Both companies running international ferries to Italy have the same prices listed in euros in their brochures. We go to the Jadrolinja office. One lady stands at the information desk. We ask about the differences between the grades of seating and the prices of the tickets, and then we ask here where to buy tickets. “Window Four,” she says. We walked left past a pillar to Window Four. It is empty. The lady from the information desk walks over to stand behind it. She looks as ashamed about the whole thing as we do. And then she sells us two reclining seat tickets abourd the Dubrovnik for the next day.

When a ferry meets a ferry

The Dubrovnik leaves at 9pm. We are told to report with our tickets between 7pm and 8pm. We show up at 7:12. It’s a short but argumentative line. Up at Window Five, our lady from Windows Four and the Information Desk gives us customs forms and directs us to the door in the back and to the left. A lady in an Italian uniform looks at our passports and lets us by. We join the monks standing on a corner outside the ferry terminal, waiting in the new dark for the Blue Line boat.

Eventually Officials arrive to take our tickets and lead us past the traffic streaming to the ferry’s lower automobile hosting decks. We climb up to the lobby, where a disinterested lady sells customs-free liquor and cigarettes and no one can tell us where in Ancona we will be landing or where the train station there.

Sleeping Arrangements

The signs direct us to our reclining seats in a large open room divided into a front and a back by a glass partition. Each section is thirteen chairs across and about eight rows deep. Each section has three television sets at the front. We are the first people in the room. By the time the boat leaves there are three other people in front and three or four people in the back. By the time the boat leaves we are completely engrossed in a Bruce Willis movie that we have missed the beginning of. It is about an autistic boy who breaks a government code and the secret government agents that are out to get him and only Bruce Willis can stop them.

And the alarm goes off in piercing, rattling groups of three. Bruce Willis confronts the corrupt government official in his home at a party. Then the television goes off and we are informed of safety procedures first in Croatian, then Italian, then English. By the time the movie resumes the battle is over and Bruce Willis is visiting the autistic school in this new orphan’s new home.


Keleti Paliudvar

We buy tickets at Budapest’s Keleti Paliudvar, following signs past the plywood fences and semi-transparent tarps of renovation to the international ticket office. The high ceilings are framed in dark wood with peaked windows open to the outdoors. Twelve ticket windows sit beneath. Two are open. It is freezing. Between the dark wood tables with thick marble tops the lines are long, filled with Americans, and moving slower than the line at the Greenpoint post office. A third window opens and a line forms quickly behind it. The window at the front of our line closes. The defeated crowd shuffles to the rear of the other two lines.

At the window we ask for tickets to Split. The man behind the counter speaks English and looks several things up in very large books. He sells us tickets from Budapest to Zagreb, with a transfer at Zagreb to Split. Good any day within the next thirty days, the guy behind the counter says.

Train in Vain

The only international train at Keleti Paliudvar at 8:25am is on track nine. Its second class cars are interrupted only by one dining car and one first class car. A corridor runs through the left side of the second class cars, and on its right repeating units of one three seat bench facing another with a window on the side are enclosed by glass. The seats have numbers above them and some people come aboard scrutinizing these numbers, looking for specific seats. We do not have reserved seats. We keep our bags close by.

The train pulls out of the station right on time. An official comes by. He comes by to tell us that the dining car is open and serving breakfast. Three hours later the conductor comes by for our tickets. The train is not full. We have our own glass compartment. We close the door and play with the radio and light buttons above the door. None of them work.

Second Class

The train to Split is a sad train when it comes, two whole cars gliding into the Zagreb station like lost sausage links. And the conductor will not let us on. We have tickets, the conductor agrees, but we need a reservation. He tells us to go to the information desk. We run to the information desk. The lady at the information desk tells us we ought to be at the ticket window.

Luckily it’s not a large station.

The line is short and the reservation process is quick and we are on the sausage train with time to spare. You can smell the plastic newness of the train car. The seats are covered in blue cloth and the tray tables fold down like large blonde wood lozenges. At the front of the car a red LED display spells out our destination. Split. The train starts to move, and it feels like the Long Island Rail Road. Then the digital display stops working.

