The Night Train

The new people, places and situations that we encounter during our lives shape our view of the world. In 2008, on an overnight train between Hungary and Ukraine during a vacation from my job in Kyiv, I experienced all three at the same time. The revelations of the journey home will stay with me for longer than memories of the holiday itself.

On a chilly, late-summer afternoon, I stepped onto the train at Budapest’s Nyugati station. As we pulled away from the platform I stayed in the corridor for a while; 24 hours is a long time to be stuck in a musty compartment with nothing for company but a bunk bed and brown bedding.

I pressed my nose against the window and took a last look at the Hungarian countryside as it rolled past. Eastern Hungary is gorgeously European: arable fields reach all the way to the horizon, and men on old bicycles slowly cycle between neat villages, which have sumptuous names like Puspokladany and Nyíregyháza.

 THE TEACHER

Eventually, I opened the door to my compartment and lifted my bag onto the top bed. My bunkmate for the journey to Kyiv was also returning from a holiday. He was a thick-set, handsome man in his late forties, who introduced himself, in English, as Ashur.

We sat on his lower bunk and began to talk. The man had an untraceable accent and a strong, warm voice.

My banal “where are you from?” started a conversation much deeper than I was ready for. Ashur told me that he was born in the Iraqi part of Kurdistan in 1960, into an Assyrian Christian family. He had left his homeland in 1991 to escape the Gulf War, after the village that his family had lived in for centuries was destroyed.

He explained how Iraqi Assyrians had been poorly treated for generations, and that the abuse has intensified since America invaded Iraq in 2003. Assyrians have been persecuted, even murdered, by both the country’s Sunnis and Shi’ites, for no reason besides the fact that they share the Christian faith with their common enemy.

I was only six when Ashur left Kurdistan. I grew up with BBC news reports of the war in Bosnia each morning, not Iraq, and I knew almost nothing about the violence there that had started long before this century’s war. As he described the suffering of his people so rationally and eloquently, I shrank into the corner of the cabin. I could only nod. Ashur called the person responsible for the bloodshed “that man.” The word “Saddam” only left his lips once — he didn’t so much say it as spit it out.

Many Assyrians have fled north to Syria, but Ashur found his way to Sweden. He arrived with no documents and no proof of the education that he had received in Iraq. He stayed in Gothenburg for the next eleven years.

In Gothenburg he made a new start. He went to high school for the second time and learned Swedish. He found time to enjoy his hobby, reading (he was opening a novel when I entered the cabin, and he illustrated many of his ideas about life with literary characters). Life in Scandinavia suited him, but he became disillusioned in 2002 when his Swedish classmates found jobs soon after graduating, while he was left to work as a postman to make ends meet.

That autumn he left Gothenburg and traveled to England, first to Reading, where he completed an information technology degree, then in 2005 he trained for a teaching qualification in Exeter.

During his time in England he fell in love with a Romanian woman. They looked for a place closer to her home town, where Ashur had bought a land plot soon after their wedding to live on when they retire. And so they moved to Ukraine.

Ashur had arrived in Kyiv two years previously, to teach IT at the British school. He now lives with Caterina on the twelfth floor of a housing block in an ugly, unwelcoming kvartal. They are lonely there, but in their spare time they occupy themselves with Open University courses.

Though Ashur described with modesty the three moves that he had made during his life, they left me in awe. Each of them had involved a jump into an unknown culture, with no guarantee of safety or success on the other side. After so many years of prejudice, he had not only held on to his desire to make the best of his life, but had enough faith left to choose a career that allows him to help other people.

We spoke about my own life. Like his it has involved three moves, but, unlike his, they were made selfishly and on a whim. I strive to see as much of the world as possible knowing that I can always return to the comforts of home when I run out of energy or money, but for many people, stability at the end of a journey is something that is prayed for, not taken for granted. I told him that I love to travel because it lets me learn from people who have lived great lives, like him. He replied: “You think I’ve had a great life? I have seen death.”

As we tired, our conversation petered out. Night came. Shadows crept through the window of our cabin and over Ashur’s face, until it became a silhouette.

 MIDNIGHT

 After saying goodnight to Ashur, I climbed onto the top bunk of the cabin and tucked the duvet around myself, as a Georgian shaurma seller would wrap a thin slab of warm lavash bread around a chicken kebab. I took my camera from my bag to look at the photographs I had taken in Budapest. It felt like four weeks had passed, not four hours.

I reflected on the previous three days. Against a background of grand architecture, summer rain and a mass of other tourists, I had met a girl from Azerbaijan who asked me to help to translate the screenplay that she had written. She introduced me to her neighbor, a Hungarian girl with a powerful imagination, whose dreams take the form of impromptu 19th-century novels set in Italian castles.

It was after midnight when we arrived at the Ukrainian border. We stopped for an hour while the train was jacked several feet off the ground and its wheels were changed. The screech of brakes woke us up, and the metallic clunking of hammers underneath us kept us from going back to sleep.

