ago. And from there, we quickly turn to the topic of contemporary relations between Germans and Czechs.
“I find it sad how little the people on our side of the border know about your country,” I begin carefully. Jan Hus is just one example, completely drowned out by German Luthermania.
“It’s worse than that. They look down on us, they always feel superior,” Branka expresses what always bothers me. Because, dear Western European readers: regardless of how nice you try to be, people will notice that you only use them as cheap handymen or care workers, without any interest in their country, their culture and their language.
“You should write a book,” Branka says as our ways part, asking if she can take a photo of me. When I offer a photograph together, she refuses, giving her age as a reason. “But I am already 73.” If I meet such talkative people on every train, then the book about the longest train journey in the world could indeed become interesting.
Disembarking in Prague, I glance into the compartment vacated by the four Bavarian boys: a crate of beer, all bottles empty, some of them broken, the floor sticky. The Germans with their anti-Slavic superiority complex should be forced to take a look at this. I still hear them blaring and swearing throughout the railway station, wishing that there was one Soviet sniper left from 1968 to take them out. I’d rather see some blood spilled than more beer.
And then there is more screaming. Two Czech girls are acting like crazy, jumping up and down. They have just left the bookstore, opening “Quo Vadis?” by Henryk Sienkiewicz.
In the large waiting hall, there is a piano for everyone to play. A young man in denim trousers and jacket, Balkanese type, the hands covered in tattoos, is energetically playing a happy tune. Not quite Firkušný, but much better than all the “Last Christmas” crap which you hear everywhere else this month. On the keys to the far right, maybe between d4 and c5, there is a hat for appreciative coins.
Next, an Asian boy sits down and plays as masterly as if he had four hands. Maybe he is from Hiro- or Fukushima. The travelers who usually rush through the station are stopping, their faces lighting up with joy. But then, the mobile phone of the Japanese guy rings. He already has to leave. What a pity.
The most beautiful place in the Prague railway station is the old waiting hall, relic of a time in which train stations were flagships and temples of welcome for their respective cities, in which the railway served the people and the coalescing of the country. Now, where everything has to make economic sense, there are hardly any waiting halls. They have been replaced by shops, bistros, snack bars, sushi bars and so on. Those who wait are supposed to purchase and to consume, for else they are useless in capitalism. Just sitting around, reading, talking to each other, contemplating, sleeping, these are almost rebellious acts.
And then the train to Krakow is ready. My plank bed is in a 6-bed compartment, so narrow that I cannot imagine how six people with luggage would get along here. But for now, I am alone, preparing the bed and stowing away the backpack. At least the bed is long enough (I am 6 feet tall).
There will be one co-traveler, a fellow lawyer and globetrotter, as it turns out. So the journey continues to be blessed by interesting conversation.
Regarding the remaining four berths, the conductor informs us that their occupants will only board the train later, but that he doesn’t want to wake us. Therefore, he will send them to an empty compartment. He also promises to knock on the door 15 minutes before Krakow, at 6 am, because the train will then continue towards Slovakia.
“What a nice guy,” I am thinking about the conductor until he asks us to lock the door because there would be many “gypsies” on the train, stealing things. That racist comment is particularly inappropriate because we are exactly on the railway route along which Roma and Sinti were sent to their death. Going to Krakow means going in the direction of Auschwitz. For some of the Nazis’ victims, the lesson has set in that it makes sense to stop stigmatization, discrimination and marginalization before it comes to another genocide. Thus far, the Roma and Sinti have been denied this conclusion, not only in the Czech Republic.
I can’t really sleep because the train is jolting and jumping. When you sit upright, you don’t notice it that much, but trains tilt so much to the left and the right that at times, my head hangs down like that of a sleeping bat. Sometimes I wake up, so I must have fallen asleep, but there is not much sleep, let alone any of good quality.
