In Praise of the Rails.
By Karl Afrikian
*Note - this article was written just prior to volunteers being evacuated from Ukraine. However, given how important trains were to all of our Peace Corps experiences, we couldn't let it go to waste.
I have always loved trains. When I was a little kid I would beg my mom to drive to the train tracks in our town so I could watch the commuter trains go by every hour or so. I had at least two different train sets to play with and loved to watch Thomas the Tank Engine. I was obsessed with trains. Fun fact, I am still obsessed with trains! Fast-forward to me living in Ukraine and here I am loving the fact I can go almost anywhere by train. It is by far my preferred travel options for getting around the country and I could not even imagine trying to count the number of trips I have made so far, ranging from 14-hour cross-country treks to 3 hour long elektrichka rides sitting on a wooden bench through the west. Living in Ukraine has allowed me to live my life as the train enthusiast I have always wanted to be and I am very grateful for that opportunity alongside my other great experiences.
I always love that feeling when I have a new train journey in the near future. I usually buy my tickets online and just show the attendant the ticket’s PDF right on my phone which is incredibly convenient (and eco-friendly!). I have had to go to the counter to order my tickets in person once or twice, but thankfully technology has made that whole process incredibly easy. I try to arrive early to the station to ensure there are not any problems, but I have had to jump onto the wagon as the wheels just begin turning. I usually try to get my big bottle of water filled beforehand and bring some snacks, since I know it may be a while until we have a stop where I can get off and buy myself a пирожок с капустой (cabbage pie) from the babushkas waiting at the platform.
My most common train route of course is from my site to Kyiv and back. Thankfully it is a simple five-hour journey. Getting back from Kyiv is fantastic and I can sit on a nice comfortable seat the whole way. It’s a great length to watch a movie, do some work, read my Kindle, or listen to some downloaded podcasts. The midnight train to Kyiv can exhausting but as long as I have my bottom-bunk bed in coupe I cannot complain. On that train I arrive into Kyiv a bit after 5 in the morning, but I can walk to the nearby Peace Corps office and pass out on a couch there thankfully for a few hours afterwards to try to get in my 8 hours.
My site thankfully also has daily train service to Odessa, Lviv, Dnipro, and Kharkiv which makes it easy to hop around to different spots in Ukraine. I cannot imagine having to be reliant on only marshrutkas to travel around the country, or at least in and out of site. Of course, I do take them when need be, but then I have to miss out on my necessary cup of чай served by the wagon attendant, all that stretching and standing-room, and of course having bathroom access at all times.
Yes, it is a cliché, but traveling is also about the journey and not just the destination. The trains provide an incredible window into Ukraine’s past, present, and future. Looking out of the windows at villages and farms as you push forward on miles of tracks shows you a different side of Ukraine, especially for those like me who live in an oblast capital. Pulling into Kyiv and seeing the growth skyscrapers and shopping malls shows that the country is truly pushing forward in development. Thankfully living in Ukraine in 2020 allows volunteers to keep themselves entertained with technology in more ways while travelling compared to what I would even imagine a decade ago, but looking out the window provides us the chance to watch the world move by and see what Ukraine truly was, is, and will be.
Over the years many things about the trains have stayed the same but new options for travel are provided. Many wagons are still the classic Soviet-era cars, with the coal ovens baking passengers during the cold winter months. They are always painted that shiny blue paint and have the quaint curtains hanging at every window. I imagine these have not changed too much over the years but overall, and they are great and reliable for moving places. If you have not been to Ukraine in several years you may be unfamiliar with the Intercity-Plus trains, featuring the modern Hyundai locomotives and onboard cafes that serve items including filter “American style” coffee (it’s good!) and instant couscous. I feel confident to say that no marshrutka offers couscous to its customers, and while I cannot take the Intercity Train everywhere, I do enjoy the comfortable ride when I do have that opportunity!
Conversations with fellow riders of course serve as a fantastic way to pass time. I have met many who wish to practice their English with me, talking about their career goals and life histories. I also get complimented on my Russian-speaking skills and use my time aboard like a free tutoring session. Sometimes we use a little bit of both languages to talk, making it the ultimate win-win. I always laugh when I ride a train back home to my city and make a new friend as I soak in their genuine care and concern they have for me in ensuring I arrive back home safely. “Do you know how to get home? Do you need me to call you a taxi? Do you know which bus to take? It’s dark out so don’t walk back home alone!” I have to kindly respond saying I have been living in town for over a year now, but always appreciate the smiles received when they realize I have made their hometown my new home.
Other times on trains I make surprising acquaintances. My city has many international students so I have been known to strike up an English conversation with the Egyptian medical student sitting next to me. I once even met an American couple and their two adopted Ukrainian sons who were returning back to their original orphanages to watch their friends graduate from high school. They also gave me some granola bars and other American snacks which nearly brought me to tears as I enjoyed the peanut buttery and chocolate goodness. In terms of gifts though, I am being honest when I say that I still have never been offered some самогон or коньяк, but I know many of you likely remember those train trips as some of your more interesting memories of Ukraine to say the least!
You cannot even get me started on the metros and trams as well. I love riding the Kyiv metro around the city and seeing the beautiful stations’ artworks. It reminds me of being back in Boston taking the subway to work every day (but with less rats and cleaner platforms in Kyiv), and I love the convenience of it. I also once road the Dnipro Metro just for fun when waiting for a train back to my city, and albeit I did not use it to actually “go anywhere” I still loved the experience. I travel frequently to Mykolaiv as well for PEPFAR work and have fallen in love with that city’s tram network. They can take you anywhere in the city for an affordable price. They are fun and provide a great insight into how people live and get around their cities. Thankfully America has been learning the benefits of public rail transit over the past few years (thanks Millennials) so hopefully when I am back I can live somewhere with easy rail access to keep my train nerdiness alive.
Americans do often say that Europe and Asia surpass in terms of public transportation and I think Ukraine is doing amazing in this regard. Being from New England it is nice to have Amtrak access and a metro in my home city, but going anywhere else always requires a car. It is very incredible that there are marshrutkas to every village in Ukraine, not to mention far more eco-friendly than having everyone drive in their own vehicles. Despite this I usually try not to take marshrutkas when travelling out of my city. I am by no means trying to bash the marshrutkas of Ukraine; the fact that anyone can get anywhere in this country via public transport is truly remarkable and enviable and I wish that it could serve as a lesson to America on how to connect cities with surrounding areas more effectively.
I find the trains to always be my go-to form of transport, even when the route may be longer time-wise to get around Ukraine. I love the feeling of getting on the wagon and arriving at my bed/seat and knowing I can. To say the least, I am a sucker for a good train ride and always have been, and being able to be a train geek in Ukraine has been truly wonderful.