This change of wheels is a relic from World War II. To this day the Ukrainian railway tracks are a different shape than the Hungarian ones; it is said that this was to help stop German troops from invading Kyiv. Nowadays, the place is symbolic for different reasons: it is the border between the European Union and the former Soviet Union, between the Magyars and the Slavs, and one of the points on the invisible line that meanders through Europe along which the Latin alphabet meets Cyrillic.

The railings in the corridor of our carriage were cold to touch. I put on a second sweater and pressed my nose against the window, to watch the workmen on the tracks. Outside the night was eerie. A wagon storage yard in the distance was lit by dull yellow lights; instead of an Iron Curtain, a mist filled the no-man’s land. The workers finished their job and we started to move again.

The carriage at night was a peaceful place. The train galloped along quietly, and most passengers went back to sleep. Occasionally, people stretched their legs in the corridor, still in their pajamas, or smoked in the section between the carriages.

In the near silence I heard noises from the cabin next to mine and Ashur’s. There were hushed adult voices and children’s giggles. Their language was not like any I had heard before: it was punctuated by an abrasive “kha” sound, but its tone was softer than Russian when the children were part of the conversation.

When the sounds moved into the corridor, I went out to see who our neighbors were. There I found two small girls dressed in light T-shirts and cardigans, two even younger boys in sweaters and jeans, and two bright-eyed babies with bulging nappies.

The woman looking after them was about 30. She had a round face, beautiful dark eyes, and black hair collected matter-of-factly into a ponytail. She was wearing a long, white dress with an elaborate pattern. There was another woman with her, with the same dark hair and an identical dress. I guessed that it was her older sister, and the mother of some of the six children.

The first woman understood my Russian, and introduced herself as Larissa.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Austria,” she replied, quietly.

But they were not Austrian. The language I had overheard wasn’t German, and the children’s features — fair skin, large eyes — were more Central Asian than European. Curiosity got the better of me and I asked what language they were speaking. Larissa told me, still whispering, that it was Chechen.

She explained that they now lived in Salzburg and were visiting relatives in Kyiv. I wanted to ask more questions — When and how had her family left Chechnya? How had they made it safely to Austria? — but I stopped myself. It would have sounded tactless coming from a stranger.

The Caucasus is a fascinating region, where post-Soviet drabness meets with Middle Eastern flair. It is home to both mosques and churches, plains and mountains — where numerous cultures and identities coexist.

It is also a turbulent place, due to its people’s conflict with Russia that has lasted for over 200 years. As in Ashur’s Iraq, the conflict in Chechnya has never been more devastating than in recent times. Since 1994 the Russian army, under presidents Yeltsin and Putin, has bombed its own southwestern frontier for control over the region. Russian troops have been resisted brutally by equally merciless local armies and Islamic militias. 

When the West thinks of this war, it thinks of the Beslan hostage tragedy. On September 1, 2004, a group of armed men entered a school in the small town of Beslan in North Ossetia, next to Chechnya. The men locked more than 1,000 people, most of whom were schoolchildren, inside the building. During the following three days they shot about 350 of them dead. The school was attacked as a protest against Russia, the hostage-takers demanding that the country withdraw their troops from the Caucasus.

One of the details that I remembered, besides the sheer horror of the event, is the festival in the region called the “Day of Knowledge.” On the first day of each school year (September 1) a child’s whole family — parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts — accompany them to their classes. The family is especially cherished in Caucasus culture, a fact that was exploited on those awful days.

There is still fighting in Chechnya, as well as in neighboring Ingushetia and Dagestan. I knew how often families had been ruined by death or evacuation. How could I sympathize with what Larissa must have seen?  The war in the background as I got ready for school each morning came at me only through the television set.

We didn’t talk for much longer. I could tell that Larissa felt uncomfortable speaking Russian, even with me.

One of her children tiptoed along the corridor to join her. Like all toddlers, he had a talent for turning unfamiliar places into a makeshift play area. His favorite game was to climb along the corridor without touching the carpet — hands clasping on to the railings, feet stepping across the radiator grates, sometimes hiding behind the curtain.

Larissa went back into the cabin but the boy, Adam, stayed in the corridor with me. He was a charming child, with fair, thin hair and chubby cheeks. I reached my hand towards his and shook his sticky palm so he wouldn’t be scared of me. With another 16 hours on the train before we arrived in Kyiv, I couldn’t bring myself to part with the last piece of Hungarian chocolate from my bag, so instead I took out my camera and tried to entertain him by taking his photograph and showing him pictures of Budapest.

When he tired of climbing we kept each other company, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the corridor and communicating via hand gestures and funny faces. Eventually our second wind deserted us and we went back to our cabins to sleep. 

It was only a few minutes after dawn when the train arrived in rustic, ragged Lviv. The sun was still coming up as we traveled alongside the fields, streams and settlements of the countryside beyond. It was my first taste of western Ukraine, and it was just as poetic as it had been described to me. Small cottages were dotted across the fields, some with chickens in the yard, some next to paddocks where cattle graze. At a small provincial station a wrinkly old babushka in a bright blue headscarf and black boots waded through shoulder-high grass to get to the platform. Another woman was inching along a plank that bridged a small stream, trying not to drop her carrier bags full of vegetables into the water. In the villages men swigged vodka straight from the bottle. I hadn’t even cleaned my teeth yet.