The young Czech lawyer, on the other hand, sleeps without any problems, probably because she is completely overworked. I am relieved that she sleeps without any breathing problems. My biggest fear before embarking on this train journey will not materialize. The whole 2000 kilometers will be snoring-free.
At Krakow train station, there would even be showers, but – apparently not quite the professional as I had thought in my slippers – I forgot to bring a towel. An extensive shave has to suffice to wake me up. I already know Krakow quite a bit, and an early morning in December is not the best time for a walk around town anyway. So I get the next ticket for the train to Przemyśl, the last town on the Polish side. Maybe I can catch up on sleep during the three hours on that train.
All the other passengers are well rested from a night in a real bed, strengthened by coffee brought to their bed, and are happy that it’s Friday, although once again it’s Friday the 13th. They are talking with colleagues about their weekend plans or reading books by Elena Ferrante (young women), brochures with legends of saints (old women) or playing with their mobile phones (men).
The sun is just waking up and covers everything with strong golden colors. Even the power lines, the windmills, and the chimneys with their red-white bands in the distance look good in that glowing light. Finally, I fall asleep, totally relaxed, for Przemyśl is the last stop and someone will wake me up if I don’t manage to do so by myself.
I actually feel sorry for places like Przemyśl. Everyone is passing through, changing trains, changing money (because on this journey, four countries also mean four currencies: euro, crown, złoty and hryvna), and then they are gone already. A town which for most people is only a name and an impediment to speedy travel, as long as Ukraine won’t be in the Schengen zone. If that ever happens, Przemyśl will die.
The large and beautiful train station does however imply some erstwhile importance of the city, which hopefully extends beyond the siege of 1914-15, the battle of Gorlice-Tarnów and the ghetto in Garbarze.
Here, it’s quite pleasant to kill the hours before I will be leaving the EU. (Someone should have told the United Kingdom how easy that can be.) And it already feels more eastern. In the underpass to the platforms, a man is playing the accordion. A family with a baby brought a plastic toilet for the baby, emptying the pot somewhere outside. The houses opposite the train station are losing their plaster and their colors like trees in eternal fall. A student is writing a theater play on his laptop. A girl plugs her phone into the socket in the wall and walks out of the waiting hall, unconcerned about theft or loss. The taxi drivers in front of the station are sharing a pizza. The announcement board indicates that the train from Kyiv will be one minute late.
Probably, Przemyśl would deserve a longer stay, after which I could bore you with pages of details about its history. But after two hours in the sun-drenched waiting hall, I am already passed on like a parcel, from the Polish State Railway to the Ukrainian State Railway. The border is only 10 km away.
The Ukrainian train has one conductor for each carriage. He already checks the tickets before boarding. He ought to check the weight of the luggage instead, because most passengers are carrying several large suitcases, heavy plastic bags from shopping sprees, and flat-screen TVs so large that you might as well put them up in Poland, and you could still follow the football match from Ukraine. Coffee machines seem to be popular too, maybe because Christmas is near. Someone will be very disappointed because she was actually hoping for the first 50 volumes of the Library of World Literature. Some of the heavy boxes may even contain arms shipments for the Donbas, who knows.
The train is packed to the last seat and I didn’t get a window seat, so there are no photos from this ride. You would see grey fields with little villages of little grey houses. Only the golden-domed Orthodox church provides a dash of color. In a few days, snow will be covering the potholes in the road.
I can hardly focus on rural Ukraine, because the train journey is a constant passport, immigration and customs check. First, the Polish border control ladies who allow me to exit. Half an hour later, I am awoken by the Ukrainian border control ladies who allow me to enter. Then the drug control with a cute black-and-white dachshund who is very interested in my bag indeed, putting the nose deep inside. Not because of marijuana, but because of some tasty pastry.
And finally there is the Ukrainian customs inspector, who must have picked up his customer-relation skills under the tsar or in the Soviet Union. With a metal stick he lashes out at suitcases and bags, about every fifth, and bellows at the owners that they should carry their belongings into the corridor and unpack everything. It’s obvious that he would like to use the metal stick to hit the passengers, too.
