The full story soon enough, but this was one of those epic rail journeys, three days and nights without a wash, border guards who have developed the fine art of waking you in the middle of the night just when you fall into a deep sleep, bangs, thunks and shudders from an old, heavy train rolling slowly along tracks, and countries most people have never heard about. The first leg was on that old run from Sofia to Moscow (mostly the Roman script was pretty much absent, so an ability to read Cyrillic is somewhat advantageous):
We travelled through four countries on the way – Bulgaria, crossing the Danube at Russe into Romania, Moldova and then the Ukraine (I got off in Kiev). A cosy corner for me, with bags of food and bottles of water. Thankfully they had toilet paper, since I’d forgotten that:
A late night stop in Bucharest:
And then at Ungheni on the Moldovan border (the old border of the Soviet Union) I was roused from my snooze by a swaying, banging carriage. WTF, I thought, until I saw they had jacked the carriage up and were changing the rolling stock:
Apparently, the rail guage was deliberately varied on the border in order to deny those pesky capitalist Americans a free ride into the USSR should they invade. They’d have to stop first for three hours to change over all their wheels.
The Moldovan border guards were nice bunch, as were the Romanians, but not so the Ukrainians. I was up for four hours from 1.30 am, questioned, had sniffer dogs in my compartment, had police, army, airforce, navy and the rest searching the train high and low. The reason: drugs had been ‘found’ in the toilet:
But it all went the way of whatever else enters such collective receptacles:
Kiev at last. Grimy and fucking freezing, I had a squizz at the famous city:
Final leg was a luxurious and clean Ukrainian train from Kiev to Simferopol. Ukraine certainly has the right approach to train conductors:
And they know how to pamper you:
One more night on the train and I was in Simferopol in the Crimea. Boris met me and insisted I board a mini-bus for the two-hour run over the mountains to Yalta. The driver was one of those multiskilled types, able to smoke, talk on his mobile phone, change gear with his little finger and overtake slow trucks on tight mountain corners – at the same time. A shit, shower and shave in Yalta and I was whisked away to a conference on Religion and Civil Society – all in Russian, but I had a lovely Tartar woman whispering the translation into my ear. At the end of this long day I finally sat down to a warm meal, only to be set upon by a singing troupe:
The evening ended with vodka-fuelled Ukrainians and Russians dancing wildly away to old Soviet numbers. I even shared a toast to the Soviet Union with some Russian Marxists.