Hong Kong to UK by train: Day 14 & 15
I’d travelled six thousand miles over thirteen days, the Trans-Siberian Railway was successfully behind me, but this was the first time I’d felt nervous. Boarding the train as darkness fell for the Moscow to Berlin leg of my journey, speaking one word of a language I couldn’t escape from, about to spend twelve hours travelling overnight to Kiev with no relief.
I made no scene and met no eyes as I found my bunk. I pulled it down and slung my bags on top. The fellas had faces like beat-up spam. The women looked as though they dreamt of murder – grey lupine eyes glowering from beneath dark eyebrows. Everywhere I looked I sensed ill will. Did I look like the outsider that I clearly was? Were these people as intent on evil as my unnerved mind imagined? Maybe not. But after having every piece of fortune fall my way the past two weeks of train travel, I was aware that more serious things than missed trains and visa trouble could still befall me. My body, mind and luggage were still intact. I had another four days in which to keep them that way.
I arrived in Kiev from Moscow the following morning. I hadn’t been murdered. I hadn’t been robbed. I was pretty sure I hadn’t been raped. I now had eighty minutes before the 09:30 Kiev to Berlin train left in which to buy a ticket and get onboard. But it took me twenty of those eighty minutes to find somewhere to get myself some cash. I had plenty of rubles and Mongolian tugrik filling my pockets but no Ukrainian whatever-they-used. I took out 3000 when I finally found an ATM, prepared to pay whatever it took to get on the train to Berlin. I had a page of my notebook filled with Kiev to Berlin train numbers, dates, times and ineptly written destinations in cyrillic. If Kiev to Berlin was off the menu I’d try Warsaw. If there was no Warsaw I’d be trying Krakow. I even had bus times and directions to Kiev Central Bus Station written somewhere. I was leaving nothing to chance.
I went to the ticket office in one part of the station, they sent me to another. I went to that one, they sent me somewhere else. Window number 8 in the office across the hall they said. It was already less than an hour until the train left.
The wait for the dithering couple in front of me was interminable. “What time was it? When did it leave? What about a later train? What about the next day? How long would it take to get there?” I could have screamed the roof tiles off for them to GET A FUCKING MOVE ON! But when they’d done procrastinating I handed the woman my battle plan and waited. She typed a few things into her computer and waited even longer. “Kiev to Warsaw?” she asked. “No, no, no. Kiev to Berlin. ” She sighed and typed again. And then it’s always the same – the tension and the waiting, the thought of the desperate situation you’d be left with if you failed, before she told me the price, without fanfare or care, and I was on my way to Deutschland.
And now I could relax. Now I could sit back and start enjoying this. That was the last hurdle. From here on in it would be the leisurely jaunt back home I’d imagined. There would be no more visa problems, no more train tickets to buy. I could just enjoy Berlin when I got there and Paris after that.
They rode bikes in Berlin. Everybody. On the way to work, on the way home, tootling round town throughout the day. I hadn’t seen such novelty for so long it was like the witnessing of a fantastic new invention, a whole other way of life. Under the blue morning sky, along the wide clean streets and through the parks, people were peddling away without a thought for this luxury they indulged in. This was central, picture postcard, familiar photo Berlin for sure, but still you got a sense of a city designed to be enjoyed by its public and of a public who enjoyed it. Life seemed good in Berlin.
And oh, was there culture. Oh, was there history. If in Moscow I’d wanted to breathe it in on every corner, here I needed it straight in the arm and no messing. There were galleries, museums and theatres, art, gigs and exhibitions. There was photography and fashion and even a Kurosawa retrospective at the Berlin Film Institute. A Kurosawa film-a-day for the whole of September. Did it get any better? I’d found my heaven.
I walked from the hauptbahnhof to the Reichstag, from the Reichstag to the Brandenburg Gate, from the Brandenburg Gate down Unter den Linden to the Berliner Dom and the museums around. I was such a tourist. Blue-skied Berlin photos were filling my memory card and it was only when I reached Alexanderplatz around midday that I realized I hadn’t eaten since I’d had my last yogurt and banana on the Kiev-Berlin train that morning. I searched in vain for anything that wasn’t fast food. But eventually I had to succumb.
It was only my second ever visit to a Subway, but just like the first time, I was perturbed almost into a denial of my own hunger by the number of staff that confronted me and the options I was bombarded with. All I wanted was a sandwich. Whether the bread was granary or honey oat, whether it was covered in sesame or pumpkin seeds, whether it was toasted or not, didn’t matter if it wasn’t in my hand before I collapsed of the stress it took to order the bloody thing. But with sustenance in my belly, after a pleasant hour laying on the grass beneath the Alexanderplatz TV tower, I was back up and taking more Berlin photos until it was time catch my train to Paris. In two days time I’d be home.