Not the Orient Express: Chronicling the train ride out of Crimea
Paul Workman and his crew wait for a train in Simferopol, Crimea. (Paul Workman/CTV News)
Published Friday, March 21, 2014 6:27PM EDT
Getting into Crimea was easy: a short flight from Kyiv to Simferopol.
Getting out, not so easy. As befits an invasion, the Russians eventually blocked all flights, except those going through Moscow, and by the time we tried to reserve, every seat was booked.
The next best option suddenly became a slow train to Kyiv.
So picture this: three grown men, 20 pieces of luggage, and a train compartment straight out of a 1950’s Agatha Christie mystery, except there was no murder, no mystery and this was NOT the Orient Express.
But it was an adventure, so come along for the ride.
13:50 - Got to the station in Simferopol with luggage piled high on a four-wheel cart. Likely weight: maybe 500 kilos, facing an obstacle course of two curbs, one steep ramp and finding the right platform. One man pushing, one man pulling, one man watching.
14:35 - Train pulls into the station with 15 minutes to load. Conductor checks passports, looks at the tickets, looks at all the luggage and watches it pile up inside car number 15.
Of course there’s not enough room, but there’s a small storage closet and we are kindly given permission to use it.
Train leaves almost on time, slowly chugging out of the station to a rousing chorus. Russian military music played over the station’s loudspeaker.
Not sure if that’s normal, or something added since the Putin takeover. I think to myself, one day they will name the station after him, or maybe even the whole city. Putinopol.
It’s certainly a lot easier to pronounce than Simfer-opol, or is it Sim-fair-oh-pol?
14:50 - Okay, so what do we do for the next 16 hours and 900 kilometers? The compartment is sweat-shop hot and while the window is attractively strung with a yellow-flowered curtain, it doesn’t open.
You can see where it’s been caulked to keep out the winter cold, which is not our immediate problem.
Nobody else seems to mind except us. There are sheets, pillows and quilts and we organize three narrow beds, but it’s not even 4 p.m.; too early to sleep and too early to open a bottle of wine. Or not. (2011 Merlot blend from Crimea).
17:30 - A young woman shows up at our open compartment door selling large jars of caviar, and I use the term “caviar” generically. Red fish eggs, black fish eggs and grey fish eggs. Tempting.
She writes down the price and I ascertain from her imploring tone, it’s a better deal to buy two jars, and better still to buy three. One it is. I’ll let you know if it’s any good.
18:30 - The compartment seems to be getting hotter. John the cameraman goes in search of the conductor to get him to turn it down, armed with a Google translation app on his phone.
We cross out of Crimea and see Ukrainian troops taking up a defensive position along the new border. Maybe twenty soldiers and an old armored personal carrier; I know it’s old, because Stuart, our security advisor, spent 25 years in the British Special Forces and knows all that stuff.
We conclude the Ukrainians wouldn’t stand a chance against the Russian forces, known derisively in Crimea as “The Green People,” because of their unmarked green fatigues (like aliens from outer space).
19:20 - A young man named Alex who’s sleeping in the next compartment comes to say hello; his berth is hot too, but he shrugs it off. He’s a businessman from Sevastopol, speaks decent but groping English and takes the train to Kyiv twice a month.
“Putin decided,” he says, “We didn’t have a choice.” He doesn’t seem too upset about that, and voted yes in the referendum, but as we re-fill his glass, doubt creeps into the conversation.
“We’ll see about Putin’s promises,” he says, “we’ll see about money.”
20:15 - Alex is now showing us cellphone pictures of his children; he wants to keep his Ukrainian passport but has also entered twice in the lottery for a U.S. green card.
“We don’t know about life in Russia,” he says plaintively. “We don’t know anything about our future.” He rises and goes back to his compartment with a final comment on middle-class life in the Soviet Union and then Ukrainian Crimea: “I can’t believe I’ve lived through two revolutions.”
21:00 - We have stopped at an obscure Ukrainian city and 30 minutes later, we’re still there. There is no food on the train, though the conductor did come around with tea shortly after we left Simferopol.
We brought snacks of cold pizza, greasy salami, and the Ukrainian version of Pig in a Blanket, small hotdogs baked inside a cheese croissant. Our neighbors on the right come by with a bottle of vodka and offer goodnight shots. We pass.
The air in the compartment is still oppressive with heat and lack of ventilation.
22:45 - Stu goes down first, and like a good soldier, sleeps in his clothes. We’re moving again; the beds are numbingly hard; and the faster the train goes the bumpier the ride gets. John takes the berth above me; he doesn’t use the sheets and doesn’t seem to care.
Forget any romantic notion about falling asleep to the soothing rhythm of a train; it’s a myth. Every time we pass through a town or village, light flashes into the compartment like a searchlight, and the engineer seems to apply a heavy foot on the brakes at every stop. And there are many.
I hear John tossing; Stu is doing the same. There is no gentle sound of sleep from either of them. After a while it hurts to lie facing the wall, so I face the front, and then it hurts to face the front, so I face the wall.
Did I sleep? Maybe, I’m not really sure, but eventually the sky begins to brighten and I watched it happen. The compartment door is wide open; I check to make sure my pants are still beside me on the floor.
06:20 - I must have dozed because suddenly the conductor is at the door with our tickets and offering tea, a new conductor, a young woman who must have come on board at one of our many stops. She is cheerful; we are slow-moving and groggy.
At least the heat seems to have been turned off. I stumble towards the bathroom at the end of the corridor and wait in line. “Where you from?” says the man behind me, who obviously wants to talk. “What do you think of the situation?”
I looked at him through blurry eyes, tongue rubbing against fuzzy teeth and gave him my honest opinion.
“Jeez man, it’s 6 o’clock in the morning! It’s too early to talk about stuff like that!” I promised I’d be quick in the bathroom.
06:24 - No escape, he’s waiting for me, so I pounce first. “Are you happy to become Russian?” He’s has longish hair, is wearing a yellow T-shirt, and doesn’t laugh.
“I have friends who say they have won the jackpot,” he says. “I say, ‘When Ukraine turns off the water and the gas, you’ll find out what kind of jackpot!’”
Like many of the travelers, he’s going to Kyiv on business, though others are now leaving for good. He tells me Crimean leaders are all thugs and crooks, just like the previous leaders in Ukraine. We shake hands and wish each other good luck. “In this situation,” he says, “everybody loses.”
07:12 - The train comes slowly to a stop in Kyiv, under rainy skies. It arrives on time.