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.
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.
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.
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.
TRAIN 051 TO MEDYKA
TRAIN 37100 TO KRAKOW
ONE WAY TICKET KUPE 335 HRYVNA (ABOUT $67.00USD)
DEPARTS KIEV 8:42PM
ARRIVES KRAKOW NEXT DAY 3:40PM
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.