trains for a change 24 to 29 05-2014

Voting  in Dnipropetrovsk (it’s  a mouthful: the locals call it Dnipro) was pretty uneventful, as voting should be. After accompanying my friend to the polling station we headed out to the family dacha, ate strawberries and swam in the Dnieper. The only reminder of trouble was the heavily armed roadblock we had to pass outside town. The evening news showed a different Ukraine, switching between images of anxious candidates and pictures from the front where voting was made impossible by sabotage and threats.

Dnipro’s museums are closed on Mondays, so I spent the next day walking in the vicinity of the city’s swanky shopping street named after Karl Marx (by the way, if you click on that link, check out the name of the square in the center of the screen).  Our evening frisbee plans were thwarted by a heavy rainstorm which luckily had ended by the time my friends took me to the train station. I had to go back to Kyiv to collect a visa for Uzbekistan that took longer to arrange than I had foreseen. And since the 471 kilometers from Dnipro to Kyiv seemed a bit too much to hitchhike without the risk of spending the night outside, I decided on the night train instead.

I planned on taking another train to Voronezh in Russia the next day. The vast majority of people I had spoken to, had told me not to hitchhike across the border. And I figured they were probably right: Russian border guards are not the most friendly welcoming committee in any case, and especially now I didn’t want to attract unnecessary attention to myself and the hapless good Samaritan potentially driving me across the border.

By Wednesday afternoon my passport contained a new visa. I quickly had lunch with an old friend and managed to get to the train with about ten minutes to spare. As I got closer to my carriage, the conductor asked me what passport I have. My answer was relayed to a person slowly emerging from the carriage. ‘This train is for citizens of Ukraine and Russia only,’ she said. ‘Wait. What? Why!?’ I said in the most coherent way I could manage. ‘I have a ticket and I have a passport,’ I added, trying to assert myself. ‘No,’ was the firm answer. ‘You need to get on a train to Kharkiv, and there switch to a train to Moscow.’ I tried to argue, but it was pointless. Besides I realized these were unusual times and the ladies denying me access where probably not the ones actually barring me from the train. I’ve emailed Ukrainian railways for an explanation. No reply yet…

Not entirely sure what to do, I went back to the main station concourse, where I was almost immediately set upon by a guy who had tried to hassle me for some money in exchange for an unnecessary service earlier. I always try my best to ignore the local hustlers, but when somebody talks to me I can’t help but talk back. I was pretty upset by this time – I never really get angry; I just get overwhelmingly sad when something bad like this happens. With my resistance levels low I followed the hustler’s suggestion of taking a marshrutka to Kharkiv. He, of course, knew the driver and I must have overpaid, but the price he suggested sounded pretty descent. He helped to get the majority of the money for my train ticket back. As far as dodgy denizens of transport hubs go, this guy was not the worst I have encountered.

I got to Kharkiv after sunset – no more trains to Russia until the next morning. So I spent the night with about a dozen or so other stranded travelers in the station, which was alternately patrolled by the local police and an aggressive-looking junkie (luckily there were too many people around for him to try anything). At around seven o’clock in the morning I was finally face to face with a Russian border guard. It was a fairly easy crossing; he leafed though my book on Russian grammar, while a colleague made some lame joke about cannabis. I tried my best to fake a small laugh. Finally the little ceramic clogs I had brought along as gifts were carefully unwrapped. I was of no real interest to them, and they quickly let me be. Looking back on the experience, I think hitchhiking would have been easier.

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