comment 0

Magic on the Night Train to Odesa, Ukraine

“Only First-Class!”

Well darn, that wasn’t in the script – there were no other berths on the train from Poltava to Odesa. I had tried to be organised, and buy them earlier in New Zealand. Buying Ukrainian railway tickets on line is essentially quite straight forward. It was just that, after I had plodded through the process, neither my MasterCard nor Visa would have anything to do with it. For some reason, payments to a Ukrainian government site were just not on. I found a third party site that worked, but at a higher price. I figured that for future tickets, just rocking up at a Ukranian railway station would be the way to go.

Now here I was in Kiev railway station, waiting for an overnight train to Poltava. I was trying to buy my onward ticket from Poltava to Odesa, a few days further ahead. The woman in the ‘kasi’ had entered my request into her computer and finally made the comment about first class being all that was left. The thought took my breath away momentarily (back home it would be a zillion dollars) but it turned out that it would be only thirty dollars or so, And first class? That would be a first for me. Could be worth the experience.

The woman in the kasi took my passport, filled out the details of my ticket, then, before handing them over, launched into a long stream of Ukrainian, which I couldn’t follow at all (It was the International kasi – I’d been assured she spoke English). When she paused for a breath, I said:
“But it is first class – right?!”
“Yes!” She replied.
And I couldn’t help adding: “And includes champagne?” (Raising one of my eyebrows as best I could).

It’s not the kind of weird humour you would normally try on an eastern European, but this time it worked.
“Yeees!” she replied, with a slight grin.

I pocketed my ticket and eventually got on my 23:12 train to Poltava. It arrived around, 05:00, and I prudently sat in the waiting room until 06:00 when there was some daylight, before trudging down the long road into the center of town. It must have been around freezing, and there was a biting wind as well.
Poltava immediately seemed a lot more down to earth than the glitzy, high fashion Kiev. There were a more people walking around who probably wouldn’t have been out of place back in Soviet times. I adopted the wonderful Cafe Komora as my eating place. It makes a variety of dumplings as you wait. The decor is artful and importantly, every nook and cranny had a series of power points (it does have free wifi, but requires you to type the password in Cyrillic….).

One morning I walked the 5 km out to where the Battle of Poltava was fought. Then, in the afternoon, Janna, a genuine Poltava local,  treated me to a couple-hour walking tour of the central city. She pointed out that a typical Poltava city block has about three banks (despite it being a kind of low key city) while every corner seems to be marked by a pharmacy (this may be general in Ukraine). In passing, she also pointed out that Hitler had once stood in a small balcony above the cafe where I went for morning coffee.

On my last afternoon, I had a final pig-out at Cafe Komora of dumplings with salmon and cottage cheese, then I set out on the long walk from Dream Hostel back to the railway station at 10:00 pm. There was plenty of time, since my train to Odesa was just after midnight.
The temperature had dropped back to around zero, but thankfully now it was without that biting wind the last time I made the walk.
Getting to the vicinity of the station, I used up a little bit more time looking around for a dark, tree covered spot to have a pee ( thus avoiding the pay loo at the far end of the station platform) then headed inside to the waiting room.
Idly filling in a bit more time, I tried to find my train on the big timetable on the wall. But when it wasn’t there, I started to stress. Had I screwed up the date after all? I really hate trips around midnight. I’ve been caught out more than once with flights that board one day, but depart the next.
So I took my ticket to the kasi, said “Извините”, and slid it over to what appeared to be a blonde Ukrainian supermodel masquerading as a teller. She let out a knowing sigh, and pulled out a book, thumbed through it for a few seconds, and said:
“You leave from another station. Do you want me to book a taxi? “
Now I’ll do pretty much anything to avoid a taxi, and I asked if I might walk. 
“No, you Need a taxi” she stressed. “Its a problem…”
In a couple of minutes she slid me a square of paper, with a number plate on it and how much I should pay the taxi (61 grz). I asked if it was a taxi or an Uber she had got me, and she stressed that it was a taxi.
I thanked her, and got outside just as a car with the right number plate pulled up out of the darkness. It appeared otherwise unmarked. The driver looked at the of square paper on my lap and grunted. He was an otherwise unresponsive gorilla. After a lot of twists and turns the he pulled up at the other station. The woman who had booked the taxi was dead right about not walking – the second station (Poltava-Pivdenna) was well over 5 km away. The taxi driver, mercifully, didn’t try and pull anything on me, and accepted my cash without a word.

