Overnight train to Chişinău and a forgotten land
24.06.2011 - 24.06.2011 23 °C
Kiev, Ukraine – Chişinău, Moldova
With soon to depart trains to Berlin, St. Petersburg, Moscow and Odessa it is unsurprising, as we entered Kiev Central Train Station, at around midnight, that there was a relative bustle of locals preparing for their overnight journeys. Our train to Chişinău would arrive in Kiev at 01:15 and depart fifteen minutes later.
As with all train signage in the Ukraine the large station arrivals and departures screen lists each trains place of origin and final destination, only. For anyone without this knowledge or an understanding of local geography it would be an understandable oversight to board our train, thinking it went to Moscow and then Chişinău, using our Western ways. Likewise, the station authorities obviously assumed that everyone boarding our train knew the stations it would stop at, en route to Chişinău, although given that some of our subsequent halts appeared to be little more than random, unplanned stops on the track, to allow one or two people to quickly disembark, this lack of explanation may be understandable.
As our lumbering diesel train and its twenty-five well worn carriages passed along the platform we searched, without success, for carriage numbers. After asking a number of short-sighted, non-English speaking carriage attendants, we finally located our carriage of destination. Unlike the other carriages this did have a number 5 in the window of one berth. As most people boarding at Chişinău appeared to board into this carriage or its immediate neighbors I suspect the other carriage signs had been removed, after their passengers boarded…which was helpful!
Finally, ensconced in our four berth carriage we made our bunk beds, said goodnight to the two Ukrainian travel companions that were sharing our compartment and finally feel asleep at about two o’clock in the morning.
Some three hours later I was awakened by our Ukrainian companions departing the train. Clearly, their journey was to be much shorter than the 15 hours we would spend on the train. Yet, happily this early departure left us with an entire compartment to ourselves which helped greatly as we relaxed, slept or watched the arable world pass by. Whilst the train included a restaurant car, we had brought onboard provisions for a fine picnic. Breakfast, lunch and a generous afternoon tea had been catered for through judicious purchases at a variety of grocery and patisserie stores in Kiev.
Our carriage and sleep were relatively comfortable. As is typical a few stuttering stops and starts, during the night, awoke us but we soon returned to slumber. Whilst few people, including the carriage attendant, spoke English we were able to obtain coffee and tea from the Russian samovar at the end of the carriage and communicate, through hand gestures and broken Russian as necessary, throughout the journey. Whilst tourists will travel this route, we did not see any. For those locals travelling with us this made us somewhat of a novelty, yet invisible to the passing traders eager to sell us sweets and toys but not if we did not speak the local languages. Although, whilst true for the majority of traders that did not include the trader selling, what appeared to be bed linen, bursting into our carriage at 7am, whilst we were still snoozing, in the somewhat optimistic hope that we were in desperate need of new sheets for our bed at home! Yet despite this unexpected intrusion and the subsequent location of the door locking mechanism we were met with generally congenial, if not smiling, faces. Watching a movie on the DVD player our carriage attendant came to join us, at one point. Sitting on the carriage floor he appeared both amazed and mesmerized by pictures of our English language movie.
In a direct line Chişinău lies approximately 200 miles from Kiev. However, our journey was elongated, significantly, not only by the frequency of stops, at stations and apparently random disembarking halts but also to allow any other train on the track to pass (or so it appeared). Customs and Immigration at the Moldavian border caused no issues but was, as expected, also a time consuming process. As we left the Ukraine and rolled into Moldavia it was clear that this predominately agrarian based economy was, similarly to Lithuania, still reliant on horses for their labor and men to work the fields. As we approached sober, tin roofed villages it was understandable to see why the country is often ranked near the bottom of the World Database of Happiness.
Aspiring to EU membership, but with a shaky history regards organized crime, human trafficking, arms dealing and corruption this appears but a distant dream. As its neighbors join the EU and in doing so become political distant from Moldova the sobriquet of the ‘poorest country in Europe’ becomes ever more appropriate. As is often the case this damning assessment of the country is both confirmed and contrary to what we experience. For the present though we are happy to reach the relatively modern station of Chişinău and arrive at our apartment, in a typically grey apartment block, allowing us to live as many Moldavians live today.
Whilst being centrally located in Chişinău our apartment block is also next door to the ‘Beer House’ one of the cities first microbreweries. Whilst more expensive than one might imagine, the locally produced beer and food is a welcome change to our day of picnic’s. Inwardly satisfied, we return to our 8th floor apartment for a quiet sleep ready to depart to the breakaway region of Transdniestr the following day.