When people hear that I live in Ukraine, the first question they usually ask is “Is it safe?”. I feel comfortable saying yes, as my experience has been in the West (Lviv) and Western/Central part of the country (Zhytomyr)– far away from the war between Russia and Ukraine in the East. I enjoyed my experience in the West, teaching at the summer camp in 2018 and 2019. However, I always wondered what the East was like. I had heard stories about how different it was, how it felt like a different country, and how the people there spoke Russian rather than Ukrainian. It seemed like this far off land that didn’t sound like the same country I was living in. I wanted to see it with my own eyes.
As I looked up trains to visit the Fulbrighter who was placed in the East, I also found myself asking the same question everyone else proposed, “Is it safe?”. I teetered back and forth, wondering if I had enough confidence to take my first solo train in Ukraine to the East. I thought about the many times I traveled solo around Europe, and the courage I had to go to off-beaten paths in Romania, Bulgaria, China, and Morocco. I convinced myself I could do it and bought my tickets. That night, I informed my family where I would be traveling, assured them it was safe, and told them not to google the city because I knew they would be worried.
On Friday, I took the mini bus to Kyiv, a bumpy ride I’ve gotten used to taking the last few weeks. I arrived around dinner time and made my way to my accommodation for the night. I was supposed to stay with a friend, but unfortunately there was a mix-up with the dates. I scrambled to find a last minute hostel and ended up at Hostel Pallet. When I walked into the 4-person female dorm that I booked for $7, I was hit with a burning incense that smelled so strong. I sat in the hallway, annoyed while the room aired out. After 30 minutes, I went into the room and, despite my annoyance, I introduced myself to my roommate. Within minutes, we were eagerly sharing our solo travel stories, our nontraditional life paths, and the joy of going off the beaten path. We ended up talking until midnight. Moral of the story: don’t judge a book by its cover.
On Saturday morning, I took the express train from Kyiv to Kramatorsk at 6AM. It was six hours and very comfortable. I was nervous about finding the platform in Kyiv, but it was easy! I slept after a rough night in the hostel and ate my low waste oats. If you take a train in Ukraine, make sure you bring some snacks and water!
As the train continued eastward, I felt this sense of nervousness and uneasiness the closer we got to Kramatorsk. Something felt different. There was a heaviness in the air. I soon arrived around 12:30PM, happy and relieved to meet my friend. I still felt unsettled, but I knew that if the Fulbright Commission placed him in this city and he had the courage to live there each day, then I could do it too. It’s important to say that as Fulbrighters, we are not allowed to travel to the occupied areas of Luhansk, Donetsk, and Crimea. If we do, we will be sent home to the United States.
My uneasiness was replaced with curiosity as we wandered around the city for two days. I was shocked at how quiet it felt, how spread out the city was (we had to take buses and taxis everywhere), and how few cafes and restaurants there were. Thankfully my friend was fluent in Russian so I followed his lead. As we walked around, I asked him what he does in his free time around the city. He laughed and I quickly realized his experience was quite different than mine in Lviv and Zhytomyr. I now understood how different the East is. I think he’s very brave for waking up each day here and staying positive, especially because he’s so close to the war (about two hours).
Over the course of two days, we visited the main square, the local market, drank coffee and tea, shared meals together with his colleagues, talked with locals, and wandered around the city without an agenda. I also visited a Greek Catholic Church for Liturgy. I enjoyed the simplicity of the weekend as my days in Zhytomyr are filled with responsibilities and classes, and I often find myself feeling like there’s always more to be done. But in Kramatorsk, that feeling disappeared. Maybe it was because I was reunited with an American. Maybe it was because I didn’t have classes. Or maybe it was because I surrendered to the beauty of what traveling can do to you if you let go. There was something so joyful about just sharing tea and sweets each night and laughing about how much Ukraine has changed us. Yet at the same time, our joy was juxtaposed by the harsh reality of the war next door and the many heart-breaking stories we heard from those affected. Somehow, that sense of joy and harshness reminded me why I decided to embark on this journey: to experience life outside my comfort zone and to see the world in a different light.
The weekend came to a close and it was time to take my first overnight train back to Kyiv. I booked a third class ticket for $15. There were better options (first and second class), but I didn’t want to spend the extra money and wanted to see how third class was. I chose a top bunk as you can see in the pictures below. I said goodbye to my friend, both of us knowing that we would fall back into our respective routines.
I nervously boarded the train around 10:30 PM. Thankfully, his colleague was on the same train and happened to be in the same cabin as me so I felt a lot better. Before the lights went off, we chatted for a while about life in Ukraine and the impact of the war (more stories for a future post). I made my “bed” and struggled to use the single footstep to get to my top bunk. I soon realized it was a big mistake to book the top bunk because its hard to get up and down and you can’t sit up! I was stuck lying down for 12 hours so I just smiled and fell asleep to the sound of the tracks below me.
I slept for a few hours and was unpleasantly awoken by my motion sickness around 4AM. I knew I needed to get some fresh air (it was SO hot inside the cabin) so I jumped down from my bunk and headed to the space that connects the two rail cars. It was located next to the bathroom, but I didn’t care as I was relieved to sit up and feel cool air. I sat on top of a garbage bin for an hour before giving myself a pep talk and making my way back to my bunk. I climbed back up and thankfully fell asleep for the next few hours.
After 12 long hours, our train arrived at 9:30AM the following day. I thanked my friend’s colleague for her help and company. As I stood on the platform, I was so happy to bask in the fresh air and have the freedom to move around! I couldn’t help but smile to myself. I did it. I survived my first two trains in Ukraine, visited the East, and let travel continue to show me what life is all about. A journey well worth a top bunk and $15.