Railroads are the arteries of Ukraine

Western Ukraine, August 2016
“No time to print your ticket!” the platinum blond station attendant tells me through the small window on the вокзал (voksal, train station in Ukranian) at Ivano Frankivsk,  mid-west Ukraine. I sprint to the back of the 15 carriages long train and I will have to jump into the last one before the train starts moving.

An immaculately dressed provodnik, a caretaker which each carriage has, wishes to see my ticket but easily understands my gesturing towards the money and my passport. Earlier on, I found out the hard way that the latter is essential for booking tickets in Ukraine. Even though there are no official regulations requiring it, the passport is usually just necessary for providing the correct name, but it is also a document to have ready at hand in many situations. Ukrainians own three versions of it – a basic one, an internal one and one which they carry if they had applied for an international one. It’s ok for me to pay for the ticket on the train, he gestures, and I jump in.

Poizd
Train on broad gauge Lviv

Platskart

This is Platzkart, the 3rd class carriage with open compartments. Six people are sleeping on bunks, four on one side of the corridor, and two more on the other, parallel to the first one. Sheets and pillows are provided by the railway and the atmosphere is quite cozy – families eating and drinking, some of the people drowsing on bunks and some chatting. The 4th class carriages also exist, but not on this particular train. The mighty long haul machines like this one really impress me – they run on Russian broad gauge tracks, true robust engineering wonders. Shorter distances can be covered by Elektritsia. Elderly people travel for free on those.

Platskart
A view in Platskart, six bunks, no separation between compartments
I can hear someone speaking English and I meet Svetlana and her two daughters. She helps me explain my situation to the provodnik again. She is just as delighted to have a chance to practice her English, just as I am to polish up my Ukrainian. As usually, the change for my 100 hryvnia is returned precisely and without any fuss. Diana, Svetlana’s younger daughter, takes a liking to me and I fall in love with her instantly. Since she is just 2 years old, she holds no barriers and inhibitions towards anyone.
Platzkart
Olga, Svetlana and Diana in Platzkart IF to Lviv

Wet napkins are a neccesity

The three of them have been on a five-day holiday in the Carpathian Mountains, in a very modest looking camp (I gather this by looking at some pictures). This was a big thing for them, an adventure they would remember for the rest of the year. The family is now headed back to their hometown on the river Dnipro, which  lies between Kiev and Dnipopetrovsk (now renamed Dnipro). The whole journey will take some 16 hours. It means an overnight stay on the train, or Platzkart in this case. They have some peanuts and water, while I have some leftovers from my lunch – pelmenii, vareniki and salad, so we are all set for the next 3 hours to Lviv. On trains, everybody shares their food.

The practical aspect of having wet wipes ready at hand becomes clear instantly. If travelling on Platzkart with a small kid, wipes are truly essential equipment. The provodnik is quite attentive and warns her to take better care of Diana who is tiny and all over the place, blissfully unaware of any dangers.

Diana-platskart
Diana

The three of them have been on a five-day holiday in the Carpathian Mountains, in a very modest looking camp (I gather this by looking at some pictures). This was a big thing for them, an adventure they would remember for the rest of the year. The family is now headed back to their hometown on the river Dnipro, which  lies between Kiev and Dnipopetrovsk (now renamed Dnipro). The whole journey will take some 16 hours. It means an overnight stay on the train, or Platzkart in this case. They have some peanuts and water, while I have some leftovers from my lunch – pelmenii, vareniki and salad, so we are all set for the next 3 hours to Lviv. On trains, everybody shares their food.

The practical aspect of having wet wipes ready at hand becomes clear instantly. If travelling on Platzkart with a small kid, wipes are truly essential equipment. The provodnik is quite attentive and warns her to take better care of Diana who is tiny and all over the place, blissfully unaware of any dangers.

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Foreign Legon
Olga and her brother

Search for work

Svetlana is happy to practice her English. She tells me that she had traveled abroad a lot, mostly working part-time in restaurants. Olga was, I learn, born in Norway. The evidence of this is presented in the paperwork Svetlana carries with her. Sadly, one of her names, the significant patronym (the all important name of the father used as an addition to, or sometimes even instead of the family name) seems to have been misspelled by the notary in Norway, which causes problems for them now.

She has also travelled frequently to Cyprus and even to Syria, but there was little work there. Italy, where her husband used to be, or still is working, was also one of her destinations. They are divorced now. She tells me that “he was not a bad man but did not know any better”. Olga tells me he is not Diana’s father. Svetlana has another friend now, but he did not join them for this trip.

It’s time for a short break – tea can be ordered from the provodnik. Svetlana continues with her story. She says that everything is better in the countries of European Union and that a lot of money can be earned there. She would like to travel more outside of Ukraine, but it is very expensive. Her Ukrainian is not perfect, and although she would like to be able to speak it fluently, in the region where she lives it is often mixed with Russian creating a cross-language in which the origins of words are often hard to trace.

The enormous disparities between our two lives and possibilities are striking. I give Olga my watch and she marvels at it. Someone told me that giving a watch is considered bad luck in Ukraine, and that the recipient of the gift should pay a little for it to counter the bad luck spell. Her smile is more than enough for me.

Gratitude shown by Svetlana is very subtle and I realize how difficult it must be for them to receive a gift. As it is difficult for me to give one.

Olga and watch
Olga and watch

The train keeps on moving, halting unexpectedly here and there, eventually reaching its destination. The atmosphere inside Platzkart is just as I remember it from my school trips on a bus. I get off at Lviv Voksal and have to walk a long way to the stairs since Platzkart is always at the back end of the train compositions which are quite long. My friends still have some 10 hours more to go.

In the station hall, travelers are waiting for their connections.

Voksal-wait
Waiting for the train at Voksal Lviv

 

 

 

 

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