Monday, July 14, 2014

Transportation Palaces of Ukraine: The trains (вокзалы) are still running

Starobelsk Train Station, at top; stations in Kyiv (with iconic clocktower),
Khargiv, Lviv in collage; Odessa station, above. 

The trains (вокзалы) are still running in Ukraine. The stations are open for business, and so are most airports (there are far fewer) if you can get to them. While Lugansk and Donetsk are sitting ducks for more death, destruction and brutality, I am remembering the trains and getting around Ukraine.

Chernigov train station, so elegant inside and out, 
one of my first train experiences. 

I like the train stations in the eastern cities of Lugansk, Donetsk, and Khargiv, because these were closest to home in Starobelsk.  Lugansk especially. The station in Kyiv was almost a second home, centrally located, near Peace Corps headquarters (a nice walk), incredibly gorgeous inside.  Then there are the fabulous stations in Chernigov in the north (one of the most beautiful), Odessa in the south, and Lviv way out west. They are beautiful and accomodating; clean, efficient and pretty friendly (well, there was the occasional brisk clerk who wouldn't help a non-native speaker).

Most stations are architectural feasts, built as public gathering places for people from all walks of life, palaces of transportation, like the famous Carnegie libraries in the U.S. that are so rich and ornate.  Ukrainian train stations are filled with vendors and small businesses, inside and outside, selling everything imaginable, from flowers to flags, to trinkets and food.  Trains are the main ways to get around in Ukraine, reliable and relatively inexpensive.

The tickets were complicated for me at first, the language confusing--what kind of train, what class, what car, what time--but after a while, and with lots of help, I could read the schedules, decipher the tickets, and get just about anywhere. Overnight trains were the most popular. You had to take a train to get to an airport (аэропортов), especially to Kyiv's Borispil, the main international airport, and also to Donetsk if you were going South, say to Crimea or Turkey.   I can't remember how I got to Egypt.

Lugansk station: not the most beautiful but functional.
I spent many hours there, my main station.  
Oh yes, I remember.  I had taken the overnight train from Lugansk to Kyiv to get a flight to Egypt. A passenger in my compartment (I believe it was a nice young man, a student, who generously shared his food and liked to converse) had stolen my passport and money (the only time that happened).  I was frantic to get the passport.  I went first to a police station and then to Peace Corps headquarters (which has a very good security team) with my woeful tale. It was a bad day.  By the end of it, the Peace Corps had found my passport (God knows how), and the next day I flew to Cairo. I was grateful that the robber had thrown my passport in a place where it could be found by the police. It was a miracle.

The armed pro-Russian terrorists have made it hard to get to trains in the east, but it's possible.  My friends in Starobelsk were supposed to mail some applications for an exchange project that might bring them to America, but no mail is going in or out because the roads are blocked, barricaded, dangerous.  The trains are still running, though, and my friends made it somehow to Lugansk, then on to Kyiv, to deliver the applications in person. Brave souls, these women who are keeping families and communities together in eastern Ukraine.

Trains are the best way to see the country.  Once you get past the industrial smokestacks and the old Soviet factories and buildings, and the ugly parts, which of course do exist, then you are rewarded with beautiful landscapes that rise up to take your breath away. Glorious and colorful church domes and cultural centers; fields of sunflowers and wheat; sun rises, sunsets, and moon rises over small towns and villages; steppes and forests, farms and gardens in all seasons. Winter is especially beautiful.

Travel by train is a good way to meet people, too. Most travelers do not speak any English, but they soon caught on that an Amerikanka was in their midst, and most were curious. We did our best. Lots of dictionairies and pantomime. Some cel phone calls to someone who might know some English and could help translate.  Lots of frustration, lots of smiles.

The worst train ride I had was after breaking my arm (I fell off my bike) and having to get to Kyiv with only a few tylenol to ease the excruciating pain.  I moaned and groaned all the way. I felt sorry for the other passengers in my car. I said, more than once "сломанная рука, извините." I couldn't talk after that. I couldn't sleep, couldn't move, couldn't do a thing. A train ride has never been so bumpy: speeding up, grinding to a halt, hitting bumps at high speeds, slamming on brakes. It was miserable.  I had to be lifted off the train, into the waiting SUV, and into Peace Corps headquarters.   I wasn't voted the toughest PC volunteer in my group for nothing!

Old Doneesk station, since updated.
I learned a lot about the Ukrainian people during the long train rides.
No matter what the circumstances of their lives, people always shared their hospitality and their food. At first I didn't know about stocking up on food and drink for the journey, but fellow passengers taught me, and offered me theirs. After that I'd always bring extra cookies to share.

The trains of Ukraine.  The beautiful train stations.  The kindness of strangers.  Maybe a united Ukraine will run as efficiently at its trains some day, connecting east and west, serving the needs of the people, taking advantage of their incredible assets, shining a light on their strengths, offering public gathering places that serve as centers for civic discourse and the sharing of ideas and dreams.

For more on Ukraine trains, here's a good blog (took some photos from it):

Post a Comment

The Best News of 2018? Indivisible and Grassroots Resistance

"This time two years ago, we were lost, angry, and scared (okay, we were pissed. Really pissed). Republicans had taken the House, ...