Train travel seems more
adventurous than plane even when taking easy
journeys like London to Paris or Brussels.
Plus you get the nice feeling that you're
not polluting the atmosphere quite as much.
Recently, John Littler headed off to the
Crimea in the Ukraine and here is his story...
Researching how to get to the
Crimea took a little time. At first I was
going to go by train from London to Dover,
catch a ferry across the channel, and another
train down the coast before picking up yet
another train to Paris, and then Berlin, before catching a final one there to the final
destination. If that sounds complicated, it is! And sorting tickets beforehand proved
impossible as unfriendly web interfaces made
advance purchase impossible.
I did check plane fares in case there was
something ridiculously cheap on offer but
there wasn't and so a train adventure beckoned. Seat61.com was a good starting point and I found
trains going from Berlin to Kiev, Odessa, and
Simferopol. The information there is not quite accurate
though, particularly regarding facilities. More on this
later. One really good things is that I could book with
Deutsche Bahn all the way from London, Waterloo to Simferopol where I was going to see a
The way it went was Eurostar
from Waterloo to Brussels, an hour wait before
boarding the overnight Nachtzug to Berlin which
arrived at 7AM at Zoo station, and then a Berlin break of a few days before catching another
train onwards. Eurostar was cramped until I moved
seats but it is nice and fast and I could get
a foul-tasting pasta and "mushroom" concoction
at the cafe. This was to be my last taste of
overpriced, disgusting English factory food
for a while. Thank goodness for that. The
changeover in Brussels would have been
painless had I read the ticket properly and
seen that I had an hour and not five minutes
to change trains. At 11PM there wasn't much
to see - a clean station, no drunks or beggars,
and a few people waiting for the nachtzug.
The night train is fairly
basic: a conductress welcomed us on board
and showed us to our bunks and said she
would wake us in the morning. I had booked
a six berth cabin but, luckily for me,
the only other person was an American from
Orlando making his way to Prague. We had a
chat and then slept. The gentle rocking and
clackety-clack sounds soon overcame my
excitement and had me asleep in no time. The
last time I'd slept on a train was when I was
The next morning was clear and
cold. I was a little anxious about arriving
in a strange city at that time but people
were friendly and helpful and after a
delicious roll with sausage and pickle and
a cup of coffee for breakfast, I was away
to my lodging. Delicious? At a train station?
Yes. I think I'm going to like Berlin. And
that's the way the stay went - lots of nice
food and beer and lots of pleasant and
friendly people. I even finally caught Marie
Antoinette at the English language cinema
in the Sony Centre at Potzdamer Platz. It
was fun visually but was very trivial. I can
understand why the French critics booed it.
After a five day stay I made
my way out East to Lichtenberg station to
catch my train to the Ukraine. I had a light
snack on the way, thinking I'd get another
snack on the nice Deutsche bahn train I was
about to catch. Heh heh.
First of all, Lichtenberg is
not the nicest of Berlin's stations. After
the new and spectacular Hauptbanhof, it's a slum. I got off
the train, went down some stairs, and found
absolutely no signs or indications of
where trains might be going. Hmmmm. I went
back up and went the other way. There were
trains listed but not to Simferopol. Time
was getting short. I boarded a train to ask
if they knew. They didn't and there was no
station staff at all. Argghh! In theory my
train was due to leave in three minutes but
there was no sign of any train at all. Wrong
day? Wrong time? Wrong place?? To cut a
long story short the correct train was billed
as the Kiev train (was I going to Kiev? I
didn't have a clue where the train went!) and
Simferopol was some fourteen hours further
along the line - the end of the line, in
fact. And this train was running an hour late.
Yes, you guessed, what was
coming along was most certainly not a
Deutsche bahn, train. We'll take up the story
from my expurgated log ...
And there I was waiting at Lichtenberg
station in Berlin for my nice comfy
Deutsche Bahn train. Some fifty minutes
after it was due, a great blue ugly
thing arrived belching clouds of black
smoke. Some slightly drunk girls on the
platform engaged in a fit of ostentatious
coughing. I joined in for fun. An immediate
scrum formed around
the door as everyone tried to get on
at once and a uniformed she-wolf
with a hammer and sycle (sp?) on her lapel
bellowed in Russian in a semi-random fashion
at anyone who didn't look meek enough. There
was a strong smell of alcohol-breath coming
from somewhere. A little later, however, the
she-wolf kindly moved me from an impossible
compartment to one with a beautiful woman
in it. We were moved again about an hour later to
separate compartments but it was a nice start.