Just like the Long Island Rail Road.

To Split

The train swoops and turns up into the mountains so that it feels like we are flying close to the ground, but the light fades too early and for most of the journey only the distant city lights bob toward and away from us. The Split train station is across from the ferry terminal.



Inside Krakow

We walk into the ticket office in Krakow. We wait in the wrong line. The lady behind the counter kindly points us across the room to the windows that say “International.” We walk across the room. We stand in line behind two American girls who are talking about their culture shock. We hate them.

We ask for tickets to Budapest. We tell the nice lady where we want to go. We are offered second class travel or the sleeper car. We can pay with a credit card. And we are done.

First Class

It’s an hour before our train is scheduled to depart and we are at Krakow’s tiny train station. The waiting room is a picturesque mix of ancient, wood-slatted benches and the pigeons who are crapping all over them. So we walk across the cobblestone square to the mall, browse through the H&M and buy marzipan from a vending machine. By the time we return our arrival track has been announced and we walk over to merge, with uncomfortable seemlessness, with the squadron of backpackers waiting on the platform. Four enormously drunk men in matching shirts and scarves walk by, and then down the platform, and then they walk by again. As they walk they sing a soccer anthem, then stop singing to do push-ups, and then begin singing again. The train pulls in with one Krakow-Budapest sleeper car. We get on it with half the backpackers. The other backpackers and the soccer fans head for the second class cars. I am glad we paid for the sleeper.

First Class

And the sleeper is classy. Three bunks are stacked along one wall. On the other wall, below the shaving mirror, the table folds up to reveal a sink. Standing in the narrow walkway between the beds and the concept of furniture it is hard to imagine three people occupying this space at once. But our compartment and every compartment we peer into has only two occupants. Inside the mirrored cabinet above the sink-table are two bottles of water, two plastic-bagged croissants filled with chocolate pudding and packets with wet-naps and soap. It is a relaxing ride. We spend the morning waking up and asking ourselves if we have missed Budapest entirely.

SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: Croissants with pudding inside!

Kiev Market

It’s 10:30pm and it’s dark. We have the name of one youth hostel but we’re not sure quite how to find it. And we’re not sure that Kiev’s scenic alleyways are best experienced in the dark. We can always take the train to Kharkiv. We don’t know where Kharkiv is. But we can take the train there and then try to get a ticket to Krakow in the morning. Or we can sleep in the train station.

At least the train has beds. We are going to Kharkiv.

Downtown Kiev

Down the stairs to the platform, we ask the lady taking tickets at the train’s door where Kharkiv is. She calls to a passenger who comes to the door, a man with dark hair in a black leather jacket who speaks some English. Where is Kharkiv? He tells us Kharkiv is in Ukraine. Where in Ukraine? East? West? We have reached the limits of our common language. Now we get nervous.

Back at the ticket window the line is twelve people long and moving slowly. It doesn’t matter. We wait as the train to Kharkiv leaves. We wait as the train to Krakow leaves. We wait on line to buy our tickets to Krakow, and we wait on line for a refund for our tickets to Kharkiv. And then we turn to the station.

The view at night

At night most of the seats in the Kiev train terminal are occupied by the homeless. The seats in the central corridor must be the most comfortable, because they are so popular we never get to sit in them. These seats are packed with heavy ladies with heavy hands and heavy feet, scarves tied babushka style on their heads and carefully packed bags arranged around their feet. In the chilly, dimmer seats on the second floor of the international train station men who smell like vodka lie down across as many seats as they can grab and travelers compete for the seats that remain. As the long night wears on the distance and difference between the homeless men and unlucky travelers recedes.

Our seats at the front of the station offer unobstructed legroom but also the closest proximity to the gusts of mid-October that sweep periodically through the terminal. We try to sleep. There are many ways you can try to sleep in these seats. You can lean your head back into the pillow of cold air, hoping this will fool your body into thinking this plastic seat could be a bed. You can lean forward, head resting on the bag in your lap, or you can lean sideways towards a companion or empty seat. No one way is sufficient for an entire night or even an hour. So try them all, repeatedly, eyes and mind half-closed and unwilling, one after the other after the other.

