A narrow-gauge railroad in Borzhava, Zakarpattia region, is a part of a Ukrainian-Swiss film project. A mission of the documentary film is to help to revive Ukrainian narrow-gauge railroads.
75 centimetres. This is the width of this railroad. Now, there are artificial flowers, parts of a wine-press and shoes on it and a plastic cover alongside it, where clothes, crockery, well, any stuff is going to be sold…
In a while, a fancy steam train with three carriages comes, pushing this chaos aside. And now there is a market. You can buy here almost anything. This is the Zakarpattia town of Vynohradiv, a station-market, the beginning and end of a line of a small train – the Borzhava narrow-gauge railroad, known as Antsia Kushnytska.
“The arrival of a train…” is known as the first film in the world. Now, a documentary film about narrow-gauge railroads is being shot here. The train will pass through eternal counters with new and used shoes, even catching a shoe: it will fall down on a railroad. It will move carefully like it is embarrassed, leave a curtains counter behind (marketmen from Tajikistan are not liked here, they are said to have taken much space) and counters with plants and gardening stuff, it will stop by the boxes with apples and a table with flavours (their aroma makes stronger the feeling like you’re in India).
Then, the locomotive will be cut off and it will make a circle. Sellers will swiftly put their goods and folding chairs back. Some minutes later, the train will arrive at the parallel gauge and hitch on to the front of the train.
The opposite destination is the town of Khmilnyk. This station is absolutely different than that station-market: this is a picturesque station in the middle of the forest. Having passed a “carriage cemetery”, we will cover a wonderful bridge.
Yes, it will be later, and now, a customer is trying on shoes, leaning on a carriage, while women nearby are bargaining for an old mixer, a man with grey hair who is selling repairing stuff is getting at politicians: low salaries and pensions, the gas price has increased… Well, everything is like at an average market and station, and here they are combined, and we can say, quite picturesquely.
«Great! It is Sunday today, a market day, we have been here since the morning, sellers come here before the sunrise. This place over here is the centre where all these people gather, and where you can buy everything you want, actually, it seems you can get married and have burial service here, and the train arrives – there is something magical in it. It gives mouth, moves slowly, people come apart, make way…,” Oleksandr Nedbaiev, the film director, says.
«A narrow-gauge railroad… Unlike an ordinary one, this railroad is more emotional. It brings people from small villages to small villages, it helps them, in fact, to bring people to people. It is like a person, and even has a name here, Antsia, isn’t that nice? For example, an Intercity train doesn’t have any name, it is just a destination. And here, it is something intimate and inspirational. Why do we do it? Europe turns narrow-gauge railroads into tourist attractions, museums, and everybody likes them and support. We want it for our narrow-gauge railroads and, for Antsia particularly. We reckon that Ukraine has a potential for it, moreover, our narrow-gauge railroads are put in the most picturesque places: in Zakarpattia and Prykarpattia across mountains and forests, in the Rivne region and town of Haivorin, it is put across a beautiful nature as well. I know that overseas tourists go there on purpose to see these railroads. I believe more information about them should exist. So that’s why we are making this film.
“We were developing the idea of the film for three years, then we applied to a competition, the Ukrainian Cultural Fund supported us, and we started to shoot at once,” the author tells. The filmmakers hope that narrow-gauge railroads won’t stop to inspire and give wonderful stories which will happen while travelling and communicating with people.”
The Borzhava narrow-gauge train departed on December 23, 1908, for the first time. Its 123 kilometres had been built for 4 years. At the beginning of the building, local authorities gave money for that, but in a while, it became belonging to a public company, which name is translated from Hungarian as “Commercial Railway of Borzhava Valley”. The aim of such transport is to encourage more active life, communications and therefore trading in the region. It worked out: from 1910 till 1920, 4 446 000 passengers and 637 tonnes of cargo were transported via the railroad. In more than a hundred years of its existing, the Borzhava narrow-gauge railroad has belonged to Austro-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, then to the Soviet Union and finally to Ukraine. In 1926, the general length of the Borzhava railroad was about 107 kilometres, after the war, it was expanded. After 1945, it was transformed from 76 to 75 centimetres. Until the end of the 1960s, it worked on Irshava – Kamianka destination. At the beginning of the 1980s, they stopped to transport passengers on the Berehove – Kushnytsia area, however, goods trains which carried woods continued to move from Berehove to Pryborzhavske. Passenger trains stopped going through Berehove-Khmilnyk area in 1983-1984. Until the 1990s, Antsia was used by local companies, in 1994 the main destinations stopped functioning – trains were making short destinations which became a good alternative to buses for local people. Actually, it is still so, but it doesn’t have any regularity.
It is the shortest biography of this “woman with a locomotive”. The history tells about more than a hundred years of technologies and people, building a big infrastructure object, its development, daily work for the sake of the region, then the decline, but anyway there have always been living stories and emotions. Yes, Antsia is a living history. Since the 2000s, the struggle for revival narrow-gauge railroads also as a tourist entertainment has begun. The film is about this dream, and the shooting began in the Zakarpattia region, it will also take place on three more narrow-gauge railroads in Ukraine and on one in Switzerland.