The train has certain retro charms inside.
This could hardly fail to be as it was
built in the 1960s and nothing has
been changed - formica fake wood walls,
turkish patterned carpets and fittings
a giant could swing on. This train has been
on the road for a while and the toilets
are not nice.
There is one major problem however (aside
from the fact that no-one speaks English or
French). The problem is that there is no
food other than peanuts and funny sweet wafer
bars of who-knows-what. No restaurant
car - at all. Very interesting.
We're now in the wilds of Poland. Under a grey
sky there are scattered, not very charming,
two story houses on plots of an acre or so.
A solitary man rides a horse down a lane.
A Polish kid just gave me two sausages and
two buns. I have one of each and save one
for the uncertain later. Shortly after, we
reach the Ukraine border. Passports are
inspected with great care but there's no
fuss. A German man told me the people at
the airports are quite nasty and routinely
confiscate things they would like. If they
want to join the EU they need to clean up
their act a bit. My first thought was why the
hell would anyone want to smuggle themselves
in here but they're not very keen on the likes
of Moldovans. I'll have to look at a map soon.
East of Berlin I fall off my mental map and
my imagination is like those ancient maps
where various beasts and monsters roam beyond
the borders of the known world.
Well, actually the last lot of immigration
people must have been Polish. We just had
another lot who were not nice at all but
restricted themselves to being generally
churlish but didn't practise any search and
Right now the train carriages are being lifted
to put on new wider guage wheels for the
Ukraine. We should be in Kiev in an hour or
so. The countryside is more wooded around here
with some quite pretty spots... and it seems
Kiev is actually hours away.
I have a small bottle of German mineral water
which I'm treating like liquid gold and taking
occasional sips from.
I just had a delegation from the Polish kids
who presented me with a bar of chocolate for
being the nicest Westerner they have known.
I suspect I'm also the only Westerner they
have known but we'll skip over that. In any
case, they look like being my saviours so
the sentiments are returned.
At every stop there are people selling odd bits
of fruit and vegetables. I buy a big bag of
apples and give them to the Polish kids. The
bag costs about .3 of a euro.
My pleasant thought of Wednesday evening is
that tomorrow night I will be with the
Ukranian family and will hopefully be
eating a sumptious repast. 19 1/2 hours down
and about 22 to go, but who's counting?
We get into Kiev late and have a one hour
stop. A very pretty young woman on her way to
Simferopol is getting an English-speaking
friend in Kiev to come to the station and
help me get some food. She has long light
brown hair with curls and big greenish-blue
eyes that regard the world with smiling
curiosity. She speaks a little
English but we converse in a sort of
Germanglish with lots of giggles, headshakings,
and consultations of the German/English
phrasebook I have. German is definitely the
second language in these parts.
We only went around the terminal in Kiev. We
found an eating place and I had a Ukrainian
salad that they have on festive occasions -
chunks of ham and vegetables. The others had
a ravioli-like dish which was nice as well.
Pints of very nice Ukranian beer washed it
down. My share for beer and small meal was
less than 1 euro (that was a pint don't forget!)
I also bought some bread and cheese for
The land south of Kiev is gently rolling with
scattered trees and very scattered small villages which look
like they're from another century - small
cottages with nice roofs and all with a well
worn look. Some have well-tended gardens while
others are more like utilitarian yards where
some vegetables might grow and some small
animals might roam. Then there are lakes
with woods softened by a low-lying fog.
At ten in the morning the Polish kids bring
me a piece of sausage and bread, then half
a big tomato which actually tastes like a
tomato instead of the supermarket junk we
mostly put up with in the UK. And then a
mug of sugared black tea. They get off before
me and, if I'm not careful, I'll shed a tear
when they go.
All of this is very good for a moderately
finicky eater like me - strange food at strange
hours is no problem at the moment!
Surprise, surprise, wi-fi links here are quite
scarce. On the nachzug between Brussels and
Berlin there was a long list of available
connections that changed constantly as we
travelled through the night. Yes, I sat and
watched them for a while. On this part of the
trip I only see one just out of Kiev.
Right now there are about four hours to go -
a snip! There are holiday dachas all over the
place, mostly quite small. It is sub-tropical
here and many people come from the north to
warm their toes and drink vast quantities of
wodka... actually, later on I find that the
subtropical part is just a narrow strip
between the mountains and sea on the East
coast where Yalta is.