It’s only midnight when the police officer and lady ticket agent come around. If you can present a ticket for travel on the next day they will let you be. They kick out the homeless men. Two seats to my right unlucky travelers are reduced to tears. The homeless men move to the seating area on the other side of the international ticket balcony and lie down. The heavy, package-laded women of the central corridor come in to take their places.

After a third sweep by ticket officials we are all motioned across to the other side of the terminal, where the homeless men have just claimed the best spots. In our new seat Mister Chen is to my left and to my right side is a man who smells like vodka and is kicked out by ticket officers six times. Each time he goes back to sleep. Each time they come back and yell. And then he goes back to sleep. Across from us a man fishes around inside his rotten parka and takes out a kitten.

Morning breaks late and Mister Chen sleeps later. At 8am we eat butter on bread ripped from a loaf. Then we put our bags back in the train station lockers. Then we head outside.

Easter Eggs

We are back an hour before our train leaves. We wait, fists balled in anticipation, for our train to reach the board. It is not appearing – this is some kind of rush hour and the board is thick with trains leaving ten minutes before ours. I leave Mister Chen with the bags and walk swiftly down the train corridor, reading the individual departure signs – and there it is. Track nine. I walk back, we grab our bags, we go. Boarding, we ask the lady taking tickets if the train is going to Krakow. Krakow? She doesn’t know. Poland? Poland? Yes. The train is going to Poland. Good enough.


The train’s configuration is new to us. Each compartment has three bunks. The bottom bunk is a bench seat. The middle bunk is the backrest of that seat, which folds upwards into a bed on an impossible series of hinges. The third bed is already folded out very, very high up. Our tickets assign us the bottom two bunks, and we have the room to ourselves until a few minutes before the train pulls out when we are joined by a Ukrainian journalism student. She is going to a music festival in a castle outside of Lviv. We talk about music. She says most bands don’t bother coming to Ukraine, and it’s very hard for Ukrainians to get visas to visit EU countries to see shows. She calls Belarus a “special country.” Her impression of Americans is that they have all written self-help books. She tells us the extra charge on the Moscow-Kiev train was for the bedsheets. She tells us to watch out – the Russians will steal your shoes.

The Ukrainian journalism student leaves the train at 7am. We get off at 9am at Medyka, Poland, surrounded by customs officials, to board a shuttle train to the customs office. We are entering the EU.


A review of our passport, a stamp, and we are all through. Except for a man in a baggy suit who is shouting his innocence as he is patted down. Then he removes VHS tapes from his pants pockets, from pockets inside his suit jacket. They keep coming, and I am standing in the next room watching him because they have also detained Mister Chen. Since Mister Chen has not though to bring VHS tapes the customs officials must eventually let him go.

Taking a left out of the customs building, we walk one block and take another left to the train station. There’s enough time to get some zlotny and walk around the main square at the train station, where the few store fronts offer money exchanging. When the train to Krakow arrives we board it with little drama, sitting mostly by ourselves at the windows in a six-person terrarium and dozing as the train moves, slowly, locally, through Poland.


Later that night – after arriving in Krakow on a Saturday, spending the whole afternoon and evening wandering to nearly a dozen hostels and a few too expensive hotels and not finding any room at the inns, after sitting in the common room of the hostel we have booked for Sunday night, silently biding our time until the common room closes and we will be back walking the streets until dawn, deciding that it is time to go, as we are putting our coats and hats back on the lady at the desk stops us to say that another group’s train has been delayed, and we can have their room for the night. It’s 1:30am. We drink the beer.

SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: Sit next to an educated Ukrainian with a great command of English and a real love of music and try to find a band you both know in common. The Ramones? No. Just Moby.

Golden Gate

Fresh off of the night train from Moscow, our first task in Kiev is to buy tickets for that night’s train to Krakow. There is a building with a bell tower to our left. This building is useless. The building to the right has ticket windows. The different ticket windows will give you conflicting reasons why you should not be at their window and go to another window. And so we go across the cavernous hall, to the other room of ticket windows with fast food stands in the middle. And so we go back across, and then we go back into the hall, and then we ask the lady at the information desk. She points up.

