Fragments from a War Diary, Part #155
My behaviour is becoming repetitive. I am getting back on a train. Why am I doing this? I don’t know. What is it about Ukrainian Railways that keeps making me excited? It’s certainly not the beautiful ladies working on the carriages. These staff are invariably old and grumpy, and fairly stiff with their customers, but they virtually live on these trains as they trundle along from one end of the country to the other and back again and they live in this way without complaining or fuss. They clean up after their customers and keep the carriages as tidy as possible. This train is old fashioned and my friend and travelling companion and I are in what is known as “de luxe” class. This is the highest class of comfort on a Ukrainian train; it is a sleeping compartment with only two beds, and a series of cushions to serve as pillows and a foam mattress, sheet and a blanket, all pre-set for the eager voyager.
There are no two top bunks in these carriages and the compartments feel spacious. There is ample space for your luggage, room for extra blankets, a door that locks and even coat hangers for your jackets. The “de luxe” carriages are not modern; contemporary standards of rail travel increasingly involve jamming in everyone as tightly as possible. These are the old carriages operated in a style for the Soviet elites. The trains with these carriages are not always the fastest but you don’t necessarily mind a few hours more when you have so extensive a journey if you can sit and recline in comfort and without being packed in like sardines with your other passengers. On the train at the moment, which is only a short hop by Ukrainian standards from Chernivtsi to the the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk - about which I know nothing whatever but my friend has interests there - we are the only passengers in our “de luxe” class carriage. So it’s like a private railway taxi, and I feel comfortable and calm.
This morning we spent a couple of spare hours in Chernivtsi before the train, wondering around the old cobbled streets of the centre and taking in the air of the capital of what was Bukovina. We were impressed by the traditional Romanian architecture - due to the devastation of Romania in World War II little of this architectural style is actually left in Romania itself - and we found the university in Chernivtsi, which is a grand and even monstrous fortification of red brick courtyards in which every building seems to have a spire with a giant copper or bronze cross atop it. The area around the university was thronging with students, the vast majority of which are young women - the men are presumably off to war, suffering on the front. It was a beautifully sunny if frosty day, and for an hour or two everything felt relatively normal.
When you are in the middle of a war zone, it is important that you absorb every moment for relaxation that you can. Breathe in any semblance of normality. My friend and I stopped for an early lunch of an imitation hamburger (it had definitely never seen a cow) and some cups of coffee, and we gave some money to a veteran and busker who in an expression of gratitude played us “God Save the King”. Then he returned to playing the Ukrainian National Anthem, which always inspires in my a streak of patriotism almost as strong as hearing my own country’s anthem. I remain constantly impressed by the fortitude and valour with which Ukrainians persistently carry on with the necessary events of daily life even as their cities of stripped of their menfolk who must go to fight and the relentless clamour of conflict invades their routines.
Our lunchtime restaurant had no toilets, so I was directed to use the bathrooms in the strip club next door that happened to be open. I didn’t fancy that, so instead I went to use the restrooms in a high class restaurant now serving as a canteen serving first responders (Police, nurses, firemen and the like) for free. In Ukraine a law has been introduced making all lavatories available for use by the public, something that I consider very civilised and a model to be considered in the west.
Then we tramped down the cobbled streets to the polluted smoggy suburb of Chernivtsi near the railway cutting, where we had begun our southwestern Ukrainian adventure a couple of days earlier. Exhausted old cars rattled over the damaged cobbled streets, and I was reminded of the fact of neglect and decay of this region of Ukraine passed over and forgotten during Soviet times. There were no Police or soldiers on this occasion, “recruiting” random passers by into the military; the sun was shining, and as the train gradually pulled out of the station over some ageing Soviet-era bridge and past some defunct, semi-derelict factories with their windows smashed out and a series of beat-up apartment buildings, patches of mud where cars were parked and tall industrial chimney stacks sticking up out of nowhere, I was reminded of the cruel and basic realities of Soviet life. The Soviet Union was not really much of a system, especially if you lived on the peripheries of it. There were a handful of grandiose glamour projects, in which Soviet industrial productivity would be shown off, such as the Kharkiv metro. But for the most part it was grim, grey, vanquished industrial decay.
The train passes a series of trucks stacked with chopped wood, presumably to be sent to the front line to keep the troops warm in the coming winter frost. Troops in the front line trenches rely on simple braziers to keep themselves warm. The suburbs of Chernivtsi soon give way to isolated forests and simple villages along the railway cutting. The enormous diesel engine pulling this gargantuan train all the way across Ukraine from one end to the other emits a pleasant purring, and I stare out of the window at the simple rustic life passing me by, contemplating just how much effort is needed to reconstruct Ukraine and modernise her into a twenty-first century European nation.