Bridge Building

On the overnight train from Kiev to Sevastopol, I'm minding my own business on my narrow upper bunk -- headphones on, book covering my face. I feel a tap on my shoulder, and look over to find a Cold War nightmare staring back at me.
He's not a Rocky IV-style vision of Soviet perfection. Rather, this is the sonofabitch ordered to hunt down Ivan Drago after he loses to the Italian Stallion. I imagine this beast tracking the disgraced Russian boxer across Siberia, knife between his teeth. In a small sack, he carries just one sausage, two loaves of brown bread and a gallon of vodka.
A tiny wisp of blond stands at his side. I remove my headphones, and the kid asks in faltering English, "My father…like to know…if you…join us?"
One minute, you're a lonely American traveling across the Ukraine for no good reason. The next, you're crammed into a tiny train compartment drinking wine with four Red Dawn extras and theirwives -- none of whom speak English.
The Ukraine opened its borders after the fall of the Soviet Union, but unlike their westerly neighbors in Poland, Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia, Ukrainians aren't overrun by tourists. Which makes this country a great destination for a taste of what remains of the real Eastern Europe.
Second-class is the best way to travel here. Known as kupe, a second-class train ticket means an assigned bed in a snug, four-person compartment. (First-class sleeps two-per-room, but in half the space; third-class is a bunk in an open car.) The trains are shabby but not dirty, aged but not decrepit. The toilets work, there's even hot water for tea. Even with the $3 surcharge for sheets, my ticket was less than $25.
The intimidating fellow standing at my bunk is named Evgenii, or Eugene. The kid is Anton, his 10-year-old son who already speaks four languages. On their invitation, I step into the next compartment where Evgenii's friends have prepared a banquet on the tiny pull-down table. It's piled high with roast chicken, potatoes and -- surprise, surprise -- dumplings. The men are wearing track pants straight out of Brighton Beach; their wives, loose-fitting pajamas.
No sooner had I crammed myself into an open seat than I was handed a tin cup. Ukrainians love their sweet red wine, which like beer is treated as a soft drink. Little Anton does an admirable job of translating, and within 30 minutes we're all buddies.
Like me, this group of nine is bound for the Crimean peninsula, or Krym, which hangs from the mainland into the Black Sea. From Sevastopol, I'll head east to the resort town of Yalta, where moneyed Russians still maintain their dachas. From there, it's just 10 miles to Hurzuf, a tiny hillside village perched over a perfect moon-shaped cove.
Evgenii and his crew are more ambitious. They're getting off early at Simferopol for a two-week hike through the mountains. It's a 10-year-old tradition for these four friends who met in the Army years ago, back when Evgenii and Sergei -- sitting to my right and occasionally hugging me -- were also Olympic boxing hopefuls.
This explains Eugenia's zucchini nose, a jangled blob of flesh that's been squished down to the right. As it turns out, Evgenii and Sergei once trained with Vitali and Vladimir Klitschko, the world-famous heavyweight-champion brothers who run second only to Mila Jovovich for Ukrainian pride of place.
The night runs well past midnight, and eventually it's just me, Evgenii and Sergei. The wives have retired to their compartment, and Anton the translator is ready to collapse. We rummage through the supplies, looking for another liter, but come up empty-handed. Just as well -- it's time to sleep.
We pull into Simferopol at dawn, and Evgenii's crew is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. He and Anton are once again at my bedside. This time, he invites me on their hike.
For a minute, I consider it. I have hiking shoes and my own sleeping bag -- but could I survive two weeks in the mountains with these well-natured maniacs?
I thank him for the offer, but decline. I'm looking forward to sitting on Yalta's topless beaches and drinking wine all day, I tell him. And anyway, think of poor Anton. The poor kid needs a break.