This trip report covers a journey by train all across Ukraine to Mariupol just weeks before the Russian invasion and the outbreak of full-scale war.
A trip to Ukraine
A couple of weeks before the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I made a work trip by train to Mariupol in the Donbas.
With a massive Russian military build-up taking place across the border and other worrying signs hinting strongly at a possible invasion, it was certainly a rather unusual time to visit Ukraine, a country which I’ve visited many times before over the years.
Fortunately, the situation on the ground was still all peaceful when I travelled – and my trip went more or less fine apart from some nasty food poisoning and catching COVID.
Although the looming threat of a Russian invasion was certainly clear and you really could see it coming, I was however caught out by its sheer brutality and indiscriminate violence against Ukrainian civilians.
That Russia would make a push to capture Mariupol wasn’t a big surprise, but I was (and still am) shocked by the fact that around 80 to 90% of the buildings in this strategic port city sustained heavy damage or were even completely levelled by Russian attacks.
This trip report is a testimony to the pre-war beauty of Mariupol and Ukraine and its courageous and resilient citizens.
The wee bit of advertisement income generated by the articles in this trip report will be donated to the Kyiv Independent, an English-language media outlet in Ukraine which covers the ongoing war and other important news stories in the country.
Drone footage of Mariupol. pic.twitter.com/FZCFPyOcRc
— Status-6 (@Archer83Able) March 30, 2022
Train vs plane
Although I was briefly considering to fly to Ukraine, these thoughts quickly disappeared from my mind when I started calculating the costs.
Mariupol’s small airport didn’t have any scheduled flights and the nearest commercial airport at Zaporizhzhia was only served by highly expensive flights with Turkish Airlines.
As the schedule of these flights also didn’t match my needs, I briefly looked at flights to Kiev.*
However, as also these flights were generally expensive and badly timed, it would have forced me to spend extra nights in both Kiev and a connecting airport such as Frankfurt or Istanbul.
In the end, I quickly realised that travelling all the way by train to Mariupol would roughly take the same amount of time and more or less cost the same as the cheapest economy class flight tickets.
Although it would certainly be a lot of train travel involved, most of it would be spent in my own private sleeper compartment, making it a comfortable journey.
Besides, travelling by train allows you to experience so much more of your surroundings than you can ever do from a plane window.
If you want to understand Ukraine’s geography and culture, you really have to take the train across this vast country.
If you look at the map below, you can see how my final itinerary looked like.
Although it may look like a huge detour, you should know that public transport connections along the shores of the Black Sea are either non-existent or rather poor as it would involve a lot of uncomfortable bus and marshrutka (minibus) rides due to the lack of proper rail connections.
In theory, the shortest railway journey possible would involve a train from my home in Bucharest to Chisinau in Moldova, from where I could travel onward to Odessa, Zaporizhzhia and finally Mariupol.
Although it was the shortest route in kilometres travelled, it wasn’t necessarily the quickest as again the timetables didn’t really work out and would force me to add an extra night as stopover in each of these cities.
Instead, I had my eyes firmly set on a direct Rakhiv to Mariupol train – which was the longest train route in Ukraine before the Russian invasion.
Rakhiv is actually fairly easy to reach from Romania, as I could take the Bucharest-Sighetu Marmației night train and simply walk across the Ukrainian border to Solotvyno, which is only 46 kilometres from Rakhiv by bus.
As I don’t like to backtrack, I opted for a different route on the way back.
From Mariupol, I would take the night train to Kiev, where I would hop on another overnight train to Mukachevo in south-western Ukraine.
Mukachevo is linked to Hungary with a direct daytime train, which I would take as far Szolnok where it would be an easy connection to the ‘Ister’ sleeper train back to Bucharest.
A detailed cost breakdown and the exact timetable can be found in the individual chapters of this Ukraine trip report.
In total, I would cover 5,200 kilometres (3,230 miles) by train on this Ukraine trip – which is roughly the same distance from London to Novosibirsk (Siberia, Russia) or Lagos (Nigeria).
What to expect in this trip report
In this ‘Mail From Mariupol: A Pre-War Trip to Ukraine by Train’ trip report, you can expect the following:
– Reviews of five different night trains.
– Some spectacular winter scenery as I cross the Carpathian Mountains four times during this trip.
– A trip on Ukraine’s longest train ride, covering 1,806 kilometres from Rakhiv in the west to Mariupol in the east.
– A intriguing visit to Mariupol, the city which was so savagely hit by the Russian army just weeks later.
In the next few weeks, I will detail every aspect of this Ukraine trip in individual chapters. You can find the trip report index with the links to each of the individual instalments below.
Trip report index
This Ukraine trip report consists of the following chapters:
1. Review: Night Train Bucharest to Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania
2. At the Sighet-Solotvyno Border: From Romania Into Ukraine
3. Review: Solotvyno to Rakhiv by Bus
4. Review: Hotel Europa, Rakhiv, Ukraine
5. In the Land of the Hutsuls: A Visit to the Town of Rakhiv
6. Rakhiv to Mariupol: Riding Ukraine’s Longest Train Route
7. A Tribute to Mariupol: Memories of a Pre-War Visit
8. Ukrainian Railways Mariupol to Kiev Train in Platzkart
9. Review: Ibis Kyiv Railway Station Hotel
10. Review: Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi Station First Class Lounge
11. Ukraine Night Train: Over the Mountains to Mukachevo
12. Review: Latorca InterCity Train Mukachevo to Budapest
13. A Short Stopover in Szolnok, Hungary
14. Review: Ister Night Train Budapest to Bucharest
15. Epilogue: Witnessing the Ukrainian Refugee Crisis at the Border
*To set things straight, I will be using Kiev as the English-language name of Ukraine’s capital instead of Kyiv. Although Kyiv is of course the proper transliteration from Ukrainian and the way how the capital is referred to in Ukraine, it has always been Kiev in English in the same way that the Czech capital is Prague and not Praha and it’s Brussels instead of Bruxelles.