It’s back to more of this train business, with another 20 hours’ return journey to Lviv, and I really don’t know whether I can be bothered although let’s face it I have no choice. Kramatorsk has three trains out a day and one goes to Kharkiv, one to Kyiv and one to Lviv and it’s damned hard to get a seat on any of them as they are all booked out with soldiers going home for a break. Everyone getting on the train is carrying an assault rifle apart from me and a couple of soldiers’ girlfriends. These are all really battered old AK-47 rifles that look like they were used in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the wooden handgrips are pockmarked - they are a real mess. I’m not sure the Russians have anything better. All this modern technology invented recently to wage theoretical counter-insurgency warfare goes to waste when we’re back to massive European wars with old-fashioned land armies.
The train passes a series of crumpled old exhausted factories with tall dirty chimneys in the dark grey sky. We pull in at a halt and doors and windows are opened and women are shouting and soldiers are running and everyone and everything is getting cold. I can just hear the carriage attendant screaming at people and I want to take one of those gun barrels and shoot myself in the mouth to get it all over and done with. I’m seriously thinking of cracking open the vodka at 4.30 in the afternoon. Perhaps I’m just bad tempered because I didn’t sleep last night, but this return trip seems infinitely less agreeable than the one coming here. My compartment companion is a surly young lady with a face like lead who just lies down writing some tripe on her mobile phone. She refuses even to stow her luggage properly so there’s an enormous bag in the middle of the hallway which irritates me no end. I just don’t want to be dealing with this mobile slum. Not here, not right now. I suddenly have dreams of a five-star luxury hotel in Bangkok with a smiling waiter serving me vodka martinis. What have I done to deserve all this? Can I seriously pretend to myself that I enjoy it? Is that what I’ve been doing all this time, hanging out with all these horrible people pretending it’s okay? Of course it’s not okay. It’s a war and it’s miserable, even in de luxe class. This is still basically a barracks on wheels. At least I know that if the Russians attack this train then we’re well armed. There must be a whole special forces brigade just in this carriage.
I bought a bright pink pot of fake caviar in the supermarket before I got on the train and I just wolfed the whole thing down in one. This, and shutting the compartment door to all the noisy clamour outside, makes me feel somehow more relaxed but still I am cold as iced custard and that’s pretty much how I feel. I’d like to tell you something jolly and happy about today but I just can’t think of anything. I bought a flag patch with a woman poll dancing, for one of my military jackets. It was an extremely silly purchase and it even cost me 160 Gryvnas - that’s an outrageous 4 Euros (expensive by Ukrainian standards) from one of those dubious wooden shacks in the market in Kramatorsk where you can buy anything. But it was some sort of glitzy glamour that helps shake off the unrelenting gloomy shadow of war. As long as none of these soldiers, standing in the corridor of my carriage shouting on their mobile phones about troop movements or whatever, opens the door and disturbs my peace, I think I’m going to stay sane. Otherwise I might well “go postal” and lose it. They’re all happy shouting at each other out there and it’s really not what I want right now.
I wonder what this lady’s name is. She and I don’t share much in common, including I suspect a language. I offer her some vodka; I see a glint in her eye (she’s been in Kramatorsk, presumably not drinking) and she looks tempted but then she declines. The most important thing is that the soldiers don’t know I have the vodka; otherwise they’ll drink it all and the anaesthetic effect preserved for me will be gone and this trip can only be worse without intoxication. It’s a cruel business, travel in wartime Ukraine, and on this one occasion I’m perfectly happy to drink to forget. I’d like to forget Kramatorsk because I really didn’t like it. I don’t think I’ll be rushing back there in a hurry, because it’s grimy and grotty in an entirely un-charming way with lots of rough soldiers with nasty habits, urinating in the streets and yelling at one-another. They are I suppose straight off the front line, having been doing battle on the outskirts of Bakhmut no doubt just hours before boarding the Exit-Hell Express; nevertheless in my fatigue I am intolerant of their grim habits.
For now I’m tired of the booms and the bangs and the soldiers’ etiquette. It’s time to get back to the frozen Saigon with its peculiar melange of foreigners and local people, its light-hearted themes of sin and vice, its corpulent restaurants and its liquor-fuelled bars full of raucous drinking and silly behaviour. I am bored of talking about IFAKs, tactical medical equipment, logistics supply lines and all the other things you end up discussing in east Beirut. Saigon is altogether more colourful and charming, its people more outgoing and frivolous because even though there’s still full cognisance of a war going on, it’s far enough away that you can - just for a moment, between the shots of vodka and the pretty girls circling round the bars - pretend that none of it is happening and that it’s all a long way away. So I’m now dreaming of my frozen Saigon, a chance to chop vegetables and talk nonsense in bars with good friends, escaping the dreary dangerous daily existence of east Beirut and looking forward to collapsing heartily into my comfortable bed in my beautiful apartment in Old Town Saigon. However that will be tomorrow. Until then, there’s just a little more suffering to be done.