Insane Train to Ukraine

In need of coffee

We had written down all the details for our train and set off early in the morning for the station in Spišská Nová Ves, Slovakia. We were going to ride the rail to Uzhhorod, just over the Ukrainian border, and then a night train into Lviv where we had arranged to meet our Ukrainian workaway host so we could all take the train to Kyiv together. We had tried to purchase tickets for our train online ahead of time, but unfortunately the Ukrainian Railways website didn’t accept foreign credit cards (little did we know this would be the first of many credit card misadventures). You could reserve tickets on a foreign card, but you had to come pick the tickets up two days prior to departure, which wasn’t possible. So we decided to prepare as best we could and go with the flow, after all, (cue famous last words) how busy could trains possibly be in the middle of the week?
Our couchsurfing host had called the station to confirm the time of departure for us, and we arrived with plenty of time to buy tickets. To our confusion, and slowly mounting horror, the ticket lady kept telling us “Nie” and waving us off. Finally someone came up to translate for us in Slovak, and informed us that the train was full. We stood there in utter disbelief, there was just no way that a Tuesday morning train to the Ukraine could be full, just no way. Still disbelieving, but increasingly panicked, we decided that maybe it was just the first leg of the train to Košice (a major transport hub) that was full, so we could try to bus and catch up to the train there. We madly dashed down the street to the bus station and managed, with much hand gesturing and mangling of city names, to figure out a bus route to Košice, and off we went. Unfortunately, our bus missed the train connection in Košice by a mere ten minutes. Back on the bus we went, all the way to Uzhhorod in an attempt to chase down this runaway train. In the end, we found out why the train had been full on a random Tuesday… It was the day before Ukrainian Christmas! That’s right, just when we thought we had finally finished with Christmas those bells were still jingling around the Russian Orthodox corner…

We had finally made it over the Ukrainian border to Uzhhorod, where we would be taking a train to Lviv (an overnight train) and then on to Kyiv. We booked two beds in a four-person sleeping compartment at the whopping price of about $10 each. I am not joking. Public transport is mind-boggling in its affordability in the Ukraine. We could have gone even cheaper if we had wanted to stay in the dorm compartment. It was lucky for us that a girl on our bus offered to translate for us in the train station! Talk about thoughtful! And we really needed it.
As I mentioned before, we couldn’t purchase our Ukrainian rail tickets online so we were going to have to buy them upon arriving in Uzhhorod. We did what we could to prepare for buying our tickets– I wrote down the details of our train (train number, price, compartment name, etc) off of the Ukrainian Railways website and I thought we were prepared. How naïve. Nothing besides the time of departure matched the website information. To top it all off, the station only accepted cash payment. No problem, go to an ATM and pull out the cash, easy right? Wrong. Not one, but all four of our bank cards would only let us take out 200 UAH (about $12) at a time. On top of which was the $7 bank fee for each transaction. Ouch. Thank goodness this patient and helpful girl was there translating it all for us. We had our tickets, thanked this wonderful woman profusely, and got ourselves settled in for the ride.

Train in Ukraine
Surprisingly comfortable sleeping compartments!

I’m almost not sure where I want to start with our adventure into the Ukraine. I want to talk about our impressions of everything, but I won’t go too much into the politics. It’s too complicated trying to decipher the legitimacy of news sources, the emotions of those on both sides of the conflict (and both sides of the border), and the relationship between history, culture, and current events. Honestly, it was heartbreaking speaking to people about the conflict and how it affected their lives. Everyone had a story, an opinion, and many are fairly open to speaking about them.

Kyiv's Freedom Square, Ukraine
Pro-Ukraine Independence Rally in Kyiv’s Freedom Square (if I understand correctly, the red and black strip is used by some nationalist groups)

We had finally made it onto our train bound for Lviv, would be able to meet with our workaway host on time, and all was good. Given the current conflict in eastern Ukraine, we were fully expecting to be confronted with the rippling effect the turmoil had created, but we were introduced even sooner than expected. We were sharing our compartment with a very nice, young woman also on her way to Kyiv. We started chatting and she happily gave us advice on things to do/see in Kyiv and Lviv while sharing some her food with us. The conversation eventually turned to her parents, currently living in Donetsk, a region within the conflict zone. She fought back tears as she told us how she was trying to convince her parents to join her in Kyiv, but it was hard because they didn’t want to leave behind everything they had. It broke my heart, her honesty and openness with complete strangers about something weighing so heavily on her.

Graffiti in Kyiv
The orange hard hat is a symbol tied into the EuroMaiden wave of demonstrations which started in 2013, the Ukrainian trident, and the Lviv lion

Other people we would meet would have every opinion you can imagine, and even within families it was complicated. Within one family you had a man who was Pro-Russian, a woman who was Pro-Ukraine, and a daughter and son-in-law who had taken part in the revolution in Kyiv in 2014.  The woman had moved outside of Kyiv and bought some animals around the time the conflict started to provide her family a degree of food security if things got really bad. Some people we met were hopeful that things would de-escalate, others were angry at how the economy was suffering, and some, like the girl we met, were worried about loved ones.

I could write way more about what we saw going on and our impressions of things in the Ukraine, but I think I’ll leave it there. I wanted to go into how amazing Kyiv and Lviv are, but that will have to wait until next time. Enjoy the cliff hanger!

2 thoughts on “Insane Train to Ukraine”

  1. I just returned from Ukraine last month…it was a wonderful trip but I completely understand your frustration in the train stations. It always ended up working out but the language barrier was an interesting challenge. I will always remember the Kyiv train station. I was lucky in that I was able to buy my three train tickets on line, but it was still an interesting experience. It seemed that when I was finally about ready to give up trying to explain what I wanted that someone always showed up at the last minute that could speak English and things would work out and people were so eager to be helpful. Most my travel was on the eighteen seat buses that became very crowded and those too were interesting experiences. My trip was Kyiv and train to Volovets and from there buses to villages in the Carpathian Mountains until going to Romania for a week before returning to Ujraine via Moldova (and that was an interesting situation that worked out well) on to Odessa (four days of great enjoyment where many could speak English) and then a flight back to Kyiv to attend the Independence Day celebration and then after a milk shake at McFoxys near the train station I was off for several days to one of my favorite places, Kamyanets-Podilsky, before returning to Kyiv and my flight home. I recommend anyone who might consider a trip to Ukraine to go for it.

    • Wow, sounds like you had a fun and thorough tour of the Ukraine! Thanks to all the locals who took pity on us poor tourists and made our journeys possible. The girl on our bus to Uzhhorod really saved us; I guess she happened to notice we were English speakers and we looked pretty nervous. She came right up to us after we got off the bus and took us right where we needed to go, from the train station to the ticket booth and all the way to our seats. There’s no way we could have made that train without her so HERE’S TO THE COMPASSION OF THE UKRAINIAN PEOPLE!


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