When it comes to travelling, as it is with many things in life, the journey is as much fun as the getting there, and that’s certainly true in Ukraine when going by train. Taking an overnight train here is a thrilling gamble that always has you asking yourself many questions before you depart such as who will you be sharing your compartment with, how brusque can the conductress get, just how much alcohol will the people in the next compartment consume, how long will you be kept awake by their inebriated singing, and, as the train rattles along the badly maintained lines, will you even arrive at your destination at all or will you instead find yourself derailed and climbing vertically out of the window in the middle of the night while clouds of phosphorous pour into the sky. It’s these unanswerable questions that add a certain joie de vivre to any trip so it is with some sense of excitement that we board the train in Kyiv early evening, with a couple of overnight bags and the requisite supermarket ‘pakyet’ stuffed full of goodies (only healthy ones of course) for the journey. We board our carriage and are shown to our compartment by a matronly woman in her mid fifties who is disappointingly pleasant. There is no one else there so far, and as there is only fifteen minutes to departure we begin to harbour hopes we’ll have the place to ourselves for the journey, something that has only happened once in all our Ukrainian train trips so far. We have booked the tickets well in advance meaning we were able to secure the two bottom bunks (a godsend for me because, after an unfortunate incident in a backpackers hostel in Canada, I have a fear of falling off the top bunk), so we close the door, pack our stuff away and change into our comfortable clothes. With only five minutes to go, I’m settled back on the couchette with a good book and a banana when the door rattles open and a couple of elderly years start forcing large bags into the compartment. With a little sigh to myself, I get up and help them with their gear, lugging the heavier bags up onto the storage shelf for them. He is short and thin with wisps of grey hair protruding from an otherwise bald head, and she is what can only be politely described as large. With a glance at Katyonok, we come to the unspoken agreement that we have no choice but to give up our lower bunks to the elderly couple as it seems the only way to get the woman up top would be to bring in a crane and a hoist. They graciously accept our offer, and while we wait for our sheets to be brought we enter into conversation with them. When they find out I am British, they enter into an animated conversation about Prince Charles and Camilla, bombarding me with questions that could only be answered by the Prince’s closest friends. Not wanting to disappoint them, I dutifully accept the role of confident to the Prince of Wales and start to tell them all sorts of made up stories about the man, his sham of a marriage to Diana, and his unfathomable yet undying love for a woman who bears more than a passing resemblance to a horse. After sharing food both they and we have brought, and conversing on the subject of British royalty for longer than we would have liked, we make up our top bunks and lie down to get some sleep. The elderly couple stretch out below us and within moments there is a high decibel rumble coming from below that has a volume and tone similar to that of a pneumatic drill. Looking down I am surprised to see it is the woman who is snoring her socks off. My dismay increases when, a moment later, he joins in. I am woken in the morning by gentle nudges from Katyonok. I look at her through bleary eyes and feel more than a mild sense of panic when I see her speaking to me but can’t hear the words. Then I remember the tissue paper I stuffed in my ears in the middle of the night and my panic subsides as I realise I haven’t gone deaf. After washing, eating and a little more discussion about Charles and Camilla, the train enters Truskyavets. On first appearances it looks like any other eastern European town with dozens of cranes rising up between Soviet housing blocks – an indicator that the building boom is going on throughout the country and not just in Kyiv. The train pulls into the station and we help our elderly friends take their bags off the train. We shake hands and I promise them I’ll pass on their regards (and their disapproval) to Charles the very next time I see him.
Mineral Water for the Stomach
It’s a beautifully clear winters day in Truskyavets with clear blue skies as far the eye can see, but it’s bloody cold so I’m thankful for the homework Kitten did on the internet, and the fact that she found us the Oreana, a reasonably priced hotel that we more or less fall into upon stepping off the train. The young receptionist is courteous and shows us to our room with minimal fuss, telling us at the same time that a Thai massage place has recently opened in the hotel and they are offering 50% off their normal prices before 7.00pm. The room is on two levels and is simply but tastefully decorated. On the lower level there is a couch and table, fridge and TV, and an ensuite bathroom. Climbing the wooden stairs takes us up to the bedroom which has a large double bed and large windows. Everything is cosy and comfortable, and it is certainly a place where one could chill for a while, but we decide not to waste time and after a quick shower we head out to explore the town. Truskyavets is split into two distinct areas pretty much straight down the middle. There is the main town – all Soviet housing blocks and concrete that we saw from the train – and there is the spa town. For obvious reasons we head to the Spa area which we find to be a delightful labyrinth of winding streets, wood buildings that have a distinctly alpine feel, markets and parks. There are, however, some ugly big Soviet sanatoriums dotted about the place which detract from the overall quaintness of the place, but serve to remind of the history of the place and the fact that Truskyavets has long been a town where people come to get well. Although, looking at these places, it is hard to imagine anyone overcoming an illness in one of them, and it seems far more likely that one would become sick just by setting foot in them. The first place we visit is the mineral water centre. It is the high mineral content of the water here that first brought Truskyavets to prominence in Tsarist times, and it was the waters’ cure-all properties that have had the weak and sickly coming here for centuries. All around the mineral water centre are little kiosks selling special little clay jugs with built in drinking spouts which are meant to be ideal for supping the waters, but on closer inspection of the wares on sale they couldn’t be drunk from without a thorough cleaning first so we decline this option, instead choosing some plastic cups. The place has three different types of mineral water, all of which should be drunk daily, and, according to the billboards in the place, have the power to cure such a wide range of ailments that it is surprising this place isn’t as famous as Lourdes. Without further ado we fill our cups with water number one, which is described as slightly oily. Now, I was once driving in convoy with a couple