“I didn’t heat the wagon up so that you can open the window!” – what else may be surprising in the Ukrainian train?

There’s no denying that Ukrainian railways are specific, which (God forbid!) does not mean that it they are bad. It appears to be quite the opposite: the railways in Ukraine are incredibly charming and the trip is worth any price, because it is an unforgettable adventure.

I remember the first and (at the same time) the last time in my life when I tried to travel home after New Year’s Eve with Polish PKP. The train from Wroclaw to Poznan was so crowded that it was impossible to put even a finger between compressed in the corridor human bodies. When an additional wagon (yes, that is possible!) was about to be attached, travelers ran up to it and hopped in before the PKP staff had the chance to even attach it to the train. Others, when the wagon was placed on the platform, gotten in through the windows. I was one of the lucky few who managed to sit. No, I didn’t get into the compartment through the window. It was then, in the quiet compartment barricaded by the mass of people, when my travel companions and I started to share with one another gingerbread, sausages, apples, chocolate and a bottle of vodka, as well as our stories. Journeys with Ukrainian railways are quite similar! Of course, not only in such circumstances one can drink with newly met Polish people in the train, but that’s a bit different story…

Trains and railway in Ukraine
Ukrainian “Tunnel of Love” in Klevan (source: dailymail.co.uk)

Rebutting stereotypes

Before I tell you a bit about what exactly happened to us in the Ukrainian train and its surroundings, I will overthrow some unpleasant stereotypes which you can come across on the Internet while looking for useful information. To those who are not interested, I recommend skipping this part of the post. The others may feel invited to read.

  1. Ukrainian Railways is a monopolist in the market, and prices are dictated from above, plus there are no other train service providers – let’s not get crazy, there are monopolists in the railway market also in other countries, for example: in Poland.
  2. Wagons are old and shabby – in Poland, most of the wagons are not new either, but the rail companies in both countries try to systematically change that. In addition, the wagons, though old, are well-kept and clean – nothing to complain about.
  3. Tickets are usually sold out – anyone who buys a ticket at the last minute, especially during the holiday season, should expect this kind of situation. This can be solved in a different way than queuing – in a stress-free way, but more on that in a moment.
  4. The staff is very rude – no situation of this sort happened to me while being in Ukraine, no employee was rude – Ukrainians are very friendly and helpful. Everyone wants to earn, why one should discourage potential clients?
  5. The staff does not know foreign languages – you can communicate freely in Ukrainian and Russian, and this is one more language than in Polish PKP, where an English-speaking foreigner may expect to hear an employee shouting to him/her in Polish (in hope that he or she will understand if one says something in Polish but louder). One can also come into contact with the advisory commission, where some people are trying to communicate in broken/creole English and sign language to show something to the foreign customer. If you do not want to learn the local language – I advise you to choose package holidays.
Ukrainian steam train
Ukrainian Steam Train (source: flickr.com)

Useful information

Believe me, Ukraine is not as scary as some people say. If you are afraid that it will be hard to communicate at the ticket cash desk – you can buy tickets online (links below). After receiving confirmation of the purchase, one should print it and give it to the employee in a special cash desk at the station who will give you your tickets. The Guide at the entrance to the wagon will not accept a printed confirmation, only tickets are accepted. Moreover, one should also come to the station in advance as there are many travelers trying to get tickets, and the employees are not in a hurry.

Lviv has an excellent long-distance train connections with Crimea, Odessa, and east of the country. Nonetheless, one should take into account that these are extremely crowded connections. If someone planned a vacation in the holiday season, I would advise him/her to buy tickets a few months in advance, as a month before tickets are usually sold out.

One of the biggest obstacles, when buying tickets online, is that foreign banks are not adapted to the purchase system. Or maybe it is the incompatibility of the Ukrainian purchase system? It’s hard to guess who is at fault. This does not change the fact that when using the Polish mBank we were not able to buy the tickets. It is, therefore, necessary to check sooner if the payment is possible, and if not – call the helpline of the bank and resolve the issue.

What surprised me?

For example, a surprise was the paid waiting room that we discovered while waiting for the train to arrive. Although one had to pay only 2 hryvnias per person, almost no one was there. Nevertheless, because of that it was clean and tidy there. A hungry traveler could buy something warm to eat, or a warm cup of hot tea or coffee in winter.

All sorts of things can be transported in the Ukrainian train… 🙂

The train arrives at the platform fairly early. Each wagon is under the care of the so-called Guide (PL: Przewodnik) who takes care of the travelers in his wagon and controls the tickets. Ticket control in the Ukrainian train also looks different than the one in Poland: the Guide controls the tickets at the entrance to the wagon, and takes them. This may cause some confusion among travelers. Should someone confuse places, it would be difficult to prove which place is his/her, because the evidence is in the Guide’s hands. Once Ukrainian railways’ passengers got only tickets with their names, which would have solved the problem of place exchange. Now the only way to get out of the situation is by compromise or the Guide’s decision.

The Guide, in addition, has other responsibilities too: to bring sheets to couchettes (it’s probably a worldwide standard), enable / disable the radio in the wagon, to inform about timetables and stations, he/she can also bring tea, sell beer, may be able to get vodka, notifies the Militia (sitting in the first car) about a fuss-making traveler, he/she will heat up the car and the water. Yes, Ukrainian sleeping wagons and the water in there are heated by the usage of coal. That’s why, even as it is too hot inside, it is not quite appropriate to open windows – the Guide is working hard to keep the good temperature, and expects respect for his/her work.

On the train it is prohibited to drink alcohol. However, the theory is one thing and practice is another. Everyone happily drank vodka from bottles and glasses, and no one cared about the rules. People had a snack and drink prepared beforehand, but if someone has forgotten his – no worries! At each longer stop stationed babushkas – women who sell their products and agricultural goods to travelers: hot and cold, salty and sweet, as your heart desires! For a reasonable price, professionally like in a buffet. Have you ever eaten Ukrainian pancakes stuffed with potatoes? I had, for the first and, so far, the only time in my life – they were very good!

Plackarta (Source: wadi.pl)

It should be noted that long-distance trains have only sleeping wagons in three classes: lux (two-person compartment, closed), kupe (four-person compartment, closed), plackarta – and surprise here! Because plackarta is a place in the couchette wagon without any compartments. Amazing experience providing unique insight into the culture of Ukraine, with the option of active integration! Although we were reluctant to integrate with Ukrainians, it was hard to avoid. Ukrainians not only know Polish songs, but also recognize easily the Polish language. Taking the opportunity, that there are Poles in the wagon, one of the Ukrainians came to us asking for advice – he uses the portal tablica.pl and would like to buy a tractor there. Under which category should he look for it?

Railway Watchmen are not a phenomenon unique to Ukraine. When I was a child, there were many Railway Watchmen working in Poland. And while in my home country almost all of them have been replaced by machines, Ukraine is full of people occupying these positions. Do not be surprised too, that shortly after leaving the station, the train toilets are closed. Ukrainians care about the cleanliness of their tracks in the cities – just after leaving the city area the Guide opens the toilets.

Moments of surprise accompanied us during the whole trip to Crimea, which was a destination of our train from Lviv. Next week I will write for you about our first Crimean experiences! 🙂

Useful links:

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