Those of you who follow my blog regularly probably know by now that I am an avid fan of traveling by train when visiting Russia and other post-Soviet countries. I’m pretty comfortable on the train, as I traveled it a bit during the year I lived in Saint Petersburg, as well as my recent return visit and travels. I’ve been through the Baltic countries on the train, to the arctic circle and back (Murmansk), to Moscow, Kiev (Ukraine) and Bryansk, Russia. I’ve been kicked off a train in the middle of no-where Ukraine (politely) when I mistakenly purchased tickets that transited Belarus and I didn’t have a transit visa. I’ve experienced more stares at my American passport than I like to remember and had my ear talked off by people who want to know all about America and test my Russian. But then, these are some of my fondest memories and I’ve met some really kind and interesting people. This past trip was no exception.
Within one week’s time, I counted about 60 hours of bus and train travel that my husband and I endured traveling between Russian, Estonian and Ukrainian destinations and borders. And as usual, the train to and from Kiev lent some interesting observations. To get to Kiev from Saint Petersburg, you have to take a train to Moscow first and then go from there to Kiev (unless you want to spend the $150 on a transit visa and take a direct train through Belarus). The day prior to leaving for Moscow we had gone to Aseri, Estonia and back and did not get home until midnight, so we missed all the more affordable trains to Moscow for the following day and ended up on the Nevskiy Express – it was like luxury in comparison to what we were used to. Super fast, with air conditioning (very much welcomed!), comfortable seats, and a mini meal. We had a layover in Moscow before our train to Kiev and got on board sometime around 11 p.m. It was a 13 hour train ride to Kiev.
We opted to buy tickets for side car bunks, in the remaining seats (so we could actually get a top and bottom bunk with a table) and were located across two men who kept getting up to go smoke cigarettes together in the smoking compartment. I thought they were friends, but I later found out that they didn’t really know each other at all – seems they had just met on the train. As usual, our American passports drew some attention and the train car attendant made sure to give us extra consideration and made sure that we understood everything. Finally, we were able to get some sleep and woke early the next morning to the shuffling of bodies as passengers got off and new passengers got on. Sometime in the middle of the night, at one of our stops, I recall a seemingly “suspicious” person with a backpack being questioned – he was not on the train the morning when I woke up.
At one point, we had a long stop and all these money changers came on board – offering ruble to hryvnia exchange and Ukrainian mobile sim cards for sale. It was sometime in the morning when our neighbors awoke and started talking to us – one of the men was from the Ukraine and was on his way back home to visit friends (if my memory serves me correctly). The other man was originally from Uzbekistan, but lived in Moscow and was on his way to Kiev to get a car to import back into Russia and sell – that was his job. He talked to me for quite some time and was asking a lot of questions about what we did for work in America, why we were there, what different English words were for family members, etc. One thing that I found interesting was that the Ukrainian man had been in the military and he was showing us pictures of he and his “comrades” in uniform – and he kept giving us things as a friendly gesture. First a bag of peanuts, then a pen (which we had needed to fill out our customs form), and then he gave us each an apple to eat. When I tried to offer him some snack as a nice gesture, he would refuse. It was really strange.
We continued to talk to these two men until we made our way into Kiev. And at one point, I was pulled aside by the attendant and asked another dozen questions – he basically wanted me to butter him up and write him a really nice message in the guest book, to show what a good job he was doing (and he was – one of the best attendants we’ve had). Unfortunately, I had left my dictionary behind – without it, my Russian writing & spelling would have been terrible (need to practice more!) So, I helped him dictate a message, which he wrote himself and I signed 🙂
When we reached Kiev, I’m afraid I offended the man from Uzbekistan when I refused us sharing a taxi with him, but I tried to explain to him that we needed to go purchase train tickets immediately before the train to Bryansk two days later sold out! And, as usual, purchasing train tickets means standing in a long line of people constantly trying to “hop” in front of you and get a better spot. So we parted ways and went about our business.
Two days later, after a long day of traveling to and from Chernobyl, we boarded a train to Bryansk, Russia early in the afternoon. The day was hot and the train was without air conditioning (bez konditsionera). Again, our foreign citizenship became a matter of entertainment for our bunk neighbors on board and the game of 20 questions began all over again – we shared our bunk with a Ukrainian man and his wife. She was Russian and they were traveling to Moscow, where she was from. This time, I ended up with a small container of spreadable cheese with walnuts as a gift from our bunk-mates 🙂 And he gave me their phone number and said that if we were ever in Kiev again that we should call them and they would show us around the city.
When we were almost to Bryansk, crossing the Ukrainian/Russian border, another interesting thing took place. For those of you who are not aware, human trafficking is a big problem in this region of the world. When the border crossing guards came on board, a female guard picked up on a Ukrainian man somewhere in our car who was traveling with three young girls – I was trying to listen in on her conversation with another male guard on the train. She was questioning why he was traveling with three young girls and she seemed a bit nervous and concerned, not sure what should be done. Our train ended up being delayed for an hour at that crossing, as the guards checked various documentation, and we arrived in Bryansk late. I don’t know what they decided to do with the man and the three young girls (although I feel like they were taken off the train), but I was very proud of the female guard for noticing something so suspicious and trying to bring attention to it.
One of the things that really struck me again on these two particular train journeys, was how friendly Russian and Ukrainian people are to foreigners and what a genuine interest they have in learning about our culture and engaging in conversation. I confess, for me sometimes it is exhausting (with the constant translation and my lack of extensive vocabulary), but we always meet such interesting people and I am able to get a glimpse into their lives and see how they live. And you can see that life is very stressful. The past twenty-plus years has been a rough transition for many people in post-Soviet countries. If you ride the train often enough, you will get to see the many colors and characters of the population. People out on the platform selling anything and everything, little old babushkas carrying their livelihood on the train with them from one vending location to another. But I’m always amazed at the generosity and kind attitude towards us as foreigners. And I very much look forward to being back there again and riding the train – hopefully next time will be across Siberia!
I’m afraid I didn’t take as many photographs as I would have liked (and many of the ones I took are blurry as a result of the train/bus windows and movement, but…..) – I was so exhausted from all the travel that I kind of just forgot to take more photos. But, here is a tiny glimpse from the windows of the train and bus on our travels to Kiev, Chernobyl, Bryansk and Moscow.