My eyes slightly opened to a uniformed and somewhat agitated conductor in a white shirt speaking downward to me through the half-opened door of my train’s compartment. Through my earplugs, I heard a slavic language I didn’t understand, but I did recognize body language and a few words as he waved our tickets in the air. We were about to arrive at my destination: Chop (Чоп), Ukraine.
It was a little after 3 a.m., and as the conductor headed down the carriage to wake up other passengers, I awakened from my bottom bunk, rubbing my sleepy eyes and unwrapping myself from the sheets so I could start packing. My brother, across the cabin on the other lower bunk, asked me how I slept as he packed up his things. In less than thirty minutes we would arrive in Chop, a border town where we would leave Ukraine and cross back into the European Union.
As I pulled myself up from the bunk and out of my early morning fog, I caught a glimpse of a small note written in English and left face up on the table and tea next to my bed. The writing was too neat to be mine or my brother’s. The writing was also a bit too feminine and decorated with flowers. After seeing some misspelled words in English and the greeting, “Diar friends,” I knew exactly who it is from.
This pleasant surprise started around 20:30 the night before. My brother and I boarded our Ukrainian Railways train #601 in Ukraine’s most beautiful city, Lviv (Львів). After two days touring this jewel of a city in western Ukraine, the nearby historic town of Zhovkva and Krekhiv Monastery, it was time for us to hit the rails to Hungary. We booked the best sleeping option — a second-class “kupe” or coupe cabin — on the train bound for the city of Solotvyno on the Ukrainian border with Romania. However, we would be disembarking at another border town, Chop, across the frontier from Záhony, Hungary.
We settled our gear and set up our beds in carriage number five for a good night’s sleep before the train left the stunning Art Nouveau station in Lviv. About five minutes before our train was to leave, we wondered if we had lucked into having the cabin to ourselves. That’s when a very pretty and well-dressed young lady with long brown hair walked into our cabin speaking Ukrainian into her iPhone. She rested her bag on the floor and politely walked out of the cabin to continue her conversation in the hallway.
My brother and I looked at ourselves and I said, “well, it looks like we have a top-bunk roomie.”
We were both a little surprised because in Western Europe, the railways don’t assign random roommates of the opposite sex to the same cabin. However, we shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, this is Ukraine, and the rules and customs are different here. God only knew what she was thinking of us.
Shortly after 20:45 p.m., our train chugged out of Lviv station on the journey towards Ruthenia. The region is sometimes called “Trans-Carpathia,” a wooden and hilly land located on the southern slopes of the eastern Carpathian Mountains — the same mountains further south that are home to the Dracula legend in Romania.
I first learned about Ruthenia after reading a popular novel by Anthony Hope called the “Prisoner of Zenda.” Ruthenia inspired Hope’s fictitious central European kingdom of Ruritania, an almost Shangri-La type of kingdom, hidden in the Carpathians. Indeed, Ruthenia is a bit mysterious — a maze of a cross-border land winding through the corners of Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary.
As the views of beautiful church domes and lights of Lviv faded behind us, our new roommate entered the cabin. I said dobryy vecher — good evening in Russian — because I didn’t know the words in Ukrainian. She responded back in the same language as she had a seat. I apologized that I didn’t know Ukrainian, and introduced myself and my brother in Russian. She figured out from my accent that I was North American and she said her name was Vitaliya. It turned out Vitaliya spoke a little English and I spoke a little Russian, so my brother and I had a nice limited conversation with her during the next hour over Ukrainian chai brought in by our conductor.
As our train rumbled along through rural western Ukraine towards the Hungarian and Slovakian borders, my brother and I learned more about Ukraine from our new friend. We learned that Ukrainians are a very friendly and generous people who have a positive outlook on their future. Like our friend Vitaliya — a nurse — many of them are pursuing their education but also remain traditional and place much importance on their religious beliefs. But more than anything, through sharing photos on our phones, we learned that we are not that different. We share the same desires to travel, live freely, explore the world and learn about other cultures.
After an hour of conversation, Jeff and I decided to hit our bunks for some shut eye while Vitaliya had some reading to do for her studies. We said spokoynoy nochi — good night in Russian — and soon I was out like a light.
I probably shouldn’t have been too surprised by the nice note when I woke up. Vitaliya’s was a truly lovely young woman with a beautiful spirit. And like so many wonderful people I have met traveling, she reminds me why I continue exploring the world. It’s not necessarily about traveling to another UNESCO World Heritage site, strolling an exotic city, taking in a new panorama from a stunning national park or visiting historic landmarks. It’s about meeting new people like Vitaliya. That’s what traveling is all about.
I normally don’t share something so personal as notes from others. However, if you want to read the note from Vitaliya, it is below. I hope it inspires you to keep on traveling. And remember, she is just now learning English like some of us are just now learning other languages.