I have a strong policy against yelling at people with Kalashnikovs who have a hold of my passport. Actually I have a pretty strong policy against yelling at anyone who has a hold of my passport regardless of the type of heat they're packing or even if they're totally firearm free. I'm really into not pissing off people who have my passport. I know it's a weird quirk of mine, but what can I say? I like having my passport returned to me with as little bodily harm done to me or it as possible.
Our ticket to Lviv was the first ticket we'd received in Europe without any English. We'd gotten used to tickets printed in the native language of whichever country we were in as well as English and German or French. This one didn't even have French. Just Hungarian and Russian. I showed it to the uniformed woman standing near what I thought was our train to try to figure out which box told us the train car.
She pointed to a number and said "Da".
I gave her a confused look and she gestured at the train behind her so I shrugged at Dan and we got on the nearest car and figured the other number on our ticket must be our compartment. We had tried to buy first class tickets because we'd learned this was the best way to not have to fight for baggage space but we were informed by the Hungarian woman who seemed incredulous we wanted to even go to Ukraine that there was only one class. So we paid our money for a double sleeper thinking that sounded plenty big anyways. It's not. I'm not sure what the single sleeper is but our double sleeper had just enough floor space for our two large suitcases, a crazy fold down table/sink contraption and what I can best describe as a double decker couch for sleeping. Maybe the single doesn't have the top bunk? Maybe you have to share it with a stranger? There was absolutely no way for the space to be any smaller. We piled our suitcases and sweaty selves into the compartment.
We had been promised air conditioning by a small pictogram on our ticket but the compartment was blazing hot. We did our best to open our window as wide as possible to let in the lovely, scorching, train yard air. I had had about a million waters and a couple of beers at the bar while we waited for our delayed train so I went out into the narrow hallway in search of a bathroom. The first one I tried must've been out of order because the same train attendant as had been outside the train, stopped me from going in and waved her arms and shook her head.
She gestured for me to follow her and we went to the other end of our car. She showed me how to turn on the lights and then we had an elaborate and confusing hand gesture conversation in which she communicated not to throw toilet paper into the toilet but to use the waste bin. She also told me to explain it to Dan. In retrospect I have no idea how she communicated that last part but it was abundantly clear at the time. I suspect spending all your time in countries where you don't speak the language makes you at least partially telepathic.
I returned to our enclosed double decker couch and the train finally got going. Just as we were getting going fast enough for the air streaming through our window to actual feel cool, the train attendant and another woman came through the passage closing all the windows in the hallway and firmly gesturing at us to close ours and the door. We closed the windows but the air outside our door felt cooler and more like actual air conditioning so we left it open. The women came back by and insisted we close our door making a shivering gesture implying our room would get colder that way. It didn't. If you sat just in the right place in the compartment you could feel a tiny trickle of coolish air but the hallway was definitely cold.
It was a hot day and we finished our water bottles well before we got to the train station. We didn't refill them because we figured there would be water on the train, of course. Mistake #1. Since we were still hopeful our compartment would cool down, we left it with the door closed and went in search of water and to try to figure out how to get to the dining car for future knowledge. Our snacks consisted of two pogacsa, nut roll, a bag of potato chips and dried cherries. Mistake #2. We walked up and down our car. No sign of potable water. No sign of how to get to another train car. We had, foolishly, assumed a train going between Budapest and Moscow which we would be on for one overnight (and other passengers would be on for two) which had no stops for any significant period of time, would have food and water. Clearly, we were idiots.
We walked by the door to the compartment with the train attendant and she gave us a look that I took to mean "Troublesome Americans why won't you just stay in your corral?". We made a drinking gesture.
"Chai or kave?"
She gave me a blank stare.
"Chai or kave?"
"Wasser?" I tried. She had thrown in some German when trying to communicate earlier, I thought it was worth a shot.
Another blank stare.
"Chai or kave?"
I turned to Dan, "Sooo... do you want tea or Nescafe?".
We decided on two teas.
Look, I know you're thinking "if she has water for tea, couldn't you just take that water and not put tea in it?". Sure we could have except at this point in the conversation she gestured for us to go back to our seats, indicating that she'll bring the tea to us.
We are brought two cups of dark black tea and a sugar packet that conveys this train is much more sleek and modern than it really is. I ration out some of our food. Pogacsa features heavily in Hungarian folk tales and at this point, it seems likely we're going to need all the help we can get, mythical or not, to make it through the next twelve or so hours. We settle in with our meager dinner and tea, occasionally rearranging ourselves so that the other person can be under the "air conditioning" or look out the window. Dan goes for a second round of tea and to investigate the snack situation. He returns with what seems to be MSG flavored croutons and tells me the attendant seemed very surprised we wanted tea again. Which, to be fair, was reasonable because who wants to drink that much black tea on a hot train? Lord knows we didn't.
Despite the two cups of strong black tea and probably at least in part due to heat exhaustion and dehydration, I got very tired very early. We unsealed our bedding packs and made up our double decker couch. Dan on top and me on the bottom and surprisingly I managed to fall asleep quickly.
