It might have been the arid 35-degree heat, the wooden ‘beds’ that we were facing another night of sleep on, or the fact that the day’s drinking had inadvertently began at 8am earlier in the day after crawling off the aforementioned bed to find some water.
Whatever it was, my comrade and I decided that Donetsk, Ukraine’s eastern-most city nestled in the south-east of the former USSR state near the Russian border, was not a place that we’d like to spend another evening.
We were there as part of a jaunt for the EURO2012 football championships that had begun in Gdansk, Poland and traipsed through Wroclaw, Poznan, Krakow, across the Poland/Ukraine border into Lviv, Kiev and finally ended up in Donetsk. And by Donetsk I mean a ‘campsite’ that had been erected 10km out of town for the purposes of the tournament.
A quarter-final between reigning champions Spain and the talented yet wayward France was on the menu at the impressive Donbass Arena later in the evening, and another quarter-final between Italy and England would take place 24 hours later in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.
Ordinarily, making a 700km trip across a country would be arduous, but achievable in the time we had between matches. But this is Ukraine. The recently constructed high-speed trains ran just twice a day, and the second of those trains wouldn’t get in until 11.30pm, about the time that the Italy-England match would end.
Of course, we weren’t the only ones looking to make a quick getaway out of Donetsk, and the first train of the day was fully booked. 400-euro flights would have quickly sucked the fun out of such a journey, and neither of us were prepared to navigate Ukraine’s notoriously poor road system in a hire car in the state that we were in.
So that was that. Well, that was until two Canadian girls who had also been condemned to the campsite mentioned an old, USSR-style sleeper train – which to our knowledge had been taken out of circulation for the high-speed trains to operate – they were taking back to Kiev the following morning at 3am.
It seemed unlikely, and the vague details they could offer did nothing to alleviate our scepticism. But in a hazy, desperate situation it was our only option.
After watching Spain dispatch France 2-0, we arrived back at Camp Zero at around 1am. We found our Canadian friends, and the decision was made.
With padlocks we did our best at locking our tent – we’d return to see the semi-final between Spain and Portugal that was set to take place in Donetsk three days later – grabbed a change of clothes (well, I did – my comrade was in the midst of a bet I’d made with him that paid him six beers per day as long as he wore the same clothes – the full German team kit), our passports and tickets to the remaining matches, including our 480-euro tickets to the final (our padlock system wasn’t safe enough to house those) and then tried to barter a taxi to the train station.
With the the ‘Mushketovo’ train station scrawled in cyrillic on a piece of paper, we found a taxi driver that would take the four of us, and into the night we went.
30 minutes later we arrived at Mushketovo, located right in the middle of nowhere, expecting it to be deserted. Yet at 2am, the classically Soviet-designed station was a hive of activity. After negotiating through the line, tickets were purchased and an adequate supply of beer purchased, and we went to the platform to wait.
The Soviet-era train was straight out of James Bond, and after carriage upon carriage upon carriage rolled in, we made our way to what our tickets seemed to indicate was our carriage. Onto the train we climbed into pitch-black darkness, but not before what we thought was a ticket inspector had taken our tickets upon entering. And so began a search for our bed for the journey, with every carriage seemingly full.
In (very) basic Russian we enquired as to where we were located, and in response were asked where our tickets were. Eventually we found a carriage with two spare beds, so in we went. Thick Russian dialogue and the constant waft of cigarette smoke from the corridor filled the cabin, so we began to indulge in the supply of beer before trying to sleep the rest of the way. The sleep lasted no longer than an our before I was woken by a glaring, gruff-looking Ukrainian in military clothes, giving me the universally understood look that I was in his seat.
So up onto the third ‘bunk’ I went – a small bench less than half a metre from the roof. The sunburn I had acquired from falling asleep in the sun the previous day made sleeping on my back impossible, and so I was wedged sideways in the minuscule compartment, hoping that I wouldn’t tumble out and down two metres onto the floor once I drifted into sleep.
Air conditioning wasn’t something that the Soviets had deemed necessary, and after a few short hours of sleep the dry, stuffy heat had awoken us both. Save for two Georgian students, the carriage had since emptied, and so we sat down, tried to stomach the now-warm beer, and rode out the remaining six hours on the train.
All for a football match. We were idiots – would Donetsk have really been worse than this? But as the hours rolled on and the outskirts of Kiev became visible, we knew that it had been, and a call to our Swedish connection confirmed that tickets had been lined up.
As we stepped off the train into the fresh air – freedom. The Canadian girls were nowhere in sight, but in our state it was irrelevant by this point. It was time to head back to the hostel we’d stayed at earlier in the week, and leave our bags with the legendary D-Man, who took one look at us and burst out laughing.
Much to our joy, England would eventually go out in an agonising penalty shootout later. The rest of the night was spent drinking and laughing with a group of Swedish and Norweigan fans, and at 5am the following morning we found ourselves back at Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi, the central train station.
Nearly 48 hours and a handful of hours of sleep had passed since waking up to find water, and it was time to go back to Donetsk. This time, however, we’d take the fast train.
The James Squire Rogue Tales stories
James Squire (1754 – 1822) is a hero in Australian folklore, and rightly so: this ex-convict is, after-all, the father of the Australian brewing industry, having been credited with establishing Australia’s first commercial brewery in 1798. His rugged, rougue-ish legend lives on today in the image of the James Squire man, mould-breakers who push boundaries to achieve great things. In this vein, we present the James Squire ‘Rogue Tales’ stories, a series of videos featuring risk takers and the tales behind their success, as seen in this initial video teaser above.