Trains in Eastern Europe

This morning, I heard a story on NPR that reminded me of the old days in Ukraine. This was the story of David Greene, author of the book, Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia. David told Steve Inskeep about the “dorm room” that is a Russian third-class train. People step on your face to get on the top bunk. Everyone drinks vodka and brings their own food on the train. And I’m not sure how well he described the stench, but it is ripe in those trains.

What David didn’t mention is that there is a worse level of train. It’s the fourth-class cattle train. I got tickets to the cattle train for my friend Jeremy and I to travel on at 11 PM one night from Vinnytsia to Kyiv. It was completely packed and smelled like farm. There weren’t any cows, but there were more people than any sanitation committee should allow in one space. That was the last time my friend ever let me buy our train tickets.

Traveling third-class is a step up, in my experience, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t ridiculous. My brother-in-law calls this experience “hell train.” I don’t see it that way, but I understand the discomfort. In the middle of summer, third-class Eastern European trains are rough. They’re stinky. Too many people are eating sausage and tomatoes and they’re downing it with vodka. The toilets are gross and dirty and these “restroom” areas have no toilet paper or soap to help people clean up their messes.

When I was first in Peace Corps Ukraine, Peace Corps paid for second-class tickets to Kyiv for medical appointments. I never shelled out the cash but saved it for travel and fun expenses; third-class worked for me. But when I returned four years later, they had downgraded us all to third-class trains and at that point, the trains were more worn and a bit stinkier. Thanks, Peace Corps.

I hope that some of my other friends from Ukraine or my former grad school buddy who is a Russiophile heard this story because seriously, someone needs to laugh about this guy’s whining. Suck it up, Dave, and eat your borsch without complaint!

Note to readers: I fully intend to read Dave’s book and appreciate that he shared interesting tid-bits on NPR this morning. I’m sure it’ll be a great read!


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