I’ve been on this train for less than three hours out of over 20 and I’m already incredibly bored. How am I going to survive it? I’m looking for something interesting about the room I am fortunate enough to occupy alone but I can’t find anything interesting about it. It’s a study in boredom in here. There is a bed light for reading and it looks rather sophisticated with various different buttons and settings. There is a facecloth and a luggage rack and some decent lights so I can see what’s going on. A handful more people - all of them soldiers - got on at a couple of stops but the carriage is still mostly empty. It’s harmless enough but my is it boring.
The train grinds to a grumbling halt in Snowsville, Nowhere and all I can see out of the window of the carriage is boarded up buildings and train tracks covered in ice and snow. The carriage attendant is serving me cups of tea at 10 Gryvnas a cup so that’s some reassurance. It means I don’t have to spend the night drinking a whole litre of vodka on my own. It’s hot as hell in here because the wood fired boiler on the carriage is pumping away at full steam. Some enormous man has just got on the train, all drunk, and he’s shouting into his mobile telephone. My tedious peace and harmony is suddenly fractured, cruelly punctured like a fat corpulent tyre casually shot with a handgun. It’s going to be a long, brutal night until this man falls asleep. Now he’s taking off his trousers in front of me and revealing his underpants. I do wish people would go to the bathroom to do this sort of thing. Watching other people’s underpants in small compartments is something I have become inured to on Ukrainian trains; but it’s hardly a luxury I revel in.
Plus he stinks, and he’s panting, and he’s reeling from having come in from the icy cold outside to the steaming warmth of this carriage. I offer him some vodka, but he declines. He’s busy unpacking everything and heaving and sighing and thoroughly disturbing me. Well, good for him. I hope he enjoys himself. My God, he is so enormous and he’s enormously fat. This man could eat for all Ukraine. Welcome to Ukrainian railways.
In the intermittent period when the internet occasionally works, I’ve figured out where I am staying in Kramatorsk. It seems to be a cellar under a supermarket, which should be sufficiently obscure to make the risk of being hit by a stray missile in the middle of the night relatively low. I wonder what on earth my experiences are going to be like in this beaten up war zone frontline town, the closest you can get to the action yet still enjoy an iced latte. I’m also starting to panic that I didn’t bring enough vodka, which is ridiculous because I think I brought well over a litre of the damned stuff but there’s not much more to do on this train than drink it and I suspect the same may be true of being in Kramatorsk.
I mean, it’ll be fine; I’m just a crazy Englishman doing some crazy thing. We’re known for this sort of lunatic travel; as Noel Coward famously sang, “Only mad dogs and Englishmen / Go out in the Midday Sun”. It’s almost 11pm, and rather than perpetuate the culture of a travelling bar I may follow my new travelling companion’s example and try to lie down and sleep. He’s about to start snoring; I can sense it. He’s turned off the lights and now he’s scrolling through videos on TikTok. These are all good cues that I ought to call it a night too and try to get my head down and sleep. Is this really the best way of travelling to the front line? The answer is that yes, it is; this is extraordinary luxury compared to any other means of travel and I ought to be extremely grateful that I am being allowed to go there this way rather than in a freezing overnight open air troop carrier. War is rough. War zones are rough places, and there is lots to learn and a lot of people to help. Let’s see if I can sleep and we’ll see how I feel in the morning.
It’s not yet 7am and I’ve had several hours sleep. The compartment was warm and in the end the beached whale didn’t snore. Once he’d finished panting and sweating he calmed down to a gentle slumber. I’m 12 hours into this journey now, which is more than half way and I feel as though I am absolutely in the middle of nowhere as the relentless tundra rumbles by. I’m going to negotiate a coffee with the carriage attendant, and start my day in my curious moving office. My temporary companion is still fast asleep and I feel a curious sense of calm and ease, notwithstanding the unusual nature of my destination. The train is a bit bumpy and clattery but given the enormous distance involved I can still in reality say that it’s quite a luxurious way of travelling so grand a distance and it harbours reminiscences of travel across Europe in yesteryear. I feel as though I’m a character from some late nineteenth century novel, trapping across some forgotten corner of Europe for some obscure character. I recall that in the novel Dracula, Brad Stoker had his principal protagonist engage in lengthy journeys for unknown purposes and keep obscure diaries all about his experiences. I imagine myself in the same mould: just somehow high-tech, with a laptop. We’re coming towards another nameless snow-bound halt. I wonder whether I might get some internet working here. Probably not: it’s just miles of anonymous forest in every direction. The fat man’s started snoring. The wheels on the training are roaring. My brain doesn’t yet find it completely boring; but I’m hundreds of miles from my joys and pleasures in the frozen Saigon.