Horses, Buggies and Drug Busts: On an Old Russian Train from Sofia to Kiev

‘No good!’ she said. ‘You can’t travel like that’.

With a wrinkled nose, pursed lips and a shake of her head, she had just emerged from a brief survey of my train compartment.

‘But that’s exactly what I like about old trains’, I said. ‘A comfortable seat that becomes a bed without complex rearrangements, some clean linen, wood panelling, solid brass and steel fittings and a door that locks’.

‘You haven’t seen the toilet’, she said. ‘And it’s an old Soviet train’.

I smiled. ‘That’s what I was hoping’.

‘Your problem’, she said and we hugged warmly, giving each other a light kiss.

Train

An old, solid piece of work: it was indeed a train from the Soviet era, tough, strong and built to last. But the compartment was damned comfortable, more than I expected, although that was helped by the fact that I had indulged and reserved a whole one to myself. Slowly and steadily, it was to take me from Sofia to Kiev, running through Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and then into the Ukraine – parts of Europe that are usually off the radar when one says ‘Europe’. Eventually, after I had alighted in Kiev, it would arrive in Moscow, comprising one link in the comprehensive rail network that welded together the former Eastern Bloc. I had heard that the Russians were only now decommissioning their reserve of steam engines, kept in case of emergencies. So I was surprised that we didn’t have one of those engines hauling us along, for it certainly felt like it.

The train did what old trains are supposed to do: it clanked, thunked, creaked, shuddered and groaned, all to the rhythm of a slow clickety-clack, clickety-clack (especially in Bulgaria, where the tracks have not yet been upgraded). No welded rails, slick electronic displays, expensive food trolleys. Or warning signs everywhere about you could and (more often) couldn’t do.

As we rattled out of Sofia, I soon found out a few further facts about our train: the toilet was a simple chute onto the tracks and was therefore locked at stations, even for long, long stops; no water flowed through its few taps; the only water available was at boiling point, from a coal-fired samovar; the old custom of being allowed to smoke at the end of the carriage was still in force; the only food available was what the conductor may have been cooking on his simple stove. Given the size of his gut and the strange smells wafting up the corridor, I did not count this as a viable form of sustenance.

So it became a journey of the basics of life: heat, sleep, reek of the unwashed, regular no-nonsense dumps on the tracks. I had come prepared for everything – food, water, dry hand-wash, ability to wash with a damp corner of a towel, plenty of reading material – except for the toilet paper. The solitary roll in our common toilet ran out on the first morning, deposited in small piles across rural Romania. So I resorted to scrounging my pockets for odds and ends of tissues that had clearly been happier in an earlier, unused life. Eventually, the conductor for our carriage rediscovered his stash of thick, brown toilet rolls and the toilet was replenished at intermittent intervals.

Land

Bulgaria: its mountains and fields and villages were stunning in the fading autumn light. Full of reds and oranges and yellows, of magnificent Soviet-era stations in even the smallest towns where the station master would stand and salute as the train rolled past, of farmers hand-harvesting onto carts pulled by horses, of shepherds watching over their sheep and goats. I was reminded of the economic effects of the ‘end’ of communism: land had been reallocated to individuals who could no longer afford the machinery owned by the old collectives, let alone the fuel to run them.

The passage into Romania, crossing the Danube on a magnificent bridge at Ruse in the middle of the night, reinforced that impression. I woke to a countryside full of horses and buggies. Some were simple carts pulled by a single nag, but others were far more elaborate, with two horses, ornate bridles and newer carriages. Someone had obviously cottoned on to the idea that horses and buggies were here to stay in light of rising fuel prices (€2 a litre for people on less that €500 a month), so why not revive and renovate old crafts and skills? It made me wonder whether a poor country like Romania actually shows the way to an oil-free future.

I also realised that we were travelling through one of the breadbaskets of Eastern Europe. Fields of grain stretched in all directions, sheep and goats interspersed among them. Across Romania, Moldova and Ukraine, the crucial role of this region in the food politics of the old Eastern Bloc and USSR became clearer with each click and clack of the rails. I thought of Lenin’s texts after the October Revolution in 1917, when the ‘white’ armies – supplied with arms and military knowhow from the USA, UK, France, Germany, Japan, Canada and others – seized the crucial grain-growing areas in the west, south and east. With malnutrition and starvation forced on the new Soviet state, many of Lenin’s writings, especially the telegrams, give voice to the urgency of procuring grain. And then the rail networks had been destroyed, so even if they had grain, they were unable to transport it to areas that needed it most. It is a wonder they survived, let alone defeated this concerted effort to starve them out.

People

Once again, the sheer diversity of the human species struck me on this journey. The middle-aged conductor was almost a caricature of the slovenly-dressed Russian waiter from the 1990s: big gut, bald pate, crumpled shirt that was obviously hostile to soap, gruff and friendly manner, but above all a strong advocate of the school of thought according to which passengers are intelligent, self-sufficient creatures who need not a thing. On the unlikely chance they do, they can always ask. He snoozed, listened to radio, cooked on his stove, picked food out of his teeth and played cards with his assistant – who was a younger and slenderer version of his boss, even down to a shirt that shared the same attitude to soap. Actually, he did more than his boss, such as telling me that my pocket watch was no good since it was Russian made (on that score, he was wrong, since it is made in Japan).

