The train bumps and bangs at some haste along the tracks from Lviv to Kyiv without stopping, and I realise I am exhausted from the clamour of daily life in Lviv which is undoubtedly intense. I sleep most of the way to Kyiv, to be abruptly woken at the train’s first stop, eight hours down the tracks, in Kyiv’s central railway station. There is great bustling and noise, and all sorts of people and their luggage clamber aboard for the overnight journey to Kharkiv. We arrive before 6am tomorrow: an ungodly hour for a city under Russian siege, and I wonder about how or whether to wear my body armour as I get off the train. Notwithstanding, the carriage I am in does not have a military component; it’s just civilians going about their business. This is not like taking the train to Kramatorsk or Kherson; it’s not every third person holding a firearm or wearing military fatigues. Already I can sense that in Kharkiv there remains some semblance of normality of living in a large city, just from my assessment of the other people on the train heading in the same direction as me.
I feel curiously liberated from all that nonsense and pettiness in Lviv. I think these few days away will do me good. I will take breezy walks and daily strolls amidst the debris of the Russian attacks, stretching my legs and chatting to the locals. It’s time for a break from the intensity of Lviv, and I’m starting to get over the distress of having my weekend ruined by a small group of ill-intentioned rotters. Kyiv looks grey and grimy through the train windows, as the nation’s capital passes me by as jewelled specks in the nighttime air, and the train heads once more out into the wilds of the Ukrainian countryside, heading relentlessly eastwards towards danger and uncertainty. It hums and puts over the smooth tracks to Kharkiv; this is the best rail line in the country, once forming the backbone of the main railway from Kyiv to Moscow, a 12-hour journey I took many years ago when the two countries were at peace. Now the service stops abruptly at Kharkiv early in the morning because the railway border with Russia is closed. Nevertheless I feel I am sitting in the most luxury of Soviet-era trains and I feel unnaturally rested and calm in the unusual journey I am about to undertake. I think I will try to lie down and take a rest. This journey is whipping by, and it is much less laborious than some of the other long journeys I have recently endured.
I slept a little longer overnight on the train from Kyiv to Kharkiv, and then emerged into a city at an admittedly ungodly hour of 5:55am; but something here has undoubtedly changed since my last visit in October and in the course of my next three days here I am going to try to work out what it is. The first thing that struck me was that the Kharkiv metro is dirty: something one would never have dreamed of before. Previously it was the pride of the city, and now when you step into the metro system at the railway station you are faced with piles of grot and grime everywhere. Long haggard faces stare into the near distance, which is I suppose not uncommon for an urban commuter system so early in the morning; but there was something wrong with it all and even at this early hour the streets, as I walked through the city’s main square, felt eerily empty. Virtually every building has been boarded up with plywood; it is not clear how much of this is pre-emptive and how much the result of actual destruction caused by fragmenting warheads and the like. Tank traps have appeared in the city centre: something that again was never here before. The streets feel long, lonely and empty.
I tramped along in the somewhat cold weather to wards my hotel, in a hidden courtyard and entirely downstairs. I know this place from before; it is very popular with soldiers, by reason of the complimentary flak jackets at the front door (although I have brought my own Level IV plate body armour, which is better than anything the hotel lets you borrow) and the hotel is completely downstairs. My room is a perfectly self-contained unit, where you can stay for days without moving if necessary. The walls are solid granite and there is no window; just a picture hanging where there might be some glass in a normal room. There is a microwave oven and a series of pot noodle dishes, and a kitchen along the tall. To enter the hotel you have to pass through a series of reinforced steel and plexiglass doors, which adds a certain homely feel; and there is always light classical music playing, as though in an episode of the Squid Game.
All things considered, I am comfortable enough here and at relatively low risk from the missiles that tend to come in early in the mornings to catch people just as they wake up. Quite what metropolitan Kharkiv is going to offer me when the city gets going at a reasonable time after sunrise, and whether all this body armour is really necessary, I just can’t say. I shall meet a friend this evening, and ask her what’s been going on. I have bought a tourist guide to Kharkiv when in Lviv, naively assuming there might still be some sights that haven’t been destroyed. The refrigerator in my room is now coughing and spluttering, but I’m lying back in a comfortable leather chair as I write these words so I can herald say that I’m suffering. If the entire city is just empty and desolate, then I’m in for a boring few days but I can do boring. On the other hand, if it still has a semblance of the life I recall from before, hidden away behind all those plywood boards, then I might even have fun.