The countries of the fromer Soviet Union (and their railways) have always fascinated me. Back in April I finally had the chance to travel to Russia using the Paris - Moscow night train. Now, in August, I decided to tick off another country from my bucket list and planned a quick trip by train to Ukraine. Together with my best friend we travelled to Lviv, the largest city of Western Ukraine. Although it is just 700km away from my home town Graz the trip takes more than 24 hours. This is much time compared to train trips in Western Europe, however it also is a much more relaxed kind of travel. Our route took us from Graz via Vienna to Bratislava, then overnight to Kosice in Eastern Slovakia. From there we continued to the border station of Chop and then finally across the Carpathians to Lviv.
We started our trip in Graz and took the Railjet across the scenic Semmering route to Vienna. At the new central station we changed to the Regional Express to Bratislava, where we arrived in the early evening. I am going to cover this part of the route another time in more detail. For now I want to focus on the journey across Slovakia and in Ukraine. So, how do you get to Ukraine by train from Western Europe? Basically there are three trains available, all of which include at least one overnight journey. Night trains run from Warsaw to Kyiv; from Wroclaw to Lviv with a through coach from Warsaw and finally there are through coaches from Prague, Bratislava and Budapest to Lviv and Kyiv.
Starting in Austria, the best option for us was to take the train from Bratislava. The train from Budapest to Lviv isn't really an option since it departs early in the morning and would require an overnight stop in Budapest. The through coach from Bratislava to Lviv and Kyiv runs five time per week (Monday - Friday). The night train from Bratislava to Presov conveys the through car until Kosice. There, it is attached to a regional train to Cierna nad Tisou and then across the border to Chop in Ukraine. From there, finally it is carried by the Uzhhorod - Chop - Lviv - Kyiv train to its destination. On our trip, we didn't take the through coach though - read below to find out why.
Overnight from Bratislava to Kosice
We arrived in Bratislava from Vienna and there was still enough time left before the departure of our night train. We went to the terrace of the central station's restaurant to enjoy a cold beer. Located on the first floor you are welcomed by railway memorabilia and a typcial eastern European atmosphere. Soaking in the last rays of sun we watched people walking busily in and out of the station before heading to the platform where our train should depart.
As mentioned above we did not take the direct through sleeping car from Bratislava to Lviv but instead used the "late riser" night train to get from Bratislava to Kosice first. There were basically two reasons for that. Firstly, the "later riser" night train conveys a restaurant car between Bratislava and Zilina. This makes the train quite unique as there is only a handful of night trains left in Europe that have a restaurant car. Secondly, the direct sleeper from Bratislava to Lviv doesn't run on Saturdays and Sundays - and we were travelling on a Saturday. I will explain later a further, third reason later.
On board an old "Görlitz" sleeping car
Our train should have left at 19:55, however it was announced with a delay of 20 minutes. This was a bit odd as it originates in Bratislava but we couldn't do anything about it. Finally the train arrived and we could board our sleeping car. It was one of the old "Görlitz" sleeping cars, produced in Eastern Germany in the late seventies. Despite its age these sleeping cars are still in quite good shape and everything was working and clean. They offer ten cabins with up to three beds and a washing basin. Toilets are at the end of the carriage however there are no showers. To our surprise we were the only passengers that night. The attendant welcomed us however he seemed to have a bad day and was quite grumpy. We made ourselves comfortable anyway and waited for the departure of the train.
Eventually we left Bratislava with a delay of about 20 minutes. It was high time to go to the restaurant car for dinner. However there is a catch: the doors from the sleeping car to the next coach are usually locked. We asked the conductor to open the doors for us which he agreed to after a while (did I mention he was grumpy?), but the doors to the next coach were locked from inside so he couldn't open them. Instead we left the train at the following station and boarded the next coach from the platform. Now we only had walk through ten or so carriages to finally get to the restaurant car. We took a seat at one of the dimly lit tables that made for a special atmosphere as the train rattled into the dark night.
Dinner in the restaurant car
I had been travelling two times before on that night train, each time also having dinner in the restaurant car. Slovak restaurant cars are quite famous among railway fans. Meals are still freshly prepared whereas in most other countries you will get convenience food. However, on this day we wouldn't be able to enjoy a hearty dinner. The waiter told us that he could only serve us french fries, everything else was unavailable. We didn't quite get the reason for that but obviously were a bit disappointed. As we were really hungry we ordered two portions though. At least they had cold beer...
