Speed is no substitute for style

Train travel in eastern Europe might not be fast, but for those who have time it remains one of the most rewarding travel experiences on the continent.

Unlike train systems in western Europe which were built with efficiency and profit in mind, the whole system in the former socialist states was built with two far simpler goals: employ people and transport people.

Unrestricted by space or time, Ukraine’s train system, like many others in eastern Europe is expansive, inexpensive and generally wholly enjoyable.

Wagons wait at the starting station about one hour before departing, cabins have heating, hot water, an ‘attendant’ and beds, and the journey itself is a leisurely slow meander through the vast expanses of greenery interspersed with villages and shady looking old factories.  However, anyone who’s ever been on one of these journeys  knows that it is inside that counts. The cabin culture makes Ukrainian train travel so special.

Depending on your ticket type, you will be stuck with one or three fellow passengers in one small compartment. Or, if you choose for a cheaper ticket (platskart), you’ll share your living and sleeping place with around 60 other people. (see foto, courtesy of Google)

Dutch writer Geert Mak describes one such journey in his 2004 best seller ‘In Europe’…

“Inside the compartment it is the very picture of conviviality. The professional busybody assigned to our carriage shooed me and Pete and settled down in the last compartment. Why would she want to be anywhere else? Her whole life is laid out in her home on wheels, with coloured cushions, flowers, her own curtains, an icon on the wall and a singing kettle on the stove. Always on the road.

Our first-class compartment is also like a salon, with two velveteen pull-out beds, red draperies, white lace curtains and plastic flowers on the table.

The train pulls away, outside there is nothing but Russian countryside, here and there a chimney, from the speakers the soft sound of Russian songs, and quite soon the day begins to fade…”

…and that’s exactly how I like my train travel.

Furthermore, as you wind away the hours drinking beer, eating boiled eggs or smoking with your train friends – you start to learn the culture of the country. People will tell you their life story, share food (and occasionally vodka) with you and ask endless personal questions about your life and your family. You see how and what they eat, how they drink. You can befriend a village grandmother, a young soilder or a student travelling home to see her mama. You have time, you have company and you have little else to do but talk.

However, all this is set to change with the recent arrival of two Hyundai Rotem fast trains, recently delivered to Odessa. The two are part of a pack of six South Korean trains that will transport football fans during the European football championships, and with a speed 160 km per hour they will diminish the travel time between the hosting cities by almost 50 percent. (foto below: courtesy  of the Port of Odessa, Alexey Stecuchenko)

The Korean trains are seen a blessing by many in Ukraine (a step into modernity), but for many (call us old-school romantics) they are a nail in the coffin of train travel. The old trains run as a thread though Soviet history, and they are a lovable window into a time gone by.

The new Hyundai’s will be equipped with wifi, connecting people with the outside of the carriage, and with a reduction in travel time comes less time to talk. Less time in a good old style soviet train.

If you have time, and you’d like to explore train travel in Ukraine, I recommend you read the following two stories. Both do a wonderful job of capturing the spirit (both good and bad) of train travel in the year 2012.

Every train ride, a roll of the dice, by Christopher Miller

“The drunk deaf boy squirmed and moaned in his aisle-side bunk above the devoutly religious woman with the white head wrap, who was sleeping below. His three friends had literally thrown him up there just five minutes earlier, then they went to have a cigarette in the back of the wagon…more” 

and

Crimea I – Marriage agency, by Patrick Evans

“I’m heading to Crimea for a couple of days. Into the coupé compartment bustles a sturdy 40-something shrouded in a garlicky aroma and dressed in skintight leggings, her hair pulled back pragmatically into a pony-tail. Her eyes immediately light onto mine…more

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2 Comments

  1. Hi, I am from Poltava, Ukraine and I like taking our trains. I agree that they are inexpensive, but I would not say that they are comfortable. The picture you posted here demonstrates this :-) But if you don’t really care about having little space and lots of people in the same compartment, then you are good to go. Here is a tip: try to get a seat somewhere in the middle of the vagon. This way you stay further away from the toilets. People some times don’t close the vagon’s doors and it smells bad!

  2. Hi, I am from Poltava, Ukraine and I like taking our trains. I agree that they are inexpensive, but I would not say that they are comfortable. The picture you posted here demonstrates this :-) But if you don’t really care about having little space and lots of people in the same compartment, then you are good to go. Here is a tip: try to get a seat somewhere in the middle of the vagon. This way you stay further away from the toilets. People some times don’t close the vagon’s doors and it smells bad!

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