On the second floor two long corridors lead to the train tracks, and past these train tracks, past the kiosks and money exchanges and waiting areas stacked with the indigent and ice cream vendors is – another train station. A new, shiny, completely different train station. The one where you can buy international train tickets.


Mister Chen buys tickets to Krakow from the International ticket window. Platzky class. “At least I’m pretty sure I got tickets to Krakow,” he says. We look at the ticket. It says “XapKiB.” Cyrillic. Of course. We pay at a desk in the basement for two tokens and use the first to lock our bags in a locker. Eight hours later we are back to spend the other token.

Outdoor Shopping

Hurrying to the departures board, bags on our backs, we spend our last Hryvnia on food and bottles of beer. And then we wait. The display alternates between Cyrillic and Roman letters. XapKiB to Kiev, KNiB to Kharkiv. We wait for the platform number. Then a new train appears, the train an hour later than ours. The display changes. That train is going to Krakow.


We run to the international ticket window. Above the window a television displays the number of tickets remaining on all departing trains. We stand in line. Tickets on the train to Krakow = 0. At the front the lady in the window instructs us to stand on the other line for a refund on our tickets to Kharkiv, and then stand on this line again so she can sell us tickets on the next available train to Krakow. Understand my use of “said” to mean she was speaking in Ukrainian and gesturing and we were speaking in English and panicking.

There is a tall man with a shaved head and small beard standing on the other line, and he now comes to our aid. He speaks to the lady in Ukrainian. Yes, we can get our tickets to Krakow here, and THEN get a refund. Where are you from? He asks. Brooklyn. Oh, he says. I live in Astoria.

We thank him. We buy our tickets. When does the next available train to Krakow leave?

For Sale



The helpful lady who sells train tickets from the hotel lobby cannot sell us tickets to Kiev. She tells us to go to the Belorusskaya metro station, so we do. At the ticket window we point to the page in the phrase book asking for train tickets and slide a piece of paper on which “Kiev” has been blindly copied in Cyrillic under the window. The helpful lady who does not speak English gives us this answer: Four. And she points. “I think she means four meters away,” says Mister Chen. “Or four hundred.” We enter the next building over, which may or may not be four meters away. The ticket windows are closed and the waiting room is empty. The bare octagonal room at the center of the building has eight walls covered in glass cases full of nesting dolls. The only other room is narrow and dark with walls coated in the chipping remnant of the most depressing shade of yellow I have ever seen. There is a narrow staircase with an iron railing and so we climb it. One flight up we find ourselves in a brightly lit room with walnut furniture and wall to wall carpeting. To our left is the receptionist’s desk. Across the room is the elevator bank. It is the lobby of a hotel. Outside once again, we walk what is closer to four than four hundred meters. We look up at the next building. It has a number on it. Four.

We wait on line again. “Ticket – Kiev?” asks Mister Chen, sliding our sad scrap of paper through the window. “Do you speak English?” asks the lady behind the counter.


We buy tickets on an overnight trains from Moscow to Kiev. The train leaves from the Kievskaya station. The Kievskaya station is undergoing repair. We walk around the station, past the platforms and the outdoor departure board. Inside people wait on wooden benches in a warm yellow glow. Outside vendors offer gyros that smells like dill. Like all the street food we’ve eaten in Moscow these are prepared upon your order and then microwaved. It’s the only way to keep things warm. It is freezing outside. We never found our way inside the train station.

The train car is set up like a narrow, tightly packed diner. On the left two benches covered in red vinyl face each other across the small table attached to the wall underneath the window. A red vinyl bed folds down above each bench. Across the aisle two single-person bench seats face each other over a table, and a bed parallel to the car’s wall folds down above them. Flimsy walls divide each set of beds and benches, the self-contained cells repeating themselves down the open corridor until they reach the end of the car where the bathroom is. Mister Chen and I have the top bunks of one cell on the left wall. By the time we reach our seats a stout, elderly Ukranian couple is occupying the lower benches like they’re East Berlin. We put our bags in the storage space under the seats. We gingerly occupy a small amount of space on the bench.