Sooner than we had planned we went back to the sleeping car. It seemed more attractive to get a bit more sleep instead of another beer. When the train arrived in Zilina our sleeping car was shunted onto a siding where it was parked during the night. It is quite unusual to sleep in a stationary sleeping car for me. I miss the rattling and rolling of the coach but still I could sleep quite well. In the early morning I recognized our coach being attached to the night train from Prague to Kosice. The remainder of the night I slept very well as the train made its way towards the east of Slovakia.
Good morning Kosice
When the alarm rang at arond seven o'clock we were greeted by a bright and sunny day in eastern Slovakia. The train was running through the beautiful and quiet Hornad valley, meaning we were about 30 minutes away from Kosice. We got ready for the day and were in need of a coffee to really wake up. Coffee (or tea) is included in the sleeping car fare and should normally be served by the attendant in the morning. However it took some time to convice our attendant of our need and claim to get a morning coffee. Of course it can seem a bit childish to insist on getting a small cup of rather bland instant coffee - but as it is included in the price I guess it isn't too much to ask for?
We arrived on time which gave us about two hours before we had to continue towards the border of Ukraine. That would be enough time for a quick walk to the city centre. However we already did that on a trip last year so instead decided to stay at the station. Since we didn't get a proper dinner the day before we were quite hungry already. We went to the restaurant on the first floor of the station for breakfast. The kitchen apparently was already busy and the delicious smell of hearty food made us even hungrier. We could have ordered anything from the menu but decided that it was too early for schnitzel. Instead we had omelettes, juice and coffee and were really happy to finally get something warm to eat.
From Kosice to Chop
After breakfast we bought something to eat and drink at the small shops of the station. We had a quick look around the station building and the forecourt which both are almost finished now after a few years of renovation. Then we bought our tickets to Chop at the the ticket desk and waited for our train's platform to show up on the departure board.
The regional train that should bring us to Cierna nad Tisou consisted of a number of older coaches. There was even a couchette car in the train! At the end of the train we could see the sleeping car from Prague to Kyiv, which arrived some time earlier with the Prague - Humenné night train. We had a compartment on our own that had the old-fashioned charme of 70ies Czechoslovakia. Benches of brown synthetic leather, large windows that could be opened and bogies with squeaky shoe brakes. At least by now you should get the feeling of travelling in Eastern Europe. And this isn't necessarily a bad thing!
Through eastern Slovakia
A few kilometres away from the station we first saw the broad gauge line running from Ukraine to the large steel mill outside of Kosice. It was built to run heavy trains of coal and ore from the former Soviet Union directly to the factory. Still operational it runs parallel to the normal gauge line for some time but then branches off and crosses the border to Ukraine close to Uzhhorod. Unfortunately we didn't see a broad gauge train but at least we saw two other heavy trains on the normal gauge line bringing coal to the steel mill.
The journey to the border took about two hours which passed fairly quickly. After passing the Slanské Hills the line runs through the flat Eastern Slovak Lowlands. An interesting intermediate stop is Slovenské Nové Mesto, just on the border to Hungary. Opposite the border is its twin city Sátoraljaúhely in the Tokaji wine region. You can cross the border on foot and take trains from Sátoraljaúhely to Miskolc and Budapest. Finally we saw the huge yards of Cierna nad Tisou station outside the window. Here, reloading from broad gauge to normal gauge trains takes place. Compared to the widespread freight area, the passenger station is rather small and simple. Most of the passengers alighting were backpackers like us who were also headed to Ukraine.
Across the border
There are two daily trains from Cierna across the border to Chop. They normally consist of just a single coach, a unique former 1st class prototype. One of these trains also conveys the through sleeping cars from Bratislava and Prague. Although Cierna and Chop merely are 10km apart the trip takes about one hour due to the Slovak border check. After we were waiting for a while our train slowly rolled to the platform and we could enter the coach. The atmosphere was quite relaxed with a group of young Czech hikers playing guitar and other backpackers having a beer. You could feel a sense of anticipation of what was to come.
