As I write these words I’m sitting on a 20-hour train journey to Kherson feeling rather like a Lord. I have a compartment all to myself, “de luxe” class, so the lady who works on the carriage keeps on bringing me complimentary tea and coffee and we’ve only just started the journey. Although the bed opposite mine is unoccupied she is adamant that I mustn’t put my luggage on it, which I find rather strange. There are some other strange features of this train to Kherson. The main one is that although when you use the Ukrainian Railways App to try to buy tickets, it tells you that the train is virtually completely full. However it is in fact completely empty. There are only about five people in my coach and it’s a big coach. In fact I could only spot about 50 people getting on the entire train and it’s a big train: one of those Ukrainian beasts that’s about half a mile long. It’s going at quite a lick and the carriage has better heating than my apartment. Actually there seem to be two ladies assigned to my carriage but I sense that their principal duties entail gossiping with one-another. One of them gave me a stern lecture about how I must not flush lavatory paper down the toilet because it’s the latest electric vacuum pump style, and she gave me a demonstration of all the switches and buttons that she keeps in her own room in the carriage. This is undoubtedly Ukrainian train travel at its best - if you can get a ticket for one of these mysterious empty ghost trains, a feat easier said than done.
Most of the people on the train, as far as I can tell, are either soldiers returning to the front line or old ladies going to deliver provisions to family members in Kherson. I saw a couple kissing and cuddling on the platform, a soldier waving goodbye to his girlfriend, tears in their eyes. At over 35 Euros, this is one of Ukraine’s most expensive train rides you can take and the calibre of the people in my carriage reflects that. There is an electricity socket in my compartment and this one actually seems to work; other electricity sockets I have seen on Ukrainian trains apparently do little more than drain the battery of the device you are seeking to charge. There isn’t any WiFi; but with a Kyivstar SIM card I can mostly keep online for a large part of the journey. It’s not nearly as remote a journey as I had imagined, but then it might get worse: we’re only really just out of Lviv and by 10 O’Clock tomorrow morning when I have to change into a special “bad carriage” to travel onwards from Mykolaïv to Kherson I might be getting sick of it all. At least I have my privacy - for now. I’m a little bit alarmed that there are no trains back from Kherson - at least, not ones you can buy online. But there are trains from Mykolaïv and I’ve bought one of those for Thursday. I suspect that for some obscure reason you can only buy tickets from Kherson, as opposed to to it, in person at a desk in Kherson railway station. That will be an adventure for tomorrow. Anyway as with many things in wartime Ukraine, it’s all very bizarre and unusual.
I spent this morning buying body armour. The lady in the store thought, when I asked for “flak jacket” that I wanted a flag for my jacket and she pulled out a box of flags. When we got there in the end she was embarrassed and even laughed, and then showed me the wrong sorts of things which were really just over-vests full of pockets. In the end we settled on two lead panels that I can fit under my heavy coat, and a steel helmet in camouflage designs. I had to buy the lead panels in packs of two, the lady explained; but I only brought one of them. As I was taught in my training by British special forces, there’s not much point having a second panel because if a piece of metal or some other high-speed objects rips through your side then it’s much better that it goes straight through rather than gets blocked by a piece of lead. By contrast the front lead panel can probably cause you to survive an assault rifle round; but my it would still be painful. Conventional kevlar jackets, one of which I have buried at home somewhere, aren’t much use on the front line because while they may help you survive being stabbed with a knife or even a low velocity handgun round, an assault rifle round or a piece of flying shrapnel will just blow you away. Therefore a lead panel is your best bet for rudimentary front line protection and I guess I will be tramping around Kherson with several kilograms of lead packed in under my jacket.
All things considered it’s been another hectic and disorganised day and I’m quite pleased to be lying back and taking it easy in this comfortable train. It looks cold and icy as the monstrous tall naked trees bask amidst the ice in the empty forests that flow past outside as this train drifts along from one unknown town to the next. While I enjoy the relentless chaos and hectic surrealism of living in Lviv, a few days’ break away from people is probably going to be a good thing for me. Whatever happens in Kherson, I’ve determined to myself that I’m going to spend these days taking it easy. In downtown Kherson. That relaxing holiday destination, where a Russian Krasnopol artillery system shell can strike down your building any minute and a relentless blare of sirens wears down your eardrums like a tuneless foghorn at all times of the day and night.
I’ve just been put in contact with someone who seems to be doing some really superlative NGO work down in Kherson, making presents and food parcels for local people who are staying in Kherson despite the shelling. Taking this sort of risk on a daily basis to try to keep a level of sanity in the lives of people living literally on the front line of war is humbling and breathtaking in equal measure. I’m already pleased I’m making this journey to Kherson.