It’s almost midnight and I’m hurtling through the darkness somewhere in western Galicia (east of Budapest, north of Transylvania) by rail. I started my journey in Lviv’s magnificent station 9 hours ago but it feels like I’ve been on a time-warp journey. Does train travel always bring out the romantic in us?
I’ve been drinking cheap cognac since we left the station. Not because I like cognac particularly, but it’s what they had in the Metro shop and my companion likes it. It seems that drinking and trains go well together here, like, well, drinking and just about everything else in Ukraine (except driving…you don’t do that here…ever).
There are three classes of service. In third (pletzkart) class you get to enjoy the exotic aroma of all of your fellow travellers in one big open party car. The advantage is…well, you have a party! The disadvantage is you can’t stop it when you want to, and of course you must sleep on top of your luggage for security reasons. And the WCs in steerage would cause a Turk to think twice before using. Not for the faint of stomach.
In second class (kupert) you have walls, a door, and bunk beds. So if you have a party of 4, you’re quite cozy. Otherwise, you must sleep with strangers, but that CAN be interesting and enjoyable, especially when the samovan (Moonshine) is shared and the card games begin.
I am in VIP (svan) and the living is good. Crisp linens, gleaming stainless hardware, rich polished wood panels, and plush red curtains are marred only by tacky fake flowerpots hanging from the windows and adorning the table in my private room. Mirrors line the walls and there are many thoughtful yacht-like touches such as folding cargo nets and a multitude of well-placed coat hooks, towel bars, and the like. Even the bedding is comfortable, with down pillows on top of a firm and lengthy mattress. Ask for glasses, and your assigned cabin stewardess will gladly accommodate with sparkling crested tumblers. It’s good to be the king!
I can’t sleep, so I’m sitting here in the middle of nowhere wondering what the world must really be like as it slides past in a silvery glow outside my window. That’s the thing about trains. There’s an almost religious mysticism surrounding them that belies the purposeful direction of the tracks and this very real, very old, and very staid mode of travel. Does any other form of transportation elicit the same love? The same poetry? The same romanticism? There will be no “city of New Orleans” written for jet travel, I dare say, though a few have tried. Trains are throwbacks to a halcyon, yet languid and luxurious day of travel, when great ocean going vessels were the primary means of crossing the Pond (does anyone say that anymore?), and Ingrid Bergman would emerge from the doorway of a China Clipper to greet the new day in Hawaii after sleeping her way across the moonlit Pacific.
Somehow, as you approach the train station, it’s 1937 again and you feel like you should be wearing a top hat and gloves, or at least have a porter hauling your luggage. The Lviv building is itself an iconic triumph, a magnificent display of Art Nouveau architecture. Built by stonemasons before the Age of Flight, it is festooned with mythological figures and flanked by two Tuscan pavilions framing the focus on a large central cupola. The graceful curve of the entry canopy lends an Oriental and exotic atmosphere to a building that embodies the ideal of symmetrically refined beauty. It is dignified without being ostentatious. The whole impression is one of a statement made well.
You know as you enter that something special and important is about to happen. The cavernous first class waiting hall, with its gleaming marble floors and cut granite columns, is reminiscent of an English gentleman’s club. When your train arrives, you saunter underground toward the platform using Parisian-inspired balustrades and handrails for support, and emerge from the tunnel. Suddenly there it is: a huge behemoth, a full half-mile in length, hulking under the platform’s graceful arcs of metal and glass and brightly painted in the Ukrainian national colors of blue and yellow…and made of steel, for god’s sake! Nothing on land that big can actually move, can it? But the great snorting beast is straining against its own brakes, yearning to be free. It hisses and moans methodically, as if gathering strength for its long slow build to 100MPH. It is inexorable, a force of nature, a breathing thing. It wants to scream through the night like a banshee, while inside of its belly, paradoxically, the people will laugh and party and love and sleep, blissfully unaware of the miracle of it all, the basic fact that this magic machine, this 2 century old invention, this archaic monster, this rolling anachronism, is still the ONLY comfortable way to move masses of people between city centers as we enter the 21st century. No cumbersome baggage transfers. No rip-off taxis. No Jetsons-style monorails to nowhere. No TSA proctology exam. No gate changes. No lost baggage. No baking on the tarmac. No waiting because of bad weather, bad equipment, bad employee attitudes, or sleeping air traffic controllers. Just step right in, ladies and gentlemen, and take your seats! The adventure is about to begin.
So you board the train and haul your own luggage to your room and get comfortable. You think you have plenty of time to relax, unwind, and unpack before the journey begins. After taking off your shoes and pouring a snifter you look out the window and realize that the train next to you is pulling away. Strange, nothing else was scheduled…wait a minute! THEY aren’t moving. WE ARE! Who knew moving 10,000 tons could be so silently effortless? It turns out that, despite my earlier bestial description, trains are actually gentle giants in the slow early going. No lurching. No noise. No cue at all. It’s almost eerie. But then it happens. The behemoth begins to rock, and the undulations become more and more rhythmic as the train gathers speed, until the gentle motion carries you into a world that exists only in the car. The panorama slides by your wide window, like a video on fast forward, furious in its speed, while you gently bob and rock, with only the clickety-clack of the rail and some wind noise giving notice to the need for something other than magic for power. You are now a global spectator, viewing the world at an oblique angle from a timeless vantage point.
You realize that this is no gentle giant, though, as you cross between cars. There the rocking turns to bucking and threatens to throw you off balance. The noise is a screaming roar of gale force winds that seem impossible to tame, an environment that is suitable only for the smokers who take some small occasional comfort there, yet when you close the door to the next car it is hermetically sealed off behind you like a sound cocoon. The disorienting effect is unmistakable. This thing is a feral beast, yet it carries the passengers in a degree of comfortable elegance that is unparalleled. Or is it the world outside that is dangerous and eager to invade our relatively peaceful inner lives through the weakest link in the train?
We don’t know. And so the stewardess will bring you tea from the corner samovar if you request it, the passengers will share a bottle of vodka in third class, and a couple will decide to get married in the club car while the train just keeps rollin’ through the night, speeding us on our way, an enigmatic steel spirit destined for—what? A scrapyard? I hope not. They’re too noble, somehow, for that.
So here I am, rocking along, and if there is a cure for insomnia, I can’t think of a better one anywhere on earth than this finely crafted wood room attached to a massive steel carriage as it rides through the country while strobes of light occasionally try to penetrate the window from random towns you’ve never heard of.
It’s nearly one now and my girlfriend wants to know what I am writing. I tell her it’s about a long lost past, about the better days that used to be and probably never will be again. It’s about a world that doesn’t care anymore about things like style and grace or craftsmanship and excellence. It’s about keeping your inner peace when you know that things have gone so badly wrong that there will not be any recovery in my lifetime or even that of my children. She looks at me like I am crazy. Of course she’s right. I will be thinking more clearly in the morning, when the booze has faded and the sun warms the cabin, but for now we’ve pulled into another small burg and will probably stop, though God only knows who wants to travel at this hour, or step through that portal into the cool blackness outside. I’m guessing they’re just a few more wandering souls on the night train from Lviv.