And swoosh, the two-hour trip is over. In Lviv, I realize how lost I will feel in a Cyrillic country. Like in China, only colder. But an aimless walk around town arouses longing memories of Vilnius. Electric mobility, which is only now gaining traction in the West. Old ladies selling garden produce on the side of the street. Little huts selling everything from Coca Cola, sandwiches, lighters to bus tickets. Holes in the pavement as large as craters.
The train station is from another time. All the wooden benches in the waiting lounge are occupied, most of them with old grandmothers, old gentlemen with fur hats and faces furrowed by life and leprosy. Some of the old people use magnifying glasses to read the paper. One man has wrapped his right leg in an orange towel and is limping along with the aid of a piece of wood, broken from a pallet, in lieu of a crutch. If you have a wheelchair here, you are already part of the elite. Same with gold teeth versus missing teeth. But nobody is smiling anyway. Many have dozed off already, some will never wake up again.
The ceilings are high like those in a castle. Each time the heavy wooden doors are opened, a gust of ice-cold wind comes inside. As if to remember the Jewish history of Lviv (or Lemberg), every announcement starts with something that sounds like “shalomni passazheri”. Buffets no. 8 and no. 18 are selling meatballs, coleslaw from a large pot and gherkins which you pull from a glass with plenty of dill.
The waiting lounges used to be divided into first and second class. The first-classy is the only one that still has empty seats, probably because one hour of waiting costs 30 hryvnas there. I don’t know how much that is, but a bottle of beer also costs 30 hryvnas, a bottle of Coca Cola 25, so it can’t be too expensive. I allow myself the luxury. The benches are just as hard, the light just as dim, the loudspeakers just as loud. And because it’s mainly rich people congregating in this luxury lounge, unfortunately they all have those little monitors to watch movies and to annoy everyone else with the associated sounds. It was nicer to wait among the poor. And more interesting.
As if to justify the fee, the administration of the railway station has added extension cords with multiple plugs to all the power sockets, so that everyone waiting can charge their pocket computer. Again and again, someone gets up and asks their neighbor to keep an eye on their mobile phone and their belongings, disappearing for 15 minutes. Speaking of the toilet, I guess I only found the second class one, without a seat, without paper, just a hole in the ground.
I am nervously excited how the night train to Kyiv will be.
It is a 4-bed compartment. And elderly woman with a strict haircut, a strict white blouse, and a strict gaze through strict glasses hardly finds me worthy of a word. She looks like a senior secretary from Soviet times and is visibly appalled that even foreigners get to use the nationally-owned trains now. We have the two lower berths, opposite from each other, and she is sitting on hers, absolutely stiff and without moving her face, like a monument to a time and a country long gone.
“This will be boring, but at least it will be a quiet night,” I am thinking, as a young couple enters the compartment. The husband speaks English and happily so. His wife looks at him adoringly, admiring his cosmopolitanism. They run a line of shops together and have been to Lviv to provide some training to the staff there.
The two have the upper beds, reached by a fragile fold-out ladder. I notice that the two are talking about how to get up there, and I offer that I can sleep on the upper bed, so that the rather well-rounded wife can move into the bed downstairs, foregoing the dangerous climbing expedition. The husband thanks me very politely, but refuses with a short poem: “Easy wife, easy life.”
The strict lady doesn’t speak a word with the Ukrainian couple either, so I no longer need to take her treatment personally. Everyone in the compartment wants to sleep, it’s already midnight, after all. But the young man still wants to talk about football, about Germany and England, about his love for fishing, what large fish can be found in the Dnieper, that I am lucky to be in Kyiv for the New Year, and so on. If I should have any questions during the night, I should please wake him up, he offers – probably after having seen me struggle wit the bed sheets.
