Write About a Train (or Metro) Ride


The following is an excerpt from Sophie Pinkham's new book Black Square,

Ever since we’d met, Kotik the golden-haired guitarist had been telling me about the Crimean cape of Meganom. Once a Soviet military base, Meganom had remained undeveloped, without houses, resorts, public beaches, or roads, unlike the rest of Crimea, which was packed with tourists. Kotik was a hippie at heart, and Meganom was his imaginative home, the dream of paradise around which he organized his existence.

In 2010, in the pounding heat of the Kiev summer, we gathered our supplies. Kotik bought a plastic bottle full of cold draft beer just before the train pulled off, and we alternated between drinking it and pressing the bottle against our skin. Everyone on the train was sweaty, smiling, and nearly naked, the compartments were crammed with beach toys and equipment, and half the passengers were children dizzy with excitement about their holiday. Through the windows, the golden summer light melted the edges of Ukraine’s extravagant summer greenery.

Just after dawn, our train crossed a thread of land into the small southern peninsula of Kherson oblast. In the morning mist, the narrow green strip of wetland looked like it could disappear at any moment, a figment of the tide’s imagination. To reach Crimea, the train crossed a bridge; the only place where Crimea is connected to Ukraine by land is at the isthmus of Perekop, at the northwestern part of the peninsula. On a map, the area between Crimea and Ukraine looks almost like lace, an intricate pattern of lakes, bays, capes, inlets, islands, and isthmuses. This is the Sivash, also known as the “Rotten Sea,” a system of shallow, salty lagoons. It is only nine feet deep and has an unpleasant sulfur smell, noticeable even from the train.

Crimea’s flat central steppes swell with kurgans, the burial mounds of the ancient Scythians, a group of Iranian nomads who were accomplished archers and one of the first peoples to master mounted warfare. The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam referred to these burial mounds in a 1916 poem:

Not believing in the miracle of resurrection,
We strolled in the cemetery.
—You know, the earth everywhere
reminds me of those hills
where Russia suddenly comes to an end
above the deaf black sea.



The Chiangmai to Bangkok fourteen-hour overnight train is now four hours from Bangkok and the window by my seat is a magnificent movie screen, open, wide (two people could jump through it). Wind blows across my face. Occasional plumes of diesel exhaust appear from the engine two cars forward. Brick kilns and cremation fires. Dogs congregate at the train stations, sometimes try to follow a passenger home, sleep in the shade, go homeless. Rice fields are either flooded and a luminous, electric green or else fallow and fire-blackened. Other colors appear: white herons, chartreuse Bougainvillea, a red field hat. Sometimes the landscape is a primeval harmony of muddy fields, songbirds in flight and temple roof spires piercing the sky. Herons perch akimbo one another. High-voltage towers loom. The train slows to a stop at the edge of the greenest imaginable rice field and the herons land, white as golf balls. There are so many species of birds you’d believe we were in a wildlife sanctuary. The perfection of traveling at slow speed with car full of open windows is almost unbearable. The wheels clatter incessantly. The engine roars. Piles of garbage appears in a bramble patch. Each passenger has a seat which at night became a bed, enclosed with curtains. It was possible to lay in bed, tilt your head slightly and stare up at the moon. People chatted in their seats but the ambient mechanics muffled their content, only adding to the solitary pleasure. A gushing hose begins to flood a new rice filed. We are now only three hours from Bangkok, when the temporary realm of our train car – number two – will disintegrate. Children in front of my seat have their head out the window. Two young men are reading video game magazines. The German girl has fallen asleep. The car rocks about like a boat on water. A herd of oxen. Cattails. Ash. If I lean toward the aisle, the wind blows across the side of my head but not into my eyes. The train car is askew with feet and elbows: a glance down the aisle reveals a half dozen bulging backpacks, a thirty-kilometer highway sign and an old woman with a walking stick. Hank Aaron was the greatest ballplayer when I was twelve. A gust of diesel smoke in a thicket of banana leaves. A farmer plants rice with an underhand toss. I sleep for a while, gaze out the window each time I wake. Ayuthaya train station and it is eleven a.m., ninety minutes from Bangkok. Heat, stronger. Humidly, greater. Sky, less blue, more cement like. Food continues to be offered from the aisle, various barbequed things, sticky rice, sliced pineapple, mangoes, incessant soft-drink offerings. The land encounters freeways then returns to greenness and trees; like a zoo of shorebirds, a hundred varieties of houses on stilts. A cow skull nailed to a fence post is what you’d expect from Nebraska. We pass Chian Rak but don’t stop there. Dogs without a dog-dish. The wind has been at my face for five hours and my hair is matted. Eyes begin to sting. The weariness of early afternoon detectable in the smoke. Thoughts of a wash cloth or ice cube. Massive concrete pillars wait for a freeway to be installed like catcher’s mitts waiting for a high pop foul. Thirty-five minutes to Bangkok. Slum transmigrations along the railroad track and one house is decorated with old CDs, playing side out, while another shack defies falling over and the great tree beside it, strewn with fresh flower offerings, brings a Chiangmai recollection: a bodhi tree planted from seeds of the one Buddha become enlightened under. Who is in a hurry to complete this marvelous trip? The overhead fans have been spinning for thirteen hours. We are at Bang Su Station. I once saw Willie Mays hit a home run. There is a wakefulness in Bangkok, as if refinement occurs in spite of the traffic and smog. I feel it every time I’ve arrived here. There is something clarifying, as if the city was on the ocean, or some other great body of water. Of course, all Bangkok has is the Chao Praya River, which couldn’t possibly create a sea breeze or effect the entire city. It is only a single river in the immensity of Bangkok. But it does do something, I’m sure of it.

Bill Scheffel



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