Fragments from a War Diary, Part #149
Oh no. I’m doing it all again. I’m up at the crack of dawn, just as the curfew breaks, to haul myself to Lviv railway station and to take one of those monster trains somewhere. There I was, sitting in my nice communist breeze block hotel in Lviv, working comfortably in a military kitchen cutting vegetables every morning, easting well and going to my favourite bar each evening, and living a roughly normal life. And then I decided that what I really wanted to do was to get on those trains. It’s freezing cold outside, and it’s dark and it’s winter and Lviv is comfortable and in all likelihood where I’m going is not. The purpose of this six-hour rattling steel adventure is to visit a little-known city called Chernivtsi near the border with northern Romania. It is more or less in a direct line south of Lviv, and we are heading for an adventure of some sort although I am not quite sure what.
Lviv railway station just after curfew in early November is a somewhat damp, depressing, dreary affair. A number of people have clearly been sleeping (or trying to sleep) in the railway station overnight. As usual, soldiers are milling around. I am travelling with a friend I have known for a few months in connection with my Ukrainian adventures. He is an easy going person and he has been coming to Ukraine for 20 years, so both he and I know the lie of the land well. The train we are taking to Chernivtsi has been coming from Poltava, in the northeast of Ukraine and not far from the front line, on an overnight journey. This is not one of the modern smart trains of the Ukrainian Railways fleet. Instead it is an old Soviet hunk of hurtling steel, with well over thirty carriages, steep ladder-like steps up from the platform and tight old wooden-lacquered sleeping compartments. The train arrives at 6.30am and a series of haggard and exhausted travellers dismount at Lviv. We clamber aboard and after wolfing down a sandwich for an early breakfast I am asleep, snoring away contentedly, on the brown vinyl-lined lower bunk. My friend watches the Ukrainian countryside go by as I slumber happily, but I really have no idea what is going on or where we are. I wake up about half an hour before we arrive in Chernivtsi, where we have decided to spend a couple of days as a break from the chaos and disorder in Lviv, the twenty-first century’s answer to Saigon.
This is a corner of Ukraine that really nobody knows. Chernivtsi is a historical university town, I am told, but at the moment when I arrive I know nothing about it. The railway station in Chernivtsi is too short to manage this massive train, which must be about half a kilometre long, and we end up dismounting from the elevated carriages and then walking over and along the tracks with our luggage. As we emerge from the station, we see soldiers undergoing the usual routines of stopping men of fighting age (between 25 and 60 is the age range for mandatory conscription) and demanding their papers. As always, if you are within the age range and you do not have the paperwork to show that you are exempt from conscription, you are escorted in a minibus straight to a military training camp and then on to the front line. This process seems to be underway all across Ukraine now, and the authorities are increasing the frequency with which compulsory and on-the-spot conscription is taking place. In Chernivtsi it is occurring in broad daylight. We are not stopped, although as we peruse our maps we observe through the corner of our eyes the interrogation of a Ukrainian male by soldiers and it would appear that he does not hold the right pieces of paper to exempt himself. He is trying to talk his way out of it. I don’t really know how those conversations go. In Lviv the soldiers and Police enforcing conscription seem to work in the centre of the city where a lot of people are drunk, either early or late evening. Here in Chernivtsi the conscription is taking place in the middle of the day.
We walk up the hill to our hotel in this barren town. We are immediately struck by the fact that this former outpost of the Soviet Union has palpably seen no investment at least since the 1980’s, and quite possibly significantly earlier. There is a faded ancient road sign vaguely pointing in the direction of the Romanian border. It could have been erected in the 1950’s. The buildings themselves in the centre of the city are historical and ornate, but they all have crumbling facades. Aged Soviet trolleybuses ply the cobbled streets. There are no signs of Soviet industrialisation or investment here. Nor are there any visible signs of war damage to buildings. It seems that since at least 1991, and quite possibly a lot longer, Chernivtsi has simply been forgotten and left to rot.
The streets are mostly empty, and we find ourselves walking along the middle of the roads as we tramp up several steep hills to our hotel. The only people we see for the most part are the elderly and women. The men of Chernivtsi seem to have been recruited into the army. One thing I notice in abundance is funeral parlours and gravestone vendors. Lines of old ladies form informal markets on some of the side streets, selling such wares as they may have from their homes, or bottles of home made milk from the villages; there are no customers. This tradition of people selling anything they have to hand to make a bit of extra cash is a relic of Soviet times as it was the only sort of private enterprise effectively permissible. These days it is all rather sad given the advent of modern supermarkets.
Thoroughly sweaty, we reach the top of the hill - for Chernivtsi is a hilltop town - and we find life. This is a student city, with a substantial university, and the main street is full of young people - students - with things that students carry, like bags full of books. I see bookshops, coffee shops, bars and possibly even some restaurants. There is some life in Chernivtsi. We check into our hotel and while very reasonably priced, it is really somewhat dapper and I realise that much of the accommodation in Lviv is overpriced and of poorer quality. I notice I have an invitation from a tour guide to show us round. I’m not quite sure what my friend and I are going to be doing in Chernivtsi for a couple of days. Maybe we’re just going to take it easy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Although of course the war is omnipresent wherever you travel in Ukraine, Chernivtsi exhibits an element of charming decay and we may just relax and see what our explorations reveal.