Would I recommend the trip to anyone else?
It's all a bit like camping. If you enjoy
roughing it a bit and you're a bit lucky
with the company you have in your carriage
(the KGB or similar seem to jump on you if
you walk about - there's nothing to see
anyway) then it really will be fun and very
rewarding as well. I slept like a baby on the
second night and very well on the first once
I was allowed to get to sleep. Quite a few
people in my carriage didn't sleep well either
night so I guess that a love for sleeping on
trains (in a bed!) is not universal.
I only know two local customs. One is that
shaking hands over a threshold or through a
doorway is bad juju as is also giving an even
number of flowers.
And now some snippets from being there...
The bus is small and ancient and a fare to town
is about 10p. People sit down, say something
like "vodya" and pass their money to other
passengers who pass it on to the driver. Any
change returns by the same method.
Today we visited the main hotel from Soviet
times. It had a genuine 70's interior that
was pretty much untouched. The staff were
almost comically rude and unhelpful and the
prices, while good by London standards, were
not good by the standards of anywhere else.
It was called the Mockba (Moscow). The nicest
hotel is the Ukraine and a single can be
had there for UK26 a night. The place is
immaculate and the staff can speak enough
English to deal with day to day questions.
Decor is the tsar meets second empire.
Off the main streets there is absolutely no
street lighting here. None at all. Deep
black. When you walk around in the daytime
you notice deep puddles and manhole and drain
outlets with no covers at all... a swift ten
foot drop into a big hole or maybe some
The food prices and quality are very easy to
take. Nika and I shared a big pizza for lunch
and had a cup of tea each. The cost was about
UK2. The pizzas here are the best I've ever
had. All the ingredients are fresh as fresh
can be and you can micro-choose what ingredients
... There are a lot of pretty women here. The ones I've met
are open and honest and friendly, and their
attitudes hark back to more innocent and
simple times. If they're interested in you
they tend to let you know.
They are quite lovable!
A short guide to the Russian language:
da=yes nyet=no spasiba=thank you
*wide-eyed look* kakoi budit - what goes?
*contemptuous sneer* kakoi budit - whatever
*resigned look* kakoi budit - what will be etc
Bonus words: ya vas lublu - I love you
Some random prices: a medium-sized (pint?)
bottle of unpronouncable beer - 25p UK;
Viceroy ultra mild cigs 12p per pack of 20.
A 50 gm pack of rolly tobacco - 35p.
Not all prices are as good as this though.
I looked at phones and iPods and they
looked more like London prices. Quality
shoes are a little bit cheaper. There's a fix
on airfares out of Simferopol as well. You
can only fly to Kiev for the first leg and
all the fares are a ripoff. I'll be taking the train
back, and I'll be doing some food shopping
before I do! Spectacle frames are amazingly
cheap: about UK20 buys quality frames. They
can be had for a tenner or less. Styles
aren't as bad as you might think.
Another lunch: bowl of vegetable and ham broth
(delicious!), bowl of beetroot salad, small
Russian pizza with cheese and mushrooms on
top, cup of tea with lemon. Total cost UK1.50
Short history lesson: When Poland moved to
feudalism many would-be serfs fled across
the steppes into the Ukraine. This is where
the Cossacks roamed and fought.
When I first got here I got a local SIM card
for pay as you go for about UK3. It's lasted
a week so far and there's a bit of time left.
SMS messages seem to cost UK 3p each under
Yesterday was busy. The first item of
the day was the minor job of buying my
return rail ticket. Minor?! I think not!
Soviet style service is still very
much in evidence. This consists of a
surly attitude combined with a glacial
slowness of activity. Buying a ticket
took two hours and involved having to go off
for a coffee break in the middle! In the event
it was hilarious but it could easily be
something less than that.
Yalta is one and a half hours by mini-bus from
Simferopol and the fumes and lurching around
the bumpy mountain curves make me feel
queasy. Once we get there we have to catch
several more buses to the palace. The place
couldn't be more unfriendly to tourists if
it tried - no maps, not even signs in Cyryllic
of directions to anywhere. It is a lovely
spot though, nestled in a calm little bay
with snow-capped hills rising behind. It is
warm and sunny!