The train slowly made its way through the maze of tracks towards the border. After a few minutes we came to a halt at a small platform: the Slovak border checkpoint. Border police and custom officers entered the coach, had a quick look at our passports and luggage and then left again. Obviously there is not much to look for in a bunch of backpackers. Finally the checks were finished in the sleeping car as well and we were good to go to Ukraine.
Welcome to Ukraine
Just a few metres away from the border checkpoint our train crossed the border to Ukraine. I was much more relaxed compared to when we were going to Belarus in April. After all, for visiting Ukraine I didn't need a visa and the train didn't stop right after the border to allow a whole brigade of border and custom officers to enter. Instead we slowly rolled towards the station. I could see the railway line from Zahony in Hungary joining but was unable to distinguish broad gauge from narrow gauge tracks.
The train stopped at the platform and we got out. A couple of border police officers made sure that we found our way to customs. In the dim hall we first had to enter a small cubicle one by one and our passports were stamped. Then another officer asked if we had anything to declare and all of us had to open their luggage. The officer was quite friendly and as it was obvious that we were harmless tourists and didn't want to smuggle anything into the country we were good to go. A door opened and there we were in the big departure hall of Chop station. Welcome to Ukraine!
From Chop to Lviv
We now had three hours until the departure of our train to Lviv. Remember that I wrote about a third reason why we were travelling like this at the beginning? Now I can explain: the direct sleeping cars from Bratislava, Prague and Budapest have to change their bogies in Chop. This is due to the fact that in Ukraine railways use broad gauge instead of standard gauge. This process is quite interesting, however due to custom and border controls you might have to stay in the car during the whole time. When you travel like we did and use the regional train to get to Chop, you can use the time to get something to eat instead.
Just a few metres from the station is a nice little pizzeria with a garden. It is called Pizza Ricco and is located just off Bereg Street. Leave the station, turn left and after a few metres you will se the sign. The menu was in Ukrainian only however with the help of the waiter we managed not to order pizza with toppings we didn't like. The Pizzas came with a small bowl of ketchup which we found quite amusing. They were quite decent anyway and in the end we paid not much more than 150 UAH, equalling about 5€. Mind you, this was for two pizzas, two large and two small beers!
If you need Ukrainian Hryvnia: there are many money exchangers lingering in the station hall offering their services. For 10 EUR I got 270 UAH which was an ok rate, especially considering that there is no ATM around. So to quickly get a bit of local currency to start your Ukrainian adventure that's the way to go.
On Board a night train in Ukraine
Back at the station we saw that our train was already at the platform. And what a different train it was compared to European trains! A whopping 18 carriages or so, much wider and higher than we are used to thanks to the bigger loading gauge of ex-soviet railways. At the entrance door of each coach a conductor welcomed new passengers and checked tickets. We had booked online tickets for a SV compartment (2-bed compartment equalling 1st class) on the website of UZ (Ukrainian Railways) which worked perfectly easy. The conductor showed us our compartment which was the last one of the coach directly over the bogie. It was spotless and spacious and even though we had booked to Lviv only (no overnight journey) fresh pillows and linen were provided.
The train had originated in Uzhgorod, the capital of surrouding Zakarpattia Oblast, already. Chop was the first stop, the train changed direction here and the through coaches from Prague and Budapest were added at the front. You could clearly see the difference in size between the small European and the big Ukrainian coaches. Many passengers were using the longer stop for a cigarette break but departure time was nearing. Finally doors were shut, the loco whistled and slowly the long rake of coaches started moving.
Across the Carpathians
Chop lies in the wide basin of Tisza river. Known as the Zakarpatye lowlands, this is a wide and flat landscape dominated by agriculture. From Chop the train slowly made its way through the fields. You could see that it has been a hot and dry summer. Meanwhile in our compartment the air-condition was working perfectly and we enjoyed just relaxing and peaking out of the window watching the small villages, fields and stations pass by. About an hour after leaving Chop we reached Mukacheve, second largest city of Zakarpattia Oblast, at the feet of the Carpathian mountains. A mere 40km apart, this shows the rather slow speed of the train. Nonetheless, there were crowds of people at every intermediate stop as the train obivously is the best combination of comfort and price to travel from here to Lviv and Kyiv.