Until this journey, I had never traveled in a sleeping car because I had thought that one would share the cell with snoring drunkards. Instead, I have met interesting and friendly people. But the limited space is a problem. If somebody wants to change clothes, all others need to leave the room. Because I am traveling with polite people, I quickly realize that even without being prompted, it is customary to leave the compartment from time to time, feigning a need to smoke, to eat or to marvel at the landscape. Another practical problem is that there are only two washrooms for the 40 passengers in the carriage, of which at least one has no running water. Good that I only ordered a bottle of water when the conductress took up orders for tea, coffee and biscuits last night. It’s enough to brush the teeth. But a proper cleanup will have to wait until the next station.
Although nobody snores, I can’t really sleep on this part of the journey either. In Ukraine, too, the train is jumping and jolting as if it were to fall over any moment.
At 6:46, exactly on time, the torture is over. Kyiv Passenger Station. It’s a cold Saturday morning, but the station is full and active like a beehive. The free waiting halls are full to the last seat, even the special ones for children, for disabled people and for pregnant women (those are three different ones because the mothers-to-be must not be confronted with the shocking sight of children that have already hatched). Many places at the station don’t advertise opening hours, bot only the one hour when they are closed (usually between 3 and 4 in the morning). The comfortable waiting lounge is even more luxurious here, but now I don’t need it anymore.
Thousands of people come and go ever minute. They buy newspapers, sweet pastries, bouquets of roses. Here, the train station is not a place for holidaymakers trying to avoid global warming with their choice of transport. Here, boyfriends are visiting their girlfriends, grandmothers their grandchildren, students are going home, and soldiers are going to war. Pensioners are going to the annual meeting of the former Kryvorizhstal steel workers, widows are going to funerals. Refugees from the war go home to look if their house in Shakhtarsk is still standing. Convicts are going to Lontski Prison to start their detention.
My journey is over for now, sadly. It was the last train journey in 2019. Whether I will go for a sleeper wagon again or rather interrupt the journey and sleep in a proper bed on my next trip, I still have to think about that. This time, the weather was grey and depressing, so I didn’t miss too much. But when it will be beautiful, it would be sad to pass Bukovina or the Beskids while sleeping.
I am leaning on a windowsill, writing all of this into a notebook, when an elderly gentleman approaches me and asks something. After I regret that I speak neither Ukrainian nor Russian, he points to the part of my arm where he suspects a watch. Now I understand, and I can provide the requested information. Apparently, he still has enough time before the departure, because he first points to his bags, then to me, then looks in a questioning way. I nod and affirm, and off he shuffles to the bathrooms, which by the way are without seats even in the nation’s capital.
So this is my first impression of Kyiv: a city of a few million people, where someone entrusts all his belongings to a complete stranger, whom he met for the first and last time at the busy railway station, and with whom he doesn’t even share a language, without hesitating. I think I am going to like it here.
Practical advice for booking:
- Book each section as far east as possible. The websites of the German, Czech, Polish and Ukrainian railways are all available in English.
- The earlier you book, the cheaper it is. But if you are traveling spontaneously, you needn’t worry either. There were free seats/beds in each of the trains I took, so you could have gotten tickets at the station.
- I paid around 120 € for the whole trip, but you can get it cheaper if you book early. The German national train operator Deutsche Bahn also runs cheap buses to Prague or Krakow, but then it won’t be a train journey.
- If you want to have a 2-bed room, it seems that you have to book a first class ticket.
- Don’t book the return journey in Germany or Western Europe. It will be much cheaper to buy it in Eastern Europe.
Practical advice for the trip:
- You are not at a fashion show! Slippers and jogging pants are most comfortable.
- Pack a small bag with all the stuff you need during the night and in the morning. Because the large backpack/suitcase is often stored under the lower bed, so you won’t be able to access it while someone is sleeping there.
- I personally would split longer journeys, allowing you to catch fresh air, a proper bed and a shower. As I walked past the open compartment doors upon arrival in Kyiv, there was quite a stench coming from some of them. Five days to Vladivostok non-stop may be an olfactory challenge.