My uncle on a train from Kiev to Donetsk after our excursion of the Chernobyl exclusion zone in June 2011.
Besides being an affordable and comfortable alternative to buses and planes, trains are a great way to travel in Ukraine. Routes traverse the country in all directions – and often. The landscapes passing outside the windows, too – rolling steppes, seemingly endless fields of sunflowers – aren’t bad.
What’s tricky is purchasing tickets as a non-Russian or non-Ukrainian speaker.
Hiring a translator is a possibility (www.kiev-interpreter.net, www.handy.com.ua). Most have daily fixed rates, but some will offer hourly rates, which typically run about $25 per hour. They’ll help you purchase tickets, show you around the city, and pretty much help with whatever arrangements that you might otherwise have difficulty making.
A cheaper alternative is purchasing train tickets online (www.e-kvytok.com.ua). The site requires you to register (it’s free), but after that it’s fairly easy to navigate. It also has an English language option.
When you are ready to plan that train trip, there are some other things to consider.
Three days before I was expected by a group of friends to be in Crimea, I marched into the ticket office and asked politely for round-trip tickets to Dzhankoi. The woman working behind the counter insinuated that I must be crazy. “You leave in just three days – in August – and you think there will be tickets?”
Perhaps because I was an American who didn’t know better, having only been in Ukraine for a few months then, she humored me by showing screen after screen of full trains. At about the fourth screen, a late-night train she said would certainly be booked, though it could have something available, she found an empty seat.
“You won’t want this one,” she said. “It’s very bad. A top bunk, and next to the toilet.” Desperate to meet my friends at the Black Sea, I told her it would be fine, and booked it.
Three day’s later I wished I’d taken her advice. Stuck on a cramped top bunk in 100-degree heat, mere feet away from the toilet, I thought about what could be worse and came up with nothing.
I did make it to Crimea, though it was by far the most uncomfortable train ride I’ve had here.
1. Purchase tickets well in advance. You can do this online or at any train station in Ukraine. Tickets aren’t so difficult to come by in winter, except on weekends. But come May, everything through till October books up quickly. Also, it’s widely known here that the mafia buys up tickets to destinations like Lvov, Odessa, Kiev and everywhere in Crimea to later resell on the black market at higher prices. So keep this in mind when planning your summer trips.
As I mentioned before, I once got stuck with a seat near the toilet. Throughout the night the slamming of the door and the stench of stale piss constantly awakened me. Toilets are awful everywhere, true. But the train toilets here are made of steel, which in winter makes them cold as ice and in summer hot as hell. What’s more is that instead of sitting down on them they’re meant to be squatted over, as if you were using a proper squat toilet. Except these aren’t squat toilets, but normal looking bowls.
On a trip from Kiev to Donetsk, after eating a doner kebab that didn’t agree with my stomach, I spent 12 grueling hours hovering above one of these. With the train bouncing to and fro, many people miss their mark while doing their business, resulting in a festering mess around the bowl and on the floor. This is what you smell if your seat is too near. I wish I could tell you that my aim, unlike many others, is true. But that wouldn’t be the truth.
2. When purchasing train tickets you can choose your seat, so purchase tickets away from the toilets. Lower numbered seats are toward the front of the car. I suggest seats between one and 24 to ensure a better smelling experience.
After a daylong excursion through the Chernobyl exclusion zone all I wanted to do was board my train, make my bed and pass out. Unfortunately, I’d stayed in the zone longer than expected and had to rush back to Kiev in order to make my train, sprinting all the way to the wagon. When I made it to my seat I was greeted by a family who’d arrived first and taken the liberty to spread their dinner out on the table. More than that, they’d filled the lower compartments meant for my luggage with theirs and occupied part of my seat, preventing me from making up my bed. They spent almost two hours eating and playing cards before resigning to their respective bunks. Only then was I able to catch some shut-eye.
3. Arrive early to your train. If you’re cathing a train from its originating city wagon attendants will often allow you to board 30 minutes or more in advance. This will allow you time to settle in and stow away your belongings before everyone else boards.