I went to the carriage’s tiny kitchen to get a drink. Tea and coffee were being served from mugs that you had to beg from the provodnitsa (conductor). The mugs were narrow, clear plastic beakers, which loosely fit inside tarnished copper bases with a handle attached that is only big enough to fit two fingers inside. Some were so old that they had Communist symbols — stars, hammers and sickles — engraved into them. In the kitchen I held my mug under the urn and poured boiling water over the sachet of instant coffee that Ashur had given me. I nursed the beaker in my hands and took small sips, gazing out of the window at the fields of Lviv province as the caffeine trickled into my veins.

The view and the hot drink soothed me. I knew there was nothing I could do for the rest of the day but relax, a peaceful proposition that a volatile country like Ukraine doesn’t often afford.

 WIE HEIßT DU?

Ashur and the boys from the next cabin woke up in a dark mood. A night under starchy sheets had given us all the oily skin, itchy eyes and greasy hair from which no long-distance train journey spares you. The girls bore the discomfort better than us. Larissa was as beautiful as she had been the night before, and had dressed her two daughters in matching bright pink dresses and combed their hair straight.

The oldest boy was in the worst mood. He was a pale child about four years old, in a checked shirt and brandishing a toy gun and a mischievous grin. I wondered whether the famous Caucasus hot-headedness was cultivated in childhood, as he stabbed my leg with a plastic fork. When the batteries from his gun ran out and the gadget stopped making its screeching sounds, the boy improvised using his very loudest Chechen kha-khas.

When I spoke Russian with the children they didn’t understand me. I guessed that those who were old enough to go to school in Austria would speak German. I had learned German at my own school, but had forgotten most of the tiny amount that I ever knew. I remembered how to say: “I have short dark hair,” — as the boy with the toy gun ripped strands from the side of my head it was becoming truer by the minute.

The oldest girl looked at my camera as I scrolled through the previous nights’ pictures. As her brothers, sisters and cousins appeared on the screen, I pointed to each face and asked “und das ist?”

The girl’s name was Iman, and she was seven. She jotted down the names of her family in my notepad: the boy with the toy gun was called Ebiat, and her younger sister was Hayana. Hayana was a sweet child with a permanent smile, who made the same designs for my arm hair that Ebiat had for my sideburns. Judging by the laughs that greeted each picture of Adam, he held a special place in each of their affections.

Our paths crossed a few more times before the end of the journey, but by the time we reached Vinnitsya there wasn’t much to say. The previous evening’s conversation and the sleepless night had caught up with me. My camera batteries died, and so did the moment.

As we packed our bags and got ready to arrive at Kyiv’s train station, the provodnitsa came to return our passports. I stuffed my British one back into my jeans pocket. Ashur slipped his Swedish passport into his briefcase. I gave him my phone number and we agreed to meet again as soon as he had finished his dissertation.

 Larissa carefully placed the handful of Austrian passports into the bottom of her rucksack. I scribbled my e-mail address on a sheet of paper torn from my notepad and offered to send her some of the pictures I had taken of her children. But none of the family was sorry to see me leave. They all had more important things to think about, as the eight of them gathered together on the platform and set about finding their way in Ukraine.

The journey’s legacy is the lessons it taught me: that sometimes even people who we meet accidentally are willing to share stories and wisdom; the soothing effect that open spaces have on us, and the importance of looking for them when our heads are tired. And, most importantly of all, the night train taught me about the potential that travelling brings out of us if we aren’t scared to make mistakes.

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4 thoughts on “The Night Train

  1. A great heartwarming read, Jon. I found it truly inspirational to learn about the winderful Ashur and his life.

    I am sure you are enjoying the ODI cricket, England vs India as I type this!

    We hope one day our paths cross in Kyiv or Odessa.

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  2. Very nice story telling, language lesson, history lesson, and life lesson. I’ve only traveled on a few trains in my life, all in Europe. They have been enjoyable memorable experiences. Possibly, this is the nature of train travel, or simply travel as you allude to. The night train between Moscow and St. Petersburg was a great experience. I enjoy writing, which takes the form of endless letters to a female scientist in Moscow, who I met on my last trip. I’m not as good at writing as you are, but I do write with feeling and enthusiasm. Your stories have a way of drawing out memories, each of us have, of similar situations. Thank you for being a catalyst to thought. Nice to finally meet you in Kiev. Sorry we didn’t get to spend more time talking. By the way, my leg is almost healed. My doctor has advised me to give up soccer. Do you think an English doctor would ever prescribe this?

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  3. I loved your story. It’s very comforting and fulfilling at the same time. Yes, some people just come into our lives and go. But some come and leave footprints on our hearts. And with the latter ones our lives will never be the same again…

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  4. Beautiful. This makes me wanna catch a train and travel to Budapest. I love it how people come into our lives, sometimes for a long time, sometimes for just a few hours- but sometimes you find out more about the last kind than the first…

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