Overnight train to Kiev, Ukraine: Not the drab post-Soviet country I had expected

Few things strike fear into the heart of a traveller more than the threat of a shared toilet on a Ukraine sleeper train. But there is something more frightening: a locked toilet on a Ukraine sleeper train – especially when you've slept late after consuming vast quantities of vodka the previous night. .

It's 9am and I'm in the carriage corridor, clutching a shower bag and dancing a jig in front of the locked door. Somewhere in my foggy brain I remember the train attendant's warning – "Washrooms will be closed 20 minutes either side of each station". (Just let that sink in for a minute.) To exacerbate my trauma, we are close to Kiev station, our final destination, and the two washrooms are not engaged, but closed for cleaning. 

Our Ukraine adventure had begun so well. We'd arrived in Odessa by local bus from Moldova, with two days to explore the seaside city before boarding the overnight train to Kiev. It's the final leg of our 13-day tour from Bucharest to Kiev with Intrepid Travel, and for most of us the highlight of our three-country journey.

With its sherbet-coloured buildings, wide boulevards and baroque architecture Odessa exerts a romantic pull.

"From Babel to Kuprin, Twain to Pushkin, literary greats have long been drawn to Odessa," says our local guide, Anna, leading us down Pushkinskaya Street, named after Alexander Pushkin, Russia's answer to Lord Byron. 

We walk up Potemkin Steps, the giant staircase made famous by Sergei Eisenstein's epic 1925 movie Battleship Potemkin. Ahead is the leafy Primorsky Boulevard, framed by manicured hedges and pretty-in-pink mansions, while behind lies the Black Sea.

This is not the Ukraine I had expected; the drab post-Soviet country of my imagination replaced by a sumptuous cityscape, resplendent in pastel colours and lit by a seaside sun. The delights continue with a late afternoon swim in the placid waters of the Black Sea.

We had boarded the train at 7pm, the last rays of daylight turning the ornate Odessa-Holovna station into gleaming butterscotch. Ukraine's railways or "Ukrzaliznytsia" offer an insight to the nation's tumultuous history. From civil wars to revolutions, the rise of Stalin to the collapse of the Soviet Union, these tracks have offered hope for some, hell for others.

Today, locals use them as a cheap  form of long distance transport, but for curious travellers like us, they act as a conduit to a country so different to our own. 

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Despite the lateness of the day, the carriage is as hot as Hades, the windows don't open and there is no air conditioning. Our carriage is dark and shabby, and the fittings are pure Soviet, yet there's a thrill to old-school travel that pomp and grandeur can never match.

Our small compartment, of which there are nine to a carriage, with a washroom at each end, has twin bunks, a shared side table, two coat hangers and not much else. While our carriage attendant hands out the necessities – sheets, face towel, small packet of tissues, bottle of water and a plastic cup – we spread out our snacks. 

We'd been warned that our train doesn't have a dining car, so my cabin buddy and I had stocked up on train trip essentials – cheese, chocolate, chips and enough local spirits to ensure we'd sleep all the way to Kiev.

By midnight I'm tucked in my bunk, the train's hypnotic rhythm (and the vodka) rocking me to sleep. Creaks and groans wake me occasionally, when we stop at stations, then a long hoot and I'm asleep again. 

Suddenly it is 9am and I'm outside the locked bathroom doing my best Irish jig. When the attendant emerges for more supplies I slip through the doorway like a front row forward; head down, shower bag tucked, elbow raised. Once inside, much relieved and chuffed at my tenacity, the crazed banging begins. Yes, there is something worse than a locked toilet on a Ukraine sleeper train. A locked door with an angry attendant on the other side.

TRIP NOTES

Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Intrepid Travel.

MORE

traveller.com.au/ukraine  

booking.uz.gov.ua 

FLY

Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Bucharest, Romania via Dubai. See emirates.com.

TOUR

Intrepid Travel's 13-day Moldova, Ukraine and Romanian Explorer costs from $2772 a person, twin share. See intrepidtravel.com 

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