Frequent traveller: Off the railsBack to Forum
Anonymous27 Mar 2009
In which our correspondent is subjected to severe sleep and food deprivation by rabbit-fur clad train officials…
Business is slow, but I keep on travelling. There are fewer meetings, and more time in between them, so when I had a meeting in Warsaw and another in Kiev two days later, instead of flying home in the middle I decided to try the overnight sleeper. I was travelling with two colleagues so it took a bit of selling, but the romance of rail is not dead, even when the booking was for a three-bed compartment. Must be my aftershave. Still, at €60 per person we were saving serious money on return flights to the UK or transfer flights to Kiev and hotels.
Arriving at Warsaw station late at night, the sight of a dark underground cavern with nonsensical signs and platform numbers wasn’t quite as romantic as I’d hoped. The station was not so much empty as abandoned, so when we saw a group of Ukrainian bankers sporting impressive rabbit-fur hats, we joined them. If they weren’t waiting for the same train, at least we could buy their hats.
Only ten minutes later than scheduled, a long chain of carriages came trundling in. The train would divide during the night, with some carriages heading for Minsk and others to Moscow, so we had to board in the right place. On most overnight trains in Europe there is a diagram on the platform to tell you where to stand. Not in Warsaw. There, you wait, try to figure it out, realise your carriage is at the far end of the platform and then attempt to set a land-speed record with your wheelie case.
We made it. The train guard, clad in rabbit fur, spoke not a word of English, Italian, French or German. Our languages exhausted, we watched him read every word of our tickets before ushering us down a floral carpet to our compartment. As we relaxed back for our 430-mile journey, we wondered what scenery would greet us when we awoke. Perhaps mountain peaks as we snaked our way through the Carpathians, or the central European steppe? This reverie was cut short when we stopped at a station outside Warsaw. For two hours. The only highlight was when the guard appeared with three sets of bedsheets wrapped in plastic. I duly made the beds, climbed up to the top bunk – not designed for sufferers of vertigo – and conked out.
Some time later the door almost caved in from someone hammering on the door. “Citizens?” asked a man in a rabbit-fur hat. Since it won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2004, EU passport holders haven’t needed a visa to enter Ukraine, but our Queen-sponsored documents drew confused glances and our passports disappeared down the corridor.
I drifted back to sleep, to be woken 20 minutes later by another official, who looked at us, looked at our passports and took them away again. A further 20 minutes and a lady in a fur hat did the same thing. Yet another knock and we were given forms to fill in, which required our passport numbers, which we didn’t have.
My companions, by now wondering why we had bought sleeper tickets when the staff were making sure we did no such thing, opened the curtain and looked out to find we were six feet up in the air. As Russian railtracks are a different width from European ones, the train was having its wheels changed. For two hours.
Again I dropped off, but my sweet dreams of business class were not to last. The heat rising up to the top bunk left me sweltering in a nightmare of fluffy blankets. I thought about opening the window but realised it was coated in ice. Throwing off the sheets, I slept fitfully.
In the morning, I woke ravenous. The train had no buffet car and we had one pack of digestives between us. Empty-stomached and tempers frayed, by midday we were ready to throttle each other. When we arrived at Kiev, bang on schedule, we were barely on speaking terms, which didn’t bode well for our meeting.
Still, after filling up with food and a bottle of local brew, we began to see the funny side. And by the next evening, after queueing for half an hour to check in for my flight home, and another half-hour to clear security and immigration, romance was again blossoming. I am already investigating new trips by train for the summer’s business schedule. I’ll just need to pick up a rabbit-fur hat.27 Mar 2009