A Journeyman's Guide to Odessa, Nikolaev, Kherson and Melitopol
UPDATE 24 MAY 2022
There is evidence of Ukrainian Special Forces / internal security service (SBU) recent infiltration of Russian-occupied Melitopol, in response to which Russian authorities are using clandestine security services means involving violence, including potentially arbitrary rounding up of people suspected to be associated with Ukrainian internal security services.
Melitopol should now be considered a hostile and dangerous environment, pending the resolution of these covert confrontations. Exercise the utmost care when present in the city. Leave immediately if possible. Road routes out do not seem to be affected. It may be more tricky to get in if your first language is not Russian.
There is evidence that Russian Railways might be about to start a service between Melitopol and Simferopol, Crimea. So far the journey can be undertaken entirely by train save for a gap of 57km across the Crimean frontier that must be navigated by private vehicle.
UPDATE 23 MAY 2022
We have received a report that the Nikolaev-Odessa road is currently open for private traffic, and may be open for limited kinds of public traffic (e.g. a bus that runs from Nikolaev at least as far as Yuzhne).
The Nikolaev-Kherson road has reportedly reopened and public buses run along it. We suspect that this road is controlled by the Russian Armed Forces, but we cannot corroborate this. It appears to be safe.
The railway line between Odessa and Melitopol also seems to have reopened, via Nikolaev and Kherson, albeit with limited availability (maybe one train per day). We have no idea who closed it nor why it is now again functional. We do not know who is operating the trains, bit we suspect it to be Russian Railways in practice if not in theory. The information we have received is that this is a safe route.
We do not know how long this situation will last for. If you want to leave Nikolaev, Kherson or Melitopol, leave now.
The road north from Odessa to Uman has been confirmed to us as remaining safe as of today. It is controlled by the Ukrainian Armed Forces to the best of our knowledge.
4 MAY 2022 UPDATE
All evidence suggests that a major military and clandestine forces assault upon Nikolaev has just begun.
All travel arteries into and out of Nikolaev appear to have been cut, except for the train to Kherson.
Nikolaev is likely now the most dangerous place to be in Ukraine. This may continue for several days. If you are in Nikolaev, stay indoors, and be quiet, 24 hours a day. There is a risk of door-to-door raids and civilian abuse, rape and murder.
If you are in Nikolaev and you have the opportunity, exit by train to Kherson immediately and be prepared to stay there for an indefinite period until the proximate danger in Nikolaev is over and the city has presumably been occupied and rublised.
If you are in Odessa, exit theatre immediately either via the Palanca Tri-Point to Moldova; or to Budzhak. Do not attempt to travel north or east, as both these routes appear to have been blocked by the Russian militsry.
1 MAY 2022 UPDATE
The currency in use in Kherson and Melitopol is now the Russian ruble. Exchange offices throughout Southern Ukraine are still converting between Gryvnas and Rubles. We assume that all bank accounts denominated in Gryvnas in banks in Kherson and Melitopol will be imminently 'ruble-ised', although we do not know the precise mechanics of this. Nor is it obvious whether western ATM's, debit cards and credit cards will continue to function. If you are travelling to any Russian occupied city in Southern Ukraine, assume the worst and carry cash in hard currency (EUR or USD). Rubleisation of the other Russian-held settlements in Southern Ukraine seems highly likely to follow very soon.
We are told that at least one train a day leaves Nikolaev Avtovakzal (not the main railway station in Nikolaev). It leaves at about 11am and takes slightly more than an hour.
This would seem by far the safest way of travelling to Kherson and then onto Melitopol at the current time.
A number of intercity public buses also seem to be running, e.g. between Kherson and Melitopol. Given that these buses may be waved through by Russian checkpoint guards, they may also represent a tolerably safe means of travel in southern Ukraine. Take scrupulous care to check and double-check their departure times, as there may only be one bus a day and reliable information about it may be scarce. Also scheduling may change at any time.
29 APRIL 2022 UPDATE
At the time of writing we are told that the Russian armed forces have closed the road between Nikolaev and Kherson to all traffic, presumably for the purposes of some forthcoming military operation but we do not know.
While travel to Odessa and Nikolaev remains possible from the Palanca Tri-Point, onward travel to Kherson and Melitopol appears much more difficult now.
One can in principle depart Nikolaev to the north and then approach Kherson from the north in a circle, but we do not know anyone who has tried this. The region immediately north of Nikolaev may be the scene of live fire in theatre. In other words, don't go this route or you may be shelled or your vehicle blown to pieces with a missile. Or you may simply be shot first and asked questions later by one of the various checkpoints that will have sprung up around the zone of live fire.
Instead, to reach Kherson and Melitopol, you may have to head north on the E95 highway west of Odessa; turn right at Uman and head east on the E50 towards Kropyvnytski; drop down to Krvyi Rih and then follow the Khakovka reservoir on its north / west bank through Khakovka and then following the north bank of the Dniepr river to Kherson.
The safety of this route may change at any time, so detailed local enquiries should be made before commencing travel.
Finally, it cannot be excluded that the purpose of the road closure is a Russian military advance on Nikolaev. So if you are in Nikolaev, get ready and decide whether or not you are going to flee. It is impossible to predict whether Nikolaev is going to become another Mariupol, but again it cannot be excluded.
