Donbas, Ukraine: A Trip to the Frontline

As I’m typing this, I’m on my way back home after a joint leisure and work trip to Ukraine, travelling as far east as Mariupol in the Donbas just a couple of miles away from the frontline with Russia.

Eastern Ukraine

You may have already noticed from the absence of any recent posts on this website, but the last couple of days I’ve been extensively travelling across Romania and Ukraine having little time to publish new travel articles.

Those who follow me on Twitter will without doubt have seen a lot of short updates about this journey, and for sure I will publish much more about this trip to the Donbas in due time on this website as well.

From all perspectives, it was an amazingly exciting and interesting trip, in which I covered a whopping 5,200 kilometres (3,230 miles) by train. That’s roughly the distance from London to Lagos in Nigeria!

Russian tensions

It doesn’t need much explanation that the entire trip was dominated by the ongoing tensions between Ukraine and Russia.

Although the threat of Russian military action is highly serious and real, the situation on the ground in Mariupol was actually quite normal, peaceful and dare I say it – even pleasant!

Despite being located in a dangerous corner, the people in Mariupol try their best to go on with life as normal as possible.

Located in Donetsk Oblast, Mariupol has been on the forefront of the ongoing conflict between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatist forces before.

In 2014, Mariupol was shelled by artillery and clashes between Ukrainian soldiers and separatists were fought out on the city streets.

The current frontline (line of contact) between Ukrainian soldiers and the pro-Russian separatists, which hasn’t changed much at all over the last years, is located some 20 kilometres east of Mariupol near the town of Shyrokyne.

mariupol donetsk donbas map
Mariupol is located within Donetsk Oblast in the far east of Ukraine. ©Maphub/Paliparan

Life in Mariupol

Of course there are worries among Mariupol’s citizens about the current Russian military build-up and threats, but for almost a full decade a low-intensity war has already been raging at their doorsteps.

To many people in Mariupol, daily life is already challenging enough trying to make ends meet in this somewhat dilapidated but still somehow beautiful industrial city.

Although Mariupol is predominantly Russian-speaking, it has “Ukrainised” quite a bit over the last years since the start of all conflict as national institutions grew stronger and more efficient and people got sick of all the unnecessary conflict.

That doesn’t mean that Mariupol’s citizens are necessarily happy with the current Ukrainian government. For example, far-reaching language laws which basically turned Russian into a second-rate language and discriminated against Russian-language local media, are widely unpopular.

However, even ethnic Russian people are sick of the conflict. It certainly seemed that most of them would prefer to live in an imperfect but democratic Ukraine rather than seeing a Russian invasion with all the bloodshed and uncertainty it would bring.

koen mariupol
Yours truly on the beach in Mariupol. ©Paliparan
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The Azovstal steel and ironworks in Mariupol are the largest in Ukraine and together with the port on the Sea of Azov it forms the backbone of the city’s economy. ©Paliparan
central market hall mariupol
The central market hall of Mariupol. ©Paliparan
mariupol philarmonic hall
Mariupol Philharmonic Hall. ©Paliparan
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Mariupol certainly is a city of contrasts in lots of different aspects. ©Paliparan

Epic train trip

As this is still a travel website and not a blog on (geo-)politics or current world affairs, I’d rather talk about travel here.

Of course, it would have been the easiest to fly to Ukraine (either to Kiev or Zaporizhzhia) and to take a train from there to Mariupol, but what’s the fun about that?

Sure, it also played a role that one-stop flights on the likes of Turkish, LOT and Austrian were highly expensive, but in any case I rather wanted to take the train all the way from my home in Romania.

By taking the train and seeing the landscape slowly change from your window you really get a much better sense of place and time than by flying.

Besides, you see some absolutely gorgeous landscapes and places on your way!

For example, on this trip to the Donbas and back I would cross the Carpathian Mountains not just once but a total of four (!) times.

The long ride also meant I had to sleep five nights on a train – four times in my private compartment, but also one night in third class (platzkart).

It simply was an epic travel experience.

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Ukrainian trains at the railway station of Rakhiv. ©Paliparan
spalny vagon ukraine train
Spalny Vagon (SV) – a first class sleeper compartment on an Ukrainian train. ©Paliparan
platzkart train ukraine donbas trip
Platzkart – or third class sleeping berths in an open plan carriage – is a whole different train travel experience! ©Paliparan
kiev first class waiting room donbas trip
The first class waiting room at the railway station of Kiev. ©Paliparan
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Crossing the Ukrainian Carpathians on a train between Lviv and Mukachevo. ©Paliparan
Maramureș train view winter
A village in the northern Romanian province of Maramureș as seen from the train window. ©Paliparan

Back to normal life

Being on my way final stretch home, expect normal website updates to resume within the next couple of days as I need some days to recover from this amazing but tiring trip.

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Koen works as a freelance journalist covering south-eastern Europe and is the founding father and editor-in-chief of Paliparan. As a contributor to some major Fleet Street newspapers and some lesser known publications in the Balkans, he travels thousands of miles each year for work as well as on his personal holidays. Whether it is horse riding in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, exploring the backstreets of Bogotá, or sipping a glass of moschofilero in a Greek beachside taverna, Koen loves to immerse himself into the local culture, explore new places and eat and drink himself around the world.

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