Yesterday afternoon a friend and I decided we needed a vacation. So we decided to book the worst holiday in the world. Now he’s a big tough kind of a guy, and like me he doesn’t give a damn, so off we went and we made our plans. They begin with a 15-hour train trip to Kryvyi Rih, an enormous mining town in central Ukraine that is notoriously rough and unpleasant and then we have an overnight stay there in a one-star hotel. This is the good part of the trip, you understand Then the next morning we take the banger train from Kryvyi Rih to Nikopol, where they have a nice beach right opposite the Enerhodar nuclear facility on the east / south bank of the Dnieper River occupied by the Russians. Nikopol is routinely the victim of Russian shelling, and we’ve got an apartment not too far from the waterfront so we’ll be able to see all the action. I’m looking forward to getting a photograph of the Russian-occupied nuclear reactors with my zoom lens, and thankfully I think the distances across the river there are far enough that the Russian snipers can’t take pot shots at us while we’re walking on the beach which is probably mined and with tank traps to deter the Russians from pontooning the river at that point. It’s not clear how you buy tickets for this train, by the way, which isn’t formally part of the Ukrainian Railways network for some reason, but I guess we’ll figure that out when we get there. If Nikopol still has a railway station, of course - these train schedules might all be completely fictitious. Nikipol is the base of the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ operations to create a bridgehead on the south / east side of the Dnipro River, so I’m sure there’ll be a lot of fun going on there.
After that we’re heading down to everyone’s favourite death zone, Kherson, just for a night this time and we’ll arrive early in the morning and leave early the next morning because I recall that this is the way to do Kherson. I don’t quite know how to get between Nikopol and Kherson as that road has checkpoints every 5 kilometres but I think there are taxi services offering to do the drive of an hour or two or maybe we can get a lift with the military. In Kherson we can dodge the shells and my friend can get the sense of the place. He’s another journalist with the Lviv Herald, www.lvivherald.com, so I’m sure he’ll get some journalistic copy out of this trip.
After overnighting in my usual accommodation in Kherson (there are some basement options available) if it’s too hot when we get there), we take an 18-hour train up to Sloviansk, a city I’ve been before on a couple of occasions, for a two-night stay to check out the region. We’re looking into car hire in Sloviansk, because it’s really difficult to get round that front-line region without a car. You spend all your time arguing with taxi drivers who, I discovered on my last excursion into free Donetsk, keep being arrested or stopped and threatened with conscription. My friend and I are both from countries with helpful passports, shall we say, so we shouldn’t have any problems driving around there but we mustn’t forget the vodka because the shops in Sloviansk are all dry. Bakhmut is just down the road so we can test how far we can get without the military stopping us. I’m still interested in all these informal crossing points into Russian-occupied territory that can apparently be navigated without any questions asked, although I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to heading into a Russian zone without my passport or you may not hear from me again for a few decades apart from rapidly reading a preprepared speech of apology to Vladimir Putin on the television while men with guns stand in the background. So we’ll try to avoid that particular excursion.
Then after Sloviansk (the hotel there is conveniently made of reinforced concrete to withstand the artillery - it’s the best hotel in the region for this reason alone) we continue up to Izyum, in free Kharkiv Oblast, right on the border of the Red Zone and the first place the soldiers can officially get a drink. Izyum got badly smashed up in 2014 and was never rebuilt but it remains in free Ukraine and there used to be some sights there by who knows what it’s like now. Finally we take another 18-hour monster train back to Lviv from Izyum, so we will have thoroughly tested and tried the very depths of the Ukrainian railways system and indeed of ourselves.
You are probably thinking that we’re completely mad to plan some a venture but I now feel that I have sufficient experience of the different corners of this country at war to be able to travel around all of these places in tolerable safety and also to know when plans should be abandoned or diverted due to indices of excessive danger. Ultimately these journeys are possible if exceedingly uncomfortable, and you need a certain stout resolve but I don’t think it’s likely that either of us will come to substantial harm. We will be travelling up and down the borders of free Ukraine in as much comfort as is possible although I concede that the only hotel available in Izyum is the only hotel I have ever found on the website www.booking.com that has a consistent 1.0 star rating - i.e. no guest has ever rated it as having more than one star. Presumably it is incredibly bad in some as yet unknown and unspecified way, although I did receive a cheery message in Russian from the proprietor last night saying he was looking forward to having us stay. So let’s just see.
Whatever the result of this crazy trip, we will end up with a comprehensive understanding of the situation right up and down every aspect of the front line and that is tremendously important if we’re going to take that message back to the West that the situation in Ukraine is extremely dire and an exponential increase in support for the Ukrainian cause is absolutely essential and it must take place right now.