On Tuesday morning it was time to check out of our beautiful air-conditioned hotel room. After a breakfast of scrambled eggs at the station, we set of towards Tesco to stock up on provisions for the long train journey ahead of us. We arguably overdid it, leaving with twelve 1.5 litre bottles of water, two cartons of juice, a large loaf of bread, two packets of cheese, two tins of meat paste, assorted chocolate and biscuits and a pile of dried fruit. The most nerve-wracking part of the experience was trying to buy the water as we had no idea what the Slovak term for “still water” might be. Fifteen minutes of googling on my phone and some significant roaming charges later, we discovered that the elusive word was “nesytana”. There was no way I would have worked this out on our own and were it not for modern technology, we would have been condemned to spending 30 hours on a train drinking the Slovak equivalent of Perrier.
Laden down with food and water, we had the exciting experience of catching a tram back to the main station. By this point, I was starting to get pretty nervous and was anxious to make sure that we didn't miss our train. I was perhaps a bit over-zealous, as we found our way to the correct platform with nearly an hour to spare and had to proceed to sit and wait for the train. I expected it to be at the station well in advance of the departure time, with an hour for everyone to find their cabins, stow their luggage and have their tickets checked. I don’t know whether my expectations were wrong or whether the train was inexplicably delayed, but ultimately it didn’t roll into the station until ten minutes before it was scheduled to depart. Unfortunately we had been sitting at the wrong end of the platform, so had to make a mad dash to the far end where we saw a solitary blue and yellow striped carriage. The rest of the train was made up of regional carriages, terminating in the eastern Slovakia city of Kosice. In addition to our Ukrainian carriage, there was one other carriage continuing on to Moscow.
Having arrived at the correct part of the platform, we caught sight of our conductor, a man in an imposing Ukrainian hat, standing outside. I gathered that we were supposed to show our tickets in order to be allowed aboard, but there was a crush of idiotic people trying to lift their suitcases and a child’s tractor up the steps. When I did eventually work up the courage to push forward and show him the ticket, he said something incomprehensible to me in Russian. By dint of some repetition and pointing, I grasped that he was trying to tell us that we were in cabin number seven.
It was a struggle to get all our belongings on to the train and, when we arrived in cabin number seven, our first impressions were not good. It was very, very small. Tim was doubtful about whether it was even first class, although I was able to assure him that it was, because there were only two bunks. Bunks… well, the lower bunk was currently decked out as a sofa, covered in the sort of ugly throw that an elderly aunt might have. The upper bunk was very high indeed, almost touching the ceiling. With no apparent railing and only a metal ladder of the sort my Sylvanian families used to use, it was unclear how a person could get up to it, never mind sleep in it without falling out. On the opposite wall, we had a small wash basin stand with a bin underneath and a lift-up table top. There was a small cupboard with a mirror, a power point for shaving, and not very much space for our suitcases at all. We wrestled with them for several hours before coming to the realisation that we could squish them into a cavity below the lower bunk. It also transpired that we could utilise some sort of mechanism to bring the upper bunk down to a level where we could access it… or, rather, where Tim could access it!
Shortly after departure, the conductor came around to take our tickets and bring us a packet of bedding. We curled up on the lower bunk, munching our rations and alternately reading and watching the world go by. I had been worried that the train journey was going to be a long and unendurable nightmare – rather like the time we took a night bus from Prague to Warsaw – but time actually seemed to pass pretty quickly. It was fun to sit and watch the Slovakian countryside roll by. Slovakia looks like a really beautiful place, full of lakes and mountains and forests.
Having boarded the train at 2 pm, it was late evening by the time we arrived in Kosice. Our train was detached from the other carriages before being joined on to some more and proceeding with its journey. The border was now looming but the problem was that I wasn’t sure exactly where it was or how much longer it would take us to get there. I wanted to stay awake until we had crossed it, because I thought it would be a pretty terrifying experience to be woken up in the middle of the night by a border guard. I thought that the border was quite close to Kosice, but Slovakia just seemed to go on and on and on.
It was well after dark when we arrived at a place called Čierna nad Tisou, whose name seemed familiar to me from the railway timetables. Sure enough the train came to a stop and two Slovakian border guards got on. They weren’t quite as scary as I had anticipated, asking to see our passports and, when they realised that we weren’t Slovakian, speaking to us in German. The whole thing was over within twenty minutes and, feeling pretty pleased with ourselves for having survived it, we settled down to go to sleep.
That was a mistake! We were just nicely nodding off when the train jolted to a halt once again. Flung almost out of my bunk, I sat up and peered tentatively out of the window. Immediately I wished I hadn’t – there were a group of soldiers in camouflage gear standing outside. Hmm. Quite what the train was supposed to be doing I’m not sure, but it shunted forward a bit, backwards a bit, forward a bit, backwards a bit, as if it was trying to dance the hokey-kokey. We ended up in the same place we had started, but not before I had seen the sign on the station building which proclaimed that we were now in Чоп (Chop).
Oh dear. I had a moment of panic at the fact that we were now no longer in the EU, in a country where we would be unable to understand a word any one said and where they didn’t even write with a proper alphabet. Sure enough, sleep had been a bad idea because now the proper border control was about to begin. The Ukrainian border guards marched onto the train, kicking the doors of each compartment to wake everybody up. We waited nervously as they worked their way down the carriage towards us. A female guard with an expressionless face mutely took our passports away, without giving any indication if or when we might see them again. The customs guard spoke to us in broken English and wanted to know how much money we were carrying. I underestimated slightly so that we wouldn’t have the trauma of trying to fill out a customs declaration, and luckily he didn’t want to count it.
Thinking we were through the worst, I then nearly died of a heart attack when I saw a soldier with an Alsatian dog patrolling through the train. I suppose it was only looking for drugs, which obviously we didn’t have, but I was terrified that it might be tired of sniffing for cocaine and come and attack me for my chocolate. I began to see the benefits of being on the upper bunk after all!
And then… nothing happened. For about three hours. The train moved forward a bit so that it was below the flashlights. A group of engineers came running out of the railway building towards it. Slowly and laboriously, each carriage was raised into the air and fitted with new wheels to correspond to the different railway gauge in Ukraine. By the time they had finished it was gone 2am. We were exhausted, and we still didn’t have our passports. I wanted to cry. We needn’t have panicked, however. Eventually we were shunted back to the place where we had started, nearly four hours previously, and the same expressionless woman reunited us with our passports. I was so happy I wanted to kiss it. On closer inspection the following morning, it seemed that they had simply taken them away to stamp them.