Sleep could not arrive soon enough for me on the train from Lviv to Kiev. It was not long before I fell into a fitful somnolence. After about an hour I woke up with my forehead covered in sweat. Once I realized that I was on a train somewhere in Ukraine there was only one thing to do, use the bathroom. I made my way past the other passengers in the semi-empty compartment. Everyone was fast asleep by this point in the trip. Long train rides have an air of romance about them, but that is before you visit the bathroom. The ultimate cure for the excitement and adventure of travel is a bathroom in an older Ukrainian railways train car. This one I found to be like so many others on Eastern European trains, with toilet paper the consistency of sandpaper, powdered soap (if you could call it that) that was dispensed from a turnstile type mechanism emitting dry flaky white stuff.
The worst was the toilet and not because it was dirty. Instead the toilet seat had small spiky gradations atop it, not unlike those found on a cheese grader. I found this rather perplexing, because only the most demented mind would inflict this on passengers. I stared at the dull silver surface of the toilet partly bemused, partly frightened. It occurred to me that someone only invented this painful looking toilet to deal with a real or perceived problem. I shuddered at the thought of what that problem might have been. The one good thing about this toilet was that whatever your business, it did not flow straight to the tracks. There is nothing quite so disconcerting as taking a leak while watching the ground speed past. I did my best to concentrate on using the bathroom and vacating it as quickly as possible. After this bathroom I was ready for almost anything.
Lost In Space – Unfounded Fears
As the train slowly made its way eastward into the vastness of the Ukrainian interior, I grew increasingly cognizant of the land’s size and scale. Woods, marshland and empty fields passed by, seeming to go on forever. Ukraine was huge by European standards, two of the largest nations in Eastern Europe, Poland and Romania would fit within it. The train was beginning to cross the vast east European Plain, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Imperceptibly the train crept from plateau onto the plain. The hilly terrain in and around Lviv soon became a distant memory, the land became flatter and more featureless. This was a pass-through landscape that kept me falling in and out of sleep. Sometimes I would suddenly wake up and wonder if I was dreaming in daylight. Where was I at? Ukraine yes, but where in Ukraine.
The train made a few scheduled stops, one at a larger town known as Korosten, which was a major railway junction. I could not see very much of the city from my window, but what I did see frightened me. Not because of any real danger, this was entirely imaginary and had nothing to do with crime. I was afraid, because I had no real idea of exactly where I was. I did not have a decent map or travel guidebook. I wondered what would happen to me if I got off at this station. At the time, no one in my family had any idea where I really was, for that matter neither did I. I could not speak more than a couple of Ukrainian words, found the Cyrillic alphabet an endless source of confusion and would have had trouble explaining myself to even the most patient person. I was lost without being totally lost. Of course, the best advice when you are lost is to stay put. I had no intention of doing anything else.
An Immense Borderland – Filling In The Emptiness
This was why I traveled, to test myself against the unknown. The fear I felt was paradoxically matched by a sense of nervous excitement. Every stop was another offer to step into the unknown. I did not take that chance, but I found the idea intriguing. Part of my fear was a product of ignorance. I hardly knew anything about north-central Ukraine except that it was a horrific place during the first half of the 20th century and a very tough place to live during the last half of it. Every time I looked out at a barren field I wondered how many peasants had succumbed to hunger during the forced collectivization of the early 1930’s. At the sight of marshland, I imagined invading armies sinking in the mud. When woodland came into view, it was a reminder that in these forests thousands of Jews had been machine gunned by Nazi death squads. This landscape gave the impression of anonymity, subtly disguising the succession of terrifying tragedies that lay just beneath the land. There was nothing in the geography of this netherworld to stop an invasion, ideological imposition or inquisition.
Ukraine roughly translated means borderland. For me borders have always conjured up images of clear dividing lines and definitive crossing points. This borderland was indefinite and expandable for hundreds of kilometers in any direction. It was relatively easy to cross. The problem was its size, it seemed to go on forever. The sameness, the flatness, the vastness left me feeling defeated. There was too much distance to comprehend. I found its immensity daunting. It took quite a bit of effort to believe that Kiev, with some three million people was getting closer by the minute. There had to be people somewhere out in this empty landscape or so I hoped. I was nearing one of the great cities in both European and world history without much of an idea what to expect. Before I knew it the train was approaching Kiev. My sense of time had been warped by fatigue. One moment time was passing at a glacial pace, then suddenly all the slowness and sameness disintegrated as the train pulled into Kiev-Passazhyrskyi station. The had arrived right on time and I was not ready for Kiev.