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A Short Story About a Long Ride

April 2, 2002

Written May 4, 2002

Dear Friends and Families,

It sounded like a good idea. There's a daily, direct, "international" train from Budapest to Kyiv and, since we'd generally enjoyed our trips in Western or Eastern Europe, what could be wrong with a train trip home? So we were actually looking forward to a relaxing 26-hour ride.

The day started with a pleasant send off from cousin Klara's house. Gabor's father Janos Bacsi gave us a train basket with some Easter eggs, candy and a small bottle of his freshly brewed chocolate palinka. He's actually quite a palinka expert and this was a special treat.

Klara drove us to the train station and we put our six bags in lockers since our train didn't leave until late afternoon. We used the time to shop. First, we found a bookstore with a good selection of English books. Having some time to just sit back and read for a day was looking very good.

Marianne bought some Hungarian salami, cheese, and bread, along with fruits and vegetables so we'd not go hungry on our long ride. We thought there might be a dining car too but a few snacks couldn't hurt. We'd just use the dining car for heavy things like water and drinks.

At four o'clock, we reclaimed our bags and looked around for a luggage cart or a porter. We found neither, so we loaded up like pack mules and pushed through the crowd to our train. Inside our first class sleeping wagon, we were immediately reminded that "first" is a relative term. It was hot, stuffy, smelly and dirty. What had we done?

We dragged our bags to our compartment and stowed them as best we could. The compartment had bunk beds and just enough space to turn around in. It was decorated in dirty, old-world, brown, emphasis on "old". Marianne immediately ordered a second set of sheets and towels and proceeded to cover every surface. At least the linen was clean.

The train pulled out and we remembered the plan to buy water from the dinning car. No dinning car. We used our broken Russian and asked the attendant if he had any carbonated water to sell. He came back with a couple bottles of vile-tasting cream soda that brought back bad childhood memories. One swallow each was all we could manage. This was going to be a long 26-hour ride.

We settled in and tried to read but the train was pretty bouncy and our thirst made it hard to concentrate. We fixed a salami-sandwich dinner but that hardly improved our disposition. We sipped Janos Bacsi's palinka and decided it would only increase our thirst.

Meanwhile, the train crept across the flat plains of eastern Hungary. The sun went down and we put away our books. There was barely enough light in our compartment to see the floor, so that reading was out. Somehow this was not what we had planned. It was certainly not a fitting end to our wonderful six-month road trip.

At midnight, we hit the highlight of the trip: border crossing and wheel exchange. First, the train stops for 30 minutes while the Hungarian authorities go though the train, stamping exit stamps in passports and looking for state treasures leaving the country. Then the train moves a few hundred yards and the Ukrainian authorities do the same process in reverse. I couldn't decide if this process was better on train-entry than on plane-entry. Having a parade of armed, uniformed men come to the compartment was both more convenient and more intimidating than standing in airport lines.

As soon as we were legally logged into Ukraine, the train moved to the wheel exchange area. This is the real border for train travel into the territory of the old Russian Empire. Tsarist Russia was arguably the richest and most powerful of 19th century empires. However, it was justifiably worried about invasion across flat plains between the Russian heartland and "the West". Consequently, when the early train systems were built, the Tsar chose a slightly wider gauge for his rails than that generally standardized on in the west. Invading armies could not simply ride the rails all the way to Moscow. In those days it meant that all freight and passengers had to transfer from western to Russian trains, but nowadays, the freight and passengers stay put, just the wheels get changed.

A westbound train was undergoing this process just outside our window, so I watched and took the best pictures I could while our own train was also being reshod. Each train had pulled over a track section where there were rails at both widths. At the end of each train car was a set of jacks that can raise each car eight or ten feet in the air. In a pit between the rails, workers disconnected and reconnected all the hoses and levers running between the wheel sets ("bogies") and each train car. The whole process took almost three hours and must be repeated for every passenger and freight car crossing the old empire's border. After those relatively peaceful few hours, we were back on our start-stop, bounce-and-jog journey again. Eleven hours down and 15 to go.

Thirst interfered with sleep but at least we didn't have to visit the toilet very often. When I did, I found myself thinking of those nice little facilities in airplanes. You know, the ones with clean water, seat covers, limited smell, and holding tanks. Our first class facility was little more than an outhouse and the more it was used, the stronger the odors. They filled the room and even made it down the hallway into each compartment. Gross.

At 7:40 AM, we pulled into the western Ukraine city of Lyiv. It was reassuring to get here because we'd been in this station a few times at the start or finish of an overnight journey between Lyiv and Kyiv. Maybe we weren't exactly close to home, but it was reassuring nonetheless. But the best part was that this was to be a twenty-minute stop and there were kiosks just beside our train that had to sell water. I almost ran off the train, only to discover that the kiosks only open at 8:00. Fortunately, one sales clerk did the unheard of and opened early and sold me two big bottles of water. We were saved at last.

Properly refreshed, we relaxed as the train left Lviv. We'd never had a day trip on this train so I looked forward to seeing what the countryside looked like. Over the next ten hours, I came to appreciate why both Napoleon and Hitler thought this country would be a walkover. It's flat farmland from the Carpathian Mountains on the Western border through Kyiv and beyond. But what they failed to appreciate was just how long the distances are. We would only cover half of Ukraine and flat farmlands last well beyond the eastern border into Russia itself. It's a long walk or ride in spring and summer. Invaders discovered it's unconquerable and deadly in winter.

The rest of our trip went comparatively well. We sipped tea and kept repeating our mantras: "We do this for the experience." or "This makes us better people." We usually follow this with the esoteric question of just how much experience do we need to be "good enough".

At six in the evening, we pulled into Kyiv's newly remodeled station. We lugged all our goods trackside and waited for Yuri, our ever-reliable friend and driver. He wasn't there. We couldn't believe it.

Then we saw him coming from the other end of the train. It seems there were two first-class sleeping cars, one at each end of the train, and he had waited at the other end until the car was empty. But now he picked up a share of our bags and we all walked through the tunnels out to the parking lot. (Roger and Kathleen, remember "the tunnels"?)

Twenty minutes later we were home. The place had never looked so good. We turned on the water, the water heater, the refrigerator and the satellite TV and we were back in business. We vowed to never again consider the Trans-Siberian or any other train rides longer than 12 hours. That's why Boeing makes airplanes.

Take care and appreciate the little airplane toilet with the sliding lock. It could be worse.

John and Marianne












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Created May 5, 2002

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