How do we travel from city to city in Ukraine? Car? Train? Bus? Plane?
European travelers often prefer the railway system, and people in Ukraine are no exception.
Our family just returned from our biannual trip to a city called Dnipro. We go to visit our “adopted” Ukrainian grandma, Babushka Lida.
Located in central/eastern Ukraine, Dnipro is about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from our home in L’viv. It takes three and a half hours to fly, including a layover in the capital, Kyiv. Driving racks up thirteen hours, as long as you don’t get a flat tire or completely lose your vehicle in a pot hole that could compete with the Grand Canyon.
Flying is expensive, and we take pity on our car. So, we travel by train. Seventeen hours by train, to be specific.
We have two route options, so we weigh the pros and cons.
Option 1: Direct Train
Pros. We board this train in L’viv and have no peresadka (train change) the entire trip. No scurrying around train stations, lugging suitcases and two small children, trying to figure out which track the next train is on, praying we don’t miss it.
The direct route offers sleeper cars. We can travel third class – a full car with no separate rooms or doors. Six bunk beds per section, with an open hallway stretching the length of the car. Or we can choose second class, with individual sleeping rooms. Each room contains two lower and two upper bunks and a door to ensure more privacy and (hopefully) quiet during the night.
The primary benefit of the sleeper car is having room to stretch out on the long trip. Lay down, sit up, stand in our compartment. Sleep through the night…if we can. Some passengers find the chug-chug sounds and the jolting movements to be a natural rocking experience, aiding in sleep. Others toss and turn all night. Those with small kids, including yours truly, tend to lie awake, because we’re sharing a two-foot-wide bunk with a four-year-old or 17-month-old.
The final pro in taking the direct train is the cost. It is the cheapest option for us to get from point A to point B.
Cons. The kids go stir crazy. I remember a time when seventeen hours on a train meant extended reading, extra sleep or binge watching a favorite TV show. Instead, we now spend seventeen hours in a VERY small space trying to entertain two small human beings who might explode with energy.
We annoy our “neighbors.” Technically, our kids don’t need tickets, so we could share a sleeping compartment with two strangers. Imagine those poor, unfortunate souls, stuck for seventeen hours in a 6 by 8-foot box with two kids under the age of five! If we spare others this agony and buy out the whole compartment, the direct train is no longer a cheaper option.
It might be dirty. I’ve traveled on some trains that were comfortable and well-kept throughout the trip. Others have made my skin crawl.
The biggest issue is the toilet. I don’t care how vigilantly the conductor cleans the bathroom. There’s only so much they can do when an entire sleeping car of people shares one toilet. Passengers hover over the bowl, trying to hit a moving target as the train jostles back and forth. Doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up an image, does it?
When I was a missionary kid living in Ukraine, my family took a long train trip. My younger sister, probably three or four at the time, refused to use the toilet. At one point, my mom was nursing the baby, and my sister HAD to go. I was elected to hold the empty peanut can under her as she squatted in our sleeping compartment and proceeded to pee all over my hand!
Now I’m the mama, and I also have to consider that my four-year-old might wait till the last minute and HAVE to go when there’s no open bathroom. On the old trains, conductors close the toilets at every stop, because waste empties right onto the tracks. Understandably, no one wants THAT in their train station.
Option 2: Fast Train
Pros. This route reduces actual train time to a mere eleven hours. A train change in Kyiv gives us about five hours of fresh air and stretching right in the middle of the trip.
That change is both a pro and con in itself, honestly. I like getting off the train, walking around freely, finding something to eat and using a toilet that doesn’t move under me. But, it also means dragging around or stowing luggage and chasing our kids all over the city for five hours.
It’s cleaner. Ukrainians consider the fast “express” trains to be the nicer way to travel. A full staff of conductors regularly sweeps floors and cleans bathrooms. The toilets are usually (though not always) cleaner, and you can even find hand soap by the sinks most of the time.
There’s a dining car, where you can buy hot coffee or tea, yogurt, oatmeal, sandwiches and snacks. This means less packing for Mama, who doesn’t have to think about what to feed her family for seventeen hours on a train.
Cons. Express trains offer only sitting cars. That means we have fewer options for stretching and getting exercise, especially for the kids. We can stand in the aisle and walk from car to car. We’re teaching the kids the art of “train surfing,” and they’re developing pro balancing skills.
We still annoy our neighbors. This seems to be unavoidable when you travel with small children. I’ve come to accept and expect this from every trip. I simply do my best to protect our fellow passengers from inadvertent kicks to their seat-backs and unwelcome stares and comments from our peanut gallery. I also get lots of practice apologizing in Ukrainian.
It’s a loooooooong day. Our first train leaves L’viv at 6 AM, and the second train pulls into Dnipro at 11 PM. We arrive exhausted and cranky and praying that our weakened immune systems don’t give in to sickness the next day.
It’s more expensive. By American standards, this trip is still very cheap. But, of the train options, it’s the more expensive way to go.
Our Choice – The Fast Train
We opt for the fast train. Sanitation and fewer hours on the train win it for our family.
What about you? Have you ever traveled by train, and if so, where? Do you have any great train stories to tell?