of other cars in the Highlands of Scotland, a sparsely populated place to say the least where petrol stations are few and far between. Needless to say, I hadn’t had the foresight to fill up my car at the last petrol station as the others had, thinking the half tank I had would get me to the next refuelling point, and ran out of petrol in a place that befits the expression ‘the middle of nowhere’ better than any other place I have been. The only course of action available to us was to siphon some petrol from one of the other cars, and after drawing lots among the occupants of my car (“It’s you lot that have run out, so it’s you lot who can sort it,” was the teambuilding response from the occupants of the other two cars) I got the short straw. Of course, we didn’t have a clear tube in which I could see at which point to stop sucking and remove my mouth, and therefore got a mouth full of gasoline that left me gagging and wretching and spitting for quite some time. This is exactly the same experience I had when trying the ‘slightly oily’ mineral water number one in Truskyavets. It was, to put it mildly, an unpleasant experience. And the other two waters weren’t much better. Still wretching, we decided to take a walk through the park for some fresh air we hope will settle our stomachs. The park is in need of some attendance, but it has some very interesting statues and sculptures, the most impressive of which is a bronze statue Kitten reliably informs me is of Mavka and Lukash, two characters from ‘Song of the Forest’ by Lesya Ukrainka. After a gentle uphill stroll we come across an area of water fountains and the taste of petrol flairs in my mouth once more bringing on the queasy feeling once again, but Kitten informs me that this water is not for drinking. It has, so she says, special cleansing powers and we should bathe our hands and faces in it. “As long as I don’t have to drink the stuff,” I say, still feeling somewhat reluctant. We wash our hands and faces in the water which we instantly realise isn’t the best of ideas on a freezing cold winter day when you have nothing to dry yourself with. After a moment Kitten’s teeth start to rattle with such ferocity I can’t help but laugh. She looks at me with more than a little hurt annoyance, but her teeth continue to chatter which only makes me worse. Eventually she has to join in, and we warm ourselves with vigorous laughter. We come out of the park at the top of the hill onto a plateau of dilapidated Soviet sanatoriums which, beyond all belief, still seem to be operating. As we walk back down towards the centre, however, these places are replaced with modern spa facilities and it becomes clear that Truskyavets is dragging itself into the 21st century with spirited energy.
Vigourous Thai Massage Does the Trick
Back down close to the mineral water centre we come across a market selling all sorts of locally made wares. It’s only small, but there is such a wide and interesting range of products for sale that it takes us some time to look around. Kitten buys one of the special clay drinking jars as a souvenir for her friend Masha, and I, for reasons I can’t fully understand even now, buy myself a Rubik’s Cube. Still feeling somewhat chilled by the icy water, we decide to head back to the hotel to get warm, and the idea of having a Thai massage comes to us both at the same time. We check our watches and find we still have enough time to take advantage of the 50% off offer, and go straight to the salon. Here we are given a run through of the massages on offer by a pleasant young lady who tells us the masseuses are Thai and the best that can be found in all of Ukraine. We take the sales pitch with a pinch of salt, and finally decide upon a foot and full body massage each. The masseuses are a man-and-wife couple and we agree that it is best if the woman massages me and the man massages Kitten. We are shown into a subtly lit room divided in two by a bamboo screen. There is incense in the air, and light music softly playing. I undress, put on the robe provided and lie down on my back on the mattress. The woman enters and gets to work – with vigour! My feet are squeezed and twisted with some force, which while mildly painful at times, is surprisingly relaxing. After my feet she slowly makes her way up the rest of the body and, after a while of worrying about the odd little giggle coming from the other side of the screen which has me wondering if Kitten is getting more for her money than I am, I drift off into a meditative state and allow my body to be beaten into a state of ultimate relaxation. Wonderful! Both Katyonok and myself are so impressed with the quality of the massage that we could now allow ourselves to be convinced that this couple are not only the best Thai masseuses in Ukraine, but anywhere. We automatically book another session for the following evening, and then head out to find ourselves somewhere to eat. A pleasant little restaurant serves us a very tasty stuffed fish dish (trout caught locally) after which we return to the hotel and go straight to bed, utterly exhausted (largely caused by a pretty much sleepless night on the train) but totally relaxed and contented. The following morning we wake to find it has snowed during the night, and the sky is low and grey. On most weekends away this sort of weather would prove a problem, but not in Truskyavets. In fact, here it makes it easier for us to follow through with our plans of getting detoxed and trying to shed an ounce or two from ever-burgeoning waistlines. After a light breakfast we leave the hotel and head to one of Truskyavets’ latest additions – Med Palace. This brand spanking new spa centre has everything the would-be health and fitness freak could possibly desire – saunas and steam rooms, a gym, swimming pool with Jacuzzis, and a wide range of modern and alternative therapies. It also offers plenty of cosmetic treatments on top for those who want to work on their beauty as well. But we’re not bothering with the beauty stuff, we are here to try and cleanse our bodies of all the toxins and extra layers of fat we’ve collected over the holidays, and the best way to start the process is to get ourselves sweating. First up comes the gym. The sensible part of me says I should break myself into an exercise regime slowly after torturing my body with such a long not to mention intense period of systematic abuse, but I’ve never listened to my sensible self and set myself to it with a passion. As Kitten eases herself in with a session on the cross machine, I get on the treadmill and batter out a few miles. We end up spending a couple of hours in there, mixing work with the weights machines (no free weights here sadly) and aerobic exercises and I have to say it is a real surprise to me that I leave the room having not suffered a cardiac arrest. On the contrary, I feel invigorated. After the gym we sweat out some more toxins in the sauna and steam room, intermittently shocking ourselves under some ice-cold showers. In the afternoon Kitten goes to try some of those hi-tech therapies on offer such as aqua massage, heat wraps and the like, while I spend some more time in the gym before going for a swim. We hook up again late in the afternoon in one of the Jacuzzis where we chill for a while.
