There are few experiences that define my haphazard years living abroad more than taking a night train. 5-hour border-delays, accidentally missing my stop, waking up to discover there is someone new in my compartment, and making friends in the bar car at 2am all mark my experiences of this well-worn traveler’s adventure.
This past November my partner and I took a trip to Poland and Czechia to visit my old stomping grounds. I studied for a semester at Charles University in Prague in 2009, and in the summers of 2008-2011 I was in Piekary, a village along the Visula river 15 km outside of Kraków, working as an English teacher at summer camps for Polish high school students. In 2010 & 2011, I lived about 9 months in Kraków, teaching and writing.
While living in Kraków, I often crossed the border to visit a good friend living in Lviv, Ukraine. One of my most spontaneous night-train trips occurred with her. It was about 5pm and she texted me to say they were having a party for a friend the next day. She had to go to the border that night to meet a friend. “If you can get to the Przemyśl train station by midnight, we can walk across the border together,” she said.
20 minutes later, I was on my way to the Kraków Glowny train station. And, walk across the border at midnight we did.
Other times, I took night trains in Ukraine from Lviv to Odessa, and Kyiv, and from Kraków to Prague several times. In Spain, I traveled via night train from Valencia to Granada, and in Bolivia, from the salt flats in Uyuni to Oruro.
Often, my travel plans were made on the fly, or with just a day in advance. There was one particularly haphazard experience from Prague to Kraków where I’d bought the wrong ticket, and had to take one slow inter-city train to Bohumín, then transfer to a basic international train. I remember finding an empty compartment around 3am and using my jean jacket as a pillow as I stretched out on a bench.
So, it was an absolute joy to take a proper sleeper with my partner, Patrick, on our trip. I bought tickets in advance on Polrail – undoubtedly more expensive than would be at the station, but it was nice to be prepared. The compartment had 2 bunk beds, sturdy locks on the doors, and a working sink. They supplied a toothbrush and, delightfully, Polish slippers. In the morning, we were brought coffee and breakfast.
Typical of my past night train journeys, we bought cheese and crackers and booze for the journey. We boarded around 10pm, and had a high time rolling through dark sleepy villages in our secret little compartment. Though we didn’t sleep much, the experience was a pleasure and it made me laugh when Patrick, who has traveled extensively yet never taken a night train, asked when I had taken my first.
I wracked my brain for a moment. It would have been the summer of 2008, my first year at the English summer camps. Before the program began, another volunteer and went to Ukraine. Our train from Lviv to Odessa was leaving around midnight and we’d spent the evening drinking beer outside in the Plosha Rynok in Lviv. I remember with horror arriving at the train station to find only squat toilets, that you had to pay for. After jumping onto the train, we both passed out in a 4-person compartment, each on a top bunk. In the morning, I noticed there was additional luggage on the floor.
I peeked over my bunk to the bed below. A middle-aged Russian man peered up at me. I was so startled I quickly jerked my head back to my pillow.
“Good Morning” his voice boomed.
Thankfully, this train only had rooms for 2, and we drifted into morning undisturbed through the misty Polish countryside.
A bucket-list check-off complete, we spent the morning strolling sunny Kraków, content in the soft Polish light.