Because I needed to travel this weekend, I needed to leave the 2014 Sochi Paralympics early. Given my budget issues, I took the train from Moscow to Sochi, because it was cheaper than flying to Sochi from Madrid. I had an enjoyable train ride from Moscow to Sochi. It was one of those interesting experiences, and I had a grand time that involved Russian train passengers I was traveling with giving me alcohol for dinner and breakfast. Fun times. Great views. Not a bad night’s sleep.
When booking my return to coincide with my flight, I opted for a slightly longer 36 hour return that involved two nights on the train. My guess at the time was this train just made more stops. I know on the way down that we didn’t stop at every station. I also figured there would be less needs for express trains from Sochi to Moscow during the actual Paralympic Games.
Live and learn. I had a lovely unexpected 12 hour train ride through the Ukraine. Okay, not so lovely. You know those moments where you think in blind panic, “ZOMG! I’ve fucked up! Eeek!” Yeah, it was one of those when the train car steward said something to me in Russian, then said to me in English “Passport control.” I stared blankly at him like he lost his mind. The other guy in my section said, “Ukraine.” I looked out the window and sure enough, passport control.
I wasn’t avoiding the Ukraine: I just had no intention of going there. The United States government specifically advises Americans not to go there right now, especially the eastern parts. There was no reason for me to go to the Ukraine. Besides which, how would I get there anyway? Well, by train by not understanding things. So while not avoiding the Ukraine but having no intention of going there, I ended up there.
The Russians appeared just as confused as me as to why I was there. There were five of them I dealt with. Journalists are not high on their list of people they love at the border, and I tried to make clear: I was not in Russia to write about politics but about sport. Sport. Sport. Also, I was leaving Moscow the day my train arrived in Moscow. Also, the train ticket SEE! LOOK! does not say UKRAINE! anywhere on it. Also, when I went Moscow to Sochi, I did not not go through the Ukraine! I was there for the Paralympics! It was hard to babble when they spoke no English and I spoke no Russian. I showed them my papers. They photographed everything, including my return ticket. They used special glasses to look closely at my accreditation. They radioed a guy, who spoke English, who talked to me. Apparently, foreigners do what I do occasionally and it was not a big issue.
The Ukrainians were not that fussed because I was not getting off the train. They were more concerned about the guy in my compartment bringing camera equipment and a television. Besides which, there were only two. And unlike the Russian side, the border guys had few guns and less overall personnel.
So onwards intrepid reporter who plans poorly. Did I mention I was a bit hungry? When going through security in at the Olympic Park Train Station in Sochi, they took my fuet. They also took my can of corn. I bought ramen in the train station, which was fortunate on my part. Unlike my trip to Sochi via train, this train had pretty much no food for sale. My bottle of coke I had leftover from lunch, a bottle of water from my bag, and tea made on the train was all I had to drink. Food was ramen, Oreo cookies and store band Starburst candies. woot woot. 36 hours on the train.
Anyway, while in the Ukraine, I kept looking for Russian flags. My perception from the news was this area had become defacto Russia. Russian nationalism should be on display. There should be a feeling of tenseness in the Ukraine that I should feel having accidentally wandered through it.
Except there was none of that. Ukraine along the eastern rail line I took felt poorer than the Russian parts I had traveled on. The trains on the Ukrainian side appeared to be older, and more rusted. People appeared to be going about their business, riding bicycles here and there, carrying bags of what looked like groceries and other supplies. The towns felt empty, but no emptier than other small towns in the USA I have taken the rail through. There were no Russian flags, but at the same time, there were very few Ukrainian flags. I saw them occasionally at what appeared to be government buildings. Sometimes, I saw blue and yellow painted poles that looked more like store advertising (and no real Russian colour equivalent). No one on the train seemed overly concerned. The Russian Railways staff seemed not that concerned. There were people of all ages and genders trying to sell stuff on the train in the Ukraine, which did not happen on the Russian side. There were fewer passengers, a lot fewer, than in Russia but that was it. A bad part of me wondered, “Why does Russia want this part of the Ukraine that feels so poor compared to the Russian side?”
Near as I can tell, the train entered Ukraine close to Donetsk and left around Kharkiv.
Going back into Russia, again a repeat of accidentally leaving Russia. This time, no English speaker at all and this time, every single page of my passport was photographed. No problems getting through customs, but a bit scary nonetheless when your government is telling you not to go there and the news says they are on the brink of war there.
By the way, did you know that Russia is amassing troops on the border with Ukraine? Before hitting immigration control, I saw a train with at least 15 tanks and at least 15 troop carrier trucks. If I had to make a stupid mistake, I am glad I made it Wednesday and not later.
Welcome to some of the surreal and weird experiences I have had thanks to my involvement with Wikimedia. I think this tops what I have gotten myself into on my own.