Sunday 8 July 2018

Ukrainian Train Journeys and other Distractions

One could really get used to travelling in a civilised way; a calm leave-taking of my apartment*, a cheap taxi to a quiet airport, good coffee and no security queues. Not that all of my journeys begin this calmly. Take my trip to Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi last weekend for instance. My Airbnb hosts had already warned me against train and bus travel, etc. It seemed the only approved way of getting anywhere was by limo. 

Or something. 

Not being adequately equipped with 5 star private transportation, last Sunday morning saw me at the extremely grand marble clad train station. 

Everything about Odessa is a journey to a gracious and elegant past. When you speak of aristocratic ladies having fallen on hard times, and having to present a determined face to the world...that is how it feels. The 17-18th century buildings and mansion blocks are stunning and the architectural details worth an essay. Some are also crumbling and empty, waiting for their Prince Charming or an oligarch. Faded coloured facades are falling off, reminding me irresistibly of my dislike of make up counters. Inadequate and incontinent pipes made walking under guttering an occasionally soaking experience.

My building was particularly interesting. Although it looked like something from a horror movie, it was deceptively beautiful if you enjoy decaying grandeur. It’s actually on the tour guide map because it was the first red brick building in Odessa. The man who designed it owned a brick factory. It was his showcase for how you could incorporate elaborate external decoration in brick. Sitting for hours on my wide window sill, I never got bored of the zig-zags, curves, and alcoves of this crazy building. The life within was also truly local, and due to the courtyard design, lived very much in full view of the neighbours. I will never forget the gentleman with the BBQ, and the shouty lady who extinguished it. 

Many of the broad central boulevards are cobbled. Instead of the rumble of car tires, you naturally expect a clip clop jangle of horse and carriage from a bye-gone era. The large plane trees offer shelter to delicate complexions of ladies conversing, whilst their children play nearby. They shade elderly women selling pistachios and sweet things for pennies. 

The wide pavements allow you to take the evening air, feeling the music from all squares, gardens and promenades. But please be careful in your elegant shoes because you’ll fall down a hole, or trip over a sneaky bollard. Such is the history of this city, walking to the train station you can experience a synagogue, a mosque, the main cathedral, orthodox and catholic churches.

Which brings me back to my excursion. I had done all the research, downloaded maps, and memorised departing train times. Past experience had also taught to me expect someone to ask me for my passport, so I had that on me too. First desk I went to was clearly information and I asked for help; she waved me away dismissively. This was before I become fluent in Russian** and she was unimpressed.

So I found a ‘kaca’ upstairs which turned out to be a desk supervising a waiting room. Clearly this quiet bunch of people were deceptively rowdy. I asked politely about tickets to my destination, but she didn’t know either and wanted to send me downstairs again. Ok. Her friend in her office who was sat on an upturned bucket rather helpfully wrote down what I wanted on some till receipt paper. So I went down to the information desk again and asked. I was definitely not on the woman’s Christmas card list and she waved me away again. I meandered through the smoke-scented marble halls and found a bank of counters. I joined a queue, apologised to a lady behind me who asked me something, and waited patiently.

I still had an hour before the Googled train departed.

Inevitably the cashier told me I was in the wrong place. So I went to the ‘local’ or regional desks on the platform. I gave this lady the piece of paper and she shook her head, directing me back to the desk from where I’d just come. I was nearly in tears of frustration by now. I went back to the desk and ... finally another woman started doing hopeful things with her computer. She asked for my passport, I think for how I spell my name rather than any official purpose. And finally I had spent the princely sum of £2 for a ticket to ride. I could have wept with relief, so went to get a coffee.

I easily found the right platform - I know right! - and looked confusedly at my ticket. Did I have a seat? There was an official looking man having a gossip with another behatted chap, so I approached them to ask which carriage I needed. Anyway one escorted ‘turistika’ to car 4 and handed me over to the guardian of that couchette. Yes I had a bed. This brought back hysterical memories of being in Russia on a garden history trip. 8 ladies, a large bottle of vodka and some picked herring on rye.***

That poor Alexei from the Hermitage print department probably never recovered...

I sat pixie-like cross legged on my red plastic covered bench. I was then joined by a family of three and they popped their little boy up onto the bunk opposite. The train had come a long way prior to Odessa, departing in the late evening of the previous day so couchettes are essential for such distances. It was still amusing to go for a couple or hours (10.37- 12.45) perched on a bed though. At 10.36 we slowly pulled out of Odessa and we were on our way.

The thing that I really enjoy about being on the move is watching the landscape change. Some of the
urban decay on Odessa’s outskirts is heartbreaking; ruined building and derelict factories. However as the city gave way, the countryside seemed well ordered and prosperous, with wide open fields of sunflowers and wheat. Now I knew that the golden liquid in tiny local shops would be fresh pressed sunflower oil. The reason the train takes a little longer than the road is because it goes so far inland, but I’m grateful for this excursion because I saw the Ukrainian wide flat fields of my childish imaginings.

As we got further down the coast, there is a curiously narrow piece of land. It separates the Black Sea from the salty inland lakes; geographically and ecologically it is fascinating. It is all part of the river estuary system, and the area’s soil must be incredibly rich. This explains the wheat, oil, and grape crop density in this area. The strip also has many holiday homes belonging to inhabitants of Odessa. 

As we headed north-west at the town of Shabo, sunflowers gave way to well established vineyards; hectares of them. I knew we weren’t far away now, and I was excited about spending a lovely day in a historic town - in my mind I had elegant cafes and restaurants by the lake, beaches and a large brooding castle. Also I assumed clear timetables of trains and/or buses home.


*Just remembered I forgot my teabags. Damn. What else did I forget!?
***yes and the horror of the ‘toilet’. At least this train’s loo wasn’t a hole over the tracks.

No comments:

Post a Comment