The spooky entrance foyer to Poltava-Pivdenna Railway Station. The door to the street is the little bit of light in the distance. The waiting room is off to the right.

The main entrance to the railway station was dim. In fact, there was so little light, I wondered if the station was actually open. I was surprised therefore, when I could open the door. I entered a huge, dark foyer, having to almost step over a drunk lying just inside, his bottle beside him. The dim foyer looked like one of the less salubrious killing zones on a game of Unreal. I walked warily through the spooky place towards …. well, I wasn’t at all sure where. There wasn’t any indication of an exit until I was half way across, and some light appeared to my left, and led to a waiting room. At the entrance was a sleeping dog, squeezed, oddly, head inwards, between a rubbish bin and a wall.  About half the people at the waiting room seats looked as if this was their regular nightly sleeping spot. They looked unkempt, had plastic bags rather than travel bags, and clutched bottles, or were even surreptitiously smoking. 
At the other end of the waiting room, periodic muffled shouting came from… somewhere. I followed the noise and discovered another drunk, lying face down on the floor. He had slotted himself into a narrow space, no wider than he, between the waiting room wall and an interior office. 

The waiting room at Poltava-Pivdenna Railway Station. There’s the dog, with its head in between a wall and a rubbish bin. A drink guy has slotted himself into the narrow gap between this little interior office and the main wall.

This time, I found my train on the timetable and wandered back to the foyer to take some photos. As I hauled my camera out, a policeman and policewoman rushed into the station, passed me in the foyer, and carried on into the waiting room. When I got back there, the two of them were dealing with one of the grubby locals, who was now lying incoherent on the floor. 
He was either drunk, or  perhaps genuinely extremely sick. In any case, the actions of the very solid, bullet proof vested cop, were admirable. He was patient and gentle. Self-inflicted or not, the Ukrainian policeman dealt with the man in a professional manner.

When a clearly drunk guy sitting on the seat nearby tried to shake the chap on the ground, the cop firmly removed the offending hand. The policeman quietly dealt with the guy on the floor for a good twenty minutes, while the slight young police woman kept looking out the window into the car park for. It became apparent, she was looking out for an ambulance.
The drunk guy who had slotted himself into the narrow gap at the opposite end of the waiting room started to shout loudly to himself about something. This alerted the cop, who strode back to investigate, found him, and gave him a couple of firm prods with his boot. The guy on the floor quickly reversed out of the gap and and rushed out of the station.
An ambulance duly arrived, the police helped the sick/drunk guy to his feet, gently walked him outside and passed him over to three medics who emerged from the ambulance. He was helped to a bed in the back of the ambulance, and as long as I remained in the station, he was being dealt with inside the ambulance.

The waiting room in Poltava-Pivdenna Railway Station. The ambulance, with its interior lit up, and the patient inside, can be seen through the windows.

An announcement for my train came over the speakers, and I wandered out onto the cold platform. A few minutes before midnight, my train slowly pulled into the station (see the featured image). I lined up to have my ticket checked by the carriage attendant, then climbed aboard.

The night train to Odesa pulls into Poltava -Pivdenna Railway Station.

I had compartment number one, where there was already a woman trying to sleep in one of the upper bunks. My bunk was below hers.

By the way, First Class in Ukrainian Railways means a compartment with four berths. When I traveled from Kiev to Poltava I was in third – where there are no compartments and my bunk was in the isle.

