I spent the first hour or so on the train from Kiev to Berlin marvelling at its conveniences. A light in the compartment to show whether the toilet was occupied! A sink (non-functioning, but still) hidden under the table! I had the compartment to myself at first. It was a tall, thin compartment, with three bunks on one wall and a tiny table wedged in front of them. Not enough room inside for another set of bunks opposite. The carriage attendant was the sort of person who thinks you might understand their language better if they shout it at you, but she was very nice. A couple of times she barged into my compartment and bellowed “CHAI! CHAI!” at me until I said yes, and then she would bring me a plastic cup of sweet tea.
After a couple of hours we pulled into a station and my solitude was broken. A tall, fortysomething man called Oleg joined me. At first I was disappointed not to have the place to myself, but meeting Oleg turned out to be the highlight of the train trip. His wife had packed him copious amounts of food for the train, all of which he insisted on sharing with me – potato salad, delicious roast pork and homemade cake. Oleg also came bearing a smallish unlabelled vat of cold beer.
It’s well known that different types of alcohol have different effects. This beer was the kind that makes you a soporific, mellow, stupefied sort of drunk, and as such it was perfect for a long train ride. We drank and ate and went through the photos on my camera and the pages in each other’s passports. I spoke in Russian and mime and Oleg answered in soft Ukrainian – they are mutually comprehensible. At a later stop Oleg vanished onto the platform and came back with another few litres of beer. Oleg worked as something to do with cars and often commuted back and forth between Germany and Ukraine.
In the evening we reached the border with Poland. When Chris and I passed from China to Mongolia the train was cranked up so they could change the bogies to the Russian gauge; now it was time to switch back. Once again we stayed on board as the carriages were slowly levered up and the wheels detached and replaced. Afterwards we sat in a siding for ages while the border guards made their rounds.
When my passport was inspected, the guard noticed that I didn’t have an entry stamp for Ukraine.
“Oh, should I have one?” I said.
I should. This was a bit of a problem. I thought back to the train from Moscow to Kiev and realised that the young guard who checked our passports must have assumed I was part of the Russian family in that compartment, and he hadn’t stamped my passport as a result.
“This is very bad,” Oleg said when the guard went off with my passport. “You might have to leave the train, and go for an interview.” I wasn’t that worried, probably because of the beer, but also because I couldn’t really see what the problem was. I was leaving the country, after all. It wasn’t as though I was missing a whole visa: UK citizens don’t need one to visit Ukraine. It was one tiny stamp.
The guard came back and quizzed me about my journey and how I had entered the country, and it struck me that I still had my ticket from the Moscow-Kiev train. I dug it out of my bag and he took it away to examine it. After a while he came back and grudgingly handed over my passport, telling me to be more careful in the future. I checked, and he had given me an exit stamp. Oleg and I toasted this with another glass of beer.
The beer and the general anaesthetic of the train knocked us both out, so we decided to have an early night. Both of us were asleep by ten o’clock at the latest, I would estimate. However, in the middle of the night there was a rattling at the door and the shouty carriage attendant burst back in.
“Girl! Come with me!” she bellowed, ignoring Oleg. I grabbed my handbag and followed her out of the compartment, down the corridor and into her tiny little compartment at the end.
“Sit there!” she ordered. I did so. She left, then came back a couple of minutes later with two tiny apples, thrust them at me and went away again.
The train stopped. I couldn’t see much from my position, sitting on the carriage attendant’s bunk. She had made some effort to make her compartment a bit more homely, with her own blanket on the bed, a lace-edged tablecloth and a few photos and postcards of the Virgin Mary and various saints taped up on the wall. I ate one of the tiny apples. There was a lot of shouting, banging and drilling sounds coming from the rest of the train, and I saw a gang of large serious men in black leather jackets thumping up and down the corridor, sometimes bearing heavy rubbish bags. Thick dust billowed through the open door of the compartment.
Oddly enough I wasn’t the least bit worried by all this. I was quite tipsy, and all the beer had made me feel very mellow and sleepy. In fact I nodded off for a bit, and woke up when two of the leather jacketed men came into the compartment.
“Excuse me,” one of them said in English, and they sat down by the table.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Well, we’re writing a report. The carriage attendant has been extremely helpful to us so we wanted to make sure we thanked her properly.”
I nodded and ate the other apple. In my drunken brain this seemed like a perfectly reasonable explanation for all the banging, shouting, and the black bin bags. The carriage attendant came in, took my apple cores and consulted with the men over their report for a bit while I dozed in the corner. After a long while she roused me and led me back down to my compartment, apologising.
The corridor was thick with dust and floating fibres. Big lumps of woolly insulation lay everywhere. Oleg was sitting drowsily on his bunk, and as soon as we saw each other we both started giggling.
“What’s happening?” I asked him.
“Contraband,” he said, and made a smoking gesture, then pointed to the ceiling, where the tiles had been pulled down to expose the insulation within. Oleg told me that the ceiling of the whole carriage had been stuffed with smuggled goods. The leather jacketed men were customs officers. Oleg was in the compartment throughout the customs bust, but because I was a foreigner the carriage attendant made sure I was safely out of harm’s way.
Oleg got off the train early the next morning, just before Berlin. I’m so glad he was in my compartment on that train. If he hadn’t been there to ply me with beer I probably would have been a lot more anxious over the missing passport stamp, and certainly over the customs bust. I wouldn’t have found out what was going on without his explanations. Considering we were stuck together in a tiny little compartment, drinking, I never once felt unsafe with him around, and our conversation flowed despite being hamstrung by a lack of a common language.
I arrived in Berlin early in the day and went straight to my hostel. To my relief I found a letter waiting for me from David, containing my Berlin-Paris train ticket. Between the lost ticket, the customs bust and the kerfuffle with my passport I’d had a few close shaves over the last few days, but I was nearly home now, and everything was back on track.