When the train begins moving the conductor collects a couple of rubles from everyone. We don’t know why, but we pay up. The conductor passes by again some time after 10pm to hand everyone shrink-wrapped bed linens. The passengers collectively decide that it is time for bed. Across from us the two half-benches fold down and meet with the underside of the table turned 180 degrees to reveal a red vinyl cushion. We crawl up into our top bunks, passing the pillows and blankets stored there to the Ukranians. I don’t take my shoes off until I get to the bunk, and then I place them above my head. Just in case. Because everyone has warned us. The Russians will steal your shoes.


In the morning we are trapped in the top bunks, sitting with our backs in parentheses so our heads don’t bump the ceiling. As long as the Ukrainians and their bedsheets stay on the bottom bunks our language barrier leaves us little choice. The Ukrainians stay in bed.




We have been in Irkutsk for twenty minutes and already we have waited on two lines and Mister Chen has seen a lady with a mustache. The ladies in the windows at the end of the lines tell us they cannot sell international tickets. The lady at the end of the second line motions us upstairs. Upstairs at the end of a hallway is a room with blue wall to wall carpeting and eight windows. Two windows are open. A stout lady stands at the doorway, a blue work smock covering her clothes. Her job is to tell you to sit down and remember what order you arrived in. When it is your turn at the window she will motion you up from the blue couches.

There are two trains to Moscow today. One arrives in Moscow three days from now at five in the evening. The other arrives eleven hours later, at four in the morning. The first train is 7500 rubles a ticket and the second train is 5000 rubles. We take the second train.


Our tickets are in Cyrillic and the number of our assigned berth could be any one of a soup of numbers. We ask the man checking tickets at the train car door and he just motions us inside. We fumble through the train carrying backpacks slightly too large for the narrow corridor. Hostile stares bore through us. Tourists, mutters a Russian man. The word is universal. At the end of the corridor we walk into an occupant of the train’s final berth.

Mister Chen has never been so glad to see a Chinese man in his entire life. An unlit cigarette hangs out of the man’s mouth, he is lean and middle-aged and wearing tight fitting long johns with vertical stripes. Which number on the ticket is the berth? Why, of course.

We are rooming with the Chinese man and his business partner. The business partner is shorter and squatter, balding and smoking, wearing tight clean long johns with horizontal stripes. The two men are lumber merchants. They buy lumber in Siberia and sell it in China. They are drinking tea out of metal mugs and playing a board game with black and white disks. The horizontal man asks Mister Chen where he is from and Mister Chen, in his limited Mandarin, answers. The vertical man goes out for a smoke with his friend from next door. The horizontal man spends twenty minutes telling Mister Chen that Taiwan belongs to China.


The next morning a Russian official comes in to inspect our passports. In a scene that will repeat itself at least twice a day over the journey, my passport is not wanted. They just want to see papers from the lumber merchants and Mister Chen. The lumber merchants give the Russian official a small fist of cash and get off at the next stop.


We have the berth to ourselves for the rest of the journey. So: there is a padded bench with storage space underneath it. Above it, a second padded bench folds up to the wall. The benches are mirrored on the opposite wall, each one with a pillow and blankets. Between the beds at the outer wall of the train is a large, mottled window that leaks cold air in. A small table sits in front of it. Out of the berth and down the corridor to the left is the bathroom and the train car’s only accessible electrical outlet. At the other end of the corridor is the samovar, which is not what it sounds like (a pen and ink drawing of an antique barrel on persian carpets with a sword hanging above it ) but is a shiny metal kettle that dispenses hot water.

Once or twice a day a lady rolls a cart through the corridor to sell fried meat rolls. At the dining cart a surly man sells beer and snack food. The meat roll lady sometimes wheels a selection of packaged snacks and drinks through the corridor. The train is heated, but sporadically, and late at night when the heat is at a low ebb it can be extremely cold.


Three and a half days in a train, drinking hot tea and coffee and reading long books. Watching trees and snow go by, and the occasional sign of a very depressing civilization. Three and a half days spent really look forward to your next meat roll.