A few minutes later two thirty-something women arrived to claim the two bunks on the other side. I slipped into the corridor to give them room to set up their beds, and eventually they came out and started to chat. One was shorter, vivacious, and who did most of the talking, in both English and German. She was involved in theater in Poltava, making perfect sense, given her lively personality. The other one was taller, and more stand-offish, perhaps because her English was more limited. Let’s call them Iva and Natasha.
After a few introductions, Iva held up a cup and asked me if I had one. When I said I didn’t, she immediately procured one from the carriage attendant. Returning with that, she reached into her large hand bag – and pulled out ….. a bottle of champagne. [Giggle giggle]

The conversation continued with the usual:

Where was I from? Did I need a visa? (Yes.)

Did I need to pay for my visa? (Yes, about $80.)
A moments reflection, then: “So we are an exclusive country!” [Giggle giggle]

Both women were Ukrainian nationals, although Natasha identified herself as ethnically Russian. She had been born near Lake Baikal in Siberia to a father whose Soviet government job had taken him around many of the now independent ‘stans’. Leaving her social network at age 13 with her parents relocation to Ukraine had clearly been traumatic for Natasha.

Iva identified herself as half Ukrainian and half Russian “by blood”, which she emphasised by pointing to the veins on her wrist. She pulled a second bottle of champagne from her handbag and made a show of surreptitiously uncorking it in the corridor [Giggle giggle…], so as not be too obvious to the rather young cabin attendant – who politely chose not to notice.

Tongues loosened by a bit of alcohol, the conversation turned to politics.
As Iva put it, the “Situation” in Ukraine was, “caused by corruption, from the president down.” The “situation” was one in which desperate Ukrainians were trying to get work in Poland, where the income was so much higher.

Then it got down to the nitty gritty – the part played by Mr Putin next door. There was an awkward minute or two while both of them tried to size me up and decide just how open they would be with me. Eventually they said that they were great admirers of Putin (In a later conversation they characterised Ukraine’s President Poroshenko as a “marionette of the Americans”). Ukraine had lost direction, Iva said. No one knew anymore, what was going on. Putin’s Russia on the other hand, had some form of ‘direction’.

I found this fascinating. Back in Kiev I had listened to a woman giving me an opinion that would be much more expected from a Ukrainian: Russia had “invaded” the Lugansk-Donbass, and Putin was “killing our warriors”. I had chipped in to that conversation by saying that Russians who I had spoken to a couple of years before, in Russia and geographically on the other side of the conflict, had commented that the separatist leaders were “gangsters” before the war started. The woman I was speaking to was genuinely surprised to hear that, and after a moment said “So even the Russians know the truth”.

Well, who would know what the ‘Truth’ was? But I had been intrigued by the Russian comment ever since. I wondered whether in any such conflicts, these ‘gangster’ types tend to surface. Or was it perhaps, that they discovered their true calling, and were finally able to focus their special talents into something that at least their side, thought noble?

Back on the night train to Odesa, that second bottle of champagne was consumed, and we eventually retired to our (respective) first class bunks. The train rocked on across the Ukrainian steppe and I started wondering. 

Champagne?! Champagne?! What was going on there? And then I remembered – a hundred years ago, the magician Austin Osman Spare, had summed his secrets up in the phrase “Does not matter, need not be”.

What he meant was, that if you toss a wish into the universe, you must then, with an attitude of supreme nonchalance and indifference, convince the universe that you didn’t really want it anyway. If you can pull this off, the universe may provide. 

The woman who sold me the ticket in Kiev had clearly understood that I wasn’t expecting champagne. I was just some twit making a flippant comment. But the universe did get some message, and went “Nya….. why not?”

And snapped its cosmic fingers.

Yep, I reckon that’s what happened.

Its the only rational explanation… (:

Filed under: Travel stories

About the Author

Posted by

From New Zealand. Traveling the weyward path trying to figure out how the world works. I study fossil plants, past climates, travel, walk, hike, read, take photos, struggle with computer graphics and plant trees.

Leave a Reply