Both were amazed that I was travelling through lands where I did not speak a word of the lingo? Russki? Neit. Deutsch? Nein. A shrug … But we managed with a makeshift sign language, or mostly. It soon came to the test at the Romanian-Moldovan border, the old border of the USSR. Here a bogey change was in order. The reason: the USSR had once upon a time deliberately rebuilt its rail network with a different gauge, ostensibly to disrupt the supply lines of any army that would dare to invade. That bogey change was to be an elaborate process, with carriages jacked up, whole bogeys removed and replacements attached. So I asked the conductors how much time I had: forty minutes and stay on this platform and don’t go over there (he pointed to the other side) – or so I divined from their rapid gesticulations. Proud of my astute ability to communicate, I disembarked and set off … only to witness the train roll away into Moldova.

Holy shit! What do I do? My pack was on the train and the border town had about three houses, with no evident places to buy food or find accommodation. Pacing up and down the small platform, I wondered how to arrange alternative transport, whether I should knock on the door of the nearest house to see if they had a spare bed, whether I should slaughter should that sheep across the tracks for dinner.

But then the train returned and parked itself in the bogey changing yard. In a moment of unspeakable relief, I ignored the ‘no pedestrians’ symbol, clambered up into carriage, prepared to smash a window if necessary to get inside. After three hours of banging, lurching and jolting, I revised my decoding of the sign language: it was four hours (not forty minutes) and the train would return and pick me up on that platform over there (so I was not forbidden to go there after all).

Conductors always have a tense relationship with border guards … as do passengers at times. The Bulgarian border guards might be women in high heels, tight pants and impassive faces; Romanian border guards might be women in high heels, tight pants, inquisitive faces and small torches to check for passport forgeries; the Moldovans might be women in high heels, tight pants, smiling faces and the most elaborate uniforms (an elaborateness that spoke of a tiny state trying to assert itself); but the Ukrainians were simply suspicious.

First one, then two, then a hundred or more. Blue uniforms, green uniforms, brown uniforms, camouflage fatigues, sniffer dogs. For hours in the middle of the night (why do trains always cross borders at around 2 am?), they clambered into every conceivable and inconceivable corner, under the train, in the ceiling, behind the panelling, even down the toilet chute. I lost count of how one guard after another checked my pack, under the bed, in the luggage shelf, even in my toilet bag.

‘Do you speak Russian? Ukrainian, Romanian?’

‘No, I speak Dutch, Danish, a little French’.

‘Wait here’.

Half an hour later, a chic woman with bleary eyes appeared, an interpreter. At 4am she had risen, dressed, done her hair, applied makeup, and been summoned to the train. All for a two-minute interview.

‘Do you know why the train is being searched?’

‘No’.

‘Are you carrying drugs?’

‘No’.

‘Have you left your cabin?’

‘No’.

‘Where did you board?’

‘Sofia’.

‘Where are you going?’

‘Yalta’.

‘Would you fill out and sign this form?’

‘Of course’.

Some gut feeling had kept me in my cabin during the whole affair, but when they were gone I wondered along the corridor, only to meet a very round Russian woman who spoke English. ‘Come in’, she said, and introduced her very thin husband. I was plied with cheese, dried sausage and vodka – ‘it is a tradition; you can’t travel on a Russian train and not drink vodka!’ I was told the border guards had ‘found’ drugs in the toilet, which had been thoroughly dismantled. And they had suspected me, but refused to accept her offer to translate. She turned out to be a teacher of English in Moscow, he a public servant. They had bought a holiday house on then Bulgarian Black Sea Coast – very cheap – and decided to take the train home. Russia, religion, politics, life – these we discussed, until at last I staggered back to my cabin for an exhausted sleep before my arrival in Kiev.

Economics

Grimy, tired, hungover and busting for a shower, I tumbled onto the platform at Kiev. Surely Yuri, who was to meet me there, would have a shower at his place. Alas, Yuri’s place was a long, long way from the city centre, so I now had the wonderful sensation of freezing in my grime. It was the first seriously cold day of the winter, so after a few sights – cathedrals, university, look-out over the river – we retreated to a restaurant for warmth and food. While Yuri downed shot after shot of vodka – ‘to warm me up’ – we delved into economics.

The horses and buggies, hand-harvesting, shepherds, state of the tracks in Bulgaria and Romania – these and more raised obvious questions. Had two decades of capitalism benefitted Eastern Europe? Was it an improvement over communism? Yuri really wished it were so, but was deeply disappointed. Just when the economic chaos of the 1990s had passed and just when it seemed as though the economies of these countries had taken off in the 2000s, the crash of 2008 happened. The boom turned out to be a bubble, the high-flying currencies collapsed, people who had borrowed in Euros now faced ballooning debts. In the meantime it became clear that the fire-sale of state assets in the 1990s – land, hospitals, power stations, water supply, sewerage, public transport, let alone state-owned companies and so on – these assets had been ‘acquired’ by criminals and thugs (who are usually called ‘business people’ in the West). Now, state funds, whether gathered from taxes or foreign aid, never make their way to the designated projects.

Above all, across the region it was a rare country that had achieved the GDP of 1989. So now, in the midst of the deepest capitalist crisis since the Great Depression, unemployment was as high as 25%. No wonder that the majority of those surveyed across Eastern Europe have become thoroughly sceptical of capitalism and state machines. No wonder they increasingly feel that life was better under communism: you had a job, your children attended school at no cost, healthcare was universal, and holidays were cheap and supplemented by the government.

That discussion stayed with me for the final leg of my journey, for in the evening I boarded a Ukrainian train, bound for Simferopol. The train was of the same vintage and make as the one I had enjoyed from Sofia, except that now it was staffed by young women in impeccable uniforms and had been well maintained indeed. After all, why throw something out, in the name of the incessant need for ‘progress’, when it does the job perfectly well, if not better, than what we have today?

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