Monday, September 24, 2007

I Often Dream of Trains...

The blissful visit to Slavsko was sandwiched between hectic trips there and back. We have traveled by train in much of Eastern Europe, but usually first or second class. We learned this weekend firsthand how the masses travel, and it made Greyhound look like luxury.

Friday's mode of transportation was the elektrichka, an electric-powered commuter train. This train traveled from L'viv all the way to the city of Uzhgorod, to the southwest. Our stop was about three hours away from L'viv, although many on the train were traveling farther.
When we arrived at the train station, it was clear that the elektrichka would be packed. Hundreds of people - mostly young people - lined the train platform. The route goes through skiing country in the winter. In the fall, people hike and camp in the mountains. When the train arrived - uncharacteristically late for Ukrainian trains - the masses shoved and pushed their way on the train. People occupied any seat they wanted, despite the fact that tickets were assigned, and took all of the luggage space available. Erik shoved his way on the train to get seats and Lea, Carter, Thomas, and Jani waited a bit for things to clear. Erik kicked out two college-aged travelers who were squatting in our assigned seats, and Jani did the same with hers. Everyone was packed tightly together; there is no consideration of legroom on an elektrichka. Three seats on each side faced three others, knocking knees. On the trains, children do not have seats, they sit on a lap. So, Carter was on Lea's lap, and Thomas was across the aisle on Jani's lap. The seats are extremely narrow, too small for the average (oversized) American. People walked up and down the aisle constantly, to go get food, go smoke, and beg for money. The seats were pitched at a quite uncomfortable angle, giving everyone back aches. The train was also hot, and the stench of human odors and cigarette smoke lingered in the cabin. We were happy to be released in Slavsko!

We paid more for tickets on the return ($5 each instead of $2.50 each). For this, we got platzkart. For an extremely graphic description of this type of travel, check out this R-rated website. But our travel was not nearly this bad - mostly because we only had to do it for 2 1/2 hours.

The train was hot. The train stunk like 60 smokers who had not showered in a week, packed into a steamy metal box. Of course, it smelled like this because that is exactly what it was! People sleep in berths 3 high in these trains, with no doors at all. In each section, there are 3 berths across from each other with a small table in between, then across the aisle are 3 more berths, lengthwise. It is customary during the day for the occupants of all 3 berths to sit on the lowest, then when it is time to sleep for everyone to go to their berths. This is how it is supposed to work, but in reality, is not how it works most of the time. Fortunately for everyone, it seemed that the top berths on this train were not sold, meaning it was slightly less crowded and that no one had to sleep just inches from the ceiling. But it could just be that we saw no one up in the third berths. After all, we were getting off of the train at 8:51 p.m.

We arrived at our "seats," the bottom and middle berths. But, a woman was sitting there. We sat down and tried to get her to move by continuing to move toward her, but she just let us squash her. Across from her, a woman lay on the bottom berth, and along the window berths sat an older couple with a sleeping baby in between them. We sat there until a stop about 30 minutes later, at which time we realized there was no one in the compartment behind us (except the two men sitting on the berth by the window drinking, who were repeatedly visited by a really drunk man). So, we moved there and sat across from one another, allowing Carter space to lie down. At the next stop, though, a man and his approximately 8-year-old daughter got on, and Erik moved to sit on one bottom berth with us. He asked where we were going, and when we said L'viv, he let us sit there even though they had purchased both lower berths in that area. They got sheets (apparently new train reforms will make it less likely that you will get used sheets in platzkart) and he set up the bed for his daughter. He also set out their evening feast on the table between us: a chocolate bar, 2 beers, a large bottle of sparkling water, gum, a package of tissues that his daughter repeatedly used to wipe her hands, and a large clear plastic bag containing several tomatoes and hard boiled eggs. They made several phone calls on the cell phone to pass the time, and Lea watched an older couple at the next window area make the beds and settle in for the night.

Traveling this way was a cultural experience, one not often used by foreigners (an old wives' tale during the Soviet period was that foreigners were not allowed to buy these tickets). However, 2 1/2 hours was enough of it, overnight would have been intolerable. We got on a tram to take us home, and Carter had a bath and we had showers. It was nice to curl up in the bed here and listen to the fireworks outside.


aunt penguin said...

What a juxtaposition from the clean open air to the squashed stinky train. I am not so sure I would ever get on a train like that. I am surprised no one hyperventilated from lack of air.

Lea's Dad, a train lover said...

Most Americans could not imagine a car like that being part of an AMTRAK train, even if the fare was low. The hullabaloo over being forced to ride in such a car would be loud and clear. But it sure would show just how spoiled we are. I will say, glad it was you stepping back to Eastern European style low cost training.