Monday, April 23, 2007

The Train to Lviv

We scooted on through Tarnów, Debica, and Rzeszów before arriving in Przemysl, about 12 km from the Poland/Ukraine border. It was 1:15 a.m. as we shuffled to the queue of the sleeper train on the track opposite. Travelers hoping to pass from Poland into the Ukraine are required by circumstance to change trains in Przemysl. Unlike tracks in Poland and the rest of the European Union that are 4’ wide, Ukrainian trains run on tracks that are 4.5’ across for defensive purposes, i.e. to avoid being invaded by Germany, a commendable but nevertheless annoying design modification at this time of morning.

The “bouncer” we’ll call him for lack of a better word, didn’t as much welcome us to the train as intimidate us aboard. Though we were still on Polish soil we were clearly entering a place well beyond anything we had ever experienced. He spoke Ukrainian, a Slavic language like Polish and Czech. These languages share many words and I’ve been told that people from different Slavic countries can often communicate with each other. However, the little Polish I knew was proving useless now.

We boarded car two and were escorted its full length to our sleeping compartment at the far end of the corridor. To our shock and appreciation, our compartment was a two-person sleeper. In 2004 while in Italy we took a night train from Rome to Venice. Six people were crammed onto narrow bunks in a space not larger than 6’x6’ with a 7.5’ ceiling. If you’ve ever experienced something like this you know how uncomfortable it can be. If you haven’t, then take my word from it—sleeping in a closet full of strangers with sweaty feet doesn’t present the most restful seven hours.

The feel of the train was like what I would expect to find on one of those who-done-it murder mystery cruises where the passengers are part of some elaborate interactive performance and they have to find the killer before the killer finds them. The Persian rug beneath our feet was faded and tattered—some of its tassels missing. An olive curtain, intended to conceal our coats and shoes, hung from the ceiling a few inches from the light wood paneled wall opposite our bunks. I hoisted my bag up to the overhead rack, stretched for a moment, happy to no longer be weighed down by 15 kilos of clothes, and pulled back the single white lace curtain that covered the bottom half of the window. The window had no obvious opening mechanism. No school bus style thumb-operated tabs that caused the window to jerk down two inches at a time. Nothing. Not even a pull cord only to be used in emergencies.

But at this stage, emergency exit or not, all we wanted to do was sleep. Unfortunately, we had yet to go through all the check-in procedures necessary for international train travel. First the bouncer returned and, after some mental math that took a fair amount of time, collected our fares. It seemed like a high price, but as the train was already in motion and we were obviously in no position to bargain we paid him without a word. Next the Polish and Ukrainian border guards stopped in to compare our passport photos to our present tired appearances and give us the necessary stamps to proceed. The latter guard decided to use the corner of our bottom bunk as her temporary base—collecting documents from down the hall and returning to our chamber to enter the details into her laptop before departing and then returning with a new set of passports to repeat the process. Again we were in no position to make a fuss and after 20 minutes we were able to lock our door and settle in for two hours of uninterrupted rocking along with a few moments of sleep. We would wake up in Lviv.

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