From Russia to Ukraine and back by train

A reason to come back

In the summer of 2017, Nicole and I visited the shopping mall underneath Maidan Square in Kiev. We were recommended a restaurant named “Ostannya Barikada”, and it was supposed to be somewhere around here. After asking around we ended up in a shop, where we had to say a password to get through a secret door. We entered a cosy Ukrainian restaurant with live music.

These kind of experiences make Ukraine an adventure. It has fun, weird and interesting places to offer, but is also more budget-friendly and less crowded with tourists then its Western neighbours. I wanted to go back to Ukraine, and therefore planned a trip in January 2019.

The challenges of travel between Russia and Ukraine

Getting from my current home in Moscow to Ukraine was a challenge though. Due to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine there were no direct flights between the two countries, making flying expensive and time-consuming. Another worry was that Ukraine declared martial law in its border regions the month before I would go there. This meant that all Russian men between 16 and 60 years old were banned from entering Ukraine. Even though I am Dutch, I wasn’t expecting a warm welcome at the border.

However, martial law ended in January. Further, I read that the train service between Russia and Ukraine was still running, and that foreigners like me use this route as well. Also the Dutch Foreign Office stated that travel in the border region I would visit was relatively safe. Only the Eastern regions were considered a war zone, but I wouldn’t go there anyway.

The train from Moscow to Lviv

On a freezing winter day I boarded the train to Lviv at Moscow’s Kievski station. I had a bunk in third class, sharing the table with a Ukrainian lady in her 40s named Tatiana. She asked me to put her big suitcase in the locker underneath the bunk (of course, no problem!) and later wanted me to help install her Ukrainian simcard on her phone (being unfamiliar with this phone I failed). There were few passengers, with less than half of the beds occupied. The train stopped an hour for the Russian border control. Officers checked passports and searched the carriage. The train then continued to the Ukrainian border control, which took an hour as well. An officer quickly checked my passport, and only asked my purpose of visiting. A Russian lady at the end of the carriage got many questions, but eventually we were all allowed to enter Ukraine. Since the heating on the train did not work, I slept with my winter coat and hat on.

Lviv

After the 20 hour train journey I arrived in Lviv. It has a beautiful old centre, and hosts more foreign visitors than other Ukrainian cities like Kiev and Odessa. On the streets I could hear English, German and Dutch. I later explored Lviv’s nightlife with Ben from the US and Dexter from the UK. As the name would suggest the “Beer Theater” had many kinds of beer, as well as live music and a nice crowd. Ben knew the password to get us into the mysterious bar “Kryivka”. Since their invitation card describes ‘’somewhere at Rynok Square’’ as an address, I wouldn’t have got here without him.

Rakhiv

A train took me to Rakhiv, a town in the Carpathian Mountains. I read that this is a good base for hiking in the summer. But at this time of year, snow prevented me from going up into the mountains. Instead I did a hike through the valleys following the river, seeing haystacks covered in snow, small churches and wooden houses. I followed a path which later turned into a road. The traffic consisted of many old trucks transporting wood, quite some Ladas and occasionally horse-drawn carts. After thirteen kilometres of walking I hitchhiked back to town, from where I took a taxi to the village of Dilove. I liked Dilove for its wooden church dating back to 1750 and its location in a beautiful valley.

There are no trains between Rakhiv and my next destination Khust, making me take a less comfortable bus. Though I paid for a ticket with a seat number, the bus to Khust was so full that people had to stand. Apparently other people got a seat number but no seat, and some heavy debates erupted between passengers before we drove off. The road followed the border with Romania, explaining the barbed wire I could see to the left.

Khust

My hostel in Khust had a nice view of the town centre and the hills in the back. Its owner is an English teacher as well. The hostel had a classroom, where she gave lessons during the day. She introduced me to her class - four kids - before I went outside to explore the town. Khust has an interesting story. It had been the capital of a republic that lasted one day, called Carpatho-Ukraine. It declared itself independent from Czechoslovakia on the 15th of March 1939, just to be invaded again by Hungary the same day. I spent two nights here, visiting the nearby town Mukachevo as well. In Mukachevo I saw the city’s old town hall and I climbed a hill to visit Palanok castle. Then I took a taxi to the countryside to visit the pretty castle of the Counts of Schonborn. I liked Khust and Mukachevo for their historic buildings. Though I saw many ugly areas as well, for example on the way to Palanok castle. Fences, billboards, litter and neglected buildings ruined what could be a pleasant walk with castle views.

A train brought me to Kiev, where I spent one night. The city looks great in summer, but foggy weather made it look grim this time. It took me thirteen hours by train to get back to Moscow, again without hassle at the border, but this time with heating.

Practical advice on traveling here

Booking train tickets between Russia and Ukraine: I booked the journey from Moscow to Lviv (train 073AA) through the English website of the Russian railways, eng.rzd.ru. Then I booked the journey from Kiev to Moscow (006KA) through the website of the Ukrainian railways, uz.gov.ua, which is available in English. In both cases I received a non-validated ticket by email that I had to print and replace with a valid ticket at a station. I did this at one of the red vending machines at Leningradsky station in Moscow and at a desk in Kiev’s central railway station.

Booking tickets for domestic Ukrainian trains: It was easy to get train tickets for domestic Ukrainian trains. They can be booked in English via uz.gov.ua, after which you will receive the tickets by email. Contrary to the tickets for international journeys, I did not had to validate these tickets.

Planning bus travel in Ukraine: I used https://bus.tickets.ua to plan bus journeys, but always bought my tickets at the bus stations.