The director tells about his emotions, “As for Antsia, we hope that this not very successful stage in its history is only an intermediate one, we wish it would change for better, and we are working on that. Its age inspires us. Its specific story inspires, the first steam train here was a Hungarian, I’ve seen many photos, it’s beautiful. It connected towns which hadn’t had any trade before that. There was a commercial aim as well as a social one, it made people’s lives more active. The narrow-gauge railroad is important. For example, in the town of Vyhoda, such a railroad had a prominent role for local trade. In the Polissia area, the train connects villages which have no other service. There are interesting facts: the town of Haivorin still has a working seam train which it got from Germany after the Second World War as a repatriation. Moreover, they cook fried eggs for tourists just in that boiler when it is fired up. I was told that Antsia had night and wine trains, it is brilliant, it is what should be done in the Zakarpattia: drinking wine and eating local treats on stations. What can be better?”
During our 90-minute trip from Vynohradiv to Khmilnyk station, we are speaking with Oleh Hudzeliak. He is the lead character of the film: a student-railman who dreams of creating a civic organisation which will struggle for reviving narrow-gauge railroads, he is studying these railroads and along with that lives of people who travel by it. Oleh is one of few passengers today, on Sunday. In general, there are also Monday and Thursday trains(if a locomotive isn’t broken).
Now, Oleh is speaking to Mrs Estera: the woman who came by bus from Khmelnytsky to Vynohradiv is heading to her sister to Shalanky, her native village. “I have travelled by Antsia since I was a child. The ticket costs 8 hryvnias (30 cents) while a bus ticket costs 38 hryvnias. Of course, I wish trains went every day as they used to, it is convenient for people, transport service is bad here, and everybody needs to go to the town and to a Sunday market.”
“Railroads have been my hobby since I was a child. I can’t explain the reason, I just like it, it is interesting. These railroads seem to be a routine but we should change our vision because, for a person who is here for the first time, it is something new. The aim of the project? Making narrow-gauge railroads more popular, showing that they exist, that it can be a kind of tourism, that Europe uses them as a tourist entertainment and we can do as well. And that there are people who care. And that for Ukrainian narrow-gauge railroads renovation not many resources are needed. It is real, authorities just have to do it. I study other countries’ expertise, for example, we can use Baltic railroads example, where enthusiasts managed to change laws about funding share and check-and-balances system, which don’t let corruption boost. Poland and Slovakia have an interesting experience…”
“A similar to European “roadmap” can be made in Ukraine, but of course, we should look for our own solution, our own destination. Moreover, in my opinion, our narrow-gauge railroads are more interesting, with their own peculiarities, which are more genial, in particular, Antonivka-Zarichne, which is a separate life, 106 kilometres across the wilderness, where this train is the only transport. We have a big potential. We need a push, then a discussion and work by itself. Yes, these railroads are a dream. And the whole life is a dream. And life is a moving. And this moving train is an atmospheric, emotional treasure trove, it is a life. And I dream once to show my children a nice narrow-gauge railroad which lives and makes people happy,” the film character says.
In the village of Shalanky, Oleh helps Mrs Estera with her bags, and an attendant delays the train departure because the filmmakers want to shoot the station. It’s not a problem: this gauge is only for Antsia and a request stop is OK. Two Mikhailos – a locomotive driver and his assistant (who are too humble to get out of their cabin for an interview, however, they could have made a declaration of love to their Antsia) – help passengers.
Ivan Rospopa, a conductor, has been connected with Antsia for more than twenty years. He says that the train doesn’t gain a speed of more than 25 kilometres per hour. He respects Antsia and loves old railway bridges which still exist in Zakarpattia. “We have to revive narrow-gauge railroads, by any means! For passengers, in the first place: it is hard to get to Shalanky, Chorny Potik, Oleshnyk. For tourists – it is the history and landscapes, it is beautiful! And our station-market? We are used to it! Of course, we worry, people are different, sometimes, a train is approaching and a person doesn’t hear, doesn’t see. A train happened to catch a box, but nothing more, we care about it!” – the railman says.
We leave the filmmakers on the Khmilnyk station. They will shoot here how Antsia is going back after the locomotive’s manoeuvre. They will also film a bridge and old carriages which “sleep” along gauges. Nobody will make a fuss here, and as soon as the driver stops hooting, only a forest and river will make noise, and birds will sing. The filmmakers will go further by bus because the next Antsia train is only in some hours. No, we are going to head back, to the station-market: from a wonderful picture about pretty Antsia among local nature to the chaos of the market. Fans of the narrow-gauge railroad wish it was vice-versa: from routine realia which suck down a railroad into a chaos and, possibly, into nothingness – to the revival and prosperous future. The film authors hope that the film will help to pay people’s attention to the fact that narrow-gauge railroads are one more sight of Ukraine, in particular, of the Carpathians that is worth seeing and needs a renaissance, so much the more, in tourist regions.
After a trip by the Borzhava narrow-gauge railroad and meeting an Uzhhorod children’s railway (it is there where the second Antsia locomotive was taken to because it doesn’t work every day, but the locomotive needs to be maintained and repaired constantly), the filmmakers are heading to the Ivano-Frankivsk region where they will meet a Vyhoda railway, and then to the Rivne and Kirovohrad regions. And then, they leave for Switzerland, where another film character Kristoff, a former railman, a champion of narrow-gauge railroads, will show a local expertise of a revival of such railroads which are now a popular transport and an interesting entertainment in Switzerland. The picture is to be edited in December when our Antsia will have its 110th anniversary. Her narrow gauge became a wide path with, as we hope, the future. Of course, if the last locomotive, which seems to have been not just cleaned but also painted before the shooting, doesn’t break…
Text by Alla Khayatova
Photo by Serhii Hudak