We arrive at Yaroslavlsky Station at 4am. Outside it is bitterly cold. The train station is warm and brightly lit. A piano sits by the large window, roped off. The sun does not rise until 9am.

SUGGESTED SUPPLIES: Eveyone has said – bring rubles, at larger stations women with baskets sell fresh food for low prices. We do not find this to be the case. Bring food.

Looking down from the hill

Tickets for international train travel cannot be purchased at Ulaanbaatar’s train station. To get to the International Ticket Office you must walk one block north of the train station and take a left past the hammer and sickle statue. We arrive at the ticket office on a Sunday. The only open ticket window lets us know that tickets for Chinese and Russian trains can only be purchased one day in advance. Returning on Tuesday, the same ticket office can no longer sell us tickets. They point us upstairs and across the building to the wood-paneled VIP room. Two ladies in uniform sit at behind a large wood-paneled desk. To the right, a doorway leads to a wood-paneled bar.

Ticket Office

The lady on the left books the tickets. The lady on the right takes our money and speaks a little English. Between pantomime and place names we learn that the cheap train from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk takes two days and the expensive train takes one day. We pay in cash for tickets on the expensive train. The expensive train can be Chinese, Russian or Mongolian – on Wednesdays it is Chinese.

Train from Kansas City and or Beijing

We arrive at the train station early and spend our last Tugrik on mysterious vegetable juice and a Mongolian-German-English phrasebook. When the train arrives it is already full of people travellng from Beijing. Bulky Russian men are busy trying to pack bulky black duffel bags into our compartment’s every crevice. Boxes are stored under both benches, boxes sit in the depression above the passageway, boxes are under the table by the window where your feet might go. Next door a man sits on dozens of cases of cigarettes. We stuff our backpacks into the hollow seat beneath our bench and then sit on the bench with our tote bag with the picture of a duck on it. When the train begins to move the Russian men go to the next compartment to smoke and play cards. The day is warm and the windows in the corridor are partly open, so we go over to watch grassfires and small painted homes connected by clotheslines, railroad crossings with uniformed female attendants holding one red paddle in their right hands, fields of brown and yellow grass, men in the distance on horseback.

Three hours later one of the Russian men returns to the compartment smelling like vodka. He places one bottle of water and one bottle of beer carefully on the table near the window and then goes to sleep.

About Russia

You must get an invitation before visiting Russia. You can get an invitation from a friend who is living in Russia, from a legitimate hotel you have booked ahead of time, or from a cheap, sleazy internet agency. I bought our possibly fraudulent internet invitation months ago and stood on a line at New York’s Russian Embassy until the vaguely slutty Russian ladies employed there could emphatically stamp my papers and tell me to return in four weeks for my visa. Cowering on a train too late at night at the Mongolian border across from two large and slightly drunk Russian men I am wishing we did not. The taller man with the awful teeth keeps bouncing out of his seat to visit the next compartment over, only to be returned by the customs officials. I find the blanks for the address of hotel we are not really staying at and number of the invitation we have fraudulently received. Before Immigration collects the information forms Customs drops off the customs forms. These are similar to the Immigration forms, except that they have not been translated into English.

How they make the train go

Brows furrow and pens make their best guesses. The taller and more frightening Russian man leans over. He points at the form and tries to translate.

The lights stay on in the train until far into the night. Mongolian Customs is a lady in a military uniform. She is next in the parade of officials that will be asking us things in foreign languages this evening. Unable to sleep and staring at my passport again, I quiz Mister Chen on the five acts that can lead to the loss of your U.S. citizenship. Then he tries to name all sixteen vegetables in the mysterious vegetable juice. When the parade is over the lights go out and we are safely in Russia and on Moscow time. Moscow time is five hours earlier than Ulaanbaatar time. Tomorrow the sun will set at 2pm.

In the morning when the Russian men leave they give us a bag of soft grainy apples and six chocolates wrapped in blue paper with a picture of a bear printed on it, which I discover in my pocket in Paris, and eat.

SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: Getting into Russia is easy. Just remember: Bring a book! And don’t be Asian.