Last night, far beyond the lurching reaches of Dnipropetrovsk’s smokestacked suburbs, somewhere in the darkest wilds of the Pontic–Caspian steppe, we stood with our heads on our forearms, resting on top of the open window panels as we hurtled towards Odessa on a 14-hour sleeper train. With cans of demoralisingly warm Staropramen we had bought from the housekeeping lady at the end of the carriage, we skipped past abandoned factory after abandoned factory, through towns, districts and regions evidently not sufficiently prosperous so as to have ‘de-Stalinised’ themselves; this was another instance of that pure, unfiltered post-Soviet backcountry that travellers like Jake, Elliot and I have scoured this continent to compile memories of for the past decade.
Having booked a first class sleeper cabin, we naturally assumed that our train would be of similar technological adequacy (and age) as our previous train from Kiev to Dnipro. However, as we touched down on platform five, our oversize luggage in tow, we were greeted by a row of grey-blue cattle cars masquerading as a cross-country train service. Climbing up the stairs into the carriage corridor felt like watching From Russia With Love in virtual reality. As steam spurted from pipes in the walls, and the smell of crumbling skin cells launched itself from the Persian carpet with every step further into the darkness, we sidled along a mahogany-flanked train carriage that must have been at least 80 years old. At our cabin, fold-up leather bunk beds greeted us, along with a window that refused to open, and subsequently a heat so stifling that we immediately knew this was going to be a rough night.
Skip forward three hours and three beers and Jake and I found ourselves with our heads protruding from the windows in the corridor, maximising our lung capacity in futile anticipation of any fresh air that might manage to penetrate the burning coal embers and iron smelting fumes surrounding the train as it sat motionless in a freight yard. Overhead rang out the deafening sound of control box operators communicating with each other and their various cargo-filled subjects via loudspeaker, and we watched as coal truck after coal truck was slowly dragged or pushed into the obsidian blankness beyond the last lamplight of the depot. Under the assumption that our train would lurch back to life once all tracks were clear, Jake then nudged me on the shoulder and pointed into the distance down the tracks. Out of the black rolled a coal truck with no engine attached. As it rumbled into the light, I stupidly asked ‘how is that thing propelling itself?’, before realising that it wasn’t. It was obviously a mistake – a carriage that had come loose and rolled away, and just about the closest thing Jake and I would ever see to a runaway train. As we watched with bleary-eyed nonchalance like a cow stares at a passing car, it then slammed into a row of stationary freight containers, waking the entirety of our train up with a thunderous impact. As everyone jolted upright and a group of worried-looking track workers suddenly jogged into the light, Jake and I burst into hysterics, further angering the burly Russian co-occupants of our carriage. Before we could even finish laughing, our train suddenly sprang to life and wobbled off, inexplicably back in the direction we had just arrived from. I decided to question no further, and promptly went to sleep.
So now it’s Odessa’s turn to undergo my mild-mannered and irrelevant scrutiny. Dnipropetrovsk had been fun, but a sort of challenging fun. A city that is in no way built for tourism, it’s grey, industrial and rough around the edges. With only one major boulevard, the centre is compact and – apart from on Sundays – mostly lifeless. However, there is an untapped beauty within it. For instance, while the city is a hollowed out former Soviet industrial stronghold, it also has sights like Monastyrsky Island, hugging the western bank of the vast Dneiper River, complete with forested parks, white sand beaches and – if you’re a fan of industrial landscapes – one of the most stunning sunset spots one could ever hope to see, underscored by the vast expanse of water surrounding the island, and punctuated by concrete bridges and shipyard cranes far, far in the haze of the distance.
Dnipropetrovsk is a city that I could never recommend to anyone I know. Nothing about it is conventional. There isn’t much to do, there isn’t much to see, but something about it left me with a sort of unspectacular love. And that’s still love, I guess, so it feels like it has to be qualified by something, but it isn’t. The emptiness, remoteness and unfamiliarity of the city are its drawing points.
I am perfectly aware that this knowingly-backhanded endorsement generously affords the average person an adequate arena within which to pick off reasons to avoid Dnipro at all costs, but that’s not really the type of person I’m selling Dnipro to. I write this because I know that simply by being in a place like this, Jake, Elliot and I are in a miniscule minority, even though I’m aware it comes across as perhaps a little overtly abstract to constantly try to put into words the perspective of someone who frequently finds himself in far-flung places purely because they exist. As a result, it’s difficult to explain much further, beyond saying the kind of fondness one has for a city like Dnipropetrovsk can only really be felt by those who have a love of travel off the beaten track – those who go somewhere simply so they can expect nothing and thus relish everything.