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New Europe

Day Seventy-six: Hortobágy to the Ukrainian border

The train to Ukraine 
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The train to Ukraine has its wheels changed at Chop.
Michael Palin - New EuropeBack to Debrecen to pick up the night train to L'viv. The stock is quite elderly but they've done their best to brighten up the compartments and there are flowers absolutely everywhere. Unfortunately they're plastic flowers and when they're combined with plastic hanging baskets, as they are in the corridor, they can be quite uncomfortable to squeeze past. There are two attendants, a blonde Ukrainian lady, around forty, I estimate, and a deeply tanned Hungarian colleague who keeps appearing with his shirt half-off, revealing a well-toned bronzed chest. As there is no food or drink to be had on the train, there isn't a lot they can do, except prepare our beds for the night.

At a quarter to eleven we arrive at the last station in Hungary, a nondescript place called Záhony. A squad of Hungarian border guards, suntanned country boys, pass through, gawping in astonishment at our thirty pieces of baggage. They smile a lot and the last one shakes my hand as he leaves. I put my watch on an hour to Ukrainian time and wait, as you often do on international trains, in limbo-land. Eventually we edge creakily forward towards the border. Less than ninety years ago we wouldn't be leaving Hungary at all, just carrying on into that part of their empire called Galicia.

In the last century Hungary joined two world wars in order to preserve or regain territory and ended up on the losing side in both of them. Her population has halved, her land has been cut by two-thirds. The Hungarians know they should be bigger. They have talents in abundance: this is the country of Edward Teller the atom scientist, Rubik of the cube, Biro of the biro, Bartok, Liszt, Kodaly and Tony Curtis. Budapest has some of the most sumptuous buildings in Europe. But, in contrast, say, to the Balkans, nationalism in Hungary is no longer a big issue. They're above all that. Despite everything, they still believe they are the heart of Europe.

My musings are brought to an abrupt end as we squeak to a halt at Chop, and it's the turn of young Ukrainian guards to examine the train and its contents. Wearing camouflage fatigues, they come through with large, amiable Alsatian dogs who sniff us all most politely.

Now history intervenes once more. When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia they decided, for reasons of national security, not to adjust their railway gauge to that of the rest of Europe. This means that at half past midnight we're shunted into special sidings where the wheels of each coach are loosened and the whole thing raised a couple of metres in the air on hydraulic jacks.

We're out filming this cumbersome procedure when a bleary-looking passenger in a pair of pyjamas appears at the open door, takes one look at the 6-foot drop beneath him and disappears rapidly back the way he'd come.

Working under floodlights wheeled along beside them, the train-gang slide out the old bogies, slide in a completely new set, lower the train and tighten the new ones up. The whole process of changing every set of wheels on the Budapest-L'viv express takes a little under an hour.

At two o'clock we're on our way again, travelling north and east, close to the Slovak-Ukraine border through the valleys of Ruthenia, the old Latin name for Russia, and into Galicia, an ancient land that once stretched from southern Poland to the Carpathians. Magical names. The stuff of dreams.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Seventy-six: Hortobágy to the Ukrainian border
  • Country/sea: Hungary
  • Place: Hortobágy
  • Book page no: 182

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