24 APRIL 2022
This is a guide for an experienced traveller through military theatre to help navigate four southern cities in Ukraine all of which are, to varying degrees, under Russian control or influence at the time of writing. Moreover the extent of Russian control is anticipated to increase for all four of them; and only one of them may see any significant street fighting.
1. By far the easiest way to reach these cities is via the Palanca Tri-Point in Moldova. The border there is easy to cross - you should cross it on foot, and then have a taxi driver collect you from the Ukrainian side. The Moldovan border guards are difficult, but the Ukrainian border guards are relaxed. As always, have a plausible story.
2. Approaching these cities from the north involves endless checkpoints, the most difficult of which will be the Russian checkpoints on the edge of each city.
3. If you approach these cities from the east then you are presumably fleeing Donbass or Mariupol. Warning: if you entered the Donetsk or Luhansk People's Republics from Russia, then you are in for a major problem trying to exit via the Palanca Tri-Point because you did not (in the eyes of the Ukrainian authorities) enter Ukraine via a legitimate route. We do not know exactly what happens if you try this; but you may well be arrested or fined. On the other hand, if you try leaving Ukraine to Moldova via informal roads, you will have the same problem leaving Moldova. So then it is informal roads to Romania. Even the Romanians can be strict, so the game will continue until you either arrive in a Schengen Zone country as a Schengen Zone passport holder; or you reach Serbia where the rules are lax. Of course you also need to know where all the informal roads are. You may contact us with a reasoned request for this type of information, at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will then decide whether to help you.
4. By contrast from the Palanca Tri-Point, a good taxi driver should be able to get you to any of these four cities with a minimum of disruptive checkpoints.
5. In this network of cities the only road even ostensibly under Ukrainian control is the highway from Odessa to Nikolaev, and even that is not certain. You will see Ukrainian checkpoints, but it is far from clear that the soldiers guarding them are Ukrainian military (indeed this was true even before the 2022 war started).
6. The well kept secret shielded from the international media is that all four of these cities are already predominantly under the Russian writ. They are all encircled with Russian armour; and for the most part they have all conceded quietly to Russian suzerainty.
7. The language of all four cities is Russian, not Ukrainian. You may find some English spoken to Nikolaev, bit not so much in the other three.
8. All four cities are tolerably pleasant places to pass a few days in the middle of military theatre. None of them are particularly dangerous in physical terms. You can find war damage in all of them but only if you go looking for it. You may hear shelling, missiles and flak at nights.
9. Public businesses are to a substantial degree open. These are good cities to stock up on food before you go somewhere less accommodating.
10. Odessa suffered from excessive journalists' disease until recently, all the prices being inflated as a result; but it seems that most of the journalists have retreated north in the face of head office instructions about not remaining in zones of Russian occupation.
All these cities are full of unusual police, whom you should assume are Russian FSB officials. Provided you do not look like a journalist, mercenary, NGO official or international organisation employee, they should leave you alone. You might be followed around a bit. Your hotel may well spy on you at some authority's insistence. Don't try to fight it.
The streets are eerily quiet both day and night, with everyone going about their business very privately. Remember each city formally has a curfew, although in practice those curfews are broken by all sorts of people: mostly people who can make you problems. Stay indoors at night.
Hotel and apartment reservations can be made using Western booking engines. Credit cards do not need to be provided and cash hard currency payments are preferred. The hotels are quiet. They will typically include meals, as restaurants may not all function due to lack of customers.
Electronic communications work without problems throughout the region. The international dialling code for this region is currently +380 and the currency is currently the Gryvna. ATM's work but they give you Gryvnas cash which you may not be able to convert notwithstanding signs saying you can.
People are struggling financially, because civil service salaries have not been paid by Kyiv for some time in many cases.
Although public transport options are all operative albeit to a diminished degree in places, you should travel intercity by taxi. The only exception is if travelling north; take the train.
Ukrainian railways are and always were fairly rum but they do have a website in English: https://www.uz.gov.ua/en/
If you take overnight trains, beware of robbery. Carry two pieces of wood: one to block the window shut and one to block the door handle from turning. (Ukrainians all know how to do this and what dimensions of pieces of wood you need; and where to buy them.)
Do not attempt car hire and do not drive anywhere at night.
From Kherson you can take a taxi to the Crimean border but read our article on travelling in Crimea with care before attempting to do so.
You can probably get away with photographing war damage unless you are a journalist, in which case you should assume you are being followed everywhere and you should not attempt to do so without some authority giving you explicit permission.
Remember that everyone in this region is absolutely paranoid and afraid of the Russian internal security forces. Never engage anyone in a conversation about politics or a discussion of the war; and be highly suspicious of anyone who attempts to do so with you.
The only city believed to have any substantial Ukrainian military presence is Nikolaev; Ukrainian soldiers hold the airport. Hence there is increased artillery activity in Nikolaev, as Russian troops seek to expel Ukrainian troops from the airport region.
Travelling east from Melitopol, things will become exponentially more difficult fairly quickly. Nevertheless if you have a good story you might make it to Mariupol. As advised in another article, if you want to go to Mariupol it is better approached from the north.
Russian political intentions for this region are not currently known and in all likelihood have not yet been decided. Once they are, the advice for this region is likely to change dramatically.
If you see people who look like this, they are Russian occupying forces. Stay away from them, and good luck!