Travel: Ukraine by Train

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. 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 friend.

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 about seven.

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 present.. 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.

*time passes*

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 seizure.

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 tomorrow.

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 freezing water.

... 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 you want.

... 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
parjalista=please kakoi=what
budit=will happen
*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 p-a-y-g.

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 think 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 people themselves.

... 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.

Huge thanks to the Polish kids! and Lena, Denis, Nika, Anton, Gala, the students in Gala's comp sci seminar for coffee and cake, Groma and Anna, Nadia, Maria and many others.

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