Around 11:00 pm, the train stops on the Hungarian side of the Hungarian/Ukranian border. Dan had read up on this trip pretty extensively beforehand so we knew this was going to happen but had fallen asleep anyways. A Hungarian customs agent comes through. He doesn't speak English but gestures to our bags and says "Turista?". We nod our heads. He shrugs, takes our passport and runs them through the neat little portable scanner on his arm. He looks at Dan's passport and says "OHHHH, HAWAII!" and then what sounded like a joke or a catch phrase that neither of us quite caught so we smiled and politely laughed in our half asleep confusion. The train stays stopped for a while and then rolls across the border to Ukraine.
The rail gauge changes when you cross the Ukrainian border which means it's now after midnight and there's all sorts of clangs and thumps as they do whatever needs to be done while they make changes to the train itself. Occasionally the train rolls forward or back and it's not entirely clear if this is intended or not.
Military service is mandatory accross the genders in Ukraine and two tall blonde girls with neat braids running down their Kalishnikov strapped back get on the train.
"Pasport. Pasport." We hear as they walk down the aisle. Again, we were expecting this. We had read that they sometimes take your passport for hours. Not exactly a comforting thought when entering a country in political turmoil but what are you going to do? Next we hear the customs man stopping in each compartment. We seem to be the only people on the train who don't speak Russian or Ukrainian, including the American girl who got on at the same time as us in Budapest. We hear her respond in halting but, I assume, fairly fluent Russian. We have no idea what she is saying until it gets to the end of the conversation and now she's just repeating "Pasport! Pasport!". He must've said something vague to reassure her and he moves onto the next berth and then on to ours.
He asks something in Russian.
I shake my head.
He has slightly more English than the train attendant but again our conversation involves a lot of hand gestures.
"Ahhh, Lviv" He seems pleased. It's unclear if this is because he likes Lviv, is happy we're not stupid Americans trying to get in the middle of a revolution or is thankful he doesn't have to check for a Russian visa.
He gestures to our bags and says something in Russian. Then makes an opening gesture and pulls at his clothes. Not sure how much information we have to disclose Dan nods and also makes a washing his armpits gesture. Clothes and toiletries.
We nod again. He is again pleased.
"Next go to?"
Dan says "Turkey" at the same time I say "Istanbul" and the customs man looks confused.
"Istanbul" I repeat.
He thinks a minute "Ohhhhh, Stamboul"
We vigorously nod.
We give him a confused look.
"Mer?" He makes a swimming gesture with his arms. We're still perplexed.
Dan sticks his arms out and pretends he's a plane.
(We later realized you could boat from Ukraine to Istanbul but Lviv isn't near the coast, so at the time this question seemed crazy.)
He smiles and nods, satisfied and begins to walk to the next compartment.
The train is still clanking and occasionally rolling.
The American girl at the back of the train must have used up all her stores of patience because she comes storming down the aisle yelling in Russian. Again the only thing we can understand is "Pasport. Pasport". She argues with agent for a while. Clearly, she didn't do the reading. When it becomes clear she's not going to back down he takes her with him. A while later she returns on the train escorted by the two gun toting blondes, goes back to her compartment and then passes by ours with her bags. She gives us a smile and a shrug as if to say "Oh well, ADVENTURE". It seems like this blasé attitude probably would've been a better one to have towards her passport being taken away than towards being escorted off a train at the Ukrainian border at one in the morning.
But, like I said, I'm one of those weird people who really doesn't like yelling at people with access to firearms or who have control over my passport, so maybe I just don't get it.
After many more clangs and booms and fits and starts, the train starts rolling again around two in the morning. We still don't have our passports but we're exhausted so we fall back asleep only to be immediately awoken with a knock on our door and the safe return of our passports.
I set an alarm for 6:00 just in case but we both wake up around 5:30. Outside the train the landscape has changed drastically since we're now traveling through the Carpathians. We break the rules and crack our window to let in the cool mountain fog. It's much better than the sad air conditioning. We roll past small towns and rows of farms that look like they're straight out of a Baba Yaga story and I think to myself we'll have to make a trip into these mountains some day. For now I'm not interested in getting caught by a house with chicken feet, so Dan goes and asks for Nescafe and I get out our other pogasca and the remainder of our dried cherries.
Until this point, we haven't used any of the four sugar packets featuring some other, fancier train, provided and I'd assumed they were half sugar and half creamer. Mistake #3. I opened one half of one gigantic packet and divided the sugar between our two cups of Nescafe. I opened the other half and started to pour it into my cup of coffee. Not powdered creamer. More sugar. I now had a mountain of sugar sitting in the bottom of my cup of Nescafe. I looked at it, stirred, smiled gamely and did my best to choke it down knowing I was just a couple of hours away from unadulterated water.
I shrug my shoulders at Dan.
While confirming some facts about this journey, I discovered that this trip has been temporarily suspended due to lack of passengers. In December they started a new Budapest to Kiev direct train that makes a stop in Lviv. It leaves at 7:23 am and gets to Lviv around 9:38pm which means you must deal with the customs process at a much more reasonable time. What's the fun in that?