Only once did I board a train without anything to entertain me. I was leaving Donetsk for Kiev, a 13-hour ride, and I didn’t realize my mistake until it was too later. Luckily, I had some talkative bunkmates. An older woman and her daughter were traveling together to Kiev to see some relatives and, after hearing me speak to the conductor about a cup of tea, asked me where I was from.
“You’re not ours, are you?” the older woman asked.
“No,” I said. “American.”
“Opa!” she exclaimed. And for the three hours before lights out, as well as the three hours after waking the next morning, we spoke about life, culture, traveling and more. She even offered up a relative’s time to show me around. I politely thanked her and her daughter for their company when the train arrived. This time around, I thought, I got lucky.
4. Bring something to help pass the time. Crossword puzzles, an iPod loaded with podcasts (my favorites include Radiolab, This American Life, The Moth, Slate’s Culture Gabfest, NPR’s Fresh Air and Foreign Dispatch Podcast, Real Time with Bill Mahr and the BBC World Service Documentary Archive) or a book.
Ukraine’s trains are mostly old and dirty. On top of that, they’re poorly cleaned. On a trip to Kharkov from Artemovsk I was removing my shoes before getting in bed. After doing so, I slid them beneath my bunk, like usual. But I’d forgotten a pillow, which was situated atop an empty bunk across the aisle. Without putting my shoes back on, I walked over to fetch it. That’s when a babushka reprimanded me.
“Young man,” she said. “This floor is dirty, and you could catch disease walking around like that.”
I told her I’d be fine, that I wouldn’t do it again. She responded to that by waving her finger at me and telling me I needed some slippers. “Like these,” she said, gesturing to hers.
5. Bring slippers or flip-flops, footwear easy to slide on and off. That’s what Ukrainians do. Best to fit in. Also, hand sanitizer. Pack it.
On a train from Kiev to Konstantinovka I watched as two women unpacked a plastic sack filled with sausages, cheese, bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, varenyky and fried chicken onto the kupe table. They dined together for over an hour, washing everything down with a bottle of vodka and some juice. Staring at my Snickers bar and bottle of water, I wished I’d done the same.
6. Bring something to eat. Trains don’t offer much in the way of food. Wagon attendents do pass by, but not with much more than overpriced chips and nuts. You’re expected to bring your own.
On a train from Konstantinovka to Kiev I shared a kupe with a man who told me about his time in prison. Arrested for hooliganism, he spent nearly three years incarcerated in an eastern Ukrainian jail. Our conversation included a fascinating lesson on prison tattoos, culminating in a sort of show and tell. Before turning in we shared some bread and vodka. He even wished me goodnight.
7. Don’t be afraid to converse with fellow passengers. Some of the most fascinating conversations and lessons on Ukrainian culture I’ve had occurred while riding the rails. Plus, Ukrainians are great conversationalists.
A friend visiting from New York was on the train with me for the first time in Ukraine. We had no intention of drinking alcohol while aboard, having spent most of the previous night out doing just that. But three English-speaking Ukrainian men had other plans for us. They pulled bottles of beer from their packs to share with us, and we chatted well past lights out about cultural traditions, keeping one eye on the wagon door in case the police passed by.
8. Drinking aboard the train is great fun and an essential part of the experience. The secret is not to make it too obivous. Ukrainians often times hide vodka in flasks or juice bottles. You could also keep your beer at your side rather than on the table in plain view. Technically, it’s illegal to drink aboard the trains. But many people do it, and almost everyone tolerates it. Just don’t be an obnoxious tourist and all will be well.
In August of 2010, I had some friends over for the weekend at my apartment in Artemovsk. Over dinner and drinks, my pal Walter told me a funny story about a train he’d taken from Djankoi to Lugansk.
“It’s hot, right, because it’s summer and the trains are crammed full of people,” he said. “So I take off my pants, fold them and set them on top of my shoes next to the bed. Then I go to sleep. When I wake up in the morning, they’re gone. No idea where they ran off. I made it to Lugansk, but without any shoes and pants.”
9. Keep your bags tucked away and your valuables on your person. Having a bottom berth is best, since you can stow your luggage directly beneath you. Riding the trains in Ukraine isn’t particularly dangerous, nor is there a great risk of having your posessions stolen while you’re sleeping. But these things do happen from time to time. When it comes down to it, just use common sense.