The Trans-Siberian –Kharkiv Station
Passengers lined up on the boarding platform to the Express line as it sat belching steam into gray skies over Ukraine. On another rail yard rested a train retired from its former days looking like an ancient black dragon stretching way beyond the tracks from the Kharkiv station,
It was its history and monumental iconic past that lured me to choose this mode of travel to Kiev, made all the more enticing after taking the guided tour of the famed first class cars used during the Czars’ reign.
Pictures of Czar Nickolas and other historic figures from the Russian empire hung on wood panels. The Romanovs, dictators, politburo and Soviet party bigwigs, the rich and famous, all of them given their place of importance hung on a sort of ‘hall of fame,’ in spacious stately cars. Beds with thick plump mattresses and pillows lay under down quilts and coverlets. Upholstered chairs in deep red damask tapestry sat near heavy wood tables with French porcelain tea service sets and a gleaming samovar. Side bars were stocked with vodka filled crystal decanters, and silver ice buckets. Lit wall sconces accented the draped windows framed in matching red velvet like the upholstery, with tassels and pulls. White crisp linens hung from polished brass towel rods near a built-in lavatory. The first class cars were turned into a museum, open to the public now. Tour guides, dressed as stewards welcomed the public to view what once was off-limits to all but the elite class.
A porter led me to car #7303, third one down, and compartment # 9. One man stood alongside the aisle, his face turned towards a window, occasionally glancing back at those passing through. No one seemed to notice or care about the lone passenger with no bag.
“May I see your key please, miss? I wish to make sure it is the one assigned to you, and fits the lock to your compartment.” he said.
“Yes, of course.” I handed him the key given me at check-in. The door opened. A tray on the small table held packets of sugar, ‘espresso’, tea bags, napkins and a menu. A little basket with complimentary toiletries was laid beside it. Travel brochures were arranged in a rack on the wall.
“There you go, miss. Enjoy your stay while aboard The Trans-Siberian. If there is anything you need please ring the call button here.” he said, pointing to a small button on the paneled wall inside the compartment. A steward will come along shortly and check on your comfort. If you wish to place a meal order, or would like to eat in the dining car, and make a reservation you may let him know then. If you need any assistance in any way, please let us know.”
“Thank you. I will.”
Locking my compartment door after he left I settled in and unpacked only what I needed for my one night stay, then pulled out my notes and laptop. A half hour passed before the train whistle blew and began its slow pull away from the station heading northwest towards Kiev, picking up speed as it drew further away from Kharkiv.
As promised, a steward came by and took my “dinner order.” I picked from the menu, and asked for black coffee. Before shutting my door I noticed the ‘no bag’ passenger in the aisle leaning against the window, his face hidden behind a newspaper.
Three hours later I had finished dinner, returned the tray to the steward, sent some emails and worked on files. Ready to turn in for the night, I shut down my laptop, stuffed my notebook, maps and research files into my bag, and set it down beside my luggage. Grabbing my purse and a small bag, I locked my door on my way out, and headed down to the end of the car, to the lavatory.
After standing in line for what seemed a good twenty minutes the lavatory was free. With its unsanitary conditions I hurried my time spent there, thankful to get out and back to my compartment. The man by the window was gone.
I inserted my key into the lock. It got stuck, became lodged, but I managed to yank it free. Bending down to peer through the lock, I noticed the bent ragged, edges around its opening. Did I do that? After repeated tries it finally opened, and I quickly relocked it once inside, not sure by now if it was ever really locked.
My laptop was closed, still in shutdown mode. I checked my equipment, files, and personal things and could see nothing taken. And yet, things looked different somehow, as if moved. Am I just paranoid, or has someone broken into my compartment? Sometimes it felt as if there were eyes watching me wherever I went. Eyes that bore into my back from unseen places were like an unwelcomed shadow. A face in a crowd, on the metro, or a passenger on the Trans-Siberian could blend in like all the rest, all heading the same direction. Though my work files were all protected in password accounts, it was my family research notes and old photos I carried that were more personal and accessible that I worried about. Still, it appeared there was nothing stolen. There was no proof that anyone had broken in, except for a jammed door lock that just hours earlier worked fine when the steward tried it, so shrugged it off and went to bed.
My body had not fully adjusted to the time zones after jet lag, days earlier, and my sleep was sporadic. When it came, so did the dreams. The steppes were filled with graves. Names flashed before me, obscured in Cyrillic, Hebrew and German script on white slab stones, all of them with a face as the train sped by. The train slowed, and I saw my own, with my name in large bold letters, MONICA MENGELDER. Pushing hard against the stone, clawing at it, I struggled to get free. It was my whimpering cry that woke me. Shaken, frightened, I realized it was only the white pillow I squeezed, tightly between my hands. My face, was bathed in sweat, my body felt cold, and my heart was pounding as I sat up in bed and looked out the window at the sun coming up over the eastern skies. The monotonous rhythm of the train’s rolling wheels reminded me just how alone I felt.
To be continued…
Joyce E. Johnson (2013)
Note: The above photo is not mine. It is one from internet images. Although Monica is a fictional character and her story fiction, I have ridden the Trans-Siberian railway between Kharkov and Kiev, in 1989 and had my own experience on the train. That story can be found here under, ‘ Aboard the Trans-Siberian in Communist Russia, May, 1989’, posted on April 1, 2013.