Leaving the lowlands behind we now followed Latorica river upstream towards the Carpathians. The valley got narrower as the train started slowly started to climb uphill. With every meter of track the line ran higher and higher, leaving behind the shady valley down below. Instead we climbed the slopes of the Carpathians, flooded by the evening light and had wonderful views over the surrounding landscape. From time to time we crossed a valley on a large bridge, each one of them guarded by the military. Freight trains running in the opposite direction ran with with up to four double-locos. The train then reached the summit of the line and entered 1764 meters long Beskyd tunnel. Formerly the border of the Austro-Hungarian empire it nowadays is the border between Zakarpattia and Lviv Oblasts.
We left the tunnel on the opposite side and could see the large construction site of a the new tunnel. It will replace the ageing original tunnel and is scheduled to be opened in early 2018. From now on the train descended towards Lviv. The sun had already disappeared behind the mountains and dusk settled in over the valleys and hills. We ordered another tea and enjoyed the last part of the journey. The train slowly rattled through the dark and finally we were approaching Lviv. We packed our things and the train came to a halt at the station of Lviv.
The train arrived at about half past ten. Still, the station was bustling with passengers, arriving from the express train from Kyiv or waiting for their night trains. We went to the tram stop in front of the station and after a few minutes a first tram arrived. However, it did stop only to let passengers alight but didn't let anyone enter. In the end we found out that there wouldn't be any tram running to the city centre anymore. We decided to walk and asked for directions to our hostel. Eventually we arrived there, checked in and headed again to the city. More about Lviv in another blog...
Schedules from Bratislava to Lviv
Our schedule did look like this:
- Bratislava 19:55 - 07:41 Kosice
- Kosice 10:06 - 11:51 Cierna nad Tisou
- Cierna nad Tisou 12:15 - 14:10 Chop
- Chop 16:51 - 22:22 Lviv (continues overnight to arrive in Kyiv at 07:43)
Keep in mind that Ukraine has Eastern European Time (EET) and is one hour ahead of Slovakia. As explained above you can also travel from Bratislava to Lviv (and onwards to Kyiv) with a through sleeping car that runs five times a week (Monday - Friday). The through coach departs at Bratislava Nove Mesto at 22:51, at Bratislava hl st (central station) at 23:49 and arrives in Kosice at 06:48. Then, the schedule would have been the same until Lviv and eventually Kyiv.
Schedule in the opposite direction:
- Lviv 10:10 - 15:23 Chop (startin in Kyiv at 23:12 the previous day)
- Chop 17:35 - 17:40 Cierna nad Tisou
- Cierna nad Tisou 18:04 - 19:54 Kosice
- Kosice 22:08 - 08:05 Bratislava
The direct through car from Kyiv and Lviv to Bratislava leaves Kosice at 22:20, and arrives at Bratislava hl st at 05:25. It departs from Kyiv from Saturday to Wednesday (arriving in Bratislava from Monday to Friday).
Tickets from Bratislava to Lviv
We bought a number of separate tickets for this trip (all prices per person):
- Bratislava - Kosice bought online via Slovakrail; a bed in a 2-bed sleeper cost 29€ (advance fare)
- regular fare per person is 35,40€
- Kosice - Cierna - Chop bought locally at Kosice station; the 2nd class ticket cost 6,90€
- Chop - Lviv online via uz.ua a bed in a 2-bed sleeper cost 408 UAH (about 14€)
- cheaper fares are available when travelling in a 4-bed sleeper
You can also buy a through ticket from Bratislava to Lviv for 46,60€ plus 24€ for a 2-bed sleeper reservation. For a return trip for two persons and more you can use the City Star offer from Slovakian Railways. If you buy a return ticket Bratislava - Lviv for two persons plus 2-bed sleeper reservations it costs 47,70€ per person and trip which is slightly cheaper than buying separate tickets as we did. However, if you are travelling one way only, buying separate tickets is the better deal.
I hope you got an idea about travelling by train to Ukraine. We really enjoyed our trip, even through trains are not super-fast they are comfortable and clean and you get to see a lot of the country before even arriving in the big city. If you have any questions, feel free to write a comment below or write in the railcc forum. Thank you for reading!
Update: December 2016