Yes, stay mainly on the plain, the massive flat Ukraine plain that was once the “bread basket” of the Soviet Union. This article is in response to a request by a reader.

One of the great achievements of the Soviet Union was the nation´s rail network that spread far and wide across the “Socialist Empire.” Fittingly the Soviet rails were wider than in most countries and the locomotives were massive powerhouses. While the rail net was a key infrastructure for the nation´s economy, the real monuments built by this system were the impressive train stations. They are architectual icons blending Soviet style with local touches.

And Ukraine was blessed with one of the best systems. Rail lines cover the country and still provide a main feature of its economy. They also offer an offbeat travel adventure.

The Soviets apparently scheduled trains in Ukraine to leave Kiev Station each evening for all of the major cities, that arrive the following morning in time for a day of business. Trains return from all these cities to Kiev each evening and arrive the following morning. Thus a person could eat dinner at home, take a train to his business apppointment and return in time for breakfast two days later.

For the tourist this is a great way to see all the country. Buy a ticket in advance at the station. I suggest second class sleeper. You share a compartment. I can sleep on trains but found these to be the easiest to sleep on. I will never forget the pillows, they were perfect and, try as I could, I was never able to buy them.

Buy some provisions at the station since there is no dining car on the train. However, the train attendants will serve you tea. The trains are meant for sleeping, so the beds will be made when you board. There is no shower room, but you do have a sink in the compartment and toilets down the passageway.

My first trip was to Kharkiv on Ukraine’s eastern border. If you ever had a desire to see a real Soviet style city this is it. The main square, “Freedom Square”, one of the largest squares in the world, has a massive statue of Lenin, reputedly the largest one still on public display. I visited in the winter and felt the bone chilling cold that one remembers being so vividly portrayed in “Doctor Zhivago.”

I also took the train to Lviv on the western border. What a treat, an entire city named for me, since Lviv means Leo or Lion. Here you find the vestiges of Polish rule over western Ukraine. Go to the opera which is very inexpensive and fun.

Another historic destination is the Crimea, the location for the 19th Century war that pitted Turkey, France and Britain against Russia. This is the site of the famous, “Charge of the Light Brigade,” the military move that epitomized senseless loss of soldiers´lives.

Perhaps the most interesting trip is to Odessa where you can walk down or up, if athletic, the staircase that leads from the upper city to the docks made famous in “The Battleship Potemkin,” the grand propaganda silent film in which the “savage” soldiers of the Tsar slaughter civilians. One can visualize the scene where a baby carriage goes crashing down the stairs amid the bodies of the fallen.

The train trips are reasonably priced and fun. A great way to tour Ukraine. Funny though, the old train station in Kiev was the least interesting of all.

Leo Cecchini
July 2009