Last night I had a feast at Groma's - borcht
and salads, fish, chicken and potatoes, apple
cake, beer, cognac, ice cream! Groma is an
alternative musician whose three piece band
has a slightly industrial flavour. He has a
cute blonde wife and a two year old son. They
live in a tiny one room apartment in a soviet
era block. They are wonderful! After dinner
he sang some of his songs, Gala sang some
of hers, and I made one up and played a couple
of recordings of mine. Gala is connected with
the university and she invited me. At the
end the hostess formally decared 'You are
welcome in our house any time'. I think that's
the nicest thing that's happened to me here.
On Sunday on my way into town I go into the
main Orthodox church. The scene looks as if
time had stood still - frescoed walls and
drifting incense, headscarved women and
men in their Sunday finery. They are all
standing or wandering about amongst the crowd.
A recorded choir sings but the speakers
aren't good enough to reproduce the low bass
that these choirs are famous for. There is
a service going on and there is a queue
that leads to three priests at the altar. I
don't know what they're doing there.
On Monday morning I found myself paddling in
the clear calm water at the beach in
Alushta. A t-shirt, jeans, and bare feet
was the rig and the sun beat down on us as we
reclined on the small stones.
Then, at lunch time, a cold fog rolled in
and it felt more like the end of November.
A pretty swish hotel had just been renovated.
It was built in the late tsarist days as a
hotel, was then a hospital, and then a gym.
Now it's called the Crimean Riviera Hotel and
has quite pricey, by local standards, rooms
that are spacious and light. Rates vary between
150 US to 480 a night.
Security update: I've now had extensive wanders
at night in the center of town and out towards
the university. No-one has tried to pick my
pocket or even looked menacing. In the centre
groups of youths gather and drink outdoors
in the evening but I didn't see any trouble.
It could be that they all beat each other
senseless in the early hours but I suspect not.
It would be foolhardy to wander alone at night
in some districts but that's true of just
about anywhere. And where might those districts
be here? I don't know.
... The allure of the place is not just to
do with the pretty women or the prices.
It does have
to do with those things but the people, with
at first their mystery, then their openness,
and then more mystery, gave me great joy.
In a land of muted consumerism and limited
entertainments, the focus goes back on
people and friends. I liked the food as well.
I have put on some weight mostly due to the
substantial breakfasts which might include salad,
fish, rice, bread and cheese!
And then there's the scenery - ancient
monastery cut into the side of a cliff -
rolling plains and trees and lakes - palaces
of the Khans and the Tsars - houses and
apartments that look exotic through their
difference. In Yalta or Alutcha the next
stop across the water is Turkey.
... and on the way back ...
The train is cosy at night and when we stop
at isolated stations the people, gathered in
pools of light from the old lamps, look
like a scene from an old film. As in the
church, there is something timeless in the
picture and this is heightened by the old
train itself, the station architecture, and
the indistinctness in the dim light of the
Outside now there is thin high cloud in the
night sky. The moon and a large collection
of stars light a plain with scattered groups
of trees which appear to be lightly frosted.
On the way out, the towns and stations, and
the hawkers and strange-looking people had
an air of slight menace about them. They
don't now. I had been guidebook polluted!
Perspecive is always a bit useful and some of
the guidebooks lay it on a bit thick. Or perhaps
they were written in the bad old days. Yes,
you do need to keep an eye out, or so
people have told me.
A few notes: take food on the train! Even
if they say there will be a restaurant car
take food anyway. The journey between
carriages can be dangerous, with missing
floor plates and the like. Sometimes
doors are also accidentally left locked!
Remember that when you go out with locals
that their salaries are very small. There
are always good excuses to treat people
who're spending time on you so, do so
if you're able. Ukranians can be quiet
and taciturn. For example they quite often
don't talk at all on public transport and I
heard of someone getting told off for talking too much. Credit Cards, according to
some guidebooks, are widely accepted. In truth
they're widely accepted in the top two hotels
in town as well as bank ATM's. Not even
supermarkets take them. ATM's have an
English language option. Language
problems might arise if you don't speak
Russan or Ukranian and don't have a friend
here! English is not widely spoken. It is
easier to find German speakers.
Summary:ticket cost London to Simferopol UK 180. That included
Eurostar to Brussels, a six berth cabin berth on the Nachtzug to Berlin and a three
berth cabin space to Simferopol. Tickets purchased through Deutsche Bahn who were
painless to deal with.