Hard Exercise Needs Feeding
We leave feeling physically shattered, but strangely elated, and telling ourselves we are at least a couple of pounds lighter. On the way back to the hotel Kitten insists we stop in at the mineral water centre and take our daily intake of the vile stuff. I complain and whine massively, and even consider crying like a petulant child in an attempt to avoid this particular form of water torture, but once she’s set her mind to something she cannot be dissuaded and I am forced to drink petrol once again. Funnily enough, this time round it isn’t so bad, but still falls far short of being palatable. By this time I am hungry enough to eat a herd of horses, but we have another session of Thai massage ahead beforehand. This time Kitten goes for a massage with oils, but I stick to the tried and tested. There’s giggling again coming from behind the bamboo screen, but by now I’m too tired to wonder what’s going on over there. Once it’s over an army couldn’t have stopped me finding food, and after a quick discussion with the hotel receptionist on where is good to eat we dash the hundred yards round to a place called Oscars which turns out to be another hotel – an indication of how well the businesses in Truskyavets are cooperating as the town modernises. Oscars is a brand-new place named after the bronze statues given to Hollywood’s best on an annual basis, and there are two massive versions of the most coveted movie awards standing guard over the entrance. The ground floor has a restaurant and I am calling for service before my backside has hit the seat. The menu consists of a wide range of salads, various starters and soups and some fish and meat dishes for the main course. I am a good boy to begin with ordering a salad as a starter, but my hunger just becomes too much for me and I order a steak and fries for a main course. My badness has a knock on effect and as I order the steak Kitten glowers at me and her finger runs down the menu from the healthy fish option she had been going to choose to the steak section. She orders the same, and to make it worse we order beer too. But we feel like we deserve it. My salad is gone as soon as the waitress puts the plate in front of me, and it was a big salad. I then spend the next ten minutes drooling while I watch Kitten with what I hope are pleading eyes eat her salad at a more delicate pace. She expertly manages not to notice my visual begging and finishes off her starter without offering me a single lettuce leaf! I’m not happy, but the waitress saves the day by clearing the plates quickly and returning in a flash with two large and juicy steaks accompanied by two plates heaped with fries. I can tell that the steak is tender and delicious from the way my knife cuts through it, but I have to be honest, it is piled down my throat so quickly my taste buds don’t actually get a chance to find out. Again I am finished in moments and poor Kitten is subjected to more pleading stares. This time she weakens and allows me a couple of fries and a thin sliver from her steak. The meal finished, we have a short stroll before returning to our room. We shower before falling into bed where we are asleep before you can say, “every muscle in my body hurts.” The next morning, every muscle in my body has gone from hurting to stiff as a board. After a moment or two of self-chastisement, followed by a minute or two of Kitten chastisement, I try to stretch the stiffness out of my muscles, but they are having none of it, arguing against every movement with more than a hint of animosity. “I feel fine,” Kitten takes great pleasure in telling me. I restrain myself. There’s not much more to tell about our trip to Truskyavets apart from that Kitten had another few well-spent hours in Med Palace, while I tenderly tried to swim a little before resorting to the sauna and Jacuzzi. Before boarding the train back to Kyiv late in the afternoon, we had one last Thai massage. I firmly instructed the lady to treat me gently, and she firmly refused to listen, even as I screamed in pain, and still the giggling continued on the other side of the bamboo screen. To be honest, the pain the miniscule lady from Thailand inflicted on my body during that last session actually worked, and the stiffness has eased considerably as we climb aboard the train. I fall into a contented sleep that night safe in the knowledge that my body is cleansed and promising myself that from now on my body is a temple. Yeah…
Right! Kitten and the Bear