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Getting around in the former Soviet Union

Editor’s note: Contributing Editor RaeJean Stokes is traveling around the former U.S.S.R. this holiday season and reporting back to us with occasional missives about life on the other side of what was once the Iron Curtain.

I love the transportation in the former Soviet Union. It ranges from shiny new BMWs (about which there are also quite a few pop music songs here as well) to dilapidated old buses that shudder and gasp with every stop. In short, getting around is always an adventure.

A few times on this trip, I’ve wondered, “Why am I doing this to myself? Is this fun?” I mean, riding around in a 25-year-old Moskovych (that’s a kind of old Soviet car) that would unexpectedly die and roll to a stop whenever it pleased is definitely not safe. Never mind the fact that it reeked of gas and didn’t have seatbelts.

I also took an electric train, covering a whopping 75 kilometers from Ternopil to Ivane Puste in western Ukraine, in a “speedy” five hours. Seriously, I could have walked faster.

But, all whining aside, the transport here is mostly reliable and efficient. Overnight trains are the most common form of intercity travel, both in Ukraine and Russia. And if you book a ticket in at least second class, you’re guaranteed to travel in somewhat reasonable comfort. Each kupe, as they’re called, has four bunks, a little table, reading lights, and bedding materials available for rent. If you can sleep on things that move, it’s a nice way to arrive at your destination refreshed.

The metro in St. Petersburg is another notable form of transportation. Locals tell me it’s one of the world’s deepest, and with escalators that take four minutes to descend I believe it. I’m afraid of heights, and as a result I’ve come to loathe my daily commute to and from my language school. There’s something unsettling about not being able to see the bottom—or top—of the escalator.

Anyway, my time here in the former Soviet Union is nearly at an end. With luck I’ll be home in Denver soon, and will post some final thoughts here once I’ve unpacked.

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