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Feature: Ruussaar in Eastern Ukraine, Part 2 | On the train

Ukrainian sleeping car.
Ukrainian sleeping car. Source: Ukrzaliznytsia

ERR's Ainar Ruussaar traveled to Eastern Ukraine in February as part of a training program for local journalists. This is the second of his four-part report on his trip, in which he talks about his journey from Tallinn to Mariupol. ERR News is publishing Ruussaar's account of the situation in the area over the next few weekends.

Six hours on planes and in taxis and then 18 hours on the train make for a more than busy day. Depending on your planning, that's the time you need to get from Tallinn to Mariupol. After the planes and taxis, the train feels like an oasis. You can stretch in your bunk bed, you can think, read, sleep.

I like traveling by train. I've done so in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Serbia, and Montenegro. In our subconscious, the train seems to take us back to a time we don't remember, just after we were born, rocking us back and forth. Trains have a special smell. And looking out of the window you see places you'll never go.

But the most important thing is the people. On the train, you meet people you'll never meet again in your lifetime, you almost become brothers, you have frank conversations and leave waving goodbye. Such is the ideal image of a long-distance train trip.

In today's Ukraine, things aren't completely different, but full of contrasts. The trains here are nothing like Estonia's, where the seats are comfortable considering the distance you're about to travel and where you stretch out with your laptop to enjoy the still pretty good Internet you get there. In Ukraine you have 61 trains operating on a network of officially some 22,000 kilometers (13,670 miles).

State railway company Ukrzaliznytsia connects the different parts of the country at more or less affordable ticket prices, depending on the class you choose. On this trip, made possible by the Estonian Center of Eastern Partnership, I get on sleeping car no. 12 and spend the next 18 hours on the way to Mariupol in my two-bunk compartment.

Unfortunately just which train you end up on is a bit of a lottery, and my lottery ticket from Kiev to Mariupol comes with a few surprises. When I ask for the dining car, the conductor gives me a look like I've just fallen out of the sky. And while my compartment is clean and I get clean sheets, a towel, and even white slippers neatly packed into a plastic bag, the rest of the train, originally probably out of the 1980s, has been painted blue layer over layer over layer without anyone ever bothering to scrape off any old paint. The window is so dirty I can't see outside.

I ask the conductor if there is something like buffet, where for a few hryvnia I might get some potato chips and a coke. He shakes his head. Mineral water? He shakes his head again. In the washroom of the sleeping car I find a big warning sign dangling from the water tap: water undrinkable. The only thing the conductor can offer is tea and a rather revolting attempt at instant coffee.

Naturally there is no Internet, and phone network coverage is sporadic at best. Which means that trying to get a connection is far more tedious than not trying at all. Patchy memories of train journeys in Nagorno-Karabakh and Uzbekistan in the early 1990s pass through my mind. Although there were no two-bunk compartments then, not even undrinkable water available in the washroom, and the dining cars offered terribly translated bad American action films rather than food.

Warning signs everywhere on the train. Author: Ainar Ruussaar

I drift off into my first train dream. I'm sitting in a well-suspended dining car, a waiter with a white apron serves me superb Ukrainian borsch and chicken Kiev, along with a bottle of cold sparkling mineral water. A sudden jolt wakes me up, I jump out of my bunk and get off the train, images of people pushing each other out of the way as they're selling pirogi to the passengers.

No such luck. It's cold, and a stiff wind is blowing. There is absolutely nothing here, and the same goes for the next stop, and the one after that.

After we get to Mariupol, I buy three greasy meat pirogi and a bottle of mineral water. Funny enough, on my way back later on I think I've learned my lesson and that I know now how to prepare for a trip in that blue train someone painted layer over layer over layer, and so I equip myself with snacks.

Turns out everything is different this time. The train isn't old and blue, but new and light-grey, the windows are clean, there's a TV in my compartment, and the conductor brings me sparkling water along with the instant coffee. At a longer stop, the car is suddenly buzzing with ladies selling pirogi stuffed with meat, rice, sausages, or cabbage. On top of that, my bunkmate is Mykola, a local businessman who turns out to be a smart, pleasant, and open-minded fellow.

As I learn later on, both tickets cost exactly the same. Such is life: sometimes you're lucky, sometimes you're not.

Ukraine has more than 22,000 kilometers of railways. Author: Ukrzaliznytsia


Ainar Ruussaar (*1966) is an Estonian journalist and until 2017 was a member of the management of Estonian Public Broadcasting. Ruussaar's career spans three decades and began a few years before Estonia regained its independence in 1991, still under Soviet occupation. He is one of Estonia's longest-serving and most recognized news journalists.

Ruussaar traveled to East Ukraine in February 2018 as part of a training program for local journalists, run by SA Eesti Idapartnerluse Keskus and financed by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign affairs in cooperation with the United States and Flanders.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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